JONES IN THE FAST LANE / Sierra / PC
Jones In The Fast Lane is one of the most depressing games I have ever played. I don't think the designers set out to intentionally create a piece of dark social commentary - the tone of the game is satirical and even a bit peppy and upbeat, but their minimalist reconstruction of life under modern industrialized capitalism just hits a little too close to the bone in reminding the thinking player of the self-obsessed, banal, oppressive and frequently futile structure of modern society.
The game is essentially a board game in PC form. A solo player can try to keep up with the titular Jones, a rather manic conformist and worker-bee who seems hell-bent on achieving the American Dream at any cost, or up to four people can compete with each other in hot-seat play.
The opening of the game drops you off in a shabby apartment with little money, no job and no education. You are imprisoned in a small town that seemingly consists of nothing but "big-box" retail stores and eateries. By gaining employment at a succession of higher-paying jobs one attempts to exceed arbitrary "goals" of satisfaction, set prior to each game, in the categories of Income, Possessions, Education and ? One can simply try to climb their way up the employment ladder by punching a clock steadily, but there is also a college that can be squeezed into the player's off-time, and degrees gained there lead to better employment opportunities. During all of this money-making and educational pursuit, the player must also contend with monthly rent, provide for their basic needs such as food and clothing, and deal with random "events" that crop up such as robberies and economic inflation. The game is divided up into weeks, each of which represent a turn, where you have a limited amount of time to go around and perform activities.
This simplistic and drab structure is spruced up a bit by the game's humor, which is really the most compelling reason to play. Sierra used digitized footage of people from around their offices to represent the various people you interact with around town, and they are full of snappy one-liners when you visit. Weekends consist of you getting into random and comic mishaps that can either gain or drain you a small amount of money, and each of the in-game locations is some sort of caricature of a real-life business like McDonalds or Saks.
Ultimately, there is nothing to the game world but making money, however. There are the other "goals", sure, but they all lead back to money in some way, and take money to achieve. The player has no community, no friends, no other people in their life, and no apparent joy whatsoever - life is simply a long grind towards upgrading from the Ghetto Apartment to the Ritzy Security Apartment, so that you can safely stash away various consumer goods for yourself without worrying about Willy the Burglar coming for an unexpected visit. There is no escape from this rather horrifying world, and nothing else to do in it - just pile up cash, buy appliances and try to do it faster than the competition (if there is any). You can't even take a vacation to get a temporary reprieve!
The sad thing is that this is exactly the sort of world some people would like us to have in reality - particularly, corporate business interests, for whom a completely isolated, emotionless world of consumption-focused individuals is the ideal population. Even the vehicle by which players travel around the board - a windowless spherical pod - is emblematic of this vision. Again, I don't know if this was intentional by the designers, but it is interesting that it all came out this way.
The game will appeal to "grinders", players who like to slug away at tedious repetitive tasks for little regular morphine-drip rewards, but if you are anything like me it'll just leave you with a vague feeling of sadness and unease, and a desire to get away from the computer. In fact, I'd go so far as to class this as a 'dystopian' game, along with Wasteland and Fallout.
* Gameplay Video