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Take this job and kick it, April 7, 2021
Ned Nelson really needs anger management classes, was the sense I got when the option "punch Mr. Jett directly in his face" popped up at the very beginning of Ned’s interview with his prospective new boss. Admittedly, said boss is an irritating tech-bro caricature, but beyond Ned’s titularly-established desperation for work, the violence seems completely out of scale with Jett’s fist-bumping, profanity-overusing ways, annoying though they may be. Ultimately, it turns out that he is more than deserving of Ned’s rage, but in this case the game’s jumping ahead before doing the work to get the player – or the protagonist – in the proper headspace, which is a flaw that threads through an otherwise well-executed game.
Since I’m also now running the risk of getting a bit ahead of myself, let’s take a step back: NNRNJ (which sort of looks like the noise the Hulk makes when he’s trying to lift a building, now that I type it out) is a Twine game in three acts, in which the down-on-his-luck Ned tries to work his way into Mr. Jett’s good graces, and thereby into employment. It’s linear, with success-or-failure checkpoints at the end of each of the first two sections, and then a number of instant bad ends once you’re in the climactic third. While I found it easy to get through the last act, the first two required a fair bit of trial and error. Fortunately, there are checkpoints to zoom you to the start of each of the sections, three levels of hints on offer every time you go wrong, and no overly-slow timed text or anything awful that would make replaying a pain.
The plot winds up being pretty solid – while the premise is all about acing the job interview, Ned also faces some challenges in navigating his first day on the job, with a few reveals, surprises, and triumphs along the way. It’s not at all subtle about its satire of startup culture and mores, with Jett’s boorishness completely over the top – not all the jokes landed for me, but there are some good ones. Like, I’ve had this interaction:
"You stand up and go to shake his hand, but halfway there he changes to a fist bump. You wind up awkwardly grabbing his fist. He then pulls you close to him and claps you on the back about three too many times."
And towards the end, you have the opportunity to call Jett out on his habit of assigning nicknames to his staff, and one hapless employee notes that he “would actually rather die than be called Sam the Clam.”
What works less well is that it feels like the game’s mostly working backwards from the third act. When you get there, it all generally works, but there’s oddness on the run up. As mentioned, the option to attack Jett shows up far too early to make sense – it needs to come after Ned, and the player, have more reason to detest him – but this isn’t the only misstep like this. When the receptionist is walking Ned into his interview, she has an oddly intense, familiar moment with him that makes sense in retrospect but feels jarring when first experienced. The idea that Ned hasn’t bothered to learn what the company does – and doesn’t think to do a quick search on his phone in the opening scene, when he realizes his mistake but is still waiting in the lobby – isn’t very believable either, indicating an authorial impatience to get to the fun reveals of the mid-game without laying the groundwork. And the one real puzzle sacrifices logic in service of paying off that “punch” option, again without at least lampshading it: (Spoiler - click to show)at the climax of act II, Jett takes you into one of the puppy-kicking booths to test your performance, giving you a choice of weapons to use to assault the poor dog. Obviously this is the moment you need to attack him and turn the tables, but the story only progresses if you’d picked the brass knuckles, which allow your punch to knock him out. But if you opt instead for say the nunchucks, the game for some reason has you drop them before making the punch, which of course is too weak to knock him out.
My other complaint is more personal and may be idiosyncratic, but I have to say the violence was less cartoonish than I would have preferred. The description of Jett’s long-awaited face-punching goes into detail about his septum snapping under the force of Ned’s fist – and the idea that this is the best experience Ned has ever had is just ugly. There’s also a reference to Jett being subjected to prison violence once he’s locked up. And then of course there’s the whole reveal – (Spoiler - click to show)literally kicking puppies, which is described more robustly than it needs to be. The satire isn’t sharp enough to go this dark, I don’t think, leading to some tonal clashes.
I’m harping on flaws, but I did enjoy NNRNJ once it caught up to itself, and Jett eventually does blossom into a good villain – it’s just a shame it doesn’t have the full scaffolding to get there.