Zoo Keeper

Michael David Sims

If you've played Bejeweled, you've all but played Zoo Keeper.

Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Genres: Puzzle
Price: $19.99
Multimedia: Zoo Keeper
Platforms: DS
Number of players: 1-2 s
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Success
US release date: 2007-07
Amazon affiliate

I like simple games. Not because they're simple, mind you, but because they're often deceptively hard and more addicting than the latest stylized, graphically intense, hype magnet. Think Pac Man, Tetris, Bejeweled and Lumines and you'll fondly recall wasted hours spent in front of the flickering screen attempting to master the latest level as sweat beaded your forehead. With every pellet collected or line formed you inched closer to claiming the top spot on the machine itself, marking your territory with nothing more than the three initials your parents bestowed upon you at birth. With that, you would set the bar for everyone who would play afterwards. Even if you weren't present to see their many attempts, a little piece of you -- those three little letters -- would be left behind as your legacy. If you were lucky enough, the next time you entered the arcade or turned on the handheld device, they'd still be there flashing your glory for all to see. But, with you back at the controls, it was now your turn to dethrone the king by besting your own high score.

And that's all those games are about; racking up the highest score to see who's the best is a much easier concept to grasp than taking on the role of a Spartan bent on killing Ares or that of a freshly released convict looking for those responsible for his mother's death. In games like God of War and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the goal is to complete the game. Once that's over with, there's very little reason to go back. When it comes to Pac Man and any games that keep track of score, the objective isn't to beat the game but to trounce your buddies in an effort to prove who's best. And such is the case with Zoo Keeper.

If you've played the afore mentioned Bejeweled, you've all but played Zoo Keeper. The objective is to arrange three or more similar items to form a line (vertical or horizontal); once formed, said line disappears and more tiles drop from the sky to clutter your screen. You keep this up until either the timer has run out or your hand grows weary. That's Bejeweled; that's Zoo Keeper.

Despite their surface similarities, there are three differences between these two games. First and the most obvious is that the former has you lining up gems, while the latter uses cute little blocky animal heads. The longer you hang in there, the more animals that are added to the mix. Monkeys, hippos, elephants, alligators, pandas, giraffes, lions and rabbits are all there for you to collect. While it may not seem like a major divider between the two, the animals add personality to the game. Say you're neglecting the giraffes -- which may not be your fault, because sometimes animals just don't line up for a long time; but say it anyway -- they're expression will change to that of anger and later sadness. Not only is it a clue that you need to collect more of them, but it also makes them feel alive in a very Tamagotchi sort of virtual way. Because everyone has their heart torn when they hear a puppy cry or see a hurt animal, the subtle changes in their expressions helps to pull you into the game. And while it might seem silly to feel a pang of guilt for neglecting a virtual animal, it happens nonetheless.

The second difference between the two games is the use of the stylus. Because this is a DS game, the touchscreen comes into play and actually makes everything much easier. While one could use the D-pad and buttons to deftly move the cursor around and rotate the animals, the stylus and your own hand-eye coordination make for a much more engrossing gaming experience. Because you're tapping the screen, pushing their little face into neat rows and columns, you come to feel as if you are the nameless zookeeper. Playing with the buttons, on the other hand, removes you from that and makes it all feel like what is -- a game.

Critics and fans alike have panned the Nintendo DS, especially since the release of Sony's PSP. While some of the harsh words are justified (namely, that there's a lack of titles, especially those of the third-party variety), others are downright ignorant. The two systems are built for entirely different audiences. To say the DS is for younger gamers is what gets me riled up, because it's not. The PSP is for gamers on the go; gamers who want a complete multimedia experience will love Sony's machine. By now we've all heard about its capabilities, and either marvel at them or scoff at the price. The less expensive DS, on the other hand, is for gamers who want nothing more than a machine that plays games. And while they get that, the use of the stylus and touchscreen helps immerse players into the world they see on the dual-screens. When you're forced to become an active participant in the game -- such as in DDR, Donkey Konga, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Feel the Magic: XY/XX and even ICO (where you're forced to hold Yorda's hand throughout the entire game) -- your engagement is held that much tighter and the experience feels deeper... even when playing a simple game such as Zoo Keeper.

Lastly, is the crazy, cigar shaking boss; he's an arrogant, demanding fellow that insists on reminding you just how lame and utterly useless you truly are after every screw-up. No matter how many points you rack up or animals you collect, he's never satisfied. Much as the crying/angered animal face gave personality to Zoo Keeper, this baldheaded little man breathes life into it. Though I can't say I've ever had a boss as mean or demanding as this one, several have come close. Once again, this grabs you by the ears and yanks you into the experience, and that's something I can't say about the classic that is Bejeweled.

Truthfully, I loathe comparing one game to another, mostly because it more often than not spells doom for the title that is being compared to the older of the two. However, in this case, I'm confident in saying that Zoo Keeper outshines its cousin in every regard. And while some might find the core gameplay repetitive (and the graphics lacking), there are enough modes to ensure that you'll spend hours on end attempting to engrave your initials at the top of the lists of high scores.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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