Warning I’m about to be extremely Gen-X here: out of all the multi-million-dollar budgeted AAA games I’ve played, none of them have managed to give me as strong a visceral reaction as the first time I played You Don’t Know Jack, and the pre-show voice said, “All right, lose the desktop.”
That was the first sign that the Jellyvision/Jackbox writers knew how to speak directly to me. In fact, I found out several years later that one of my other most impactful moments in video games — when the Seaman responded eerily insightfully after I told him my favorite movie was Miller’s Crossing — was also written by the team at Jellyvision. The thing that’s been consistent across different games and different genres is a commitment to ignoring conventions and expectations and instead making something that really connects with the audience regardless of the medium.
Or more specifically: the You Don’t Know Jack series isn’t funny for a video game, it’s just plain funny. Even back in the 90s, there was already this whole subculture of in-jokes and self-reference among video games, as if the medium could only ever appeal to a subset of nerds. You Don’t Know Jack defied that by making stuff that engaged with the audience on its own terms, instead of targeting a specific pre-existing audience.
And the Movies version remains my favorite because it felt like they were relentlessly experimenting with the format throughout. All of the question bumpers were built around movie references — my favorites being the bomb countdown, and the porno — with a confidence that the audience was going to get it. They also experimented with the format itself, like with the repeating questions about Groundhog Day. The whole thing gives the impression that they were making video games because they wanted to make video games, not because they were slumming until they could find jobs in “legit” media like television and movies.
I was especially impressed to find out just how much thought went into it, as well. At my first Computer Game Developers Conference1Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference, I saw a fantastic presentation from Harry Gottlieb in which he explained the philosophy behind the You Don’t Know Jack games (and Jellyvision in general), and how it could be applied to non-game platforms like banking and medical assistance. Seemingly every single detail was designed to tear down the interface — or specifically, assumptions about the interface — and establish a more direct and natural connection between the user and the developer. Among other things, that meant more natural, casual language; and a responsiveness to everything the user did, including stuff that was traditionally ignored in interfaces, like interrupting a prompt.
It’d be well over a decade before those ideas took off, with corporations’ brief fascination with chatbots a few years back. The reason that failed wasn’t concept, but execution: they never really felt natural, so it just felt like adding unnecessary complications to what should have been a much simpler process.
But back to video games: the You Don’t Know Jack series remains the best-written comedy video games ever. And they did it by deliberately not targeting just an audience of video game nerds, but an audience of real people who could be trusted to get the joke.2And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.
- 1Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference
- 2And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.