Crapshoot: The edutainment game that expects you to 'learn English Or DIE!'

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, there's only one language some people understand—the language of fear. Welcome to the ESL course Frank Miller would approve of.

Mean City. Don't worry, they said, it's just a name. Maybe they're just proud of their mean population density, or they make a mean curry. What did they mean? There was was only one way to find out, and while nobody had specifically said it would be an idea to bring a fedora, I figured a fedora would be appropriate. If only to cut a mean style...

Mean City. Nice place for a relaxing holiday. If you're, you know, Batman or someone.

Her name was The Jinx, or so the television said. Terrorist by trade, and that was a first in my line of work—professional troubleshooting for the edutainment industry. You may have heard of my work. The capture of Carmen Sandiego? That zombie invasion from a few years back? You're welcome, you and your delicious brain. Let's forget that whole BlobJob incident. That one was weird.

An outright terrorist though? That was the big leagues. I knew this would take more than rudimentary English language skills, just as I knew without the slightest doubt that it would, in fact, not. But would this challenge be? What fresh hell awaited in this decaying dump of the damned?

Aside from that, obviously. That kinda went without saying.

Arriving, I saw my first friendly face—a taxi driver, holding up a sign to let all who saw it know that he was a driver, and had a taxi. My cover for this assignment involved pretending not to speak English, it would not have been... appropriate... simply to wander up and say, "Good morrow, sirrah, please could you see your way to providing swift conveyance throughout your fine metropolis?"

You think these mirrors are good? Got one on the left that lets you see right up my anus, if you like.

"Do you want a taxi?" he asked. I did want a taxi. I didn't want to blow my cover, or at least, wanted to save such blowage for any femme fatales who happened to be around. To cover, I reached for my phrase book and in my most stilted pronunciation confirmed, "I want some chocolate."

"I can't help you, I'm a taxi driver. Do you want a taxi?"

"I want... a hotel."

"I can take you to a hotel in my taxi."

Well, this was going swimmingly. I could tell from his eyes that he was completely fooled, and he happily took me to a hotel. He said it was cheap. Cheap in Mean City apparently meant $100 a night, without so much as a minibar or vibrating mattress. Honestly. Some slums have no standards.

"Is this your first time in Mean City?" asked the taxi driver, as we stopped briefly at a police cordon and headed into the dark city narrows proper.

"Yes," I confirmed, because it was my first time in Mean City, and that was therefore both the correct answer and my answer; the answer I gave.

"Well, good luck buddy," he shuddered. "You need to be clever to survive in Mean City.'

On the plus side, we have some of the best hat shops in whatever country Mean City is in.

Mean City was all that had been promised; a wretched hive of dark alleys, tight streets, the fragrant aroma of society's detritus and (checks phrasebook) poo. This late in the probably afternoon, nobody was around. Or so I thought. Barely had I started navigating its twisted streets of mystery though when a very unfriendly face decided to put in an appearance.

What a strange person, I thought. When it came to evil, she seemed somewhere between a school bully and the last bad baronet of Ruddigore. Was this really the face that was tormenting the city?

If her crime was wearing those trousers of course, I fully understood. Shudder...

Around the corner, I encountered someone much friendlier—a journalist recording a piece to camera in front of what was the best hotel in the area for reasons of being the only hotel in the area. His fedora spoke of good moral fibre, even if he was just another rat amongst the gutter press. For the sake of cover and because we were wearing the same outfit, I tried to lay low, but when he saw me approach...

Somehow, it appeared that I had pulled. I hoped he wouldn't be too disappointed when he found out that I was not, in fact, Marilyn Monroe, but merely the greatest liar ever to secretly have a penis.

The basic message of Mean City is 'stay at home, foreign places are terrible'.

The Angel Hotel was nothing it promised, but everything I expected. Unable to get any money from my apparently infinite supply of traveller's cheques until the bank opened tomorrow, the clerk rudely took my passport for security and ushered me upstairs. My floor had one of those white chalk outlines that only fictional cops use because they don't have to worry about things like contaminating crime scenes. This didn't bode well, but I was too tired to care. I barely noticed that if I knocked on the wrong door, the baaing of sheep came out of them. Didn't judge. Just wanted to sleep. Goddamn perverts.

Crawling into bed, I was surprised to have a weird bondage dream about the journalist outside. Apparently I wasn't simply the girl of his dreams; he was the guy of mine. Literally, rather than in that sense, but still proving that the fedora is the sexiest of all hats. He was strapped to a bomb in a weird surrealistic world, begging me to save him. That seemed a little rude though. We'd only just met, he hadn't even bought me a drink, and also it's very impolite to barge into someone's sleep when they don't know they have psychic powers, which apparently I did now. Waking though, my objective was clear.

I really wanted some lunch.

Free immune booster with every meal! Because the chef never washes his hands.

