Review of “My Name is Jack Mills” from IF Comp 2007.
“…Jack Mills” bills itself as interactive pulp fiction. That seems about fair: the player character is called in to help resolve the theft of a valuable coin, and as a result he encounters police, gangsters, suspiciously gorgeous women, auctioneers, and so on.
The structure of the game is extremely open. The player has a car and can drive to his choice of a number of settings; in each of these settings, he gets some freedom about how to end each scene. I’m always nervous, playing a game like this, that the whole thing is about to fall apart as I play: the introduction of a car and free movement between areas of the map, in particular, has been the cause of many buggy and disappointing interactions with IF games past. “…Jack Mills” actually manages to hold it together, though: I never got particularly stuck, just followed my gut instinct about what lead to follow up next; never had guess-the-command problems directing the car or interacting with the other characters; and got through to two endings before I decided I was done with the game.
It’s unfortunate that, despite this sound structural design, “Jack Mills” doesn’t work all that well as a story; its chief deficiency is that it is too short. This is a genre in which we want double-crosses and surprise twists, but the game isn’t long on these. The first time I finished the game, I was startled: I had assumed I’d just gotten to the end of one act out of a potential three or so in the story. But no; that was all there was.
I had mixed feelings about the juxtaposition of italicized first-person portions with the main second-person narrative, too. I can sort of see why the author might have chosen to do this: the first person allows narration of feelings and attitudes that are harder to sell in the second person; and using this cut-text method, instead of switching the whole game to first person, gives somewhat the same effect in IF as having a voice-over in a movie. Voice-overs are true to the detective-noir genre, so I have no problem with that.
On the other hand, the effect increased my feeling of detachment from the protagonist without characterizing him enough to create a separate character that I could empathize with. So when I got to the endings and found out who/what Jack Mills really was (different each time), I was more or less indifferent to that news: I’d never had a particularly strong idea of the character and I had also never really associated him very strongly with myself.