FAIR WARNING: There’s a bit of a story involved with this one, and not just my usual nostalgic musings and sarcastic screeds. Buckle in and try to keep up. Actually, don’t buckle in, you’ll never be able to keep up that way.
As something of a geek, and a relatively young one at that, I take pride in bragging that my first computer was a Commodore 64. What I typically gloss over is that I got mine from a generous uncle doing some spring cleaning nearly a decade after they’d gone out of style . And while text adventures were fun, I craved a modern machine and the top of the line mid-90s gaming experience that came with it. The beautiful day my father surprised us with our first honest-to-God-bona-fide-27kB-modem-Windows-95-PC was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. A chapter I like to call “The Toy That Would Never Get Old”.
In between solitaire and disregarding dad’s instructions to read the EULA before installing anything, I discovered Reelect JFK. I’m not sure if it was part of the software bundle that came with the computer or just something my history buff father picked up on a whim, but it was uniquely intriguing to me. The pitch was this: It’s November of 1963. You’re noneother than President John F. Kennedy and you’ve narrowly survived the attempt on your life in Dallas. You’ve got to figure out who planned the shooting and bring them to justice while simultaneously dealing with Vietnam, coaxing the Civil Rights Bill through Congress, and planning your ’64 reelection campaign.
It had real actors! What’s more, its premise put you squarely in the shoes of a real historical figure and offered up the chance to change history as we know it. Just like Quantum Leap! I was hooked. But, as I’ve mentioned before, my attention span was woefully short at this tender age. After countless days wasted in boring staff meetings and no progress made on the mystery, I resigned from office and went to a friend’s house for some Space Quest. Years later, I discovered the disc in my closet and booted it up (installing Quicktime 2.0 in the process) with confidence that my now mature and politically savvy brain would make short work of this formally confounding adventure.
Reelect JFK has been called an RPG (in fact it won Macworld’s Role Playing Game of the Year Award) but we can more comfortably classify it as a good ol’ adventure game. You don’t get an inventory or the icon system of a Sierra or LucasArts title, but there is pointing, there is clicking, and there are dialogue trees. You play in first person as Kennedy himself and navigate rooms using the mouse which becomes a hand, arrow, or magnifying glass when hovering over an appropriate hotspot. The bulk of the game is conversations with other characters, whether in a meeting or pounding the pavement on the trail of your would-be assassin, but you will also have occasion to search rooms, read files, and otherwise manipulate your environment. You’ve got 50 game days to play, one day from each week starting in November of 1963 and ending on Election Day in ’64. There’s a game clock that doesn’t actually advance unless you do something. Feel free to sit around all you want or leisurely examine a piece of evidence. Your time won’t drain until you end your current action. This is good if you want to pause the game, bad if you click a file again by mistake and accidentally waste double the time reading it twice.
Each day has eight hours and begins behind your desk in the Oval Office. Some days start with conferences, surprise crises, or other events that can take anywhere from two hours to the entire day. Most days, however, are yours to manage by way of four buttons along the bottom of the screen that let you call meetings. There’s one for Vietnam, civil rights, and reelection. The fourth is used to summon your brother Bobby (then Attorney General) when you think you know all the details of the Dallas shooting.
Vietnam and civil rights both have a set number of meetings associated with them, most of which require a few choices from you which will dictate the events of the next meeting and the overall success of your efforts in either area. Each meeting takes up a certain number of hours, so you can’t call a long one late in the day when you’ve wasted too much time, and you can only call one meeting of a particular type per day. If you attend these meetings regularly, you’ll eventually either succeed or fail in managing Vietnam and getting the Civil Rights Act passed, but you never have to call them at all, and can run through all 50 days without ever touching either topic.
The same goes for your sleuthing. There isn’t a button that lets you conveniently call up the next bit of the mystery; you’ll have to trigger these events yourself through the course of your investigation. But just like the other issues, you can choose to drop the pursuit entirely and still beat the game. This is its oddest aspect since, to me anyway, the murder mystery is the main reason to play. But the manual explains that your only required goal is spelled out right in the title. Get reelected and you win. That’s why you’ll be encouraged to spend your free time on the third button option: reelection. However, as I’ll explain later, even this button can remain unclicked for the duration of your term in office.
Whether the topic is Vietnam, civil rights, or reelection, each meeting is structured the same way. You find yourself in a board room with a bunch of old white guys who present you with a problem or situation. You can ask them questions and make comments as you see fit. At the end of the meeting you make a decision. Maintain an advisory role? Ask a conservative senator for a favor? Run a mud-slinging campaign commercial? It’s all up to you. The result of your actions can be seen in the evening paper and in the change in your approval ratings the next day. Many issues will keep cropping up over several meetings before they’re finally dealt with.
