Andy Mudrak, Interactive Designer

Jalopy – My Gaming Experience and Reflection


Jalopy is a road-trip driving game for the Windows platform, by developer Minskworks.  It places you in the early 1990’s, in a “dilapidated old car on a grand journey through the territories of the former Eastern bloc.”  The basic synopsis is that you need to drive your uncle from Berlin to Instanbul, and maintain your jalopy, the “Laika 601” along the way—and maybe make some cash and trick out your ride along the way, if you’re fancy like that.  The game is available on Steam, at the time of writing.

Why’d I play It?

I first heard of this game sometime back in the new year of 2018, last year.  Just trying to keep an eye out for new and interesting indie games, I came across Jalopy.  An image of an steaming/smoking broken old car, and then a quick trailer showing me the troubles of upkeep on such an old beauty sparked quite a bit of curiosity in me.  It sounded silly—why would anyone want to take this old thing on a road trip inside a game, and why would I want to find parts and keep it running. 

Yet, it sounded kinda fun.  It was really out there, it was fairly unique, and I like that sort of thing.  And then, it mentions to me that the road trip is across the old Eastern bloc countries.  That locked me in—what a choice, but also a perfect fit in aesthetic and story, obviously!  I wanted to learn more about an experience like this in the Soviet era—it is a foreign topic to me and I thought it might be enlightening.

My Experience

Back in Action – New Year, New Game

So at the beginning of the year (it is now 2019), I really wanted to get back into game development, and had built a new PC, like I used to in the old days.  This got me some hardware would let me code and build quickly, but also be able to experience games with higher end graphics previously out of my reach with my older laptop.

So, the next step in that process was to get back into actual gaming.  I do love playing games through Steam, and reconnected with that platform, found Jalopy, and off I went!

At this point, I’ve played about 8 hours of Jalopy—I’ve made my way to the end of the road trip, and actually started back for a little bit.  It’s been fun!

An Atmospheric-Forward Game

What I’ve really liked from the get go is just the way the environment, the car, the uncle, and everything about the Eastern bloc looks.  I knew from the beginning watching trailers that this was not a high-end graphics type of game you see from AAA—and yes, an ironic first pick back into gaming with my new rig.  The lines, shapes, and natural environment are blocky, and unphotorealistic—you know you’re in some sort of weird game (in a good way).  The color palette is distinctly drab, with desaturated greens, greys, and browns, implying to me some sort of bleakness, depression, or oppression, maybe.  This really adds to the experience, especially for a person that sort of expects this type of aesthetic when thinking about 70’s to 90’s socialist Europe, and who has no real working knowledge of that culture, such as myself when starting this adventure.

The Charm!

This game is so charming, though!  Though seemingly contradictory, the fairly lightweight story, the Uncle and his character, and even the quasi-cuteness of the car really make you want to care about the trip you’re on and making it through.  It feels a bit silly and weird to be spending time in the game just deciding what route to take, figuring out what’s broken on your car, fixing it, and praying it doesn’t break down randomly the whole time, while wondering why you’re really doing this.  But you’re doing it because it’s a bit of an adventure and a challenge.

Procedure Nature and Caring Aspects

There’s also something I like about the procedural nature of taking care of the car.  Laika (the manufacturer) gives you a straightforward and simple manual simply to tell you how to drive the thing, and practically not much else.  And of course your Uncle knows a thing or two.  But what you learn in the first 5 minutes is pretty much what you need to know—past that, you’re on your own and you need to keep watch.  Your character seems to have an instinct initially for what’s broken and by how much, but then you as a player developer your own instinct for this even while just driving along.  You learn what’s going to get you in trouble.  You eventually know what to buy at the gas stations to keep the thing going.  And you know don’t want to get stuck!  (No, there’s no zombies out there, sorry.)

