IFComp Reviews: My Name is Jack Mills

My Name is Jack Mills was the next IFComp game I played. The review is behind the link. Expect a few spoilers.

I was hesitant to post this immediately. It’s another lousy game–I’ve frontloaded them this year, apparently–and I don’t want to sound unrelentingly negative. But what the hell: the good ones will be along soon enough. So here we go:

Text adventures stand or fall by the quality of the writing. My Name is Jack Mills jumps off the balcony and buries itself in the pavement with shaky punctuation:

The mild-mannered gentleman was overtly upset, which was nothing like I’d seen in him before. “Why don’t you first tell me why are they keeping you here and I’ll bail you out,” I proposed.

You’ll notice that’s in first person. Jack Mills bounces back and forth between traditional second-person IF, and italic cut-scenes narrated in soft-boiled style by the protagonist. It has a split personality. It doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Bear with me for an aside. There’s an ongoing debate between Roger Ebert and his readers about whether games can be art. He says no: “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

I agree with Ebert about eight or nine times out of ten, but in this case I think he’s making a category error. Games are a different medium from film and literature. (And–let’s be honest–a young one. The percentage of games that can be called “art” is still vanishingly small.) Criticizing their variability is like criticizing a painting for having a weak plot. I’ve already argued that a good game is an environment, as much virtual sculpture as story. Literature and film are about the stories they tell. A game’s story is important but not the center of gravity. It’s your tour guide.

My Name is Jack Mills doesn’t know whether it wants to be a game, or a short story with multiple endings. The cut scenes are the clue. Many games have them–they’re a good way to handle certain kinds of exposition–but Jack Mills has a lot of cut scenes, stylistically distinct and including crucial action. At one point you’re standing at the desk of a police officer who has some papers you may want to read. A better game would make this a puzzle; in Jack Mills you type “read papers” and Jack does all the work.

Jack is the opposite of Jealousy Duel X‘s hero–a supposed everyman with a distinct (distinctly annoying) personality. Jack Mills was intended as a specific character; the title introduces him, as if to emphasize how central he is to the game. But he has no personality. He’s a featureless, generic wants-to-be-hard-boiled detective of the sort you can buy off the rack at Wal-Mart.

My Name is Jack Mills is neither game nor story but a mix of both that isn’t any good at being either. The game doesn’t encourage exploration; it branches, but with so many cut scenes your choices feel restricted. Solving puzzles doesn’t open up new aspects of the game world; it doles out part of a short story. The story, meanwhile, doesn’t have the authorial control that Roger Ebert identifies as crucial to literature. And it’s crap. It’s a lump of third-hand cliches cast in barely competent prose. There’s no sense that the author had a story s/he wanted to tell; it looks like s/he rooted around for a genre to build a game around and filled it with whatever tropes came to mind.

The next game I played was Across the Universe. Which I also hated. So for variety I’m going to skip it until I’ve reviewed a game I did like. I’m a slow writer, so I may not have anything until next weekend, but bear with me–over the next few weeks I plan to review all the IFComp games playable on a Mac.

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