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Retrospective: You Don't Know Jack Vol. 1


Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

There's a comic artist you've probably never heard of, despite his being one of the most talented single-panel creators of all time. A man without whom we'd never have had The Far Side, and all that followed in its wake. B. Kliban's cartoons appeared in Playboy in the States from 1962 until his early death in 1993, and the books collecting his work are worth whatever the second-hand book shop is charging. (He's far more than just some cat drawings, for those who've encountered that side of him.) And amongst them is a recurring theme which Kliban called "Sheer Poetry".

These consisted of six-part strips which told a poem with appropriate sketched diagrams. I would like to bet some money that the creators of You Don't Know Jack were fans.

A Kliban poem goes:

  • Piggly
  • wiggly
  • bird bath, pie
  • Cat hips
  • fish lips
  • poke you in the eye

A round introduction song for 1995's original You Don't Know Jack Vol. 1 goes:

  • Evergreen
  • self-esteem
  • beauty queen
  • ruptured spleen,
  • Hoooooo! It's question fifteen.

I'm just saying.

A nonsense song being sung to introduce a question captures You Don't Know Jack perfectly. This is the game in which question 4 ("You're my question 4, forever more, I love you, my question 4,") is "the question that cares", for no discernable reason.

This makes me feel good about the world.

It's a quiz game. And wow, do those usually suck as videogames. The late nineties and early 2000s were a time of great darkness, as those who cared about gaming looked at the best-seller charts and saw inane, lazy crap like the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Weakest Link games sitting in the top spot, presumably bought by the masses resulting from a mad scientist splicing slug brains into humans.

And everyone else would look at those games and their customers in bewilderment, screeching, "BUT DON'T YOU REALISE THAT THE GAME CAN'T ACTUALLY GIVE YOU A MILLION POUNDS?" And then just sob.

But You Don't Know Jack was something else. First and foremost, it began as a videogame, despite a few attempts at making television shows out of it. It was intended to be played this way. Yes, it pretends to award prize money, but here it acts as points for a high score. And it was really damned funny.

In fact, it still is. The latest 2011 version - very sadly only available in the States - is utterly hilarious, the writing if anything sharper than ever before. Over its eighteen-or-so English versions, it has learned and improved. But it's also remained extremely true to itself, as is revealed by heading all the way back to the original version from 1995.

SAT questions really should look like this.

Now, I must confess I'm extremely late to the YDKJ party. It was the title that put me off, if anything. The title and the stupid cover with the bald man. It just looked wrong. But I was. Because what these games represent is the funniest series in gaming history. (Two and a half good Monkey Island games isn't enough.) So I was intrigued to play the original to see how it had begun.

Doing so isn't so simple if you're running a 64-bit version of Windows. One virtual machine, Windows 2000 installation, and confusing bodging of CD drives later, I was finally in. And it's well worth it. For the Question Fifteen song alone, really. But there's an awful lot more.

The format is a series of questions that combine two elements to make one lateral confusion. For instance:

Let's say for some odd reason the AMA decides that all penises should have another hole. What medical procedure would they devise to accomplish this?

  1. penisectomy
  2. penistropy
  3. penisostomy
  4. penisotomy


If you were to undergo the same change as Gregor Samsa in the short story "The Metamorphosis," which of these might you most want to avoid?

  1. glue factory
  2. scarecrow
  3. slaughterhouse
  4. roach motel

Each round has a title, which you can choose from a selection of three. Looking through my screenshots, I see that I have a disturbing habit of picking those that are to do with genitals. "Toys That Haven't Gone Through Puberty", "Cooking Shows Hung Like A Horse", Sphincters & You" (in which I learned that the eye contains a sphincter), "Stroke 'Em If You Got 'Em", and one I couldn't be blamed for that turned out to be leading a class of pupils to watch you pee into blue water, asking what colour it would turn, "Primary Colors & Inappropriate Teaching Methods".