Al's Diner, which everyone called Al's Restaurant in one of the most pathetic examples of urban redevelopment since someone set up a petition asking Wetherspoons to actually move into their town, was a building-sized blob of grease held together by gristle. The waitress seemed friendly enough, but my new psychic powers suggested I'd better be careful here. In vision form...

Yes. I ordered spaghetti instead. That seemed safe enough. Certainly safer than putting a word like 'faggots' into an educational game, or giving students the impression that crappy diners serve champagne in plastic beakers as willingly as cola. Speaking of which, where exactly was Mean City? I was getting confused. It was clearly English, with the voices and the fish and chips and everything. Everything was in dollars though. Strange. Strange, and mysterious...

The meal ended up costing a hundred dollars. "Here's a newspaper, compliments of Al's Restaurant," grinned the waitress. I took it. For $100, I wanted my complimentary newspaper outright fawning.

Ah, today's readers. If it's not on the front page, it doesn't matter.

I was getting a picture of Mean City now. It wasn't the kind of place where you'd get mugged in every alley, though every single person would be out to screw you at every chance. A bank teller 'accidentally' getting conversions wrong, giving you a fraction of your Traveller's Cheques' worth. A policeman seizing on the chance to jump on foreigners and make them identify criminals, in a way that suggested he'd heard of profiling but hadn't quite mastered this finest of the douchebaggery arts.

Even the currency seemed cynical. There were two. Mean City Dollars, and Tourist Dollars, and a bank teller constantly trying to screw tourists out of the correct exchange rate.

Welcoming place, Mean City. Not unfriendly at all.

And speaking of unfriendly.

I had no care for such things though. There was a mystery to be solved, and exploring, my only clue was that mayoral candidate George McGrath, the head of the local TV station, had been seen in my hotel giving the Jinx a vast amount of money before running lots of news stories on her activities. Truly, I was baffled. Who could be behind all this? I wondered if mayoral candidate George McGrath, the head of the local TV station, who had been seen in my hotel giving the Jinx a vast amount of money before running lots of news stories on her activities could shed some light onto the matter.

How would I get a meeting with this powerful man? I figured that if you don't ask, you don't get.

"I want to see Mr. McGrath," I told the guard.

"Do you have an appointment to see Mr. McGrath?" he replied.

Well played, sir. Well played.

"I want an appointment to see Mr. McGrath," I tried instead. This worked, despite the fact that it quite clearly shouldn't have, and less than two minutes later I was in the man's office.

Damn it, if you don't have pictures of Spider-Man, what are you doing in my office?

McGrath looked a bit like a German John Malkovich, without the sense of humour or IMDB profile. "Hold my calls," he growled. "What do you want?" Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich...

"I want to find Harry Childs," I told him. "Harry is a friend of mine."

McGrath stared. Slightly. "It is dangerous to look for Harry."

I paused. "Mr. McGrath, I'm afraid of you," I confided, for no reason.

"Good!" he snapped. "Goodbye. Don't return to MCTV."

Well, I figured that probably counted as a good day's work...

In Mean City, a good meal is a meal you can walk away from. This is haut cuisine.

My sleep was broken by my phone ringing; on the other side, a strange woman. The Jinx? I wasn't sure. Possibly. "How is your English?" she demanded. Do you speak good English? I don't think so! Write these letters down! D! N! O! C! E! S! Y! T! N! E! W! T! E! H! T! Put them in reverse order! By the way, our systems say that your Windows Mac has been downloaded with a virus."

OK, she didn't say the last bit. That would have been too normal. Instead, she kept babbling, ultimately conveying a date and time of day in the most confusing way fubeg bs qbvat vg va EBG13.

Ah, Mean City. Putting the 'nuisance' into 'nuisance calls' since 1602.

You're Harry's girlfriend? Pfft. I bet you don't own a single fedora.

With the help of the newspaper, I tracked down Harry's girlfriend, Thelma. By 'help', I mean 'they printed her address'. 7 Lewis Lane. We didn't immediately hit it off. She answered the door in a gown and asked "What do you want?" Completely accidentally, I replied "I want to pay."


Once that was cleared up though, she was happy to help the investigation. She pointed me to a notebook that he left behind, and after running around for an hour trying to figure out what bloody trigger would let me ask about it  and after that, handed me a videotape. Unfortunately, it turned out the only video player in the entire city was the one in George McGrath's office, and he wouldn't see me again. What to do?

Well, first, call a cab. "I'm in Lewis Lane," I explained over the phone, being very careful to pronounce that correctly in case Superman was listening and in a jealous mood. Can't be too careful.

Lost for ideas, I headed back to Al's to check the day's newspaper. The top story seemed relevant. "Police now believe that the Jinx has kidnapped Harry Childs and put him somewhere nasty." Oooh, er. Somewhere nasty. That does sound unpleasant. Also, it turned out that McGrath's mayoral campaign hinged on getting rid of the Jinx, despite him giving her money in secret meetings. Hmm.


