High Jinnks, by M. Nite Chamberlain
There are certain stories that only really snap into shape once you’ve reached the end. Obviously there’s your Memento-type puzzle box stories, or your last-minute-revelation-recontextualizes-everything-that’s-come-before ones (given the author’s pseudonym The Sixth Sense is the obvious name-check). Storytelling like this can be really compelling, even more so in IF where the player winds up not just stepping through the puzzles or individual plot points, but is engaged in fiddling with the overall story like it’s a Rubik’s Cube. But it’s also a risky approach, because withholding information on how the world works or a character’s backstory or motivation means that the work might not hold together as well when experienced as it does in retrospect. Despite the authorial name-check, I’m not convinced High Jinnks is actually trying to be a high-stakes twist sort of story. But unfortunately I think the comparison is apt because I found the game does play things a bit too close to the vest, and as a result, doesn’t land as effectively as it should given the general strength of most of its elements.
It’s a little tricky to share the setup, since that shifts a fair bit over the course of the 45-minute or so playtime. You’re playing a jinn who’s able to take human form, but from the off you don’t have much in the way of motivation: you’re just emerging from a casino where you’ve fleeced a hapless mortal, at which point you’re free to wander without being pointed towards or away from anything in particular. There’s not much worldbuilding initially, which left me with a large number of basic questions about the main character’s wishes and desires (like, do all-powerful wish-granting jinn actually need money?), and therefore what I should be trying to do. A motivation does eventually emerge – the aforementioned fleeced mortal stole back the money you won off them, so you want to find them and get it back (though again, is this just a pride thing?) – and from that point out it’s usually clear what your next, immediate goal should be. But until the very end, the broader question of your characters goals and situation, as well as more nuts-and-bolts questions about what’s actually happening, weigh down what ultimately should be a heart-warming supernatural buddy comedy.
Some of this is due to unclear writing. I often found myself mouthing “huh?” at a passage where befuddlement was not, I think, the intended response. I still don’t really understand the whole sequence where Ali traps the main character, and then releases him – and the whole sequence where Hakeem comes home was really off-kilter. But more often, it’s due to the choice to have the main character know far more than the player, without revealing that knowledge. Sometimes this is OK when it’s clear that it’s setting something up – I’m thinking of the gag with the coffee maker, or decorative mirror, or… – but more often, the player character is making plans, or heading places, based not just on clever plans that will be sprung at the right moment, but on critical, character-driven goals that the player just isn’t let in on. The whole sequence after killing Malik is like this – trying to get revenge on the sorcerer out to get the main character makes sense, but then you’re led through a series of plot points involving summoning another jinn, and then trying to break a curse they’ve put on you, and it’s only towards the end that you realize that the whole premise of the game is that the main character has been cursed to not be able to kill (by the by, being hell-bent on lifting this curse does not make for the most sympathetic protagonist) and exiled from the society of other jinns (which by the by is incredibly hide-bound in a parody of government bureaucracy that also feels like it comes out of nowhere). This is really relevant information to understanding who this character is! As a result, while there are a good amount of choices and some reactivity, I found they typically didn’t feel meaningful because I lacked context for what I was trying to do.
The other questionable storytelling technique is to interrupt the main thread of the plot with vignettes and flashbacks, mostly drawn from or inspired by the actual stories in the Thousand and One Nights, as best I could tell. These are all right as far as they go, but I found they didn’t do much besides interrupt the plot and make it a bit shaggier, as they weren’t very related to the main story either narratively or thematically – the jinn in the flashbacks seems to behave differently than the contemporary one, and while the main character’s backstory is actually very important, those pieces are entirely separate from what’s in the flashbacks – including the vignette involving the death of the protagonist’s child, which felt like it should have some impact!
This is all a shame, because when you know what’s going on in High Jinnks, I think there’s a solid story under there, and while the prose can sometimes be unclear, there’s also some good writing – I liked the way the relationship between the jinn and Ali (the hapless mortal from the casino, who winds up playing a significant role) evolved over time. There are also some really good jokes along the way. But these storytelling missteps, plus a few technical niggles – I hit a dead link early on when trying to hit on a random I think drug-dealer, and later one I wound up at a park despite having opted to visit a library instead – undermined my enjoyment, to the extent that I went through the first chunk of the game half-convinced that the title hid a second pun and everybody, myself included, was just baked out of their damned minds, for all the sense anything was making. There’s a lot that’s promising here, though, so unlike with M. Night Shyamalan, I look forward to the author’s future work.