When I was a kid 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, truth is I was almost as happy as he. For some reason, that memory has stuck with me for a while now and 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 the socalled “bedroom/garage programmers” would send in their games to publishers via mail.
If the game was good, the publisher would probably send back a check and, subsequently, release it to the public. This meant that many times the game 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, which would mean he’d probably end up working on lousy conversions from arcade to home computers.
It doesn’t sound radically different from the indie game scene of today, except… there were 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 gems I most fondly remember is Rags to Riches. Developed by Bob Keener, whom I don’t know if he still is into games (get in touch!), and released in a compilation by Melody Hall publishing. Just for clairification, by “released in a compilation” I mean the game was 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 you stayed 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 you had enough money, you could just invest your hard earned cash and give up working altogether. As with most games of the time, 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 was trying to balance food and alcohol levels, earn 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?
64K of memory will be enough for everyone
I’m pretty sure that 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 you 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, also he did it all by himself.
A pretty awesome feat in of itself, even though the game sports crude graphics – yes, even for 1985 – and is rather unforgiving. Still, that was par for the course for the time especially for such a short game; you’d get your 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
If you ever read even a single interview with a homeless person, you’ll see that mandatory question come up again and again: “how did you end up homeless?“. Many times, it’s a consequence of family abuse or mental illness; forget about those movie narratives about “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 – “we collective rich people” – treat the less fortunate everyday on the streets. The game comes from a place of reflection about the experience of being homeless, documenting the struggle, sure, but also the hope of getting back on your feet.
The core of the gameplay is also eerily similar to that first level of Rags to Riches.
You can find things to sell to recycling center, beg for money and try to survive the night. You can also get a dog, find a shelter for safer sleep and, after a few stable nights, get a residence permit that grants you a library card so you can study more easily. The more time you lend to study, the higher your chances are to get a job, save money, rent your place and win 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 as long as you gain enough XP points.
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, your characters 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 brings a rather sombre description of your character contemplating about good times or experiencing events which will count in favor or against your happiness.
Along with the happiness level, there’s the usual food and hygiene levels you can restore with items you buy in shops and the occasional public bathroom/fountain.
You can also meet other fellow homeless 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 should come out officially in February. I’ve been following its development since early november and I’ve seen 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, so I was wrong.
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 change between different characters, really a missed opportunity since a bit of personalization would be a rather cheap but important addition to the game.
The game design does its job to keep the player entertained, it’s pretty much in line with what you would expect from a roguelite about this kind of experience. If you expect anything, of course.
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: in its heart.
Honesty is its own reward
Now, after being honest with the development team, it’s time for me to be honest with you, 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 man.
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. You get the idea.
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?
Now. I’ve never liked being a negative nancy, I say let people play whatever they want, no judgements attached.
But, pause for a moment and try to 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”, you do you, spend your money however you like.
As for myself, if I had to choose between Change and Bum Simulator then yes, I do want more out of a videogame than “random fun”, then yes, I’m glad I bought Change. Crashes and all.
Change, for all its faults, makes you pause for a minute and think about other people’s life. 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?