Saturday Crapshoot: Jones In The Fast Lane

Richard Cobbett

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Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, it's the game of life. Not the Game Of Life, that's something else. Or the game of Life, which is more a sciencey thing. Just a game. Of life.

Sierra Online is mostly remembered for its graphic adventure games, many of them with the word 'Quest' on the end. It did plenty of other things though, some successfully, some... not. Firmly in the 'not' camp was Jones In The Fast Lane, and if you're wondering why, just look at its clumsy title. What does it mean? Originally, this game was called Keeping Up With Jones, as a riff on the slightly less catchy name "Keeping Up With The Joneses". During development, that changed to this, which only makes sense if you know the story, but is at least better than when Bully became "Canis Canem Edit".

Got that? Good. But can it make you a winner in life as well as games? Let's find out.

Jones is a board game at heart, though one that uses the fact that it's a computer to be as much a life simulator. I could explain the basic details, but they're relatively straight-forward, so let's just run through a typical game such as you might play. You can play single-player, against an AI opponent called Jones, but that seems a bit pointless. Instead, this week I'll be joined by my good friend...

Oh. Oh, wait a minute. I forgot to ask anyone. Also, I don't have any good friends ever since I decided to help save the planet's precious water by giving up bathing. This could be a bit tricky.

Well, never mind. I'm almost positive it'll all work out in the end!

PLAYER 1: WEEK 0

Jones can be played with up to four players, each taking a different character - two men, two women. Here at least there is Equality. I pick the guy on the left, because he's wearing sunglasses and is therefore Cool. It is however a little odd that both guys are wearing jeans while the women both shop at the same store - presumably Togs R Us. It's a big chain. Surprised you've not heard of it.

As far as I know, there's no difference between any of the characters, which seems a shame. In a more complex game, the guy on the left would travel more slowly around the map due to feeling compelled to check every mirror and going "Hey...", the first lady would suffer a -2 point to Charisma until her painful looking sunburn wore off, the third guy would sometimes end the game abruptly after realising his dreams had deserted him and he was now a middle aged man with no future, and the fourth would randomly be arrested by the Fashion Police for wearing a shirt themed on particularly messy sick.

Next comes "Set Your Goals". Jones is won by meeting goals that you set for yourself at the start - finding success in four categories: Wealth, Happiness, Education and Career. The higher you set them, the longer the game, and the more crushing the disappointment when you realise that you're not in fact a precious little snowflake. This is where the Life Simulation element kicks in. Also, you go to shops and stuff. Anyway. I decide to primarily chase Wealth. With that, I figure I can buy the rest. Especially Happiness. Everyone agrees that's how it works. I'm pretty sure there was a song about it once.

Over to you, Me.

PLAYER 2: WEEK 0

Thanks, Me. Everything's much the same here of course, but for the sake of variety I pick the middle aged guy. Even if he's identical to the others, I feel his implied life experience will help him face the challenges to come. As part of that greater perceived maturity, I split my Goal Points between Happiness and Career. This will help me feel Fulfilled, while also standing me in good stead for when the internet is invented and I can spend all day watching cat videos without feeling like a failure.

That's the plan, anyway. In a fair and just world, it'd be no problem at all.

Though this was a game designed by the company responsible for Sierra Sudden Death Syndrome...

PLAYER 1: WEEK 1

Right. Life is for the living, so let's start living life. While this is a board game as much as a life simulator, it's not one with dice. Instead, you click on a building to drive to it, with each offering different functions. At the burger bar for instance, you can work, or buy food. Both potentially useful.

Every player starts with $200, no education and no career history, begging the question of what the hell you've been doing. Witness protection, maybe. You saw a mob hit and were forced to leave your cushy life as a professional candy licker in favour of an apartment in a building labelled "Low Cost Housing" and a town boring enough to make Swindon look like Las Vegas. No wonder Happiness is a goal.

