Many years ago, I encountered a video game by the name of Alter Ego. It was the brainchild of Peter Favaro, a clinical psychologist who wrote his PhD dissertation on the relationship between computer games and mood. It wasn’t a particularly exciting game – the graphics, even for the time, were extremely poor. There was no audio to speak of. It was entirely in text. And I loved it more than almost any other game of the period. You can even play it online now, and I take every opportunity I can to recommend people do that very thing. You can find a paper of mine where I discuss Alter Ego here, if you’re interested.
The game was handled entirely through a sequence of narrative vignettes, giving little slices of life experience to which you needed to select a response. You picked your emotional tone, your action, and the game would tell you what happened. You’d advance, or regress, in a range of skills and over time you’d eventually acquire competencies, qualifications, friends, relationships, and possessions . The goal was die happily in your old age. Alter Ego was advertised heavily as drawing from an extensive well of psychological literature, but there is very limited evidence that there was a genuinely rigorous body of research informing the game design. Nonetheless, it was quite unlike anything else, and even now I think about it fondly, wishing someone would revisit this peculiarly personal model of gameplay.
And it turns out, someone did! Kinda!
CV is a good natured, comical look into the experiences of a fictional counterpart. You take control of their life, acting like an ill-prepared Clotho attempting to shepherd them through the travails and challenges of a life (potentially) well lived. That’s done by rolling dice. That’s appropriate – life is bewilderingly random and it’s only fair that a game based on the concept would double down on its inherent unpredictability.
Our job, as the little numskull working our little person behind the scenes, is to spend the dice we roll in the wisest way. We need to take our time, weighing up the cost of cards available on the life track. Each turn, we can buy none, one or two of these – the dice faces we roll form the currency for this transaction. Some cards will give us extra symbols with which we can buy more expensive cards, and others will act as one-time events we can play to give ourselves a temporary boost. As we buy cards, we’re slowly working our way through the key ages of life – adolescence, middle age, and old age. When we run out of cards to draw, then presumably we die in our beds, reflecting upon our accomplishments. The game never really says what happens to us in the end – if you’d prefer to think you were taken down as part of an elaborate caper to bring down a nascent super-villain, who am I to stop you?
Each player gets a secret goal card which determines what it is that they wish to get out of life. These involve collecting sets of cards in exchange for a certain number of victory points. Everyone also shares a number of goals that are displayed openly on the game board. We’ve all got our own things to worry about, and we’re all worrying about the common goal. As a result, an economy around the cards builds up, causing us to value some more than others. The goals give us the lens through which we can meaningfully assess our own success and failure.
But it’s actually a little more complicated than that. We also gain victory points simply for accumulating cards in our hand. The more we have of a particular colour, the more points we get for the set. And on top of that, as we accumulate possessions we can cash them in for lucrative points at the end. They usually have little, if any, ongoing game impact – we’re picking them up because that’s what people do. They consume. Know your place, little drone. The system depends on your devout engagement with the theology of Capitalism.
It’s worth pointing out here that the game has a fundamental disconnect between the art and the theme. In the world of CV, nothing really bad happens to you. There are cards for marriage, children, and promotions. There are no cards for deaths, miscarriages, or extended periods of absolute poverty. It’s all very clean and cheerful, and that’s because all the cynicism and darkness of the theme is reflected in the striking aesthetics on the cards:
The conceptual nuance that is missing in gameplay is present in spades in how the concepts are visually presented, and that’s awesome. There is a sinister world beneath the surface of CV, and you can choose to engage with it as you see fit. Are you a pessimist or an optimist? You’ll find something that suits your temperament in every card.
I mean look at this art – look at the greedy, scheming grin on the face of the bank manager as he sequesters away your wealth. He knows the system is rigged in his favour. One of those eggs behind him is probably the bonus he’ll get when he invests deeply in honey nut futures in the era of cocoa pops. And look at the top student – you can feel waves of pressure and stress radiating off the poor little feller. There’s a lot of this reflected in the artwork, lending a little bite to an otherwise sickeningly saccharine experience.
