Sunday, November 18, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise

I'll be posting reviews for IFComp games, focusing mostly on games where I think my reviews can still add something to the critical consensus. A good example of that is Carter Sande's Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise, which I suspect to be the most misunderstood game of the competition.

(It probably isn't, because the most misunderstood game is presumably one that I haven't understood either.)

So Geography -- I mean, let's settle on a short name here -- presents itself as an educational tool for learning about Canadian geography by playing a trading simulation. Some reviewers took this entirely at face value and worried whether the game would work in an educational setting. Others did wonder whether Geography was serious or a joke, but nevertheless ended up concluding that it was serious. So let's be entirely clear: this game is a joke; it is satire. Satire wrapped in a perhaps unforgivably clunky user interface, but quite amusing nevertheless.

The protagonist of our game is a commodities trader. That is, he spends his days behind a desk, trading commodities. But the great outdoors beckons and so he decides to take a 30-day vacation, rent a big truck, and try to make it as a real commodities trader, travelling through all of Canada's magnificent and unexplored wilderness... as long as there's a highway through it, of course.

The game is built around the fact that the protagonist has two utterly incompatible wishes. On the one hand, he wishes to make it as a truck driver buying and selling goods at a profit. On the other hand, he wishes to experience the big wide world. But being a truck driver is boring and repetitive, and making money as an independent trader requires research and good planning; while experiencing the big wide world requires, well, the exact opposite of that. So what he ends up doing is a boring, repetitive job made bearable only by his visiting of tourist traps, utterly pre-fabricated experiences that never fail to delight him. Here is a completely representative example:
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, so you figure you've gotta go see Parliament Hill. The Peace Tower stands in the middle of everything, decorated with unique architectural details. You sign up for a free tour, and as the tour begins, you ride an elevator that goes all the way up the tower. Your breath is taken away by the view of the bustling city of Ottawa. You stay up there for a while, enjoying it.

You're glad you took the opportunity to see the capital from a different point of view.
I found the descriptions of the tourist destinations quite hilarious, especially as they never fail to show how everything becomes a shallow cliché to the shallow and clichéd mind. (Unique architectural details! Bustling city! Different point of view!) The tourist traps are also real. One visits the "first bilingual geocaching tour in Atlantic Canada" to get a cool wooden nickel. Surely, this doesn't exist? It does, and it is billed in precisely these words on the Fredericton Tourism website. That's funny, and the fact that our protagonist deeply enjoys all these inane 'experiences' is also funny. At the same time, he is completely blind to any beauty that hasn't been packaged up for him:
You look to your left and catch a great view of Lake Superior. You'd look at it longer, but you need to keep your eyes on the road.
Lake Superior is twice as big as the Netherlands, but our protagonist misses it because he has to keep driving. A bit heavy-handed as a joke, sure, but it had me chuckling.

The game, then, is about consumerist neo-capitalism. We work and work in our boring repetitive jobs, and tell ourselves that our lives are made worthwhile by all the utterly non-authentic experiences we get through consumption. The protagonist is a truly dire example of this. Meanwhile, he willingly goes through a near endless grind of highways, hotels, gas stations, and locations that are identical except for the local tourist trap.

The game is fascinating up to a point, and has a surprising number of different endings. On the other hand, the meaningless grind was, well, a meaningless grind and the awful user interface is, well, awful. The author has done a lot of things well, but has also fallen into the trap of trying to satirise boring stuff by implementing boring mechanics. So I have no problem with people giving the game a low score (I gave it a relatively low score myself); but I do want to point out that there is a lot of good stuff going on behind the bad stuff. There's no way Geography deserved to end up 74th out of 77 game, below two games that are simply broken and cannot be finished.

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