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Judge, Lest You Be Judged, July 16, 2011
Painfully earnest and rhetorically self-defeating, Jarod's Journey is the canonical example of How Not To Do It when it comes to IF that aims to make a point about ethics, politics or religion.
Jarod is a Christian pilgrim (or possibly evangelist; it's not very clear) in the late first-century Holy Land. The game's themes have little to do with the concerns of first-century Christians, though, and thinking of it as a historical piece would be a mistake; rather, it's consciously modeled on parables. In each section, Jarod visits a city and observes the ways different people express their faith; he then has to decide which of them is doing it right, or rather which message God wants him to derive from his observations. In each case there is only one right answer.
There are several problems with this. One is that the scenes Jarod observes don't always translate readily into parables; another is that the parables don't translate straightforwardly into morals. Yet another is that choosing between the morals is often arbitrary and unsupported; a lot of the morals don't seem to be in conflict with each other, and in places the texts quoted to explain why a choice was wrong could quite reasonably be taken to mean that it was right. In other words, unless you are already familiar with the author's very specific theological concerns and idiom of interpretation, Jarod's Journey is not just unfair as a game but incoherent as an argument.
The game violates a few of its own expressed maxims; one of the obviously-wrong choices is a Pharisee who prays in a conspicuous, repetitive, hollow, bombastic style that closely resembles the game's own approach to biblical quotes. Its text argues for the primacy of simple faith and prayer, but its mechanics seem to say that it's more important to give the correct answers to questions of doctrine.
It doesn't help that the tone is one of clean-cut, sanctimonious enthusiasm. Although the story makes it clear that he has been raised as a Christian, Jarod seems ingenuously surprised at basic tenets of the faith. The Holy Land seems to have been rather cleaned-up since the life of Christ; there are lots of hard-working tradespeople and a distinct absence of lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors and lunatics. (The most disreputable people are a bunch of nasty-looking street toughs who turn out to be exactly what they look like.)
Games about ethics and religion are very difficult to do well, particularly if they advocate a very specific position. But the most basic design principle for them is that it's never a good idea to give the player a set of choices, then tell them that A is good and B and C are bad; it's boring gameplay and it's unpersuasive rhetoric. Jarod's Journey is worth playing because it demonstrates very clearly why this is.