Occasionally the day’s work will not be a meeting but a one-on-one conversation or phone call where similar decisions are required. Aside from concrete choices, you can also guide the mood of the Commander in Chief by selecting calm or angry reactions to other characters. If you’re dealing with an outside party they may not take kindly to your rudeness and decide not to help. You’ll want to save everyday because you’ll be given no second chances. Piss someone off and you can be sure they won’t want to talk to you again. Phone numbers will actually disappear from your phone book. Of course some people will only respond to a little hardball. And if you’re dealing with your staff, berate away. They won’t quit. If you’re playing casually, this instant karma system of choices won’t matter too much. But if you’re obsessive like me and want to find the best outcome possible, be prepared to save and reload constantly as you do your JFK rendition of Groundhog Day.
I realize that a game that’s at least 50% meetings might sound a little bit dry, and at times it can be. But your cabinet does an excellent job giving you The West Wing version of your given dilemma: the bare facts, a little color commentary, then a list of your options. Make a decision, face the repercussions the next day, and reload if you want to try again. While conferences can take up the majority of a game day, they rarely take more than ten minutes of real time and are typically capable of holding your interest.
In the mire of all of these meetings, you may wish to measure the effectiveness of your leadership and, by extension, your chances at reelection in November. No problem. You’ve got two meters indicating your national approval rating and your international approval rating. Some decisions may make folks at home wave the flag while simply pissing off the world at large, and vice versa. Keeping your U.S. meter high will result in reelection. As to the world meter, I have no clue what it’s good for, but it appears useless. It might factor somehow into reelection but since Uruguay doesn’t have a significant number of electoral votes, that wouldn’t make much sense.
When you’re burned out on weighty political affairs, take the day off and play Encyclopedia Brown by exploring the White House and FBI building for possible leads in your quest to unmask your murderous conspirators. This is mostly tracking people down and asking the right questions, but you’ll also take part in such Presidential activities as breaking into the FBI director’s private files and using a computer hidden down a secret passage to monitor government communications. Yes, you, the leader of the free world, sit in front of a UNIVAC in the basement and hack the CIA’s email.
Get on the right track and Bobby will set up a trip to Dallas where you can continue your investigation. But be careful. You’ll soon discover that your enemies haven’t let their failure deter them from trying again. You’ll be warned not to campaign in certain states when the Secret Service gets wind of a threat, and you’d be wise to take their advice. Otherwise, you’ll get a cut scene of some schlub with a gun pushing his way through a crowd of your fans to take you out. That’s a game over and as far as I can tell there’s no way to avoid it besides chickening out and staying in Washington. That’s only the beginning of the tale, but for reasons I’ll outline below, it’s as far as I got.
When you think you’ve got everything figured out, use the fourth button to call Bobby and he’ll ask for the names of everyone associated with the shooting and their motives. If your theory is weak, he’ll be reluctant to issue an arrest warrant, but you can inform him that you are, in fact, The Goddamned President and he should just go ahead and get the warrant anyway. Bad theories will result in false arrests and embarrassment which will in turn affect your approval ratings. Also of note is the fact that you can accuse literally anyone whose name you’ve heard, except Bobby. Indict members of your staff and they still happily report to work the next day.
Now’s as good a time as any to admit that the premise requires a pretty big conceit. As much of a macho all-American go-getter as JFK was, I’m pretty sure the President of the United States, with the FBI, CIA, and Armed Forces at his disposal, would not slap on a deerstalker and start investigating his own assassination attempt. Add to this that your idea of going undercover is some dingy clothes and dark sunglasses with no change in your distinctive Brookline accent and the whole thing strays into farce:
“Excuse me, aren’t you the President?”
“Why, uh, no! Why do you, er uh, say that?”
“It is you! You’re just wearing jeans and a cheap pair of Ray-Bans!”
“That is, eh, unequivocally not true, miss. Now…tell me, do you, er uh, know anything about the, uh, Kennedy shooting?”
Still, it’s a needed contrivance to make the game work, and you’ll get past it pretty early on. It even helps in a way. Jack Kennedy has the nation’s respect and a cadre of Secret Service to protect him, but mild-mannered reporter Kevin Bruderman (oh yes) can get insulted and kicked out of bars, making for a much more interesting experience.
