InterviewSpecial Topics In Gameology

Steve Heinrich, You Don't Know Jack head writer

Funny People: Steve Heinrich, You Don’t Know Jack head writer

A veteran of the satirical trivia game series since its first heyday in the 1990s, Heinrich talks about Jack’s writing process, its long hiatus, and that short-lived live-action TV version.

By Anthony John Agnello • July 2, 2012

Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Funny People—Anthony John Agnello interviews a few icons of video game comedy. The series debuted last week with Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe. This week: You Don’t Know Jack head writer Steve Heinrich.

You Don’t Know Jack was weirdly prophetic. The series of trivia video games styled as interactive live TV shows was a phenomenon before the rebirth of the primetime game show or the Wii boom. It was a popular multiplayer game years before online PC gaming became ubiquitous. For all its prescience, though, Jack didn’t kick off a trend of hilarious game design. Few games have matched or even aspired to the brand of antagonistic humor that developer Jellyvision executed so deftly in the 1990s Jack CD-ROM games.

The series went into hibernation after You Don’t Know Jack Volume 6: “The Lost Gold” was published in 2003. After an eight-year hiatus, Jack returned last year as a going concern on PCs and consoles, and this May, Jellyvision launched a Facebook version. Lead writer Steve Heinrich talked with The Gameological Society about the challenge of writing a perfect question and the enduring appeal of his game.

The Gameological Society: Walk me through the process of writing a You Don’t Know Jack game.

Steve Heinrich: First, we decide who the host is. For this most recent version, we went with Cookie Masterson, who has been the host since You Don’t Know Jack Volume 3 way back on the PC. He’s one of the fan favorites. Now you know who you’re building around. Then you develop a stable of characters. You’ve got your director, your interns, whoever you decide are the people to include in questions.

Once you have that framework, You Don’t Know Jack is all about the questions themselves. Writing a You Don’t Know Jack question is very different from writing a Jeopardy! or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire question. Where writing a regular trivia question might take 10 minutes, we allow two hours to write any given You Don’t Know Jack question. That’s the baseline we give our writers.

It’s this hodgepodge, mixing a pop-culture reference, a high-culture reference, then writing dialogue for each wrong answer, so no matter what a player picks, they get a specific response. Sourcing it, crafting it, working the characters in, giving the host suggestions on how to read things, nutty sound effects. Everything in our game is supported by the questions. And, of course, our host. Tom Gottlieb [who plays Cookie] is brilliant, and we can’t overstate how important he is to the writing process.

Gameological: How has that process changed between Volume 6, which came out in 2003, and the revival in 2011?

Heinrich: It’s stayed remarkably the same. We write the questions and of course the host—Cookie, in this case—he’s more than welcome to suggest, “Hey, what if we did it this way?” It’s very much a mutual, back-and-forth process. With this most recent game, we had a lot of people still here from when the game first started. There’s been a lot of continuity. We’ve also brought in some fresh, young writers from the Chicago improv scene.

You Don't Know Jack Question Type Showcase: Elephant, Mustard, Teddy Roosevelt, Or Dracula?

Gameological: What’s the first challenge in writing comedy that requires audience interaction? How do you make sure something’s funny when you need people to press buttons and pay close attention for the jokes to even work?

Heinrich: For this most recent You Don’t Know Jack, we were under a real crunch to get it done. We didn’t have as much time as we usually have for audience feedback and play-through sessions, so we just ended up hoping that all of it would work. A lot of it does, some of it doesn’t. That’s the nature of comedy.

Luckily for us, the most consistent from of comedy comes from somebody getting something wrong. You can take any little snippet of a wrong answer about, say, root beer, and you can turn it around. “Looks like you’ve been drinking too much regular beer!” Being wrong is a consistent well of humor. That’s why it’s such a great party game, because people love to see their friends put down by what’s basically an inanimate object.

Gameological: Why did it take the better part of a decade for You Don’t Know Jack to come back?

Heinrich: Number one was probably the lack of people offering us money to do it.

Gameological: That would do it.

Heinrich: What happened with the original series was that the PC market started to die down. We had 12 different versions of the game, including the teen version of the game called Headrush, an online version, and of course the TV show with Paul Reubens as the host that lasted for six weeks. We had the tabletop version of the game. A couple of books. The first answer is that the series needed a break.

Being wrong is a consistent well of humor.

The second answer is that the PC market was overrun by the console market. We didn’t have much expertise in that field. We had one attempt, You Don’t Know Jack Mach 2 on Playstation 2, and, well—we weren’t prepared as a company to take advantage of the console gaming market. So we took a break, and the company went in a different direction. Now there are two sides of the company: Jellyvision Labs, who creates interactive conversation technology for businesses, and then a devoted game company our side. There were definitely people here from the old gaming days and we were pining for it. We’re happy it’s back.

Gameological: What about the audience has changed that made this the right time for You Don’t Know Jack to re-emerge?

Heinrich: For one thing, Wii was popular. We were reading studies about how more women were using the Wii than any other console. Families were using it. Back in the day, when, You Don’t Know Jack was on PC, you would get multiple people huddled around the keyboard looking at a little 13-inch monitor. Looking at a TV while sitting on a couch is really the ideal scenario for this game.