I am comforted by the fact that when I do get stuck from time to time, I know I can save the game and come back later.  I’m not going to return into that same dire state—it’s a bit forgiving in that regard, and essentially starts you back at a motel with a place to properly get started back up again.  Out of money?  Don’t worry, you Uncle’s got your back.  Or you could go snooping around :-).  It’s nice to know we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

History and Learning

Your uncle will also chat with you a bit during the journey, and what he talks about piqued an interest in me to find out more of the history of the places we traveled through, and the time period there.  Uncle speaks about the CSFR, the Velvet Revolution, for example, and tries to give you a little background along the way as you pass through the scary and nerve-wracking border checkpoints (until you’re a pro after going through like 5 or 6 of them, of course).  To this, I found myself lookup up the towns, such as Štúrovo, and the CSFR, the Velvet Revolution, and finding out a lot more than I was intending to.  I love a game that can set out to be something simple, but imply so much complexity, and inspire so much learning without trying too hard to do so.

There’s really a lot more to say about this game, such as the ambience of the wilderness and quietness when stopping on the side of the road to pick up some abandoned cargo.  There’s the option to upgrade and trick out your Jalopy and make it the envy of the entire Eastern bloc, complete with flames on the side.  But that stuff you’ll just have to explore for yourself!

Final Thoughts

For me, the inspiration to learn more about history I wasn’t much aware of coming into the game, and the charming nature, really got me thinking about the type of game Jalopy is, and how one could riff off of this a bit.  Why not myself build a different road trip game, but in a different region?  How about if we focused less on the car and maintenance, and more on another aspect, such as regional stories?  Or maybe we hitchhike?

Not to take anything away from Jalopy, because I do love it: I do find myself wanting more of the history, and more of the story.  What else can I do besides go from Berlin to Istanbul?  What does it mean to go back?  Who else is there to meet?  This are things I might want to explore more in this type of game.

I might want to make such a game where we don’t physically have to drive around, or spend time doing the tedious tasks.  Or maybe it’s more about the conversation with the person or persons in the car with you (maybe you’re picking up a hitchhiker!). 

I’m happy I played Jalopy and I look forward to coming back and exploring more!  This is a game that has inspired me to think about games that have a slow, methodical, process and way of unraveling events. 


Thoughts on Openness, Creativity in Game Design, Thanks to Idea Festival

I set aside some time for myself this year to go to some conferences that were non-technical and not specifically game-related or game-focused. I chose one such conference called the “Idea Festival”, held every year in Louisville, Kentucky. For me, it provoked thoughts on what I could do with future game designs, and plenty for general self-improvement. My shared take on this is truly such a minimal, one-percent (or less) slice of all the possibilities of what one person might come away with from Idea Festival.

What is Idea Festival?

Giving a description for Idea Festival has been a little difficult for me each time I’m asked about it, because it can be so many things at once. It’s an open book, exposure to new thinking, with a focus on a better future. If I were to make an analogy, I’d say it reminds me of TED (assuming you’re familiar with them). What I think is great about the Idea Festival is that it’s full of well-defined ideas and presentations, mixed with moving personal stories, alongside a crowd of folks asking some of the most amazing questions I’ve heard asked anywhere. Taking in so many viewpoints is refreshing.

Why a Conference Not Focused on Explicitly Games?

What does this have to do with game design or design in general? It is not about gaining a technical advantage. Game designers should take on a responsibility to expose themselves to a larger part of the world, rather than work in a bubble. Sticking to just technical conferences, only talking to programmers and engineers, or keeping up with news in only technology and science is too limiting for someone working in an industry that combines all of these things plus art, cultural, social, and political concerns and issues. Even when considering social contexts and themes, we usually work within our own cultures and circles; but it’s important to branch out now and then, to get a refresh. Idea Festival is one of the many places that you can show up to that opens you back up to the world.