We can see that cloying wholesomeness in the game setup. A childhood for each player is constructed, furnishing you with the necessary tools to jump-start your way in the world. Nobody in CV has a bad childhood – it’s all toys, and piggy banks and bikes.
Once you plop, fully formed, into the real world you take four dice. You roll them, adding in whatever special symbols you have available on your cards. If you roll a bad luck symbol, that die is frozen and you can’t reroll. If you roll three, you lose one of your active cards. If you roll three good luck symbols, you can take any card off the track ignoring its cost in symbols. You get two chances to reroll any dice you like. It’s Life Yahtzee. It’s Lifetzee. It’s King of Tokyo with fewer opportunities to punch a giant robot bunny. It’s Elder Sign with less likelihood of bringing a dark god calling to our vicinity of cosmic space.
Each of the cards are colour coded, representing careers, health, relationships, money and knowledge. Some give you free symbols, some give you special powers. Some are events you can cash in later. Do you want that pension fund? It’ll cost you two money now, but you can cash it in for four in your old age. Do you want to be an intern? You need a little luck, a little knowledge, and a little health. There’s an upside to that – being an intern gives you a free relationship and free sack of money each turn. Yeah, I’m not sure that’s quite how internships really work. Only one of each of these cards can be active at any one time, and you’re only three bad luck symbols away from losing it completely. When you buy a card, you need to decide whether it’s your new toy, or whether it’s just going to be ferreted away as a transient entry in your life history.
Of course, life doesn’t always go your way. Those bad luck rolls float about your life like turds in a bathtub, and if you get greedy…
You’re going to get stung. Three bad luck means you lose an active card. Oh god, my bike is the only thing I have that I can get rid of. Just like that, your childhood accomplishments are taken from you. Life is so cruel.
Each turn, the life track is replenished with new cards drawn from the appropriate stack. Each round, the left-most card falls off the edge as we inexorably progress into adulthood, and then into our twilight years. Sometimes we roll well and can reap the benefits:
And sometimes we can supplement poorer rolls with the events we have accumulated.
As time goes by, we pick up friends and neighbours, career promotions and education. And don’t forget the possessions – the houses, the yachts, the factories (?) and more. This is the American Dream in a box – consume until you die. Don’t think about it, just buy things. Oo, a mansion – buy it. Oh look, a home media centre, buy it! Over there, a vanishingly brief opportunity to plug the gaping void of your soul with more possessions, TAKE IT!
I have a slightly complex relationship with dice games like this, and it’s almost directly correlated to game length. King of Tokyo is quick and high energy, and the fundamental randomness feels fine as a result. Elder Sign is a longer grind with greater cost associated with poor rolling and so it got a fair savaging in our review. CV is in the middle of this – the dice rolling is fun enough, but the game is just a touch too long for it to be genuinely enjoyable. Like real life itself, it sometimes feels like a tedious grind that overstays its welcome.
This is compounded by the fact that every session you’ll see almost every card, which hugely impacts on the game’s replayability. Sure, you’ll have different cards in different orders, but in the end your fifth game will feel very much like your first game. You’ll drain the juice from this after a couple of plays and have few reasons to go back to it. The cards, while charming and funny, just don’t have enough to them to meaningfully change the experience. Every new session is like choosing between a taco and a burrito – you’re getting much the same thing, it’s just being folded in a different way,
The cards too are often weirdly disconnected from the real world. I mean, look at these:
Now, if this is intended as comedy it’s pretty great. It’s genuinely, properly funny in the best way to imply that you can get a PhD with the same ease with which one might edit a few Wikipedia pages. And it’s funnier still that being a blogger is more rewarding than having a doctorate. That’s some good comedy, IF it’s intentional.
I think it’s more likely it reflects a weirdly distorted personal view, coupled to a need to approximate some level of game balance across the various tokens. This kind of thing is rampant throughout – the intern position needs health, for example – it would have been so much more sensible if it needed a relationship because that’s how it works.
Now, I’m not just nit-picking here because there’s a wider point I want to make. CV is not inherently fun. It’s a game that requires people to buy into and talk about what they’re doing and what it potentially means. That becomes harder to do and less enjoyable if you’re struggling to make the connections. The stories that this game facilitates are its key element – it’s not really a dice-rolling game. It’s a storytelling game.