The previous versions were so successful, but there were so many things that could have been improved. Here we are now, and we’re able to present it with proper stereo speakers, giant TVs, and people on the couch. The market was there, particularly on the Wii, with more people were spending time together doing things in front of the TV. The other factor is that pop culture is really prevalent in the news today. Back in the ’90s, pop culture was pop culture. These days, you turn on the nightly news and it’s all about Brangelina or whatever.

Gameological: So much of the game is reliant on topical humor and humor that references pop culture within the last 20 years or so. You’re as likely to have a Seinfeld gag as a Brangelina gag. How much a consideration is longevity?

Heinrich: When we started this, I had to ask: “Which way are we going to go?” In 1996, when the original came out, there were references to Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, late ’60s and early ’70s stuff, and that original game was played by 20- and 30-somethings remembering their childhood. There was more of a nostalgia factor.

Time’s progressed between 1995 and 2010; things move a lot faster now. Something can be popular, and then six weeks later it’s dated. There was a conscious decision to not go that far back again, no Brady Bunch, because even though those people who are now in their late-30s and 40s will play it because they love it, we want stuff that everybody knows about that’s happened in the past 10 to 15 years.

Seinfeld’s a great example. That’s the show I point to with the staff. Seinfeld is in, but something like Mad About You is right out. On the other hand, you don’t want to ask a question about something that’s happening today because it could blow over and be gone.

You Don't Know Jack Question Type Showcase: Dis Or Dat

Gameological: How long do you want a You Don’t Know Jack episode to endure?

Heinrich: People should think it’s funny the first time the play it. If they play it a second time, they should be playing it because they thought it was funny that first time. Trivia is consumable. If you play World Of Warcraft, it goes on forever. You’ll never be done with it. Even a Mario game invites replaying. But with You Don’t Know Jack, if you played that question, you know the answer. We do have jokes waiting if you go back and get a different wrong answer, but we don’t concern ourselves with replay-ability because people probably aren’t going to want to consume it again.

Gameological: What stressed you out more than anything else in making this new version?

Heinrich: Aside from how fast we were moving, the issue for us was: Who is going to play the game? Is it going to be a bunch of 19-year-old boys? Is it going to be people in their early forties who remember the game from back in the day? Or is it going to be a combination of everyone in between? That meant we had to write for everybody. When you write for everybody, you worry whether or not it will appeal to any audience at all. So we just kept the same style and sensibilities that we had before, because it worked, and we hoped it would stand up. I feel like we’ve succeeded so far.

Gameological: I promised my girlfriend I’d ask this: What is the genesis of a Dis Or Dat question? How do you come up with two totally unrelated things in the writer’s room and then build the question from there?

Heinrich: Oh man. Dis Or Dats are by far the hardest questions to write. They’re hard for the reasons you’re hinting at, but they’re hard now because we’ve done so many of them that, I kid you not, we are just about out of “groups of things.” If I could tell you exactly how you come up with one, that would be a million-dollar idea.

We strive to tell the player, “You are not in control of this situation.”

What often happens is a writer decides, okay, I’m going to look up different species of snakes. Then you see three or four in there that sound like, say, a Las Vegas casino name or something. That moment hits, and you’re like, OK! I just did one where I was looking at the names of a bunch of children’s board games, and they were called things like “Don’t Spill the Beans,” “Don’t Tip the Waiter”—they all start with the word “don’t.” They all sounded like pieces of advice. So I look up Dr. Phil and, lo and behold, he has a book that’s all about advice for a first date. You can’t plan for that. You just have to get in there.

Gameological: There’s a lot of humor in the game that’s separate from the trivia. The little interstitial animations of the numbers dancing around between questions for example. How do you make it so that people won’t get sick of them after watching them over and over again?

Heinrich: There are two paths you can take for those question segues. One is that you can create five or six different segues for every single questions so you rarely see the same one over and over again. The second tact you can take is to make them so they get stuck in people’s heads, so they remember it, then maybe that one becomes their favorite, and they find themselves singing the song in their head all day. That’s the tactic we took, but you still want to keep it varied. On the console version, when you play multiple episode sessions, say in Question Four when they’re singing, “Everybody cuatro! Everybody cuatro!” sometimes one of the number fours will get shot. Then the police come in. Then there’s a crime scene. Then at the end of the game, you see “4” getting buried in his grave.

Gameological: The first time the number six turned to the camera during that question segue and said, “I love you,” I just lost it. My girlfriend and I could barely breathe. There’s a ton of humor like that in the game, though—humor that requires patience, little things that happen totally outside of the game, like the audio commercial spoofs that play over the credits. How do you decide what to actually write and include when there’s no guarantee the audience will pay attention?

