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About the Storyhighly randomized fantasy begging sim or bleak slot machine poem
28th Place - 20th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2014)
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Number of Reviews: 2
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Begscape by Porpentine is a game about a social issue, the plight of homeless beggars. It is also, in my opinion, enjoyable enough that I have come back to play it a dozen times.
It is extremely minimalist; it was only one of Porpentine's submissions for the 2014 IFComp, the other being the full-length, plot-heavy With Those We Love Alive. However, it never feels too bare. The game makes excellent use of randomisation to generate short but evocative descriptions of the villages, cities and citadels where you ply your trade, as well as brief glimpses of your travels in between. Despite the grimness of the subject, there is a good deal of beauty. You are in an insecure position and may be starving, but you're not blind to the port town of yellow wood and black seashells, or the distant sounds of singing as you approach your next goal. This feels true to life.
The gameplay itself is equally simple, but allows for a small amount of strategy. Each settlement has a certain cost of living. If you are not able to make enough money by nightfall, you will be forced to sleep in the street. If this occurs three nights in a row, you will die; a shorter period, and you will be reduced to a weakened state, from which you will slowly recuperate if you get food and board. Every morning, you have the choice to stay or move on (or will be expelled by the townspeople). There is no way of knowing whether the next town will have cheaper or more expensive costs of living. You have to take your chances, and there is even a slight random risk of an event during your travel impacting your health. Figuring out when leaving is worth the risk is the strategy that will keep you alive.
Keep you alive for longer, that is. It's hardly even a spoiler: the game is hopeless. I have come back to it evening after evening trying to beat my record in staying alive, but the ultimate outcome is never in doubt. And then you look at the final screen, and realise what it means that you're proud of surviving for 27 days.
So, as a game, Begscape works: it has good (if extremely spare) writing, and an addictive challenge. Does it work as social commentary? Hard for me to say: I already know that people begging in the street are human, I've never said "They just want money to buy drugs." Nor have I given any substantial amount - for reasons of personal economy, I would like to say, but also because what can I do? I already know that begging is hell, so I didn't need a game to tell me. Perhaps it has shown me what it's like in more detail. I would like to help, but like with any social issue, inertia and my own poverty will continue to hinder me. I'm lazy. I'm not equipped to help anyone in this situation.
Begscape sets out to do a certain thing, and does it flawlessly. If I give it four stars rather than five, it's because the minimalism does eventually become rather limiting. But it keeps me coming back and is well worth a playthrough, even just to see on which side it polarises you.
A final note: I read one IFComp review that mentioned that the lack of personal information served to dehumanise the "beggar". I'd like to offer a contrasting view: in this game, you simply play the classical faceless, genderless, ageless IF protagonist. We don't need to be told about the protagonist's reaction to being ignored or spat on, because they are us.
You generally only have two options at any time, and more often, just one: beg. You beg, and beg, and beg, and then leave or beg more. You try to get enough money for food and shelter, but you don't always succeed.
The game uses the same scenes over and over again; I think there are only two or three real screens, and each is like a mad-lib filled with different information every time.
Some people found this powerful, and I've really enjoyed the effect of depressing repetition with other Twine games, but I didn't really enjoy this game. With Those We Love Alive was much better, one of my favorite games of all time, and it was released in the same competition.
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