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By Juhana Leinonen
Played On: October 5th (1 hour 55 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Merkís Score: 7
An Interactive Pulp Fiction
For me, the term pulp fiction carries two connotations. I think of something thatís probably entertaining but without substance; something hastily written, perhaps, as pulp fiction from the early twentieth century might have been; something thatís essentially throw-away literature. I also think of Quentin Tarantinoís excellent Pulp Fiction movie, which epitomizes some of the common, recognizable themes from pulp fiction while managing not to be hastily contrived throw-away entertainment.
My Name is Jack Mills has a promising start. Itís set in the present (although the game carefully avoids telling the year), in a sufficiently generic city. Jackís friend (a professor) has been jailed for assault. Jack rushes to help, and finds out that a certain item (a coin, described by the professor as being ďa valuable historical artifactĒ) was stolen from him. Jack agrees to track down the thief (the professor already tried, which led to the assault charge) and recover the artifact. In Jackís own words ďthis was going to become a long night.Ē
Itís effectively IF noir, rife with crime, unlikable characters, and seemingly complicated women. Jack switches to an internal monologue in transitional scenes. Heís perfectly out of place no matter where he goes, yet heís never out of sorts. Itís all exactly what one might expect from a story like this, and maybe thatís the problem. As nicely as it emulates the idea of pulp fiction, My Name is Jack Mills never seems to build onto that promising start. Itís exactly what it appears to be, with no real twist, no innovation, and nothing that injects it with that ďwowĒ factor seen in contemporary pulp-inspired stories like Tarantinoís. It demonstrates (even emphasizes) that the bulk of what appears in the annual IFComp is throw-away IF. Itís good for a couple hours of entertainment, but ultimately forgettable and buried under the accolades that will befall the competitionís better entries.
Thatís a shame, because Juhana Leinonen has put obvious effort (undoubtedly countless hours of proverbial blood, sweat, and tears) into My Name is Jack Mills. Some parts of the implementation really shine: the use of smell throughout; the clever way a partially covered page on the officerís desk is shown; the ease with which Jack can navigate to points of interest around the city. Other parts, though, suffer: many instances of ďyou canít see any such thingĒ for objects which the text has told me I do see (this seems to become more common as the game progresses); a problem with disambiguating ďwomanĒ in the restaurant; minor quirks (like a missing line break and an invalid response trying to drive to the park); and even a big game-killing bug when attempting to leave Emmyís table at the restaurant (a long series of ďblockĒ errors shown after a variable stack overflow error).
(Potential spoilers in the next paragraph.)
It might be intentional (and I wouldnít know, as Iíve never been a big fan of the gritty detective pulp genre), but the story is full of head-scratching plot holes and unanswered questions. What was so important about the Roman coin? If Julian, a very wealthy man, would trade the coin for an Egyptian mask that goes for $650 in auction, why wouldnít he have simply bought it for himself? And if thatís the fair trade value he has assigned to the coin, why bother to steal it to begin with? It has some significance, else the professor wouldnít make such a fuss. If Julian knew what the importance was, then why be willing to trade it? Might he have been planning a double-cross? It seems doubtful, given that you can win the game by making the trade.
My Name is Jack Mills has at least two different endings -- probably three or more. (Ed: Source code is included, and I see that there are actually five or six different possible endings off the two main branches.) Theyíre based on decisions made around half way through the game. Well, not decisions so much as two different leads (or methods) for recovering the stolen coin. A series of puzzles (some with more than one solution) pave the way. Itís possible to close off certain solutions by earlier actions, and itís unlikely the player will know this has happened. At least one of the winning endings is supposed to be open no matter what happens, and I found this to be true when I played.
One ending I would have liked to see, however, involved waiting for the bad guy to arrive at a place where he just never did. After a different ending reached without assistance, I turned to the walkthrough for more. It makes an allowance for this no-show situation, but doesnít really explain what I might have done earlier that caused it. It apparently involves a chase scene, and that might have been fun.
I said earlier that the story has no twist. Thatís not entirely true. Itís never clear during the story just who Jack Mills is, until the end. With more than one possible answer, though, itís more gimmick than twist. It works, and it makes for a nice wrap-up, but it might have been nicer if the whole story had been in support of a single, more interesting conclusion.
The writing is okay -- pretty good, even. The author does break some pretty firm grammatical rules, though. It may be for effect (Iím frequently guilty of relaxed writing myself), but I canít think of any instance where a true comma splice makes sense.
Itís just... hmm. It feels like film noir in Jackís internal monologues, but itís pretty ordinary otherwise. The author does work similarly clever bits into the general game, but not to the degree I expected. Itís as though the author was tackling a form of writing that exceeds his (or her?) proficiency. Back when this sort of pulp fiction was common, it may have come naturally to writers. Now, it probably needs a higher degree of exaggeration to really stress the point that this is supposed to be pulp fiction.
Itís worth playing. It could definitely be improved, but I can still recommend it as-is. Itís a respectable ď7Ē based on my judging criteria. It might have been a ď6Ē, but I didnít feel the puzzles were poorly-clued and I did like the tone and feel of the story. Iíd like to see more in the future from this author.