Heinrich: Since it was invented, You Don’t Know Jack, for whatever reason, just works. What we’ve found is that a lot of trivia games allow the player to skip through things. There’s obviously validity in allowing them to do that. We strive to tell the player, “You are not in control of this situation.” You are on a live trivia game show that is being run by Cookie and everyone else, and you are going to play at their pace. That’s the best way to do it. If we created another game, we may decide that it’s going to be super-fast, super-quick, but what people say inevitably is that even though Jack has these moments that force you to pay attention, it seems like such a fast moving game. You have to constantly make it feel like it’s moving forward. Give room for the characters to grow, for things like the commercials to play out and it ends up as a magical stew.

You Don't Know Jack Question Type Showcase: Wrong Answer Of The Game

Gameological: Why do you think the live-action version of You Don’t Know Jack failed?

Heinrich: That’s the million-dollar question. I actually went out to work on it.

Gameological: You weren’t the head writer, though?

Heinrich: There were actually two writing staffs, which was one of the issues. There were so many issues, it would take too long to list them all. I went out there to write questions with Tom Gottlieb, one other question writer, and then the head question writer who was a veteran of a few TV game shows. Then there was the larger stable of writers who were in charge of the comedy, sketch, and sitcom elements of the show. The idea was to make a cross between a sitcom and a game show. So we had these two staffs who rarely—way too rarely, really—integrated with each other.

The other issue was Paul Reubens as the host. I grew up loving Pee-wee Herman. Who doesn’t love Pee-wee Herman? It’s a genius, genius character. But we had a variety of different hosts in our games, and there were only a couple that the audience responded to. There was the first one, our founder Harry Gottlieb as Nate, and now his brother Tom Gottlieb as Cookie. It’s really hard to get that exact tone that makes a You Don’t Know Jack question work. The host needs to be likable but also able to put down the player in the same breath. I just think Paul was brought in late in the game and there wasn’t enough time to really immerse him in it.

To be frank, the answer might be that You Don’t Know Jack just plain doesn’t work live. It may never work live. It just might be something that exists in the player’s mind and that space we’ve created for them will never be as exciting on a real TV as it is in your head.

Gameological: Why aren’t most video games funny?

The host needs to be likable but also able to put down the player in the same breath.

Heinrich: Let me tell you: It’s hard. You don’t want to spend too much time on the comedy because people want to play the game. You don’t want to spend all your time on the game because the comedy is what makes it work. We’re in Chicago, and that gives us access to a lot of comedy-writing talent. We brought a lot of those people in over the years. We actually hold auditions when we begin making a game, and we have them come in and write samples. We look at which ones we like, then bring them in and say, “Now write some You Don’t Know Jack questions.” No matter how much we try to explain it to them, you end up going from having 400 really funny people to that one person who kind of gets it. I can’t speak for other games, but for You Don’t Know Jack, it’s difficult, and only a few people so far have been able to do it really well.

Gameological: If Jellyvision were going to make a comedy game that wasn’t You Don’t Know Jack, what would it be?

Heinrich: Stay tuned. What I can tell you is that you’re not going to find us making a first-person shooter. We had a meeting the other day to try and figure out how we define ourselves. We define ourselves by being funny and by having accessible, word-based games. It’s not all going to be trivia, it’s not always going to be an interactive television show, but the core of what we do is always going to be casual. It’s always going to be funny.

Illustrations by Richard Hofmeier.

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50 Responses to “Funny People: Steve Heinrich, You Don’t Know Jack head writer”

  1. Aaron Riccio says:

    Well, as a loyal YDKJ-enthusiast, from when it was first released to the hundred-episode “Net Show” to the latest Facebook incarnation, I can say a couple of things: 

    1. My personal favorite “alternate” segue is when the yodeling “2” falls off the edge of a cliff. 
    2. There’s terrific introduction in which Cookie sings “Elephant, Mustard, Teddy Roosevelt, or Dracula” and then says, “Oh, I’ve just got that song stuck in my head. How about a fortune cookie?” which launches into “Cookie’s Fortune Cookie Fortunes with Cookie ‘Fortune Cookie’ Masterson.” Nice fake out.
    (3. I realized as I was writing this that you don’t have anything to do with Acrophobia. Ignore this note; may it reach whoever shut it down and strike them with ten thousand bolts of lightning.)
    4. Since it wasn’t spotlighted as a question type, I’m glad to have the “Gibberish” question back. Any chance that other variety questions from “The Ride” will ever appear again? (e.g., “Bingo” or “Roadkill”)
    4a. Considering all the things that were ported over from the recent console revival and coupled with the apparent timeliness of the questions (if you thought South Park’s turnaround was fast!), will we see “Nocturnal Emissions” again?
    5. Can’t tell you how pleased I am that the commercials are not only back, but have been expanded upon (in that you have the ability to watch or listen to each one, once you’ve unlocked it). Given the rate I’m going, I’m really hoping that there will always be more to unlock.

    In summary, there’s still plenty I Don’t Know Jack about, but this article’s filled in a lot of interesting gaps in my lack of knowledge, from the length and care that goes into writing a question (which includes alts), to the selection of a host, the unfortunate death of the live television show, and the stumble-upon Dis-or-Dat research . . . love the work you guys do, and hope that it makes enough money to continue on and on and on. 

