Russian developers Ice-Pick Lodge are an inspiration of mine. Operating out of a two bedroom Moscow apartment, their small team assembled Pathologic, one of my favourite games of all time, and monstrous afterlife-simulator The Void, which was among the most interesting games of 2008.
Both of these games were legendarily bleak. Last week Ice-Pick released Cargo! The Quest For Gravity, and its eye-popping colour alone makes it unlike anything they've ever done. But precisely what kind of game is it? And is it worth buying? These were tough answers to acquire.
First things first, Cargo is not as much of a departure from Ice-Pick's previous games as you might think. That said: yes, Pathologic and The Void were both experiences as uniquely bleak as being trapped down a well with nothing to eat but your own broken legs, while Cargo is actually quite friendly, in a deeply unbalanced, avuncular kind of way.
The game's lunatic plot depicts our world following some kind of embarrassingly awkward apocalypse. The Earth's incompetent gods have flooded the planet, but broken gravity in the process, leaving various islands, buildings and landmarks floating uselessly in the Earth's stratosphere. These same Gods have also had a crack at replacing mankind with a different species, because they decided we were rubbish.
The "Buddies" are mankind mk. 2, and they're the stars of Cargo. Designed to be perfect, the Buddies are devoid of intelligence and ego and spend their lives bumbling around uselessly trying to have fun, and it turns out this "fun" is the only substance that keeps anything tethered to the ground. It's also the only stuff that the Gods appear to put any faith in anymore, meaning it's what your character, Flawkes, has to use to buy items from the in-game shop.
A lot of Cargo is spent harvesting "fun" from the Buddies by either taking them for rides on your vehicles, or dropping music where you stand in order to start dance parties. Best of all, the game's physics model treats the Buddies as tremendously imbalanced objects, meaning that if one Buddy tries to do something as simple as climb a slope, there's a good chance he'll topple over and take any nearby Buddies with him.
What I am saying is that Cargo basically models Glasgow on a Saturday night.
Flawkes discovers all of this when her zeppelin floats into the middle of one of the Buddies' firework displays, leaving her and her captain marooned in this hallucinatory place. Cargo's plot revolves very, very loosely (imagine a fat man trying to use a hula hoop) around this idea of fixing your zeppelin and getting back to "the mainland".
So far, so different. But Pathologic and The Void had more in common besides their dark themes. They were both about exploring a twisted environment and learning to thrive in it, they were both loaded with characters who spoke only in warped rhetoric, they were both unlike anything I'd ever played before and they were both a bit broken. Cargo is very nearly all of these things. I say "very nearly" not because it isn't a bit broken, because it is. You can practically hear the sparks fly as you boot it up. I say it's nearly all of these things because it is a bit like something I've played before: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. There was also Panekit on the PSX, but we'll stick with N&B.
Cargo and Nuts & Bolts are both games about designing vehicles. Through a simple and modular system you can design anything from boats and submarines to helicopters and hot-air balloons, and by using different vehicles you can access different areas or solve different puzzles.
But where Nuts & Bolts simply applied this mechanic to an open-world platformer, Cargo is really a game about surprises. The surreal setting is forever dropping bizarre and brilliant turns of events into your lap, giving the game a mad momentum which is absolutely the best reason to play it. It's not just that you don't know what's coming next; it's more like you've been propelled a little bit into the future and are actually existing and playing in that "what's coming next" before it quite takes shape, and in any moment where "what's coming next" actually arrives, you're confronted with something else. In that sense, it's a joy.
In another sense, it's a pain in the arse. I was always an apologist for Pathologic and The Void because, brutal as they were, they were well-defined worlds that you could learn to navigate if you felt so inclined, at which point they simply became rewarding, fascinating experiences. After ten hours with Pathologic I'd learned the crooked rules of its decaying hamlet and was empowered. It was the same for The Void, and ultimately, at the end of my long spell with either game I was left with a grand and beautiful memory.
With Cargo, the moment you figure out each awkward puzzle the game moves onto something different, never once returning to the same setting, or even the same class of vehicle, to make you use those skills you've learned in anything richer or deeper than a tutorial. You go stumbling from situation to situation, perpetually being surprised, yes, but also perpetually tripping over the game's awkward interface and bugs and unclear mission objectives, until after some six hours of this when the game ends.
One such problem that proved a particular bållåche was a bug in the vehicle editor that meant I often wouldn't be able to add certain parts to other parts, necessitating I either start over (screw that) or design something different (fine then). Never mind the fact that when you do finally get your vehicle out of the purgatory-like design screen, it's inevitably a bit of a disappointment-almost always a bit slow or awkward in some sense, the engineering equivalent of some sad progeny you'd be tempted to put in a sack and drown in a river.
It's all a bit dumb, because I'm pretty sure almost everything that annoys me about Cargo is simply a result of Ice-Pick not playing to their strengths. Historically, the problems with their games have related to the most basic elements of game design: pacing; intuitiveness; interfaces; telegraphing where to go next or what to do; or even possessing a basic capacity to entertain. The idea of the same developers setting out to create a friendly, short, vehicle-based puzzle game when what they do well is big ideas, dialogue and imagery is madness. Which I guess is at least in character for them.
Also in character is the fact that, as Kieron hoped, there's more than meets the eye to the concept of "fun" in Cargo, as well a secret ending. But I've been doing well on the subject of spoilers so far, so I think I'll keep quiet.
Altogether, between its short length and lack of a payoff, Cargo's something of a disappointment that I'd probably be praising as a commendably batshit-insane little indie game were it not for Ice-Pick's pedigree.
But maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. What's on offer here is more of Ice-Pick's profoundly strange and creative work, but in an accessible package that anybody should be able to see to the end. Whether you'll have fun (or even "fun") or not I couldn't say for sure, but if you're in the market for some deep strange, Cargo should certainly be able to provide.
I wish I could say, Ice-Pick. Maybe next time.
Quintin Smith is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. Quintin wasn't very good at his early career as a globe-trotting hobo (or "globo"), and has since limited himself to the domestic journeys of videogames. Follow him on Twitter.
Republished with permission.