The city of Nivalis is, at once, arrestingly beautiful and awkwardly familiar. With its streaking hover cars and pink-humming katakana signs, the sparkling rain and homeless androids, it’s a cliche that invites cliches: “sprawling”, “neon-lit”, “Blade Runner-esque”. Still, overfamiliarity with the aesthetic does little to blunt the fierce appeal of Cloudpunk’s game world.
In part that’s because this is a world constructed from tiny pixelated building blocks, which give the city and its distinct districts the feel of a basement Lego project that got wildly out of hand. As you sweep across its glowing vistas, weaving in, out, over, and under the local traffic, the tumbling blocks of houses below appear to plead to spill their secrets. The buzz when you first realise you can park up and gather them up on foot is exhilarating. But Cloudpunk also slips the constraints of its genre by virtue of its casting: you play, not as a monosyllabic hacker trying to topple a megacorp, or as an ex-cop trying to win back his badge, but as that humble hero of the hour: the delivery driver.
You might hear a package ticking on the back seat, forcing you to make a snap decision
One of the attractions of the video game medium has always been the opportunity to taste, first-hand, experiences, places or roles that are too dangerous, remote or fabulous for reality. But as well as the games that enable us to become racing drivers, fighter pilots and hoorah’ing marines, there is an alternative stream of play where the games are based on working-class labour. Like Paperboy, Farming Simulator and Tokyo Bus Guide before it, Cloudpunk is an example of what some academics have termed “playbour”: video games that attempt to convert the rhythms of work into the substance of play, to transpose the workstation to the playstation, as it were.
So you are Rania, a young immigrant to the city, about to begin the first night of a new job working for Cloudpunk, a semi-legal delivery company. Jobs arrive via a dispatcher, who communicates via radio. Typically, you’re sent the coordinates at which you must pick up an item, then the coordinates for where to deposit the item. Speed and discretion are key. As your dispatcher explains, there are only two rules to which you must adhere: never miss a delivery; never ask what’s in the package.
Sometimes, however, curiosity will get the better of you. You might hear a package ticking on the back seat, forcing you to make a snap, potentially moral decision on whether to complete the delivery, or, alternatively, hurl the box into the city’s incinerators. Other choices reveal a potentially interfering streak: do you deliver the mechanical part to the ageing race car driver so that he can endanger himself with one last race, or quietly lose the item in transit in order to force his retirement? Company is provided, not only by your operator back at base, but also your onboard AI companion (in Rania’s case, a digitised, talking version of an old pet dog), who lets you know when you need to pop to the nearest garage to fill up on fuel, or make repairs to your vehicle.
The true source of the game’s powerful allure is the thrill of dipping in and out of people’s lives; the voyeuristic privilege – like that of a taxi driver – of meeting and observing new people without having to become involved in the messy substance of their lives. And, more broadly, Nivalis is a joyous place to explore, both while darting overhead with the city a smear of lights below, and on ground level, as you pad through puddled nooks and alleyways. The tug of “just one more job” is ever present; this is a game to while away the hours late into the night, a reminder that, in every city, there are always thousands of intersecting stories playing out, with drivers often acting as the crucial go-between.
Retro choice: if you like Cloudpunk, you’ll love…
(Hitmaker; Sega; various platforms)
The idea for Crazy Taxi – a game launched in 1999 in which players pick up and deliver passengers to their destinations in as short a time as possible – came to designer Kenji Kanno while stuck in traffic. He longed to cross the central reservation and take off in the opposite direction. Disregard for the highway code is a hallmark of a game in which your score is measured in the dollars and cents of an aggregate fare. Kanno once admitted that half of his team was “strongly against” taxi-driving as subject matter, believing it wasn’t suitably exciting. In reality, the task of solving spatial puzzles against strict time limits for small-change rewards has a keen sense of the video game about it, and the late-90s scumbag guitar soundtrack has become, today, magnificently kitsch.