When I was a journalism student at Columbia, there was a guy on 112th Street and Broadway, the most unobtrusive homeless person I've ever encountered in New York. He had no sign and I don't ever recall him verbally soliciting passersby. He just sat there, obviously homeless, with a strangely placid expression. One day I finally gave him 75 cents.
"You good? I'll take you over there and buy you a coffee if you want," I said, probably sounding insensitive and patronizing.
"No, no, I don't need coffee," he said. "I'm saving up. They sell Whoppers at the Burger King on 110th for a dollar on Tuesday." It was Monday. I gave him another two dollars, and thanked him for the tip.
There's a knee-jerk, maudlin quality to exhorting people to listen to the problems of homeless people, and it also ignores the fact that sometimes you learn something useful. I got that feeling again from Homeless, an Xbox Live Indie Game that VentureBeat's Dan Crawley uncovered this past week, and wrote about yesterday. It's made by Jon Flook of Silver Dollar Games in Toronto, which has been responsible for much lighter fare in the past (including Don't Be Nervous Talking to Girls and the hilarious Try Not to Fart) Homeless is 80 Microsoft points.
In Homeless, you're a panhandler and you have only one button to press, the A button. When passersby are in range and you press it, you get whatever they can spare, which is an amount represented over their heads. Some have only two cents, other times its a quarter or even 30 cents. Each press of A, or beg as I called the action, depletes your energy. The round is over when you run out of energy or time. If the round ends with you falling short of your target, the game is over.
The strategy is to press A when lots of passersby are clustered around, or when large amounts are in range. A bonus mechanic that I haven't quite figured out sends even larger money amounts scrolling by overhead, but whatever you collect seems not to be cumulative. In other words, bagging a $1.24 bonus is great, but if a 30-cent bonus is overhead when you hit A, you'll trade the larger pot for the smaller.
In my time with the game, I lasted six days (not realizing that, it appears, you only collect the bonus if you finish the day out of energy. I would have made it the full week otherwise.) The real strength of Homeless is in the uncommonly strong voice acting. As you progress, you learn more about this character. He's been jailed three times. He's a crackhead, apparently recovering, but the memory of his first high with the drug still has a powerful hold on him. There's a hot dog vendor who cuts him a deal, and he's eaten other people's leftovers. He knows that he stinks to high heaven; his only shower is whatever comes off the downspouts of the bridge under which he lives.
It's not to say Homeless is an emotional experience. There's a drippy soundtrack and, visually, the game is rather barebones, keyed toward you lining up the most opportune amounts of money passing by and then pressing A. There's no real rejection mechanic in this, although a series of dialogue boxes would be about as boring as could be imagined. Empathy or sympathy is extremely difficult to create in any video game, much less a $1 downloadable indie title.
But it is a thoughtfully designed experience. Gamers who figure out the system and how to exploit it will, in succeeding at it, be served with an increasingly deep story of a typical homeless person, who knows he is responsible for his failures yet still needs immediate help getting through the day. We've all heard the stories of homeless people before; for some, this may be the first time they actually listen.