The following is a guest post from Prunescholar:
Prunescholar is a fan of all kinds of games. He is especially interested in how games make us feel, and the stories and memories they leave us with. Prune considers himself an ally, and has had the help of many awesome people (including the folks of Lashings of Ginger Beer Time) on his path to intersectionalist feminism and understanding experiences outside his own.
In Oblivion, I’m a bit of a shit. I own eight houses, never use them, and still act chummy with all the homeless folks of Cyrodil. I am waiting for the game to call me out on this. A sidequest? A conversation? I’ll even take a line of incidental dialogue: “Get out of my face, you bloody toff!”.
Other titles also disappoint. At no point has my plucky hero turned around as I raided some long-forgotten croft to say: “actually, buddy, I have enough cash right now. Bought the best gear, unlocked all upgrades… I think I’m going to leave this loot behind”. No impecunious NPC has approached my band of brave adventuring souls to upbraid me for hoarding enough Gil to found a tiny country.
Not only would it be wonderful if the above encounters had actually happened, but this particular lack of self-awareness inhibits our games from speaking about themes like money, or poverty, in a radical or a thought-provoking way.
Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a great example of this. In Recettear, you play a young girl whose father went missing on a dungeon raid. One day a fairy rocks up at your door and lays down the bad news: your dad left behind a whole lot of debt, and the collection company is going to repossess your home. Unless…you can find a way to make the money back yourself. Before you can object, she’s stuffed you into a pair of overalls and turned your living room into an item store.
Recettear is a feel-good story about a young girl’s triumph over adversity against all odds. But I felt guilty when it finished. The problem wasn’t being exploited by my fairy accomplice (whose ambiguous position is lampshaded a couple of times), but the way in which I’d exploited others to make back my father’s debt. Specifically, the adventurers I’d employed to earn money on my behalf.
The deal is this: through a local guild you can enlist people to explore dungeons and fight monsters to retrieve rare items. Once you’ve paid your proxy, anything they find is yours to sell. These dungeon delves are one of the most lucrative activities in the game, because compared to the amount of bank you can make off a tomb haul, the fee you pay your warrior friends is pitiful. You risk a relatively tiny sum; they risk their lives.
But our games don’t have to celebrate this all-too-familiar economic exploitation. Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, for example, is a refreshingly cynical take on the pursuit of virtual wealth. In Rupeeland, you play a thirty-something unemployed single male living on the fringes of society. One day, you are summoned by Uncle Rupee – the spirit of money, or perhaps greed – and promised passage to a land of paradise, free from grind, replete with all the luxuries of life: Rupeeland. Only snag is, the old man needs paying up front. It will take hundreds of thousands of Rupees to make his
phallus tower grow and restore his ancient power.
Sourcing cash to fund what is essentially an avatar of the kyriarchy is not a little bit disturbing (spoilers: he’s evil). Female characters aren’t something TRR gets right, but it’s telling that Uncle Rupee has wounded the Grand Fairy, who represents female power and authority, enslaving her daughter in order to further his schemes. Rupeeland acknowledges the truth that money is power: a power that is used to control and coerce.
Yet money is the only power you have. Money is life: your health bar is hooked up to your bank account; every punch is a punch in the wallet, and if you go broke, you die. Money is experience: the game map is sealed off by huge and frequent paywalls, so if you don’t fleece the residents of Hyrule for every last Rupee, the game gets boring quickly. Money is a weapon: you use it to hire bodyguards to duff up enemies, and you fight the final boss (guess who) by pelting him with Rupees.
The conclusion was where Rupeeland gave me a black eye. After exploding gratuitously, Uncle Rupee left behind, well, lots of Rupees. In the regular ending these showered down across the world, sowing the seeds of greed all over again. I was then treated to a picture of old man Rupee’s cackling face. Wonderful; I may as well not have bothered. In the game’s best ending my character proved too susceptible to the temptation of fat stacks of cash, and rather than using these hundreds of thousands of Rupees for “good”, as the Grand Fairy urged, I decided to spend them all on limos and champagne.
Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland has one major flaw. It’s dull. The controls are a pain; getting money involves grinding; the grinding is tedious. It’s better as a critique than as a game.
Hab & Gut avoids this problem – although it’s a board game, which is possibly cheating. In Hab & Gut, the players are stockbrokers in the Industrial Revolution. On your turn, you trade shares and play cards to manipulate the stock market in order to make as much money as possible; at the end of the game, the player with the most money wins. Well, almost. Every turn, a player can donate an undisclosed share to charity. At the end of the game, the value of your charitable donations is tallied, and the player who gave the least to charity automatically loses.
This final rule is brilliant. Not only does it foster compelling gameplay, forcing players to make decisions about how to bluff or cajole their fellow industrialists into under- or over-philanthropising; I love how this models charitable donation as an exercise in arse-covering. It’s not how much you give, or who you give it to, that’s important. All that matters is not being seen as the most avaricious tycoon in the business, a veneer of respectability that lets you deflect criticism by saying: well, at least I’m not as awful as that person. Hab & Gut is a critique of one type of charity. This critique contextualises the players’ accumulation of wealth as self-serving and, at best, amoral.
I wish more designers played in this grey area and explored the ambiguity of wealth. Otherwise we run the risk that, as well as offering an unchallenging approach to capitalism, we undermine the very stories we’re trying to tell.
That’s why I couldn’t rejoice at the end of Recettear. I’d beaten my father’s debt, but ultimately not the system that indebted him.