One time, many many years ago, I remember asking my mom for some change to give to a homeless man we just passed on the street. He was so happy and thanked me profusely, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was almost as happy as he was. For some reason, that memory has stuck with me for a while. The first time I laid my eyes on an obscure Commodore 64 game called Rags to Riches, something in me clicked.
Join me as I look back on that game, while also looking ahead and trying to find… Change.
I have to push, I have to struggle. Eighties!
Back in the mid-eighties, it was common practice for the so-called “bedroom/garage programmers” to send in their games to publishers via mail. If the title was good, the publisher would respond with a check and, subsequently, release it to the public. This meant that many times the title itself was barely playtested, if at all; everything else after the initial contact and after the payment, would be out of the creators’ hands. This is how many famous programmers in the UK got their start, Jordan Mechner among them.
Occasionally, if the publisher saw a real talent, the programmer would have the opportunity to become an actual employee in the company, like Ocean, Gremlin or Ultimate, which would mean he’d probably end up working on lousy conversions from arcade to home computers. While it might not sound radically different from the indie game scene of today, there is quite a big exception: there was little help and no rules.
Programmers would just learn on their own, inspired by whatever few titles they could actually get their hands on and, especially, by analyzing the source code. There was really no market to speak of, so really “anything went”. When things became more or less estabilished, after 1986, publishing games became way more streamlined and those little wonders made by single programmers, consequently, harder and harder to find.
And though my pocket may be empty, I'd be a millionaire
One of those hidden gems I most fondly remember is Rags to Riches. Developed by Bob Keener, whose career seems to be a perfect mystery (please get in touch!), and released in a compilation in 1985 by Melody Hall publishing. Just for clairification, by “released in a compilation” means the game was actually never released as a standalone title, so I don’t even have a box art to feature.
The player controls a homeless guy trying to work his way up to a normal life. It wasn’t really a “bum simulator” per se, since the main character remained homeless only for a small portion of the game, like a sort of “level one”. But of course, being that it was 1985, most gamers only saw that one level and thought that was the entire game. After that, the guy could get a haircut and an education, which would later grant him a high paid job. If had enough money had been saved, it was possible to invest all that earned cash and give up working altogether.
As with most titles released back then, there was no ending programmed; also if your money went over 1.000.000 it would reset to zero. Like in real life! The whole of the level one gameplay focuses on balancing food and alcohol levels, earning money by selling empty bottles and junk, all while trying not to get robbed or arrested by the police for not having a recent haircut or not shaving. Hey, fashion is important, try to keep up, alright?
Pennies from heaven (and the sidewalk)
Whoever grew up after the eighties might not fully grasp the complexities of developing such a simulator for the Commodore 64 in 1985, so let me briefly explain. In 64k of memory, less than even the first smartphone in 1994, Keener managed to program a basic simulation where the player could walk along a city with four different sectors to explore, plus random events like police and thieves and a day-and-night cycle (!). He had basically no precedent game he could copy or even get some inspiration: he did it all by himself.
A pretty awesome feat in of itself, even though the game surely sports crude graphics – yes, even for 1985 – and is rather unforgiving. Still, that was average for the time especially for such a budget game; one would get the money’s worth by playing it again and again. Naturally there was no focus on the social aspects of the problem, but I don’t think anyone was expecting anything of the sort from a game in the mid-eighties.
Since then, I’ve looked around and about for any sort of experience that reminded me of Rags to Riches and… found none. Until some months ago when I discovered Change: A Homeless Survival Experience.
I still don't know what I was waiting for
There is a single mandatory question that pops up again and again in every single interview with a homeless person: “how did you end up homeless?“. Many times, it is a consequence of family abuse or mental illness, indeed reality has little to do with movie narratives like “losing everything in the stock market”.
Being a clochard comes with a whole set of problems that go well beyond finding bottles to recycle or getting a haircut.
It makes sense, then, that Change’s main intent as a game is spreading awareness, making the player meditate about how we – “the collective rich people” – treat the less fortunate everyday on the streets. It comes from a place of reflection about the experience of being homeless, documenting the struggle, sure, but also the hope of getting back on one’s feet.
The core of the gameplay is also eerily similar to that first level of Rags to Riches. The player can find things to sell to recycling centers, beg for money while trying to survive the night. It is also possible to get a dog, find a shelter for safer sleep and, after a few stable nights, get a residence permit that grants a library card, so it is possible to study for longer hours. The more time one lends to study, the higher the chances of landing a job, thus earning money in order to finally rent a place, thus winning the “run”.
