"On air," the sign says, only plainly you're not. You're sitting at a computer, playing a new quiz-show game called "You Don't Know Jack." The voice of a nervous producer counts off the cues, readying for broadcast, and an obnoxious prompter named Cookie starts snapping orders at you as if you're wired up with earphones.
Before you know it, you're answering questions on topics like "Communication and Gilligan's Island," "Pornography and Ornithology," "Shakespearean Drink Orders" and "If you reproduce asexually, do you still have to pay for dinner?" "You Don't Know Jack" bills itself as "the show where high culture and pop culture collide" -- and the encounter can feel like a hit-and-run accident.
Unlike a lot of CD-ROM-based multimedia creations, "You Don't Know Jack" requires no study or manuals; it's easy to pick up because it so thoroughly mimics a familiar model. "Jack" is game-show television transplanted to your desktop and implanted with a heavy dose of free-floating scorn. Playing it is like choosing a front-row seat at a comedy club: a certain amount of abuse comes with the territory.
The CD's title is not, as you may guess at first glance, an invitation to make the acquaintance of a fellow named Jack -- perhaps, say, the bullet-head who festoons the cover. Nor does it play off the media profile of well-known Jacks, like Nicholson and -in-the-Box. It's instead a dirtball taunt that's been coyly shorn of its vulgarity. (Though the game is full of rude references -- "Let's say your friend Norman named his penis 'Joey' after a newborn kangaroo," one question begins -- it's shy of actual four-letter words.)
"You Don't Know Jack" makes a science of the light sneer. "If you're good at other trivia games," the opening screens announce, "it don't mean Jack now!"
Attitude isn't something we're accustomed to from software. Your word processor never informs you, say, that "you can't write for beans!" And no spreadsheet ever adds up your rows and columns and announces, "Your business model sucks!"
But the makers of "You Don't Know Jack" understand that they're in the entertainment business. And the prime challenge for makers of entertainment software is to figure out how to get people to stop thinking of the computer as a workplace tool or an educational device and accept -- without feeling too guilty -- that it's really just a high-priced toy.
"Jack" solves this problem by nakedly imitating radio and television -- down to the curved-corner TV-screen shapes that litter its design, the mock-soulful jingles that introduce each question and the hyperactive drawl of the announcer, who sounds like a huckster hawking a motorbike sale on a progressive-rock station.
In today's multimedia marketplace, full of colorless corporate products, such touches easily pass for personality -- and "Jack" has proven a surprise retail hit for its publisher, Berkeley Systems, a company better known for its flying-toaster screensavers. "Jack" seems relatively glitch- and bug-free, which gives it a leg up on the competition from the start. And in its own snotty way, it's genuinely fun. It may be pumped up with post-Letterman irony -- but then so are most of us.
Still, you may find yourself a little uneasy after playing the game, and not just as a reaction to its speed and volume. There have been so few genuine hits in the CD-ROM market that every success like "You Don't Know Jack" spawns a host of imitations. We can now expect a slew of pseudo-"Jacks," most of them likely to be less clever, less cheeky and more middle-of-the-road.
But obviously "Jack" itself is an imitation, too. It's media-savvy, has good production values and will appeal to executives in search of prototypes for interactive television programming. But it has sharply limited ambitions for itself: it's basically a 15-minute novelty. And its dependence on a TV model is depressingly backward-looking. "You Don't Know Jack" is ultra-hip about what kind of multimedia works right now, but it doesn't know Jack -- or Rudy, or Desmond -- about the future.