The first time I laid my eyes on an obscure Commodore 64 game called Rags to Riches, something in me clicked. One time, many many years ago, I remember asking my mom for some change to give to a homeless man that we had 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. As I was always a sensitive kid, and not understanding really the overall situation, that memory has stuck with me ever since day.
Join me as I look back on that game, while also looking ahead, trying to find… Change.
I have to push, I have to struggle. Eighties!
Back in the mid-eighties, it was common practice – especially in the UK – 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 well known English programmers 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… but I digress. While it might not sound radically different from the indie game scene of today, there is quite a big exception: all programmers were self taught and there were virtually 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 that is probably more worthy of being remembered today is Rags to Riches. Developed by Bob Keener, whose career seems to be a perfect mystery (if anyone has any news about the man, I’d greatly appreciate it), 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 there is not even a box art to feature nor a dedicated manual.
In Rags to Riches 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 is not familiar with the Commodore 64 or grew up after the eighties might not fully grasp the complexities of developing such a simulator for a 8 bit computer in 1985. In 64k of memory, less than even the first smartphone in 1994, Keener had the idea to developer a fully functional bum simulator, where the player could walk along a city with four different sectors to explore. He even featured random events like police and thieves and a complete day-and-night cycle (!). He had basically no precedent game he could copy or even get inspiration from. It is true: he did it all by himself.
All of this would be quite the amazing accomplishment already, even though the game surely sports PET-like crude graphics – yes, even for 1985 – and is rather unforgiving. Still, that was average for the time especially for such a budget game like Rags to Riches; 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 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 each time a journalist tries the usual interview with a homeless person: “how did you end up in this situation?“. Many times, it is an unfortunate consequence of family abuse or mental illness, indeed reality has little to do with movie narratives like “losing everything in the stock market”. Sure, sometimes it might be a deliberate choice, but those are really the minority.
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 modern game is that of spreading awareness, making the player meditate about how we – we as in “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 interesting thing, especially for me, is how the core of the gameplay is 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, naturally, things are quite more 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. It also features different characters which have different illnesses or addictions, which can entirely change the way one approaches the run.
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 it does not describe any more extreme consequences of “giving up”, fortunately. Each night also brings a rather sombre description of contemplating about good times long gone 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 2020, through ups and downs. Being following its development since early november 2019, I have 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, almost a year after the game entered early access, they delivered what was promised. Clearly, with Change being a roguelite, there is no great emphasis on a sort of overarching narrative, even though the game in its latest iteration does also feature other characters that we can interact with, with a name and face. Still, I would not expect the texts or events to differ much between characters.
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, it does shine where it matters the most: heart.
Honesty is its own reward
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 honestly rather 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” 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, the main character can flip people off, beat up other bums and other hilarious gameplay features.
Titles like these basically smell like Twitch bait right from the get-go. House Flipper was at least a rather 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 “GTA 5 with mods” chaos. Of course, I’m not saying a life of a homeless would not be made up also of fighting or flipping people off, it might be and it is, but that’s beside the point. Bum Simulator‘s only objective seems 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?
I was never a fan of putting a negative spotlight on games I did not like, my opinion was always of letting people play whatever they want, no judgements attached. But, let us 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, since almost forty years have passed, I think it’s fair to expect something MORE out of a modern video game based on such a sensitive topic. Thus, I’m not saying “don’t buy Bum Simulator”, honestly just spend your money however you like. As for myself, if I had to choose between Change and Bum Simulator then yes, indeed I would like something more than “random fun”. So, I’m glad I decided to go for 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. It might not be that reboot of Rags to Riches that I dreamed about, but it’s the closest thing I’m going to get for sure. Also, 20% of the proceedings from the sales of the game will go 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?