    • Girard says:

       I LOVED gibberish questions. And all my friends hated them. We were all nerds, so playing this game, while mostly light fun, also had a bit of an undercurrent of being an intellectual pissing contest. My friends were all really good at the straightforward questions, because they had amazing brains that retained huge databases of obscure knowledge and trivia. But they all totally floundered at gibberish questions. Me, however, with my demented proclivity for bad puns and wordplay, could always ring in right off of the bat. They were so much fun, and often the gibberish version was so bizarre/funny.

      Your #2 makes me think we should start a thread about moments that most surprised and delighted us in these games. I can think of 2. In the very first game, I was playing through with a friend I had played with several times before. Suddenly, one question became a “fiber-optic field trip,” a type we’d never encountered previously, where the host calls someone at their home and they come up with a question. While the conceit was funny in itself, was made it memorable was that it came out of nowhere, and afterward we NEVER had a fiber-optic field trip again. It made us feel like we had encountered something truly unique and rare – perhaps even secret – in the game.

      The other surprise is a bit funnier. One New Year’s Eve, when playing The Ride, a particularly vulgar friend typed their name as “Fuck.” The host chastised us for our aggressive coarseness, decided we weren’t mature enough to play the game, and the game auto-quitted. We chuckled, and double-clicked the icon to start it up again, we were met with a black screen, and the host telling us “Nice try, but I’m sure you haven’t learned your lesson yet,” and the game immediately quit again. We had to wait a solid five minutes, then tried again, and we were allowed to play, with a gentle reminder to leave the “funny business” to the host.

      These games were so well-designed in terms of surprising you and reacting to your choices and actions in often unexpected ways. Through ingenuity and charisma, they created an interactive space and character a million times more convincing than the most sophisticated AI scientists have managed to develop.

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        In the original game, if you typed in “Fuck” or something else as your name, the host would get really offended. He’d joke about it, of course, in the light of saying “Oh, ha-ha, very funny, nice name.” And then he’d progress to saying something akin to, “But seriously. Fuck me? No. Fuck YOU,” just before deducting $50,000 from your score. 

      • Cliffy73 says:

        The genius of the game, as Jellyvision well knows, is all the effort put in to making it seem like you were dealing with real people, reacting like people would. I fell in love with the game when the software store I worked at in ’95 first got the demo, but I remember being astounded later, playing a later version, when it asked a question based on a wrong answer I’d given a few minutes earlier.

        Perhaps not the greatest technical challenge, but a brilliant insight by the developers. Whenever my family and I played Trivial Pursuit we always saw connections between answers from round to round and made fun of the people who didn’t pick up on them. Having the game do it suddenly humanized it in a way that you couldn’t ignore.

    • trilobiter says:

       I’m essentially addicted to the Facebook version these days.  I just wish it was longer than five questions.  I’m more than tempted to pony up for the latest full version.

  2. AHyperkineticLagomorph says:

    I remember playing a version (honestly can’t remember which) with family and friends, huddled up with 3 hands trying to work the same keyboard.

    Multiplayer is always much better when any would-be cheater is always within punching distance.

  3. caspiancomic says:

    Oh man, this is a seriously groovy segment already. Comedy games are such a bizarrely difficult and undernourished sub-category, which is particularly strange when you consider that comedy films or books or plays make up like a cool 50% of those mediums’ offerings. I don’t need straight up “comedy games” like Jack or Earthworm Jim or Monkey Island or whatever, but it’d be nice to see more humour integrated into otherwise thuddingly serious AAA powerhouses. And I’m not talking about Max Payne style too-drunk-for-school zingers either, I think Al Lowe had it right when he described that as feeling artificial. I just mean that a lot of games would be improved with a bit of whimsy, a little touch of levity, even if only to lend the drama more gravitas by comparison. I think it was Stanislavski who wrote that humour is an important element in every performance, no matter how serious: even if it never comes to the surface, a character who is presented as being bone-deep humourless will read as artificial to an audience. Same goes with gaming, I feel. The tension and danger in something like Bastion seem all the more tangible filtered through Rucks’ sardonic coping mechanism.

    It’s also kind of strange that so many games shooting for “comedy” land on mad-cap Animaniacs style lunacy. You don’t see all that many pitch black laugh-to-keep-from-crying gallows humour games, nor Christopher Guest style deadpan-bordering-on-comatose games. The closest we’ve ever come is probably Portal. Hell, we don’t even get very many character-driven “let’s stick these weirdoes in a tumble dryer and see who snaps” style comedies. I think the rebooted Prince of Persia game did a pretty decent job of having two characters’ chemistry be the heart of the comedy, and golden era JRPGs tend to have eccentric casts who play well off each other. But it sometimes seems like the sum total of modern humour in gaming is when the scowling and invariably American beefcakes the game stars trade mothballed one-liners.

