Before I even started playing Lost Word of Jenny, the game was a series of mysteries that refused to resolve themselves. It had been sitting in my computer for the better part of two years before I realized it was there, so I’m still uncertain as to how I came across this game or why it captured my interest. The experiences to follow didn’t help, either. What I encountered were a series of explanations and contexts refusing one another, the refusal itself providing no justification for its being there. Perhaps that why unlike so many other games I write about, I can’t read anything of value into Jenny’s refusal to become a cohesive whole. This isn’t the same as Battle Golfer Yui, where the semblance of internal cohesion gives me something to work with, laugh at, and presumably arrive at a deeper understanding of. With Jenny, I’m stuck with my initial confusion about what the game even is.
This doesn’t mean I’m completely in the dark about what the game is supposed to be; that much is obvious from the start. Released by Takara in 1987 to promote their line of Jenny dolls (essentially and literally the Japanese version of Barbie), Lost Word of Jenny began as a piece of merchandise whose individual existence didn’t matter all that much. What the game has to say isn’t as important as how it reinforces and encourages participation in the brand it’s based on, and at least at first, Jenny happily commits. Beyond the title screen’s strong commercial character (which I struggle to articulate beyond that), what defines the game’s opening moments is the extent to which the game employs traditionally feminine iconography: the saccharine fairy tale imagery, the brief jingle whose childish melody places it alongside Himitsu no Akko-chan – even the small, simplistically designed sprites are reminiscent of dolls.
However, the illusion quickly shatters for a variety of reasons. For now, the most pressing of these is that Jenny can’t fade into its identity as a to (or at least its identity as an extension of a toy). Every part that tries to fit is forced to the back, made irrelevant by a foreground contradicting the game’s purpose. The fortune-telling segments at the end of each level come to my mind, but the most notable instance is also immediately visible from the start. What colors does Jenny adorn itself in? Mostly dull hues and depressing reys. True, the game quickly abandons them for a more striking palette that might suit its purpose, but it over-commits, saturating the screen with so much color that everything blends together into a gaudy mess. Either way, the game has put itself in a position where it can’t reach out to anybody, much less the one group it’s set its sights on.
I imagine a lot of this stems from the context it’s situated in. To offer a concise explanation, Lost Word of Jenny is the kind of action platformer that was incredibly common throughout the 1980s, rather than the kind of game made specifically for young girls who liked the Jenny dolls. I doubt legitimacy motivated this design choice; that concern wouldn’t have been in developers’ minds yet, much less in these developers’ minds during this project. Anyway, despite its 1987 release, Jenny fits more neatly with games from 1982-4, IE that awkward period between the loosely stated games of Atari and Nintendo’s more rigidly defined games later that decade. It’s the former I’m especially interested in. The technological constraints facing developers at the time would have been very strong, and in many cases, tied directly to the hardware they were working on.
Obviously, this would influence the games they produced. Broadly speaking, developers had to focus the possibilities their games presented players. If rules, goals, and actions weren’t immediately clear, then they could be made clear by exploring what the game had to offer. In addition, players’ attention was fixed on small, manageable goals with conflict between immediate goals understood in terms of long term goals (“Do I grab the fruit now to get a higher score in this level, or do I play it safe and compensate in the next one?”). These premises would later form the bedrock of “good game design principles”, although I want to stress that the idea would continue to evolve (however slightly) from these origins 30+ years ago.
By contrast, Jenny opens up many possibilities without focusing attention – ours or its own – on any of them. The action begins in a small town. As much as that town resembles the playmats depicting towns with curving roadways, the game’s limiting your interactions to movement means this space cannot connote play. If anything, it connotes the opposite, This is a world where the eponymous heroine is unable to mitigate whatever hostilities the world has to offer her. Dogs will assault her, gangsters will shooter her, and cars will run her down without a second thought.
However, not only does Jenny refuse to contextualize or explain this oddly cruel atmosphere, it’s not even aware that what it depicts might come across as cruel. Instead, it commits to its original idea of innocent childlike whimsy, blissfully unaware of what’s immediately obvious to the person playing it. When the game’s perspective and the player’s collide, what’s left is an absurdist mess, one where the things the game abstracts can’t be made to make sense. Rather than discourage such a view (remember: the game has rendered itself incapable of just that), Jenny adds more fuel to the fire. With levels that present no variety and gameplay loops too long to let us forget the game’s repetitive nature, play is fundamentally absurd. The effect is further pronounced when one considers the lack of interaction between Jenny, her environments, and the other actors within those environments.