Laughter = Openness and Creativity

One notable theme this year was how the combination of laughter and happiness leads to openness and creativity. Chris Bliss, a comedian (and apparent world-class juggler), told stories about warming up crowds for the Tonight Show. As you may know, this is basically a service given to help support the main act–allowing the audience to be most receptive when they take the stage. He even went on to recall on some scientific reasons for this–laughter releases endorphins that provides this function of opening up minds. It’s not a stretch to think of laughter and humor as an ingenious way to communicate about difficult social issues. Stress, in most extreme measures leading to our fight-or-flight response, provides the opposite effect: a closed mind. To follow this, Oliver Burkeman described a way to achieve a more permanent, sustainable happiness by accepting negative thoughts (about yourself or your own productivity) and move past them. This reminds me of the “good stress” vs. “bad stress” dialogue, where accepting the stress of your experiences as an inevitability and being okay with it will actually turn that stress into a positive thing for you. In game design, this has some parallels–humor has been an obvious tool used for as long as one can remember. But when it comes to games with a purpose, laughter opening up minds to new concepts and ideas within the story or context within the game should be one of the most embraced tools. Combine this with providing great challenge within a game, and you may have something that helps people achieve a sustainable happiness through openness, empathy, and an accepting self-critical nature.

Systems of Symbiosis and Trust

Another concept to explore further within games would be the use of symbiosis and trust among players, the environment, and its society (whatever that might be within a game’s context). As indie game design culture has grown over the past few years, we’ve already seen a great outpouring of new mechanics in games, well beyond the traditionals of competition, elimination, physical struggle, and simple puzzles. Symbiosis and trust has been only minimally been explored through cooperative scenarios in games–we should expand on this. From the festival, Rafe Sagarin spoke of symbiosis in nature, along with systems of collaboration. When an octopus wishes to change its color, this happens not through a system of hierarchical communication, but through the immediate effects that can occur through a decentralized system. This is a system of explicit trust, each cell, though technically independent on a micro scale, is inseparably tied to its primary role to aid the whole of the organism. Rafe also pointed out the natural existence of symbiosis among organisms, which is established through an implied trust and understanding of the benefits of the collaboration (e.g. a shark doesn’t each a cleaner fish because of its health benefits, and conversely the cleaner fish increases its level of safety due to the presence of the shark). This is a system of adaptation on the part of the individual. But he continued: if this trust is broken (e.g. a cleaner fish fails its task or could somehow harm its host), the symbiosis is immediately and permanently lost between the two individuals. It’s worth exploring portrayals either realistic or even imagined systems of trust (or distrust) in game designs, beyond the trust between players, and into the game environment and its systems. An interesting game study might be of a system of trust and how it is affected by openness of its individuals, and how that openness is also affected by other means–such as laughter and humor.

Inclusiveness, Openness, and Creativity

What if we were all more inclusive people will skill in areas outside of our expertise? What if these folks were to even have a direct hand in thinking through and participating in our areas of expertise? At Idea Festival, Ariel Waldman talked about this, in particular her and other experiences in inclusiveness in scientific fields. She, with expertise as a graphic designer, had landed a job with NASA, the well-known force in exploration in space and science. NASA and Ariel saw and took the opportunity to expand NASA’s effectiveness by including someone with creative and alternative viewpoints on approaches to problems. She went on to produce the Science Hack Day program, where the intent is to include all groups of people in science exploration. This program further demonstrates that this inclusiveness produces innovative ways to solve problems and increases creativity many times over. This openness among the scientific community allowed creativity to grow. We’ve seen a rise in these sorts of collaborations in recent years, in hackathons, game jams, and maker fairs. Let’s bet that this can be expanded even further for even more exponential results in the production of asynchronous tools to allow new collaborations in areas not yet tapped. Video game development, for instance, is a difficult endeavor of programming with the combination of various arts: graphics, sound, story, mechanics. It all leads back to a hierarchical system of communication with the programmer at the top, bringing together all its resources. Why not break this down into a decentralized system, by making tools available to all people in the process, even the artists, designers, and other non-programmer types? We are getting closer with tools like Twine and Gamemaker, and should keep pushing forward to make inclusiveness lead to even greater creativity in game design. With the indie culture we have now, it’s a great time to branch out and explore new and interesting concepts in game design, like openness, trust, and creativity. It’s a great time to be inclusive and listen to folks already in our field, but also those outside of it. We should explore these possibilities and not be afraid to experiment with concepts we learn this way, and in-turn learn and share new things from our collaborative game designs.