To give you an example of what I mean by this, I’ll talk you through some of the first life experiences of Other Michael. He was obviously born into wealth, since he started with a bank account, life insurance, and a piggy bank full of money. He was a party boy, going out clubbing often enough that it enabled him to make important connections. Those connections were enough to get him a job at his dad’s company, which had benefits but also came with persistent bad luck.
This life arc, such as it is, will either be dully biographical, or can be injected with genuine humour. I couldn’t help but imagine the kind of job I would get from going out clubbing, and I decided that my dad was pimping me out as young meat to foreign businessmen. That’s why my little guy was so unhappy all the time. Eventually he inherited a comfortable apartment. In the context of the backstory I had already constructed it seemed this was very much like a promotion from ‘paid escort’ to ‘high class gigolo’. There’s nothing in the game that would have prompted any of this, it just came as a result of the juxtaposition of the cards. That’s not just veneer – that’s the core thing I get out of playing it. And unfortunately, those stories just aren’t very varied because the parameters of life reflected in CV are very narrow.
I made mention above about the dichotomy between the art on the cards and the saccharine positivity of the game itself. I understand that most people aren’t going to want to play a life simulator game that could potentially have them facing all the darkness life has in store. I think though it would have made for a far more interesting game. What cynicism makes its way into the game is primarily in the mechanic, which is an extended paean to excessive and unnecessary consumerism.
Alter Ego, the game I mentioned above, had a similarly optimistic outlook on life but it was made all the more profound for the staggeringly awful things that could happen. No word of a lie, I once played a child that was raped to death in Alter Ego, all because I wasn’t quick enough in backing away from a suspicious stranger in a car. It came out of nowhere, and was deeply shocking to me. That was my alter ego – he was kidnapped and his parents never saw him again. In another game, I died after drinking the bleach I found in a kitchen cupboard.
Holy shit, that is dark but it made the rest of the game shine all the brighter. The moments of happiness and satisfaction were more intense because you knew that it could so easily have gone the other way. Alter Ego has heart-attacks, and divorces, and infidelity, and deaths in the family, and more. It has sweetness and it has sex. It runs a gamut of life – admittedly, a gamut that is very much mired in the generically optimistic hetero-normality of the early 80s. It’s a gamut nonetheless. CV has none of that, and it’s weaker for it. Even the Sims, a game which is so sweet it can give its players diabetes, manages to incorporate astonishing darkness within its cutesy core. CV should take a lesson from that and do the same.
That is, I accept, unlikely to be a majority view. Life is hard enough, after all – what ever happened to good old fashioned escapism?
There are long periods too of nothing very compelling happening – when the cards available aren’t very interesting, or you’re not rolling the dice you need to buy them. After a while you’re rolling a few times and just saying ‘Nah’. Cards eventually disappear off the track, but it can take a while before something of value comes along. The cards that give extra dice are just so much more valuable than the others, and you might find yourself passing up on opportunities just because you don’t want to lose what you already have. Sure, you can buy the cards and leave them inactive, but that’s extremely unexciting gameplay.
All of this has an easy fix, which is more content. This is a game that would absolutely shine with expansions, and these expansions would be relatively easy to put together. There is an expansion available, and I will likely pick it up before too much time has passed because I want more of what CV can be. But more than new game systems, CV needs more story-telling beats. I’d like to see CV ‘after dark’, incorporating all the sex and eroticism and darkness and unpleasantness of the world beyond the cardboard. I want CV ‘careers pack’ with lots more jobs. A CV ‘consumer special’ with lots of things to buy.
CV, out of the box, just isn’t a game I can recommend. A version of CV with hundreds of cards that you put in play in subsets would be tremendous, and would propel CV much higher up my rating scale than its currently uninspiring resting point. I want every game of CV to give me something new, and after my first play-through I’d already seen 99% of what it had to offer. As such, I can’t see myself taking it down from the shelf when I have so many other games that have so many more secrets left for me to unlock.
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