The newspaper also explained the Jinx's motivation. "In the last week, twenty three language students from all over the world have disappeared in Mean City," it read. "Police believe this may be the work of the Jinx. Detective Bill Forks thinks that a long time ago, the Jinx was a language teacher. He says that her language students made her mad several years ago, and that she is seeking revenge."

Ah. Very common amongst language teachers. More than a few have been driven to split their students' infinitives after having to explain 'avoir' and 'être' one too many times.

Start humming the Mission: Impossible theme tune, everyone. This is going to get... edgy.

Clearly, I had to infiltrate Mean City TV. The security guard was gone when I got back, but there was still a big metal door in my way. I had neither ID card, nor passcode. Luckily, I was there just in time to overhear this message landing on the answering machine.

"Tony. It's Janice Grey. Listen, I've lost my ID card. I think I left it at the Angel Hotel. I was there with George last week..."

This was turning into a really weird bit of edutainment, I thought, as I went to collect the lost card from what conveniently turned out to be the top of my room's TV. The villain takes his employees to sleazy hotels just down the road, and directly funds terrorism? I miss the good old days when an edutainment detective just had to know how to type words like 'cat' and 'dog' and 'quit'.

Luckily, the receptionist is sworn to secrecy. Unless anyone asks, obviously.

So, here's the most convoluted security system ever. All the employee names are listed in anagram form, which is probably OK for "Grainy Ace". Poor "Jean Crying" and "Nice Gay Jar" on the other hand probably aren't quite as into the system. The latter, of course, being Janice.

With the anagram decoded, you then have to put all the items on screen into the correct places in order to get a passcode. This makes perfect sense, and is not unbelievably ridiculous at all. On the plus side, it's coded with some leeway, so doesn't have to be the pixel-perfect madness I initially groaned in anticipation of after seeing the instructions.

Or, y'know, use a password...

Breaking into McGrath's office using the date and time sent from the machine gun informant, I easily found a VCR to play Harry's mysterious tape. "I don't have much time," he stammered, finally exposing the shocking secret of Mean City. DO NOT SHARE THE SHOCKING SECRET OF MEAN CITY!

Oh. Hang on. You don't know it yet. The big secret is that George McGrath was paying the Jinx to commit crimes so that he could film them and boost his crappy ratings. He's like the anti-Spider-Man. With ratings this good though, McGrath could go beyond mere TV megalomania. He could take over the entire city and... if the newspaper was anything to go by... lower the tax rate on cigars! Gasp!

I'm not sure why that was my problem exactly, but apparently it was. So there.

All the vocab essentials are here. Getting around. Booking a hotel. The dark arts...

With the help of assistance from a creepy fortune teller who decides that the best way to say 'ask the receptionist' is to produce a deck of tarot cards, it wasn't not hard to track down Harry's location to a place called Dead Man's End. Well, except for continuing to try to convince everyone that I didn't speak English, leading to instructive little conversations like...

"You're a stranger here, aren't you?"

"I haven't been here before."

"I mean to help you. You are in trouble."

"I'm frightened of bulls."

"Listen carefully. I said I want to help you. You are in trouble."

"I thought I was in Mean City."

"...please check your phrasebook. I said you are in trouble!"

The only big catch though, aside from having to use her crystal ball to decode a guide to the tunnels of Dead Man's End, and that crystal ball quite clearly not being crystal...

Seriously, you're not even trying, lady.

...was getting there in the first place. The taxi wouldn't go there. The train?

"I want a ticket to Dead Man's End," I told the clerk.

"Single or return?"


"I'm sorry," he shuddered. "We don't sell return tickets to Dead Man's End."

Oh. I think I was supposed to be creeped out. Really, I just wanted to know why he'd asked.

Thank Christ! I've been tied to this thing for three days! And I have an itch!

Finding Harry was easy enough, thanks to not having any... y'know... guards, or anything. He was just standing there, strapped to a bomb with full information on how to defuse it. Coupled with a code I'd found, I freed him without even breaking a sweat. Finally, the city had its slightly gawky saviour back. But this was a big problem. Would he be able to shut down the conspiracy once and for all?

And would the Jinx really go down without a proper fight?

Oh. Turns out the answer is yes. You've got to love conspiracies with all the resilience of a soufflé. Still, Mean City was saved. And nobody knew that I'd done it with the most powerful weapon of all... the power to speak English. Once, it made an empire and trounced the French. Now it had saved a bunch of jerks who I'd come to loathe, and unravelled a scheme so shadowy, mysterious and riddled with complexity, my phrase book had no word to fully explain it. Luckily, as a native speaker, I did...

I think we all learned something today. Specifically, English is best. Lesson over!

If you enjoyed this, please hit the social buttons to let your friends know, or simply tell them the old fashioned way. This week's Crapshoot was brought to you by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, X, Y and Z, but not W. W didn't chip in, the blighter.