Obviously, Job #1 has to be to get a job. I head to the Employment Office, and scan the Want Ads. There not being a candy factory in need of experienced saliva, I have to choose a new career. I need money, so obviously I set my sights high. With no experience and no education, I ask if the local bank needs a new Manager. This pays $19 an hour, but unfortunately I don't seem to qualify. Nor do I have any luck trying to become a Professor at the university, an electronics repairman, or an investment broker. There are other jobs, obviously, but they're beneath me right now. I do after all have $200 in my pocket, which is $200 more than your average bum, barfly or freelance games journalist.

With the week mostly over and entirely spent in the Job Center, I figure I should probably... y'know... eat something. There's not a vast amount of choice in town, so I head to Monolith Burger - a chain Space Quest fans will know from its appearances here and here . A few bucks will at least buy lunch, leaving plenty for buying some snazzier clothes, maybe a better apartment, a-

A SINGLE BURGER COSTS $81?!?!

And that's the cheapest lunch on the menu! If you want cheese with that, which you shouldn't because cheese is awful, it's another $10. A shake? $105. For those prices, it had better be strawberry with platinum sprinkled in it. No, sod it. They say a human can survive for quite a while without food, and the sacrifice will be worth it once I've had some time to work on a more structured plan.

Turn over. Your go!

PLAYER 2: WEEK 1

Interesting tactics there, accomplishing what I believe is technically referred to as 'nothing'. I however am going to play a little smarter. Look at my moustache. I've probably worked a few Saturday jobs in my time, even if the money was frittered away over the years on minor setbacks like a failed marriage, the banking crisis, or the discovery that crystal meth on toast makes for the perfect bachelor snack.

Secure in my own future, I too head to the Employment Office and snap up a job as a Clerk at the nearest discount store. It doesn't pay much, just $6 an hour, but residents of Low Cost Housing Towers can't be too picky. I drive over there, introduce myself, and work a couple of shifts. That uses up much of the week, but I'm $128 better off than I was when I started it, much like an upbeat episode of 2 Broke Girls with fewer boob jokes, but also 100% less urge to slice my own throat open with a pen.

Overall, I approve of this first week. Good, honest work, and I'm almost positive my new boss' hobby doesn't involve strange children and free candy. Almost. Not quite, but almost. I even have a bit of spare time to stop by the local University and enroll in Trade School. Apparently it teaches you "Trade". Not sure which one. Maybe all of them. Being a polymath would be good. For now though, a monomath would suffice. I forget to buy any food though, so it'll be a hungry monomath. At least this week.

PLAYER 1: WEEK 2

Well, good for you. Let me know how that works out for you. The way I see it though, when I'm rich, I'll buy an education the old fashioned way - writing a cheque and getting a few degrees through the post. I'm thinking maybe a PhD in Neuroosurgery, where you get all the benefits of being a doctor, but are never likely to be asked to sort out someone's brain tumour at an inconvenient time, like when someone's head is about to explode. Anything less than that though, and pfffft. Not your problem!

Unfortunately, it turns out that not eating really cuts into your week. I've lost almost half of it apparently sitting at home and craving steak, and trying to work out just how the hell I spent $15 playing Solitaire. Was gambling involved? I guess it would be weird than trying some strip variant.

But to work! Or rather, to find work! Again, I don't find anything worth my time at the Employment Office, even when I point out I'd be willing to be an assistant manager and work up to a more appropriate role. Irritated, I figure I can at least fix my hunger with a burger. Due to what could be called the state of the economy, but is actually just a random die roll, Hamburgers are now only $74. I buy one, taking my cash reserves down to just $111. "Would you like fries with that?" grins the clerk. For $74 a burger, buddy, the fact fries aren't thrown in for free may end up being why your body gets thrown in a dumpster. Next week, I'm going to seriously need some work to get by. With this one almost over though, there's no point trying to get anything sorted. I go home, and go to sleep. Next week, my fortunes will turn around.