The game states clearly in its manual that the only real people represented here are the late president and his later late brother Robert F. Kennedy. While that’s not completely true (both Jackie and LBJ are referenced and make brief vocal appearances, among others), the game does go out of its way to fictionalize the vast majority of its characters. This is probably to avoid the lawsuits that would surely have followed from the actual members of the 1963 White House staff, but it can be detrimental to what is ostensibly a historical sim. It gets especially silly when dealing with people who would never sue. Trouble in Cuba? You’d better figure out how to deal with “Premier Lopez” because Castro is nowhere to be found. And before you ask, Oswald is absent as well.
Despite this “names changed to protect the innocent” style, Reelect JFK manages to create a very believable 1960s White House. Cuba, Russia, Panama, and other issues of the day come up regularly, but your historical hindsight won’t help you deal with them. You may know that in a few years Vietnam is going to look like one of our worst mistakes, but to the people around you, it’s the noble fight against communism. Elect to pull out and bring our boys home at your earliest opportunity and the public will accuse you of cowardice. Likewise, violent rioting by African Americans to demand equal treatment isn’t considered quite as justified as it is today. But with a little give and take you can achieve the desired outcome the same way Kennedy would have had to do it. It’s a much appreciated respect for accuracy that really adds to the experience.
As I said, you can get reelected and beat the game without ever dealing with Vietnam or the Civil Rights Bill, but you’d be missing out on most of the fun. Conversely, though, you’d be missing out on a lot of opportunities to screw yourself up. You see, as far as I can tell, all you really need to get reelected is a sufficiently high national approval rating. It starts out at about half and rises and falls depending on your actions. This means that the fewer decisions you make, the less likely you’ll make a bad one, and it’s perfectly easy to make enough good decisions in the required day-specific events to coax your rating to the desired level. Consequently, the reelection meetings, aimed solely at your main game task, are useless window dressing as you never need to attend one as long as you don’t hand over Guantanamo to Lopez or something equally damaging. In fact there are a lot of little details in this game that don’t actually affect a thing. You are routinely asked to tailor your campaign speeches to match the mood of each state (info gleaned from your evening paper) or carefully adjust your advertising budget, but I purposely screwed up both tasks beyond repair and was still able to secure the nation’s confidence in November.
You only get a game over if you get yourself killed or if your numbers are sagging so low that you lose the democratic primary in August. Both should be fairly rare scenarios. You can, however, get yourself stuck on certain issues. Refuse to let Bobby check out your evidence and he’ll be unable to provide you with the next piece of the puzzle. He’ll ask twice, but after that you’ve pretty much wizzed the case down your leg.
Graphically, the game looks pretty good for a mid 90s live action PC title. Real actors are rendered well despite the restrictive color palette, and environments look convincing. Animations, though, are limited. The actors providing the voices and the actors you actually see are not always one in the same and it appears proper audio syncing was quickly given up as unworkable. If a character is walking or performing an otherwise unique action while talking, the vocal track is just clumsily laid in. If the character is sitting, he or she alternates between a few stock frames of talk animation like a sprite in a 2D adventure game. It doesn’t look as bad as it sounds, and it will never take you out of the game or otherwise hurt the experience, but it is worth mentioning. Also, I can’t be sure of this, but the fact that no actor ever gets more than a foot away from your desk before the scene fades to black indicates that they were working with a pretty small green screen.
The voice work is a love it or hate it kind of thing and I love it. The most often heard voices are those of Jack and Bobby and neither actor wasted any time working on a subtle, realistic Massachusetts accent. Prepare to spend the whole game with dueling Mayor Quimbys. Don’t get me wrong, both are more than competent actors. Their inflection, emotion, and general line reading skills are above average for even a modern videogame. But the sheer goofiness of the accents will either have you grinning from ear to ear or sticking a pencil through your tympanic membrane. I think the proper word would be “campy”. Bad yet enjoyable. The other actors are just as talented, but unhindered with any sort of regional drawl. Barring the dozen or so guys from the IT department clearly asked to read lines at the last minute, the talent is generally top notch. Oh, did I mention that the Kennedys end EVERY conversation with the phrase “I’ll speak with you latah”? Because they definitely do.
Control is adequate, but at times frustrating. Your view of a room usually includes the door through which you came in, but there’s no way of knowing which it is until you try it and end up back in the hallway. Since some of these movements waste game time, it’s a noteworthy complaint. Finding the spot on the screen that will let you move the direction you want or investigate the item you’re interested in can be difficult as well. This is especially true when your icon hits a bug and fails to change shape over a hotspot, though these instances are rare.