Yes, indeed, things are a bit simplified from reality. Change plays like a roguelite of sorts, new perks and shops are unlocked after each run depending on the amount of XP points gathered.
I've find, you can find, happiness in Change-ry
The most important thing to keep an eye on is the happiness level. If that runs out, the character gives up reaching out from the gutter and the game ends, without further dire consequences. It’s a bleak game, but not that extreme, fortunately. Each night also brings a rather sombre description of contemplating about good times or experiencing events which will count in favor or against the character’s happiness.
Along with the happiness level, there’s the usual food and hygiene levels you can restore with items bought in shops or by using the occasional public bathroom/fountain. There are also meet fellow homeless to meet but interactions are pretty limited, since most of them happen in the park. In all of my runs I’ve been there maybe twice, there’s really no big reason to venture inside, unless you have time to waste or things to sell.
The game is a labour of love, it’s been in early access on Steam for a year and a half and it has been officially released in in February. I’ve been following its development since early november 2019 and I’ve seen with my own eyes the amount of work and care the development team put into it.
Begging to change your life
Honestly, I doubted Delve Interactive’s promises of featuring five different characters to play with. But apparently, almost a year after the game entered early access, they delivered. What’s sorely missing, apparently not likely to be implemented soon (actually they are working on it, check my interview with the game designer – ed’s note), is some overarching narrative, except for the “rise up from the gutter”. The texts or events don’t seem to differ much between characters, a missed opportunity since a bit of personalization would be a rather cheap but important addition to the experience.
The game design does its job in keeping the player entertained, pretty much in line with what one would expect from a roguelite about this kind of experience. Still, as I anticipated, Change sets out to be more than a “homeless roguelite sim” and this is what attracted me to begin with: how the game was designed to simulate the daily life of a clochard, without overdramatization or cheap shots. What especially got to me while playing were the answers given by the people you meet and beg on the streets. I was left in tears after being shoved off from someone screaming LEAVE ME ALONE!
Still, as I said, Change is not meant to be 100% realistic but makes it clear from the start while staying honest all the way.
So, while, gameplaywise, it might not really be the brightest roguelite around, Change shines where it matters the most: heart.
Honesty is its own reward
After being honest with the development team, it’s time for me to be honest with the reader.
The reason I started this article is not only because of my fondness for Rags to Riches. There is a new title from Ragged Games – developer of House Flipper and the awful Lust for Darkness – called Bum Simulator. Of course, as with all “Simulator” games since that infamous Goat one, this is just a ridiculous take on the life of a homeless person. A first person “adventure” (yeah right) where the player goes around begging or stealing from people, along with additional unmissable features like the freedom of writing on the carton you’ll use to beg. Additionally, you can flip people off, beat up other bums and other hilarious gameplay features.
Titles like these are basically tailored to be used by Twitch streamers so as to gain a whole lot of free publicity. House Flipper was a straightforward game, if a tad boring but hey, remodeling houses is rarely that much fun. Bum Simulator is clearly a piss take, there’s no sombre reflections, no meditation on poverty or mental illness. Just random chaos.
Of course, I’m not saying a life of a homeless is not made up of fights or flipping people off, it might be and it is, but that’s beside the point. Bum Simulator chooses to make random fun out of a sensitive topic, targeting the kind of public that Ragged games knows all too well.
Just to clarify the level of comedy we’re talking about, this below is an official screenshot with a “do u know de wey” meme on the carton. Yay for 2018!
Do you have any change left?
Honestly ‘ve never liked being a negative nancy, my opinion is let people play whatever they want, no judgements attached. But, pause for a moment and remember what I said above:
“Naturally, there was no focus on the social aspects of the problem, but I don’t really think anyone in 1985 was expecting anything of the sort.“
Well, it’s 35 years later and I think it’s fair to expect something MORE out of a videogame based on such a sensitive topic. Thus, I’m not saying “don’t buy Bum Simulator”, spend your money however you like. As for myself, if I had to choose between Change and Bum Simulator then yes, indeed I want more out of a videogame than “random fun”, then I’m glad I bought Change. Crashes and all.
Change, for all its small faults, makes you pause for a minute and think about other people’s lives. It’s been developed by people who care about the message that their game is spreading, even though they’re a small indie development team from the UK. Also, did I mention that 20% of the proceedings goes to charity? A good deed, a pretty nice game and a chance to reflect, all for a pretty cheap price.
I’m voting for CHANGE, how about you?