PLAYER 2: WEEK 2

Yes, well, Louie Theroux, if you think you had a weird weekend playing Solitaire in your pants... probably not a euphemism... at least you didn't find yourself doing dental work on yourself. But hey. At least that's the bad part of the week over early, and from now on all will be cherry. Maybe cherry pie.

I'm also low on time, and it's made worse when I'm hit with a Doctor's Bill for $40 - for what, I'm not sure - that knocks my counter down to half. This week then, I'm going to have to be careful. First up, food. This can't happen again. Since only an idiot would go get take-out this close to the breadline, I instead head to the Market and stock up for two weeks for just $99. I also pick up a newspaper, because this is 1990 and print hasn't been stabbed in the face by the internet yet. It tells me that "North Shore Of Bass Lake Sinks", and nothing useful. Still, it was only $1. No big loss there.

Reluctantly, I give up any hope of going to school this week. There simply isn't time. A couple of days at the store though and at least I have a buffer against future accidents. How about you, Player One?

PLAYER 1: WEEK 3

What's that? Sorry. I was.... apparently... reading a romance novel called "NURSE'S TURN TO CRY", which I have to presume had a very sexy cover because I 'read it in one sitting'. Anyway, Mr. Self-Improvement, I don't see what you're being smug about. You've slaved your arse off and got $166 from it all. I've so far done absolutely nothing but have $94. And who's got the cool sunglasses?

Me. I have the cool sunglasses. Where are your cool sunglasses? You don't have any.

Because I have the cool sunglasses.

Now, your 'job' idea sounds adorable, and good luck with that. Us cool kids though, again, I point to the sunglasses, know that the universe will provide. And if it won't, the horribly regulated banking system might. Instead of heading to the job centre, that's where I go to apply for a long-term loan I don't intend to pay off, unless by 'pay off' you mean avoid by faking my own death, in which case sssh!

Okay, weil, that makes no sense. If I had more money, I wouldn't need a loan. Likewise, if I wanted a job, why would I be here? Silly banking lady. You know nothing about being cool.

You've probably got a point about avoid take-out though, at least at Monolith prices. 2001 was meant to be a space odyssey, not the number on the till if you asked for a super-size meal. I head to Black's Market, and ponder the situation. Food for a week, $51. Food for two weeks, $95. But a pack of lottery tickets? Only $10! A week of food only lasts a week. But a lottery win? That could set me up forever. I buy fifty tickets. Fifty chances to win millions. But I'm not greedy. If only one pays out, it's cool.

I head home to sit in my broken chair and stare at them for a bit.

But none of them pay-out, so I tear them up and stamp on the pieces. Traitors.

PLAYER 2: WEEK 3

So, seems this weekend I took a friend out to a cheap restaurant. I spent $16. In a town where the burgers can bankrupt Croesus, I dread to think what the main course was. What's cheaper than rat? It was probably that, in a bun. God willing, no 'mayo'. I don't think it would have been there on purpose.

Then, disaster. That food I bought? Turned out I should probably have waited until I bought a fridge to put it in. It's all spoiled, and gone. Also, I had another doctor's bill. Luckily, I'm not disheartened, unless the operation was to remove my heart, in which case $40 seems rather reasonable, really. But I digress.

A fridge is well out of my budget. I have $114. It costs $823. Poo. That means I'm stuck buying food without a bulk discount, and all these bills are really ramping up. Still. A few shifts at work, a bag of food for next week.. again, no time for school, but I'll get to it. Next week. And start that diet, I swear. Which will be pretty easy to stick to, since I won't have any food in the house by that point.

Sigh. If you actually pull off this lottery thing, I'm going to hit you with my car. You know that, don't you? Not even fast. Slowly. Starting with your feet, then breaking every bone up your leg and half of your ribcage and up to your head... then a little turn, and back the same way to mirror the agony on the other side. Only then will I do you the kindness of crushing your skull and permitting sweet release.

