Down and Out in the Mushroom Kingdom

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Brother, can you spare a 1UP?Urban outdoorsmen rejoice! No longer must your vocation go overlooked in favour of the glamorous professions of Space Ranger, Secret Agent, Ace Pilot, and Ultimate Fighting Champion: 2006 saw the high-profile self-proclaimed first video game ever to be released featuring a homeless person as its protagonist — American McGee’s “Bad Day L.A.” Its premise is that a series of catastrophes befall the metropolis — and when the infrastructure of society crumbles away, who would be in a better position to thrive than the resident indigents?


Sadly, this surprise move seems to come more from a would-be outrageous marketing angle than from any attempt to violate the privileged sanctums of North America’s overstuffed gamers with a frank examination of the homeless’ plight. Even an affirmative action conception of the game as an attempt to improve depictions of misrepresented minorities in games can’t overcome the frank conclusion that the protagonist’s missions of pitched firefights against terrorists and daring rescues from zombie hordes aren’t terribly representative of the actual homeless situation. The earlier BMX XXX featured a level where the player had to collect pop cans for Homeless Jones, but surely such tedious and meager activity, relegated there to a mere sideshow, couldn’t sustain a whole game…
Earlier that year just such a title was released: “Homeless: It’s No Game“! Also making the dubious claim of being the first of its kind, it sends you shuffling from dumpsters to soup kitchens to black-market fences in pursuit of a holy grail — enough money to purchase a squeegee to clean windshields toward a better life! Threats to your property and self-esteem include unavoidable random encounters with social workers, used needles, the local constabulary, and those competing with you for an exclusive spot on the second-lowest rung of the ladder. Unfortunately, as a huge section of the game is set during nighttime — when virtually all game locations are closed — the lion’s share of the gameplay involves scooting back and forth to kill time, hoping to avoid getting mugged or having your goods stolen or confiscated. BDLA implemented a karmic system where bystanders would help if you didn’t take anti-social shortcuts but these stick-and-carrot ground rules are more indicative of the designers’ morality than the cruel and meaningless way the world actually seems to work: in Homeless, negative consequences swoop down arbitrarily and for no apparent reason, arguably making for a more realistic game experience… but not necessarily a fun one. Success goes to the pigheaded player who gets back up and persists despite unfair obstacles, not to the wily one who hopes to evade them.
From Bad Day L.A.A similar moral lurks at the heart of 1998’s browser game, Hobson’s Choice, casting the player as a newly-evicted injured labourer. It offers plenty of creative options through choose-your-own-adventure gameplay, but what they ultimately reaffirm is the deadening and random nature of salvation from life on the street: through sleep-inducingly real simulations of welfare paperwork and case worker waiting rooms, it hammers home the brutal truth that it isn’t always enough to do what you’re supposed to do and be in the right place at the right time — sometimes the only way to stumble on a winning strategy is to beat your head against an apparently fruitless avenue until, after a dozen attempts or more, it suddenly gives way to a breakthrough. Think it’s unfair? Take a tip from the game’s name: you can like it or lump it.
Compared to the average citizen, the homeless have more problems to deal with, and far fewer resources at their disposal with which to achieve this task: it’s like playing real life on an super-challenge difficulty mode for experts only. In the grand-daddy of the genre, Bob Keener’s 1985 C64 classic Rags to Riches, the player is plagued not just by thieves and cops but also the IRS! The game is perceived as suffering from balance flaws making winning it virtually impossible, but that may just be an editorial aside from the programmer regarding the formidable odds arrayed against anyone taking on similar challenges.
Homelessness is unfair and not much fun — seemingly not the best subject for games — but if we hope for the medium to further mature, it behooves us to eschew pure escapism and continue attempting to engage such weighty issues from the real world. And while boosting the entertainment value of the games might be misrepresentative, it’s a sad fact that a game that sacrifices fun for its message will not get played much: its uncompromised message will resound in its conviction right into the bitbuckets of history. Our cloistered suburban gamers at the risk of total societal disconnect, developers must find a way to make the ugly fun, that it be seen at all.

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This week’s guest writer is Rowan Lipkovits, an raccordionteur living in Vancouver who foolishly aspires to co-author a text adventure game in the idiom of Thomas Pynchon.
We’re accepting pitches for future articles about videogames and other dismissed artforms — we pay $50 for published articles.

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  1. A coda to this piece — in addition to several disposable titles that don’t usefully engage the theme (The Gutter, Twin Hobo Rocket, Bum: Rags to Riches) a game design student has been posting a poignant series of episodes from an experiment into homelessness he’s been cultivating in a Sims 3 petri dish over at http://aliceandkev.wordpress.com/

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