Salvage: Cargo Commander’s a Drill, Baby (Drill)

How appropriate is my “What Worked” title for game reviews, “Salvage,” when discussing the game Cargo Commander, a randomized and iterative space adventure in which you play a lonely space explorer tasked with salvaging space junk from an infinite number of sectors? The core concept of Cargo Commander is what’s worth discussing today: every day, whether it’s because you went to sleep or were cloned after dying, you’ll begin by navigating to a fresh area (selecting from popular locales, random ones, or by generating your own by typing any old word/phrase) and then using your home/ship/office’s space magnet to attracted a variety of cargo holds. Zipping out into deep space (with a limited amount of air), you’ll drill into these containers and then pillage them, fending off mutant space monsters at the same time, but you’ll have to work fast, as wormholes have a tendency to rip apart the container segments if you aren’t fast enough in hurrying back to your base. Each sector has six different types of goods, and your ultimate goal is to discover all hundred or so types, and herein lies the problem: because there’s no real variation on the arcade action beyond the first hour, doing so is work.

Perhaps that work is part of the point, as it is in the recent Papers, Please, which tasks you with the soul-crunching tedium of paperwork and reducing unique people to easily checked (and profiled) categories. Or maybe the game grows to be more than it at first appears, as with the excellent and devastating Little Inferno–but I wouldn’t know, as I can’t bring myself to continue on. The grinding is simply too visible: killing monsters earns you “caps” with which you can upgrade your gear, but it inexplicably resets at the beginning of each day, and the only way to get permanent boosts is by ranking up–done by collecting five new objects. This progression is simple at first, when you’ve barely found anything, but after a few hours, you can go entire in-game days without much of a sense of progress. Granted, if you’re simply trying to beat the game, you can zip through–after three or four waves, you’ll have probably found all the unique items a sector has to offer (and if not, there’s always the next, and the next, and the next), and you’ll have collected the sector pass that allows you to unlock a new zone to travel to. But if you get stuck trying to beat the high scores, fully upgrading your gear, the successive waves get more complex–and needlessly frustrating, especially when dead end paths with undrillable walls fence you in, or hordes of monsters that you’re ill-equipped to deal with swarm you, boxing you in. (Worst are the triangular parasites that float around in deep space, following you back into what should be the safety of your home, and killing you there.)

Granted, you’ll get e-mails from the wife you left behind, progress reports from your overseers (which are dystopic and depressing messages that continually come up with reasons why you can’t return home yet), and pictures of your daring achievements from the son whose face you’re forgetting. But these aren’t compelling reasons to continue on–and it’s not just the scarcity of story. After all, other rogue-likes, like The Binding of Isaac, encourage multiple replays (occasionally under similarly unfair conditions) for pithy “item collecting” rewards and make you start over from the beginning each time. But whereas there’s a goofy challenge in BoI in which the variety of rooms, enemies, and weapons changes each time–especially the way they all combine–Cargo Commander only gives you four weapons, an extremely limited set of upgrades, and runs out of things to show you after the first four crates that you magnetize. The controls are simple enough to keep you zipping through–the zoom feature is especially nice, “in” for close combat and headshots, “out” for deep-space diving and the discombobulated dashes back to your home–but there’s only so many times you can fire that six-shooter (six, to be exact) before the game starts firing blanks and coming up empty.

I’d love to hear that I’m wrong and that the game opens up later on, or throws some new tricks at you, but given the randomized design of the levels, I don’t really see how that’s possible. Like Symphony, the waves can only get harder and more frenetic–they can’t actually get more inventive or interesting. And that’s what this all boils down to–I’ve sunk countless hours into Dota because of the human element, in which I learn new things each time I play, but a game like Cargo Commander, having shown me the grind that it’s going to require to get to the end (or to the next set of new things) can’t shake me out of this sense of entropy. Thanks, but no thanks.


Little Inferno Asks that You Not Turn Around, Just Burn, Baby, Burn

It’s called The Humble Indie Bundle, now in its eighth iteration (and having taken a few detours down more commercial paths), but the concept is simple: introduce a bunch of price-averse shoppers to a pack of diverse games that they might not otherwise have considered playing, or might not have had the resources to purchase, and hope that those increased downloads lead to future sales and warranted attention for the developers. This iteration’s offering a series of much-buzzed-about titles, from Hotline Miami to Dear Esther, but I feel the need to comment today about Little Inferno, a game that literally just sucked up the last three hours and fourteen minutes of my life. I didn’t expect to keep playing, especially since Little Inferno is sort of an anti-game, and yet I felt compelled to soldier on, as I once did through a similar title (Doodle God), which asks players to make increasingly abstract combinations of items in order to move up the evolutionary (and ideological) ladder of thought-creation. Despite being nothing more than a series of tapping exercises, the game made you think at least a little about the ways in which things could be connected or interpreted. Much like the act of creation itself, one imagines, it ultimately involved a lot of trial-and-error and random mash-ups: fun was beside the point.