Oh. I also stop by the job center to see if I can get a promotion. Nope. Never mind!

PLAYER 1: WEEK 4

Well, that went a bit dark. No word on my lottery tickets. Not sure if that's good or bad. What is bad though is a demand for rent. Someone could have warned me that my house wasn't free! Now I have to pay over $300, and I have... one second... $29. I'm no monomath, but I'm pretty sure that won't be enough. The clue is that it's a smaller number. A much smaller number. No third digit or anything.

Luckily, the lady there doesn't seem to like her job much. I beg her for more time. She says "Sure, you can pay your rent next week." Phew. But with the hunger, I only have half a week to raise it. Well, fine. I don't like admitting it, but if the choice is a job or being thrown out on the street, a job it will have to be. Just to be sure, I ask about that Professorship... but no. Well, worth a shot. But what else can I try? Janitor? No openings. Clerk? No openings. Salesperson? "Poor work history" lets me down.

Bullshit! I've never worked a day in this town! How can I have a poor record?!

Finally though, some luck. Well, I say 'luck'. Monolith Burger, my old nemesis, needs cooks. The special sauce is now going to be very special indeed. Citizens of wherever this is, you have been warned.

PLAYER 2: WEEK 4

Cry me a river, you work-shy little shit. I've got a house full of spoiled food, my rent's also due, and the only thing I've got to eat are the little bits in my moustache. I'm pretty sure most of them are flies. And I've actually been trying to make something of myself here. I've done everything I was meant to!

I head straight to work. Must work. Must serve customers. Must earn money for the rent. Finally, I scrape together enough. Just enough. Then I look at the clock. No time to pay it. No time for food. No time for school. On the plus side, at least mortality is a thing. And there's no food in my house to go off, so at least that's something. Though it will mean fewer flies. I could go for a tasty fly about now...

PLAYER 1: WEEK 5

Not eating's not so bad. Skipping food for weeks doesn't seem to be cutting into my day any more than skipping it for a week, and I'm not seeing mental stability at any or side-other effects all. Okay. Note to self. Food is just another conspiracy by the Illuminati, or maybe Majestic-12, or possibly whoever it was who cruelly decided that those Cadbury's Bubbly bars with white chocolate in them should be removed from the Bath area in favour of getting people to combine a regular Bubbly with a Milkybar to...

But I digress. An entire week of work flipping burgers gives me just enough to pay the rent, but the office is shut so in my pocket it will have to stay. Since I have a little more, and am now officially Breatharian, I sneak a few more lottery tickets. You never know. Though you probably correctly suspect.

God, I miss food. Delicious, available food...

PLAYER 2: WEEK 5

What do you mean the Rent Office is closed? I have rent to pay! Okay. Okay, Player 2, it's okay. Just don't do anything silly. Go to work. Get enough for food. Then school! You remember wanting to go to school, right? With enough effort, you'll lift yourself out of these doldrums. One day this will all just be a horrible memory to share with people by the fire as they scream for you to put down the poker.

On the plus side, I'm only one course away from mastering Trade. And possibly even finding out which one it is. So that's good news, right? Please. Someone tell me it's good news. I need good news...

PLAYER 1: WEEK 6

And I need clothes, apparently. Turns out if you walk around in the same jeans and a T-Shirt for several weeks straight, it disintegrates. This is a real problem. If I know Monolith Burger, it'll have a No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service policy, and I'm guessing that applies to staff providing services too. Unless they're into weird stuff where showing up naked and going "Poverty, eh?" might be an advantage.

I head over to find out. Turns out not. Then disaster! As I go to work, I accidentally buy a $56 cola with no way of getting a refund. One step forward, two steps back. Then, when I do work, I'm cheerfully informed "Your landlord garnished $14". Great. Not only do I owe back-rent, I apparently owe it to the mob. Who else could control this town to the extent that this is just a regular way of doing business?

How much do I earn for a shift now? $10. Only enough to buy lottery tickets.