If there’s one trait that’s consistent throughout Lost Word of Jenny, it’s this: it’s a game that resists interpretation and losing one’s self in a pleasurable experience. Elements of the game’s design code for nothing beyond their own existence. Jenny’s walking is just walking; other characters’ walking isn’t even anything. Motifs repeat across stages but the lack of purpose behind their composition renders that repetition pointless. Everything is parallel, so nothing intersects or interacts with anything else. Explanations answer no questions and raise even more. In the end, all we’re left with are a smattering of ideas of what could have been.
This becomes especially apparent when you leave the overworld to enter any of the game’s levels; another piece Lost Word of Jenny fails to explain. Already, the method by which you progress through them speaks to a lack of central structure holding the game together. There is no linear order of progression through levels or even the ability to choose that order for yourself à la Mega Man. Instead, the game randomly assigns you that order itself and expects you to learn it through trial and error. Because Jenny has given up any ability to anticipate how the stages progress, the similarities between them become more prominent than their differences; so much so that the latter amount to little more than window dressing. (A lot of what I’d discussed in the previous paragraph applies here, but it’s by no means exclusive to these parts of the game.)
The activities one performs in these spaces both magnify that self-similarity and render it more immediately felt. Again, this manifests in some of the more granular design decisions, like the game giving you power-ups to alter play but not giving those power-ups utility (why speed up when speed is completely irrelevant to the game). However, I want to focus on the broader picture, and explaining that is going to be difficult. Many different things happen during play at once, and Jenny’s abysmal job of explaining any of them makes the game more inscrutable than it already was. To offer a basic summary, Jenny must search the level for treasure chests to open so she can defeat the enemy within, grab a key, and then exit through one of the level’s many doors (only one of them will open). On top of this is a goal that’s left unstated for most of the game: beat certain enemies to collect/remember certain letter-number combinations so the game can actually be finished. Following this is a series of fights against cow demon skeletons, and after a brief fortune telling segment, you’re dropped back into the world to repeat the process anew.
What I’ve summarized is perhaps the best illustration I can provide of Jenny’s aimlessness. When you’re first dropped into a level, you’ve no knowledge about the situation; no idea what’s expected of you, what conditions you have to fulfill, how you go about fulfilling them, etc. And given the game’s nebulous position between two console generations, you certainly don’t have the tools to make your experience with the game (or at least not one that’s sufficiently different from the default). What you do have, at least at first, are tools to potentially mitigate the chaos. All the relevant variables are constant (enemies and chests don’t change locations), and there’s a very limited number of areas to search. Knowing this, you can search the chests methodically and guarantee that you’ll come across the right chest eventually, thus establishing order in a game that was otherwise lacking in it.
Notice, though, that this tool doesn’t exist within the game. Combine this with how heavily luck-based the game is (even within the framework you impose on it) and any attempts at bringing order to Jenny quickly fold in on themselves. You kill an enemy. You get the key. You go to the door, but some unfulfilled condition keeps the door locked. The one bit of direction you had, and it collapsed back into aimlessness.
The only exception that comes to mind – the only part of the game I can see being designed with a clear sense of purpose – is the space level. Where other levels overwhelm with gaudy visual composition, this one removes so much that the stage feels desolate, lonely, and vaguely foreboding. It exists in a gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar. The gap only grows with the introduction of the jetpack, a completely unfamiliar means of navigation. Of course, what a level like this is doing in Lost Word of Jenny is as difficult to explain as everything else I’ve encountered thus far.
It occurs to me that, at least in theory, much of what I’ve said about this game could apply just as well to other games. After all, what is play if not imposing order on what was initially a mess of abstracted materials? And don’t the narratives we construct around video games further that purpose? Whether we frame them primarily through the developers’ intentions or through a label like “licensed games”, both explanations comfort us by providing form to what might otherwise appear formless.
The difference between most other cases and this one is that the former is all too willing to acquiesce to the feelings we project onto the game. Not only is order built into it, but we’re instrumental in bringing that order to fruition. In other words, the order we establish is ours to do with as we please (or at least that’s how we’re made to feel). If at any point during its creation Lost Word of Jenny was meant to fit this schematic, then I fail to see it reflected in the end result. What I see instead is the same sort of tedium that’s always lurked in the background of platformers, but stripped bare of anything that would convince us that tedium is something else.