Little Inferno operates on a similar principle, only more sarcastically. You are a young child (the sort you might see in a Don Hertzfeldt cartoon) left to make your own entertainments in an increasingly frozen city. (You can read into this as a warning against climate change; I prefer to take it as seriously as a Twilight Zone premise.) Tomorrow Enterprises suggests that you take all your belongs, toys, hopes, and dreams, and pitch them into their fireplace, gaining both sustenance and perhaps joy from the heat such destructive acts generate. Doing so, for some gameified reason, also produces coins, which you can then use to buy new (and ultra-flammable) objects, as well as new catalogs, filled with ever-more expensive gear. It’s not entirely free-range: you begin with three unlocked items in your first catalog, and each new item that’s purchased and/or burnt unlocks a new one. Once you’ve cleared out one catalog, you’ll have access to a new one–but only if you’ve discovered a certain number of pyrotechnic combinations, and this is where the mechanics reveal their bite. The names of each combo are vague, some more than others, and the later combos increase in size from two objects to three, as well as requiring you to recall the contents of previous catalogs. For instance, the “Someone Else’s” combo requires you to burn Someone Else’s Credit Card and Someone Else’s Family Portrait; “Movie Night” asks you to pair up Corn on the Cob and Television; and “Framed” is asking you to find three different portraits to burn. Additionally, these items don’t just appear: after purchasing, you’ll have to wait for them to arrive, a task that can take anywhere between 10 to 180 seconds, but which can be sped up by using the stamps you collect from sussing out these combos. (With about 140 items, this is slightly more complicated than you’d imagine.)

One way to play is to casually burn things and watch what each one does: the blowfish explodes, Pluto sucks everything into its gravity and turns it into ice, the smoke detector causes jets of water to fall from the ceiling, and a television goes meta as it broadcasts its own fiery demise. But there’s also a loose narrative, which comes in a series of letters that arrive from a person who is revealed to be your neighbor, and goes by the name Sugar Plumps. As the world continues to ice over, she sends you warm kisses and promises of a better tomorrow, and when she abruptly vanishes mid-game . . . along with the sounds of a burning building . . . there’s an uneasy sense that this game isn’t as innocent as it makes itself out to be. Your “character” is asked to sit still, to not turn around, and to absorb himself entirely in burning things up; so too are you, the gamer. Just as you never question the point of a game, neither does your character; you just continue to burn, and it’s almost disappointing to find that there is something at the end of that seventh catalog, a sort of moral warning — not about climate change, but about laziness and addiction, the very traps of the game that you’ve just been playing and likely would have continued playing had it not itself chosen to move on.

It’s certainly easier to simply burn things than to think about the fact that you’re burning and buying virtual gear (and this, actually, seems like a valid critique of online marketplaces and e-currencies for, say, the scandal-filled Diablo III); it’s a lot harder to idly play a game — no matter how self-referential, joking, and jovial it gets — once it’s called you out on the fact that you’re simply distracting yourself as the world outside freezes over. You’re complicit in that, it says; I’m actually surprised the game even offers you a choice to reload your game or to start a new one. I half-expected it to immolate in cyber-flames, to erase itself from my hard drive. (I understand, for commercial and legal reasons, why it doesn’t go that far.) But ultimately, that’s the point: you have to choose to stand up, to go outside, to turn around from your flickering computer screen — something that I could have, but did not do today. Perhaps I will . . . or perhaps I’ll continue to let it all burn down, and to all those congressmen who have harped on the dangers of video games, you might want to look here, first, for the signs of active inactivity that may be tolling the end of society.

Can I, in all seriousness, recommend that anyone play Little Inferno? No. But if the tenor of my words does nothing for you, perhaps you should experience it. And to those who continue to assert that games are not art, I demand that you give Little Inferno the attention its flames suck, like oxygen, out of the room; anything that can destabilize a player like this, for better or worse, is more than a mere game.

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