IFDB page: Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win
Final placement: 10th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition
Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win is a great title. Based on that title, I expected the game to be a dark detective story in the Raymond Chandler mode. I thought perhaps there’d be a gambler who owed money to the mob, or shady dealings at a poker game, or a crime ring run out of a casino, or something to do with playing cards. This, however, turned out not to be the case. Instead, the game centers on an arcane hierarchical religion, which is never named. The head of this religion is called The Power, and divine authority spreads downward from there, pyramid-fashion, following the letters of the alphabet. The highest lieutenants are called “A”s, the next step down “B”s, and so on all the way down to E. Apparently these church officials spend most of their time engaged in Machiavellian scheming of how to claw their way up the stack, and to prevent threats from those below them. The PC is an A, an old hand at all the tricks and conniving that are necessary to survive in this structure, and therefore almost preternaturally aware of life-threatening situations. As the game begins, the old A believes that an assassination plot is afoot — as the game puts it, “You have the feeling you are being set up and that your chair should have a bull’s-eye painted on it.” It’s not the game I expected, but it’s an interesting premise nonetheless.
The results are mixed. The prose can get rather florid — long, long sentences one after another — but is mostly pretty good, and it can in fact be argued that the prose style matches the baroque structure it describes. I have more conflicted feelings about the design. In an earlier review, one where I was complaining about scenes that only make one option available, I asked “Why even give me a prompt at all?” It appears that Jacks is the answer to my question. At a number of junctures in the game, it only takes a very minor action, such as moving in a particular direction, to impel the PC to perform a long sequence of actions, all of which are out of the player’s control. In a way, this is fine, since most of the actions performed would be very difficult to communicate to an IF parser, not to mention difficult to guess. However, this design choice once again tips the balance away from interactivity. Every time the PC makes a bunch of independent choices, I feel more and more like I’m not really involved in the story, like I’m just there to hold up the cue cards so that the plot can continue.
Still, of all the minimally interactive games I’ve played in this year’s competition thus far, Jacks is one of the most successful. It’s worth examining the game more closely to find out why. For one thing, the milieu is involving enough that just seeing the plot unfold is interesting. This gives Jacks a leg up on games that are set in a cardboard cutout genre world, or whose plots are a string of nonsensical non sequiturs — even though I didn’t have much influence on the plot, I was interested in it. Another factor which helps to counterbalance Jacks‘ lack of interactivity is the fact that it doesn’t make its puzzles too difficult, and it allows for multiple solutions at the most important juncture.
When there is only one way to advance through the game, the action (and the fun) grinds to a halt pretty quickly if that route is difficult to find. Jacks never falls into this trap, instead opening the next scene from fairly minor actions on the part of the player (usually involving examining everything or doing the obvious thing with the few items to hand.) Moreover, at the one juncture where the action might be difficult to guess, the author wisely provides for a number of actions that will resolve the situation, and gives each one its own lengthy text. In fact, I was interested enough in the situation at that after I finished the game I consulted the walkthrough and tried out the alternate solutions. For each action, I was rewarded with a different series of clever machinations on the part of the PC.
Oh! How could I forget? Jacks also features a really cool technical feat, which makes for some very funny moments in the beginning of the game. In the opening scene, an E is making a lengthy speech that uses lots of words, and says basically nothing. The game accomplishes this effect through the use of a random doubletalk generator. Each turn, the E comes out with randomly generated phrases, all of which perfectly mimic the kind of empty speech that often fills long orations. A sample: “One part of the whole must be that you should sing each song as if it will personally show others each other.” The mechanism for this doubletalk generator is complex and masterful — frankly, it’s worth the download time just to see this thing in action. And you’ll have no trouble lingering in the first section, since the author has provided a number of things which must be examined before the action can continue. Jacks is another fairly non-interactive entry into this year’s competition, but through technical innovation, fresh milieu, and shrewd design, it partly makes up for what it lacks in gameplay.