Sharp End of the Rupee

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.

Ah, capitalism.

A young boy with brown hair and grey eyes pokes out from behind several menus, one of which lists his equipment. Stone walls and red curtains are visible in the background. The boy’s adventuring “price” is listed as 2550 pix - a fraction of what you can earn by sending him to a high-end dungeon. His flavour text reads: “Louie: Brave but poor adventurer. Balanced and easy to control. Uses swords, shields and armor.

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.

4 thoughts on “Sharp End of the Rupee”

  1. - SPOILERS FOR ONE OF THE ENDINGS OF S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: SHADOW OF CHERNOBYL -

    Perhaps only tangentially related, but I went through S.T.A.L.K.E.R. hoarding cash, like the miser I always am in these kinds of videogames. Turns out doing so influences what type of ending you can get. So, along comes the ending where my character wishes for his ultimate desire, and what does he say? “I want to be rich.” Cue a hallucination of gold coins falling on him, and he meets his end being crushed by a collapsing ceiling.

    I remember being miffed about that: “I wasn’t hoarding cash because I want to be rich!” I argued, “I’m just a wise spender and might’ve needed that money for something!” Granted, all the wish endings turn out badly, but it’s the first time I think a game has ever “punished” me for accumulating wealth.

    I agree: it would be interesting to see games address the ambiguities associated with the accumulation of weatlh… with regard to the player’s OWN accumulation of wealth.

    1. He! OP here. Thank you for sharing your experience with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; it’s a game I probably never would have picked up myself so it’s cool to know that the game at least acknowledges the amount of wealth / loot you have as a factor, and that it is punishing you for it, after a fashion.

      When games use playstyle to assume something about the player I think they need to be very careful, or you end up giving the player a negative experience. I feel this way about a lot of games that give you “meaningful choices”, exemplified by Bioshock (partial spoilers)

      - why should saving the Little Sisters mean that I have their best interests in heart, or that I’m somehow reaching out for a (family) connection?

      One way to avoid this dissonance to make it clear that the player’s character is a separate entity with different desires and motivations, or to set up the relationship between the player and the character in such a way that these outcomes make more sense. I don’t know how S.T.A.L.K.E.R. does it, but I think it would be really fun to have a game where encouraging the character to hoard money and items actually caused them to become more miserly and money obsessed as a result. I think I’d be happier accepting an ending where my character had a dream of becoming super-rich if that was the case

  2. I found that the adventurers weren’t the quickest path to victory (for Terme Finance, which got a deeply underwater loan paid in full) – I set a goal for myself to with with the fewest resets, and the tactic that worked best for me was to focus on “just combos” – making sales on the first offer – which gives significant bonuses to your merchant level (unlocks more expensive goods) and also boosts the hidden customer level (fattens wallets, so they can buy more expensive goods). I did only just enough adventuring to meet the thief.

    (I’ve also sold a few copies of the book which I infer to be about Reccette’s father.)

    1. Ahh! That’s really interesting. I think it would have paid (heheh) for me to spend a bit more time with the game, trying different strategies. I didn’t think that would be a viable one. Still, I think it’s fair to say that the game strongly encourages you to exploit adventurers, and you don’t get any particular rewards for choosing not to do so (in fact, a lot of the post-game content and extra story / character content are closed off to you as a result).

      I also took “that book” to be about Recette’s dad – I love the game’s sudden streaks of dark humour. Although -

      (spoilers!)

      I’ve heard that it’s actually possible to meet him in the game, as well. I didn’t have enough time / accumen / desire to stick with it that far into the post-ending content, though – but if you’re interested, get to the 80th floor of the final dungeon.

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