    As for examples of games in which an atmosphere of humour or occasional moment of levity improved the gaming experience? Well, I personally really enjoyed Sword & Sworcery, which looked for all the world like a standard stranger-comes-to-town tale of magic and heroism, but which elevated its simple story by having every character talk like they were from Venice Beach, and by giving the player the ability to read a dog’s thoughts, which were often “bark bark woof.” The Metal Gear Solid series is equal parts nuclear powered soap opera and fourth wall breaking meta humour. Playstation classic MediEvil made great use of its characters, the flavour text gargoyles would often casually trash talk Sir Dan for no other reason than to annoy him, and the legendary folks at the Hall of Heroes weren’t shy about letting you know they had close to no faith in your abilities. Spider-Man 2 (the film adaptation, of all things) had the usual warmed over Spidey groaners, but also got some great material out of Bruce Campbell, who delivered advice and guidance with as much condescension as he could muster, and the more obscure hint markers contained nothing more than Campbell’s extended riffing in the recording studio.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m seriously looking forward to the rest of these interviews. Can’t wait to see who else you’ve got in the pipe.

    (PS: What up Gameological! You miss me? Sorry about the novel, I guess I’m pretty excited to be back. Oh, and Happy Canada Day! I mean, it was yesterday, but whatever.)

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Just to be clear, you’re talking about *intentional* humor, right? Because many of these AAA games are funny despite trying very hard *not* to be. It’s been a while since we last heard from Arthur M. Gameological III, but I think he makes some pretty solid points about our beloved masterpieces.

      And speaking of unintentional humor, I’m going to be using “see who/what else you’ve got in the pipe” from now on. It’s got a better ring to it, as if you’re summoning up some sort of stoner genie and/or smoke monster, which, to be fair, is just the right sort of Column A/Column B combo that might lead to the sort of laughs you’re looking for. :)

      And on a last note, playing through Quantum Conundrum illustrates just how difficult it was to hit that tone in Portal and Portal 2. Or maybe it’s just that the idea of a ten-year-old boy being killed by his mad scientist uncle is less inherently comic than a crazed AI attempting to “test” you to “death.”

      • Merve says:

        In some ways, QC is darker than Portal. Prof. Quadwrangle is a narcissist who cares if his nephew lives only because a dead nephew wouldn’t be able to rescue him. Unfortunately, the game kind of undermines that towards the end by making the professor show some genuine affection for his nephew. I wish that Airtight had had the balls to keep Quadwrangle as a crazed narcissist for the whole game.

    • blue vodka lemonade says:

      I just played The Secret World for about eight straight hours (go me!) so it was in the back of my mind while I read this interview.

      I can’t think of too many “funny” games which I actually thought were funny, like laugh-out-loud, can’t-breathe-for-a-moment funny. Plenty are clever, and plenty have the cheesy one-liners you mentioned (which are usually good for a single, hushed chuckle,) but most games are either Serious Business or Wacky Wackytown. 

      You Don’t Know Jack is funny when you play it with a bunch of real friends int he same way a stand-up comic is better live. The energy from “the crowd” keeps you primed, and if that crowd is a bunch of your friends, all the better. 

      So as I’m playing The Secret World, there are plenty of funny lines of dialogue from NPCs, but it’s infinitely funnier when you’re having a conversation with some guildmates while it all goes down. If more games could harness the ~magic of actual human interaction,~ or at least simulate it well, there would be more funny games.

      • dreadguacamole says:

         The problem with the Secret World is that there’s no interaction – there’s tons of funny in the game (the first few illuminati NPCs you meet had me in stitches), but the humor is woven into these huge infodumps they throw at you, with no reaction or time to let the jokes breathe.
         Still -man, it can be hilarious. I didn’t expect it be so self-aware and to have such a pervasive sense of humor.

         As for recent games: I’m not a huge fan of the writing in the Uncharted games, but they get humor through character interactions down perfectly. Bulletstorm did a pretty good job, too, especially when subverting tropes or getting surreal with creative cursing (too bad it decided to play it straight in the final stretch). Valve and Double Fine consistently crank out hilarious stuff, no matter the method of delivery; and so does Obsidian, but they choose not to be funny much of the time). And I found the new talkie Batman lego game to be a lot funnier than any of the older, mute ones.

         As for You Don’t know Jack, it’s just as fun to play by yourself (I played the original games by myself, as none of my friends spoke english) as with others.

         I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule for humor to work in games; it just needs for the people working on it to be willing to chance it, take their time crafting it, and, well, be funny.

      • Say what you will about the late 90s, 3D mascot platformers, but they allows to be goofier and funnier in tone and action, and not necessarily related to cutscenes. Problem was they became formulaic – poorly designed protagonist, crappy weapon, collect-athons a-plenty – and fell by the wayside.

        The last bastions of that type of game were Ratchet and Clank and Sly Cooper, and Insommniac Games fucked up with their multi-player game (actually, they really fucked up a couple of ways: over-reliance on Qwark and Nafarious; dropping too many of their great past characters; a story that developed Ratchet and Clank themselves, but somehow narrowed the excellent worldbuilding even more).

        Sly 4 is pretty much the last of its kind (at the AAA level at least), so there’s quite a bit riding on it come its release in October. I suppose Rayman is akin to that, but it’s not really a character-comedy game, just a fun and delightful one. Also, it’s 2D.