Another gripe is that the game sometimes prompts you for a choice when none is required. I shouldn’t have to click “Continue” or “Comment” during a conversation when that’s the only option onscreen. Jack should take that into his own hands and plow forward without me. But the worst aspect of the control scheme is the lack of a button to skip dialogue. When you’re playing through a meeting for the sixth time trying to get an outcome that doesn’t result in bad press, it can be maddening to be forced to listen to your staff’s explanation once again. Fortunately, alt-tabbing out of the game or simply hitting the Windows key and then clicking to bring the game back in focus causes the currently playing sound file to be skipped. This trick is an effective band-aid, though for some reason it doesn’t work on lines spoken by JFK himself.
Unfortunately the game is marred by the presence of some nasty bugs. The most common one I encountered caused the first line of dialogue in a new scene to slowly fade out until it became inaudible. Luckily the game gives you a button that allows you to repeat the most recent line and using it usually corrects the issue. More serious though was a glitch that actually SHOWED ME THE END OF THE GAME. In fact it caused the scene revealing the bad guy’s identity to play anytime I tried to load a saved game. Starting a new game, then loading the saved game fixed this problem but it occurred several times during play, usually triggered by the game crashing to the desktop which it did even more frequently. Any of these bugs would be inexcusable, but all three?
Here’s where the unhappy part of the story rears its head. I had played through the game enough times that reelection was now a snap, but try as I might I made almost no headway on the murder investigation. The J Man and I theorized that this portion of the game might actually be unbeatable. Normally my lack of patience would have sent me to the net for a walkthrough long ago, but there are none to be found. The scant few mentions of this game are either in reference to its winning a few awards or archived posts from 1997 begging for hints. When I’d finally had enough of banging my head against the wall, the J Man and I applied our combined 20 years of search engine experience to the end credits in hope of getting in touch with someone who worked on the game. Enter Jerry Seeger.
Mr. Seeger was the one and only programmer on Reelect JFK and was kind enough to respond to my email. I explained my desire to know if the mystery could be cracked and, if so, what important clue I was missing. He stressed that he was only guessing, but he thought there was a distinct possibility that due to a mistake, my copy of the game was flawed. Here’s what he had to say:
“There was a quick succession of three versions, and the second of those three was not solvable and was not supposed to be released.
“Unluckily, I think you got one of those copies. There’s a switch in some conversation somewhere that isn’t getting set. As I sit here I wonder if it might be possible to edit a save file to trigger Sam Nelson walking into your office, but without the original source code there’s no hope of me figuring that out. There’s a zero in that file somewhere that should be a one.
“So now you can shake your fist at the ceiling, whack your head on the keyboard, stare at the box for a moment or two, slowly shaking your head, and quietly curse Viking Entertainment and, well, me. Still I’m glad you found the game compelling enough to keep trying, and even to fire up again after all these years.”
Whoops. We here at JGR have attempted to review games that never actually came out before, but we’ve never accidentally reviewed a beta copy of a game. Still, it hit store shelves and was sold for full retail price. Truthfully, I think we can call this a bug that just happens to not be present in every disc. But due to the fact that no fan information exists on how to beat this game, and the only posts I could find regarding it were from players just as lost as I was, I think it’s safe to assume that this batch of beta copies was pretty damn big. Now, though, it becomes unclear whether the crashes and glitches I mentioned above were the fault of the game or the fact that this version was never meant to see the light of day.
So I’m put in an awkward position. I feel justified in rating the game since my copy may be representative of at least a third of all existing copies. The fact that part of the game (the part that will bring most gamers to the table) is unsolvable is a clear fault of the publisher and they deserve to pay for it by way of a scathing decade-late review. But on the other hand, most of this game is fairly good. The portion of the murder investigation I could access was interesting and challenging and the sound files I listened to on the game disc imply that the rest maintains this quality. I would love nothing more to track down a copy of this game from its first run that didn’t contain the error, but there’s no way to tell if the one copy I was able to find for sale is from the bad batch as well. And that’s the same position you’ll be in if I encourage you to give this one a go.
Is Reelect JFK a good game? Yes. Mostly. I think. If you’re looking for a taste of what it’s like to be the big cheese and can appreciate the wonderfully campy Kennedy brothers, this game comes highly recommended, albeit with a few annoyances. It makes you think a little to get reelected and replicates the political climate of the early 60s admirably. If, like I, your main interest lies with the assassination subplot… Well, you pays your money, you takes your chances.
–Thanks to Jerry Seeger for his contribution to this review.
Nicely done historical/political sim with lots of interesting decisions to make and some top shelf goofy Kennedy impressions. The advertised goal of the game can be achieved without the hindrance of the infamous defect.
The arguably more interesting subplot of the game is broken in many copies. Finding any copy at all is daunting.
“I’d hate to see you authorize a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Especially in an election year.” –Robert F. Kennedy