Review: Cargo

Describing Cargo, the newest game from games as art Russian luminaries Ice Pick Lodge (developers of the impenetrable Pathologic and the penetrable but intense The Void), is both simple and devilishly hard.

Let’s get the simple out of the way. Heard of, or played, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts? It’s that. But Russian. Not in the traditional overwhelmingly bleak way, but in the same way Russian animation is. That’s Cargo. That’s it. That is its central idea.

They then combine this base with five games worth of storytelling hooks mashed into one world and in the process create the most fantastically creative game worlds imaginable. Hook after utterly bizarre hook slams into you and leaves you utterly, completely bewildered.

So, when I say that Cargo is completely undefinable and a game you should play, know that I’m being serious. This is not a wolf in feudal Japan restoring nature weird, or anime weird, or even Super Mario Bros. 2 weird. This is Russian weird. This is absolute, intense, mind fucking weirdness. It’s also a very good way to get into their two previous incomprehensible but utterly brilliant releases, so it has that going for it, too. As it is, it’s a game that defies general definitions of goodness. Is it a good game? I can’t say. Is it bad? Almost certainly not. Is it mediocre? That’s the most ludicrous title to pin on it.

It simply is, and is what you make of it.

In Cargo, you play as the awkwardly named Flawkes, a mechanic girl who smacks of Alyx Vance in character design. She’s practical, well dressed, and has the smallest breasts outside of pre-pubescent girls in video games. In most games, this would classify as the weirdest thing (a woman! Without immense milkers? A THOUSAND ARTICLES ON THE INTERNET!) but this is the single sanest thing in the game. She has more character than most protagonists, even though she doesn’t really interact with anyone.

Flawkes and her captain, asinine Captain Borkin, are piloting a balloon. Where are they coming from? Why is the Captain sitting on the front of their blimp? Again, very normal questions. They’re delivering some cargo to the archipelago for mysterious senders.

Now’s where it gets weird.

The island is populated by a race of cherubic naked bald things named Buddies, who are the world’s most renewable source of fun. See, when Buddies get excited, they explode. The Buddies see your ship! They get excited! They explode, and sink it underwater.

You wake up on the beach, and an orchestra of Buddies talk to you exclusively in rhyme. Apparently, the way to get Buddies excited is by kicking them. Okay. Kick them enough, and they explode. Buddies are also, as creatures of pure goodness, completely retarded, and will walk into airplane turbines without any hesitation because it looks fun.

Does all of this make sense? No? It’s really not supposed to. And it only gets worse.

When you get on land, you realize that the island, the entire archipelago, is ruled over by three floating divine heads (Deus ex Machina. Really. No. That’s what they call themselves), who reduced the gravity of everything on Earth and sent the things into the stratosphere. The only thing with gravity anymore is fun, which can be used to bring things back to Earth.

Longtime Ice Pick Lodge fans will here notice the meta narrative: you need fun to bring things into the realm of people. It’s a huge meta jab at people who didn’t play their previous games for not being fun, even though fun was never the goal.

There’s other aspects, like a totally unexplained robot devil head, a race of rapist penguins, and the fact that, to get more fun, you need to attach life preservers to your vehicles and let Buddies fly off the back, but we only needed to give you a rough idea of the premise. Yes, there’s more. Jesus Christ there’s more.

Here’s the thing: there’s heavy stuff going on in the background of all this fun. The game has definitely been designed to be fun, but underneath there’s this strong undercurrent of unease, like in the first Portal before you knew the twist. There’s definitely cake, but you get the feeling it might be a lie the whole time, and you feel uneasy for it. It’s got a masterful atmosphere.

The gameplay? Well, Cargo is of the many styled but unified genre of Russian. Console games will now be looking around wondering why Tetris has its own genre, while PC gamers deep into the shit will be nodding, perhaps wistfully, remembering Pathologic and The Void and Boiling Point and Precursors and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro 2033 (console gamers will possibly remember this guy too). Russian game development exists in some sort of bizarro alternate universe where World of Warcraft never existed, where minimaps and quest markers are for namby pamby casual gamers and where mechanics are supposed to be as arcane and soul crushing as possible. Where smooth, friendly game design is replaced with the harsh, cold mistress of the Russian winter. In short, a bizarre reality where games have bite.

More wistful nodding from the PC crowd, here. Possibly some crying, remembering the four hours they put into The Void only to realize they were well and truly fucked.

I mean, Cargo is the nicest Russian game I’ve ever played, but it’s still Russian. Minimaps, clear directions, and tutorials are for the weak who will not survive the winter. There’s a scene, early in the game, where the game tells you: build a motorboat, or else all these people will die. A counter appears on the screen: twenty seconds.

You will freak out, because about six mechanics will be explained in this twenty seconds. A bunch of Buddies will probably die. It’s the central Russian game lesson: people will die, and there is nothing you can do because you have to learn sometime*. But it’s okay! Unlike in Pathologic or The Void, where such a failure means utter doom, in Cargo all it means is horrible naked bald men get gruesomely murdered! You can get more by throwing trash into a big hole!

I’m deliberately avoiding talking about game mechanics here, because in general they are somewhere between unspectacular and infuriating. I haven’t beaten it yet (and it’s quite short: I’ve played for five hours and hell, I’m almost at the end) because there are just moments of such intense frustration that the game will wear you down eventually. Some parts, particularly when you drive a car, are fun and smooth, but when your boat flips over for the thirteenth time for no discernable reason and when your helicopter refuses to even attempt going up despite pressing the up button you’re going to get frustrated, and you’re going to throw it down. The cars always feel good, the boats feel good until you get into a horrible flipping over loop, and the helicopters and submarines are just plain awful.

It’s different than The Void in another way. The Void was a very intense game, and people mocked it for being not fun, but it just had an arcane system. Once you understood it, the game made sense. It didn’t feel like it was a bad game, it felt like an obtuse, difficult, brilliant game. Cargo feels like a game held together by duct tape. Some parts work, but others feel slapped together. The game stutters and starts through everything, and barely manages to hold itself together. It’s a cool concept, but its execution is a bit lacking. Truth is, it’s not all that much fun. The gameplay won’t engage you.

But that’s not why you’re playing the game! You’re playing it because it’s so fucking weird. And it’s definitely fun, in its own obtuse way. It’s not an exhilarating game, but it’s a game that sucks you in by being so utterly and completely different from anything else you’re going to play.

That’s the thing with these games. They pose a question: do you want to play another first person shooter where you run in a straight line, another RPG where you run between map markers, skip the text and pick either the good or evil option continuously, or do you want something completely different? Because this is the Monty Python of video games. It is utterly baffling, full of the weirdest possible things and directions the plot could go in. It does this, and it does so in such a natural way that having a trail of ten naked bald little men shouting MIJU! while hanging on the back of an airplane inspires no laughs. That watching one of them be raped by a penguin makes you want to kill the fucking birds. It’s utterly phenomenal, and deserves to be played by the countless masses who say that video games are too homogenous. Because this is as far from more of the same as you can get without lighting your computer on fire and reading a Jane Austen novel.

*This gives the Call of Duty level No Russian an ironic meaning: in Russian, people have to die, and you will probably end up being responsible for their deaths, because that is how things are accomplished. In No Russian, you can put your head between your legs, shoot no one, and while they’ll die, you will be absolved of all negative feelings. No deep thought will be required! Hooray!