The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee is a parser game by Daniel Gao. (Spoilers follow.)
The player is a sentient computer program imprisoned within the code of a device owned by John Hubert, a prisoner falsely accused of murder and possibly rape. This device was given to him for use during “recreational hour” by persons unknown. Until the end of the game when the player finds a way out of the device, he/she is stuck in a limbo in the form of infinite, empty rooms where he/she must remain until Hubert activates the device again the next day. During this time, the player is instructed by Hubert to investigate the death of Jenny Lee by going through her possessions in the places she used to haunt. Although the player has the freedom to examine and otherwise use any objects he/she comes across, and can do so at his/her own pace, Hubert has control over where he chooses to place the player, a power he exerts at one point when he forcibly removes the player from Jenny’s bedroom and plants him/her in the library, apparently angry with the player for “putting your filthy fingers through her personal belongings”.
This raises the question if Hubert is simply engineering the whole thing, choosing the things seen by the player and hiding others. There is in fact an instance where Hubert had his cell searched, during and after which he was unable to attend to the player because the guards that searched his cell decided to take the device with them. Having received a tip-off from a fellow sentient program who had found an escape, the player follows its instructions and eventually stumbles across incriminating evidence against Hubert himself, who admits that he had sex with Jenny. Hubert then claims to give the player “one last chance” to find the “real killer”, which may be a front for what he was actually responsible for.
This theory is further validated by the implausibility of the final reveal, when the murder is attributed to Mrs Vanderbilt, the librarian, who apparently coveted the valuable keys on Jenny’s saxophone and killed her in order to come into possession of them. Yet nowhere in the letters supposedly written by Vanderbilt is there any mention of the saxophone, or of a request to bring it to their meeting. The murder itself is problematic: if possession of the keys is all she desires, why does murder, and not simply theft or burglary, occur to her? Must the saxophone be brought down upon someone’s head for the keys to fall out? It’s even more confusing when we consider the report of the newspaper article, where it’s mentioned that “her head had been bashed in with her own saxophone, the impact so great that the keys were knocked clean off.” If the keys were what Vanderbilt, or some other person, was after, why would the saxophone and its valuable keys be left behind for the author of the article to discover?
And what exactly is the program, anyway? If Hubert’s word is reliable, his assertion that “I don’t believe it” suggests that he created this program to help him discover who the real murderer was. This is congruous with the claim of the other sentient program that “to them we are merely tools to use”, and with Hubert’s ability to deactivate the program (or so he claims). But how would he have created this program if he was arrested? The conversation of the guards tells us that the device is “one of the best selling gaming systems right now”, something that “simulates consciousness”. Was Hubert allowed to purchase and bring this device into his cell, where he created the program? How then would he have known things like what Vanderbilt keeps in her locker (which he would have needed to know to write the program)?
Alternatively, Hubert was given the device and the program installed on it by someone other than the guards, who are not on friendly terms with Hubert. This would explain his surprise at the player’s findings, and would not be completely incongruous with his threat to the player to “deactivate” him/her if he/she fails to find the “real killer” — these could just be empty words, employed to motivate the player to work harder. It could also be that he is telling the truth: he has deactivated programs in the past for failing to discover his version of the truth, which he wants the program to “discover” so he can present it to his lawyer as evidence.
As for the player’s eventual escape, I considered the possibility that he/she doesn’t actually escape and that the so-called world beyond is no more than a part of the program, but nothing in the game seems to support this. I’m not sure what the significance of the player’s escape is, either, or how it’s related to Jenny’s murder. If this is a game about the sentience of machines rather than the murder of a girl, I think more emphasis on the player and the other sentient program would have been appropriate. What the other program says at the end of the game about the superiority of machines to humans comes across as a little tacked on, and perhaps the author could have accentuated this theme by hinting at it in the blurb.
ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Chai. Light and pleasantly thought provoking, though I’d appreciate a fuller ending.