        The BEST idea, since we’re doing wishful thinking, would be to make a AAA game building off something like Conker’s Bad Fur Day, more characters and worldbuilding, something that people could build upon, fanwise. I honestly think video games should be more like cartoons. Not just based on them, but present you as a character in a crazy world that you play and fight. TellTale kinda does this, but incorporating battles/fights in this day and age seems like a no-brainer.

        • Aaron Riccio says:

          I do miss Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Where else would you find an operatic boss battle against a giant mass of feces: “I am the Great Mighty Poo, and I’m going to throw my shit at you.” 

        • blue vodka lemonade says:

          So is Conker’s Bad Fur Day good? Because I thought it was received pretty badly at the time. 

        • @green_gin_rickey:disqus

          *sits back in chair, sighs, contemplates*

          Conker is a very strange game. It has the control and feel of a typical Rare game (when they were good), but you can’t really do anything without the game giving you something or when you find a small pad to stand on (which allows you to do cartoony acts to beat bosses or pass through areas).

          It’s a great game to talk about and reflect on, and a ton of ideas and concepts are really interesting, but the game itself isn’t really that good, and the final stage is strangely hard as balls. I remember the game being poorly received too, but nostalgia seems to make most people claim it better than it was. I can’t even say the game is -funny-, but it definitely was refreshing at the time, although I can’t imagine the gags really holding up too much.

          I’d have to give it another go sometime.

    • AHyperkineticLagomorph says:

      I agree that games need to lighten up quite a bit. To me, taking your game, or anything really, with total dire, straight-faced seriousness is a total crime. Metal Gear Solid is the perfect example of a game that has a serious message, but isn’t afraid to point out just how absolutely silly all that serious can be. From Solid Snake pointing out he has “unlimited ammo” in Sons of Liberty to the Colonel telling you that Meryl’s codec frequency is on the back of the box, a little meta humor can go a long way.

      Another of my favorite “humor” games is No One Lives Forever.  You have your required terrorist organization holding the world hostage, biological weapons, and loads of action scenes that you could take straight out of any action flick (my favorite being the time Cate falls out of a plane and has to “acquire” a parachute from a guard on the way down). It also has a psychedelic 60’s color scheme, guards in bright jumpsuits talking about everything from sex to criminal psychology, and laugh out loud jokes hidden in documents all throughout the world. Today the game has dated graphics and while the gameplay is still great, most of what it does has been done better elsewhere, but the tone, the humor still stands the test of time.

      • Merve says:

        The Saints Row series relies heavily on humour and sheer ridiculousness, although it’s mostly the same kind of humour as the pre-IV GTAs.

        Without its wacky humour and imaginativeness, Monkey Island would be a boring series of point-and-click adventures. The crazy stuff (e.g. voodoo root beer) is what makes the games work. Incidentally, episode 3 of Tales of Monkey Island has possibly the best (and funniest) credits sequence of any video game.

        And Commander Keen wouldn’t be Commander Keen without his Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket.

      • doyourealize says:

        Man, fuck that “back of case” thing for Meryl’s Codec. I rented the game (eventually bought it, but not right away), and had to drive back to rental store to look at the box. I guess I laughed, though…

        • AHyperkineticLagomorph says:

          I knew someone, somewhere, had to have gone through that.

          Man, remember the days before you could literally type a question into Google and likely have a good answer in less than 30 seconds? Before people, for no charge, would write entire guides for doing just about anything in any game and you had to buy overpriced “official” guides that still missed a lot?

          Those were dark times.

        • doyourealize says:

          @AHyperkineticLagomorph:disqus This was also the time when video games pretty much said, “Here, it’s a game…play it!”, rather than giving you gold trails to your next objective or solving puzzles for you if you couldn’t get it in the first 30 seconds. How the hell did anyone beat Zelda in 1986?

          Edit: Man, I’m old. Between this and the Morrowind thread, I feel like I’m sitting on a front porch complaining that things will never be like the good ol’ days.

          For the record, I love video games today and 25 years ago.

        • AHyperkineticLagomorph says:

          No, I agree with you. There is a certain feeling of accomplishment in a game that challenges you and doesn’t hold you by the hand.

          However, on the other hand, there’s something to be said for NOT running around looking for one specific thing just so you can advance the plot. When you don’t have time to experiment non-stop, guides are handy.

          Both ways have their charms, but complaining either way does make me the old coot complaining about “kids today.”

        • ninjapocalypse says:

          @AHyperkineticLagomorph:disqus To be fair, 1998 wasn’t really “the days before people, for no charge, would write entire guides for… any game”. I borrowed my cousin’s copy of the game shortly after he beat it (a couple of months after it came out) and when I came up to that point in the game it was like 2am, and I couldn’t call him to get the codec frequency from the back of the box, but I was able to look it up on Gamefaqs. It was actually already a part of IGN by that point.

          But still, you wanna talk about dark times… I had to look it up on AOL. *shivers*

      • caspiancomic says:

         Yeah, Disgaea is a pretty good place to find a game that has a comedic tone throughout, which tends to make the more straight-faced finales feel more weighty. My favourite chapter in the first Disgaea is when Laharl challenges everyone in the Netherworld for the title of Overlord. Every battle in that chapter is really great: the bottleneck one where every tile on the map has an enemy on it, the Prism Rangers (which I think is also the map where every tile is a warp tile), the Prinny baseball game (“Kill ’em.”)… winners, all. Also, one of my all-time favourite line deliveries in a video game: “…and a horse wiener!”