I buy some lottery tickets. I do not win. I cannot say I am shocked by this.

PLAYER 2: WEEK 6

I however finally get my Degree in Trade School. With this in hand, I can now enroll in actual courses to become an Engineer or a Pre Engineer, which I'm assuming is an internship involving car maintenance that everyone has to do before officially becoming a Grand Pre engineer. I don't know much about cars, but that could be worth a look. Not today though. No time. No money. Sigh.

Gotta be honest, really thought I'd be a success in life by now. Two months, tops.

PLAYER 1: WEEK 7

Wake up to find that my clothes have actually disintegrated. Luckily, I was smart enough to wear special CensorBar Underwear, the pants with the built-in black lines. When I go to work though, I'm told I'm not properly dressed. Or indeed, dressed. How much do new clothes cost? $53. I head to the clothes shop. How much do I have? Less than $53. Unfortunately, there's no Get This Nudist Out Of Here Discount. On the plus side, there's also no police in this town. The evening ends sitting in my pants in a chair, pondering life and alternatives do it. I wonder how much a bottle of bleach and a mug would cost.

PLAYER 2: WEEK 7

Oh, poor baby! Sitting at home while some of us try to juggle school and work and paying the rent - rent that some of us bother to pay! After all my garnished wages, the damn place finally opens. Weeks of work, and what do I have to show for it? $17 and a rumbling stomach, and I only have that because my trousers held together just long enough to earn it. What am I going to do now? I can't go to work in a barrel, the bank won't give me a loan and I have nothing to pawn! They won't even take the barrel! My one consolation is that at least I don't have to live with your sickening... your...

PLAYER 1: WEEK 8

My what? No, no don't stop there, Captain Manners! Go on! Say what's on your mind, if you can ever find it! You know! Wherever it's hiding all the way up your arse!

PLAYER 2: WEEK 8

That sickening voice of yours! Won't it ever shut up? Look at you, surrounded by empty scratchcards and failed dreams! You never took this seriously. You never tried to make something of yourself. You just sailed through this game... into the rocks, yes, but at least you spent no effort before running aground! Me, I've got a worthless degree and a dead-end job in the worst store in town and a poverty barrel instead of pants and any day now we're both going to get evicted for not paying our rent, and all that... all that, I could take if not for the fact that you are no worse off than me right now!

PLAYER 1: WEEK 9

Evicted? Pretty sure they'll just keep garnishing our salaries or something. Seems like doing a full-on Game Over isn't really what this game wants to do, despite coming from those brutal designers at Sierra. Really, I've found it pretty generous. Look, I went scuba diving this week. For free, apparently! So there's that. And look what I just got through the post! Or mail! Whatever we have in America!

Score! Maybe you'll get lucky too! You just have to have faith. Come on. Just one more turn. You'll see how quickly fortunes can change when you let yourself just go with the flow...

PLAYER 2: WEEK 9

That does it! That does it! Come here! I'm going to kill you! I'm going to beat you until you go from black and blue all the way to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum! You lazy, feckless little bastard, getting all the breaks in this game! Aaaargh! You are the sickness of the world and the atheist's wettest dream, for looking at this raving farce of an obscenity you dare call a life, there clearly can be no god!

...

In conclusion then, Jones in the Fast Line is quite a fun little game.

As you'd expect from its age, it's not exactly The Sims level of life simulation, but to give it credit, there's a lot here and it does actually feel like a game. The fact it has a sense of humour about itself doesn't hurt either, though as with all jokes, the more they repeat the less welcome they are. If you want to try it for yourself, you're in luck! There's a Flash remake available here. It seems pretty complete, though is flagged 'Beta', and any bugs you find probably aren't going to get fixed any time soon - the About screen indicates it's been about five years since it was last updated.

Still, you know what else makes no apologies for maybe being a little rough around the edges? Life.

After all, how interesting would it be if everything went perfectly according to plan?

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