        • Aaron Riccio says:

          I think Disgaea was the first game to be THAT overt in its meta-gaming. It’s the Mid-Boss scene. Loved it.

      • sirslud says:

        I always found the Paper Mario series to be one of the few RPG games were I don’t serially skip dialogue. The writing is genuinely funny, and they even play with the typographical presentation in the text bubbles in genuinely humorous ways. To say nothing of the fact that for my dollar, it is the features the best Japanese to English translation jobs I’ve ever run across. Not that I can speak Japanese, but you can *tell* that they make cultural/topical translations where appropriate rather than just verbatim translation. I’m too lazy to look up the dev house (or localization house) that handles Paper Mario, but that’s my contribution to the list of humerous games that ‘get it’ and don’t fall on their face.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

          Oh my lord, I love the writing in the Mario RPGs so much. I think we’ve had a quote thread here before, but that writing seriously does not get the love it deserves.

          “I’m Don Pianta! I make cryin’ babies weep!”

          “I HAVE CHORTLES!!”

        • AHyperkineticLagomorph says:

          I don’t know who, specifically, does the translations for the Paper Mario series, but they do a fantastic job.

          If I may be that guy who has to link to TV tropes, I recommend reading up on Woolseyisms there. It’s a common practice in translations. When you have a product that is absolutely drenched in a specific culture and language and a direct translation is impossible without losing the charm of the scene or having the add several pages of notes explaining the joke, a similar in spirit joke is often used in its place.

          Edit: Also, if I’m going to use a term, I better make sure I spell it correctly.

    • doyourealize says:

      I’m gonna throw the Oddworld series into this list. Especially the final entry, Stranger’s Wrath. So much care was put into conversations between townsfolk that didn’t even have anything to do with the story, purely to give the gamer a sense of place. I laughed out loud when, playing through the HD version recently, I stole the treasure from the oppressed creatures, who yelled from their houses, “Our heads already look like dicks, and now we can’t even have any pride!”

      The emotional gravity comes later, but really the sense you get from that game is unlike anything I’ve played except for maybe Conker’s Bad Fur Day, which @facebook-501651:disqus already mentioned.

      • caspiancomic says:

         The only Oddworld game I’ve played is Abe’s Oddysee, but you’re right, it’s a really great example of a game that uses humour to bolster an otherwise serious story. I mean sure, there’s some juvenile material in there (there’s a fart button, after all), but for the most part it’s a great example of a game with an understated pitch black sense of humour.

  4. Bram Reichbaum says:

    Order me a taco plate, with a side of Question 8.

    You can’t explain that.

  5. Adam says:

    Well, given that ‘4’ is constantly dying, being buried and coming back, it’s nice to know his stand-in ‘f’ is finding steady freelance work with Gameological between the Twitter bird and the Tumblr ‘t’.

    • The 4’s death occurs suddenly about 1/3rd of the way through the game’s on-disc 70+ episodes. In the next game, the 4 is mysteriously absent, with a chalk outline and police tape blocking off the intro sequence. The next game shows the group of ‘f’s sobbing hysterically at 4’s funeral. The next game shows 4’s gravestone. Every game thereafter simply replaces the 4 with another lowercase ‘f’ as if nothing tragic had ever happened. I, personally, felt a hole in my heart for several more games as ‘1ne’ ‘2wo’ and ‘3hree’ were followed by ‘four,’ reminding me of the innocent number’s mindless drive-by slaying. I had no idea interstitial animations in a comedic game show could cause me to have feelings.

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        And this is how we brought about world peace: every genocidal dictator got a copy of YDKJ and couldn’t live with what they’d done to 4our.

      • doyourealize says:

        Oddly spoiler-ish for a trivia game.

    • John Teti says:

      We originally were going to invite people to share on 4acebook, but then … I’m sorry, I have something in my eye…

  6. JokersNuts says:

    obsessed with this game back in the 90’s.  I had a CD of all the faux commercials that You Don’t Know Jack had, and I loved them.  I thought they were SO funny!  I would seriously listen to them all the time.  Always was a big fan of this game, glad to see it making a comeback.

  7. HobbesMkii says:

    My one single criticism of the evolution of YDKJ from Volume 3 to its current incarnation: too short.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Agreed. The younger generation just stumbling onto the five-question YDKJ (or even the 11-question console version) doesn’t know how good we used to have it with the 21-question version, our fully-loaded screws, and the ability for the winner to choose the category they’d like to move on to. 

      Still, I do enjoy the new format in which we’re ALL able to buzz in (the first person doesn’t lock anyone else out). 

      The one mechanic that I haven’t seen in a long time is that back in the days of AOL and Antagonist, Inc., you’d join a “faction” and play fifteen-minute rounds of trivia, so as to “represent” your team. The faster you buzzed in, the more points your team got, so there was the sense of each game really mattering. That said, it eventually turned into mass memorization, with all the teams in their own chat-rooms, feeding answers to everybody else, but hey; I have fond memories of my first steps on the Internet.

    • sirslud says:

      In their defense, the ‘window’ of time people are/can commit to games these is likely more bite sized than it used to be. (I’d be surprised if they didn’t have analytics on repeat business versus game length.) I would imagine it is shorter specifically in order to ensure more people feel they are able to ‘pick up and put down’ YDKJ more often.

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        Oh, I’m not against the pick-up-and-put-down model; I’m just saying that it’d be nice to have the option, as in the original, which allowed you to play either an 11-question game or a 21-question game. 

        From a monetary stand-point, though, I understand that ONE 5-question game a day is meant to convert the people playing for free into people playing for cash, and if I felt more comfortable providing credit card information to Facebook, I’d already have been one.

  8. Simon Hova says:

    I actually just downloaded a few of the original YDKJ (original, vol 2 and vol 3) games from BitTorrent, and they held up amazingly well on my 64 bit Windows laptop. My (non-nerd) wife actually suggested it a few times already.

    For me, though, what brought back memories was the song from the original game for Question 4. It was the R&B styled song where they sang about Question 4, The Question that Cares.

    Also, from the original game, I heard a fiber optic field trip which I’d never heard before. I didn’t realize they’d made the original game, I thought that they’d debuted later in the series.

  9. Brainspore says:

    At least two key YDKJ elements were missing from that godawful TV adaptation:

    1) Speed. The video game is fast-paced, a good player will usually hit the button to answer before the host even finishes reading the question. The show stretched everything out (probably to fill airtime) and brevity is the soul of wit.

    2) Difficulty. Compared to the original games, the questions used in the game show were WAY too easy. Nobody would bother watching “Jeopardy” if they knew the answer to every single question.

  10. Will Hughes says:

    The PC version of the latest You Don’t Know Jack game is a fucking travesty. Only two-player multiplayer, no access to online features, and no controller support. It’s shovelware, and an insult to Jellyvision’s roots.

  11. J C says:

    Flickerpiss test gum!

  12. sirslud says:

    When I came across their web episodes on their site a few years back, it brought back the rush and giddy glee I experienced when I played the original back in the day. It was like I’d lost track of a friend, and I just bumped into him at a party at random, and he was just as awesome as I had remembered him being.

    I immediately sent them 50$ as a gift, and they replied with a hilarious signed letter and a YDKJ t-shirt which I proudly wear to work. I’m always amazed there are (english speaking) people in the game industry that have never heard of YDKJ.

    Also, this interview was amazing. Gameological/Anthony, you are doing God’s work.

  13. Gameological: How do you decide what to actually write and include when there’s no guarantee the audience will pay attention?

    Heinrich: Since it was invented, You Don’t Know Jack, for whatever reason, just works.

    Mmmm, it’s more than “just” working, Steve.  It’s having an attitude in writing these jokes–be they referential, sarcastic, just plain wacky, or various combinations of those and more–of saying “screw that guarantee”.  Of saying “more is more, so here’s some more, and try to keep up.”  Your game can’t have a dickish attitude toward this approach, it’s true.  Hence his point about Cookie or whichever host is around for this volume having the right tone to their narration.  But there comes a point where, if you know you have creative writers on your side with a fair amount of outré organizational concepts for their questions, you’ve gotta just surge ahead, ADD- or datedness-baiting aside. 

    Joel Hodgson or one of his writer/performers were asked a similar question once about Mystery Science Theater 3000, and whether they were laying on the asides and pop culture knocks so thick that they were alienating themselves from a potential audience.  His response?  “The right people will get it.”  And there’s the appeal of You Don’t Know Jack, and other aim-high, trivia-based games and game shows right there:  when you’re “getting it”–when a number segue makes a quick reference to the grim n’ gritty titles of David Fincher’s Se7en in YDKJ: Hollywood Edition, or when you’re picturing Charlie Brown with an intense, painful erection under those nondescript black shorts after some medically-related question in one of the volumes–you feel like you’re “the right people”.  At its very best, I think YDKJ scratches that same MST3K itch.  You feel like you’re at a fun after-party for this thing called MODERN MEDIA, and you’re surrounded by a bunch of witty people taking turns cracking everyone up with tales about how ridiculous the show was.

    Enough theorizing.  Let’s start the thread on our favorite audio spots during the credits!  Mine: 

    (serious news anchor voice)  “It’s big, it’s inescapable, and it emits radiation on you TWENTY FOUR HOURS A DAY!  Learn about The Sun, TONIGHT!”

  14. Having watched the TV show, I would say one of the main reasons it didn’t work is it was on a prime-time network. The big 3 networks aren’t going to be the best place to present this sort of thing, especially because they’re bound to not have faith in it and throw it in the worst possible time slot/no to poor advertising. Something more niche like Comedy Central, [adult swim] or as a last resort GSN could’ve possibly done better with it. I personally disagree with that it can’t be done live, as evidenced by “The Million Dollar Question” segment on the show, absolutely hilarious. It would be cool to see it again on a smaller scale, but I’m not holding my breath.

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