Wot I Think – Cargo!

By Quintin Smith on April 27th, 2011 at 4:32 pm.

What, you've never seen a floating potato take a leak before?

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 it’s 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, but you’ll find them both after the jump.

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”- seen above- 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 zepplin 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 a 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 ballache 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 it’s 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.

__________________

« | »

, , , , .

51 Comments »

  1. noom says:

    The jump quinns! You missed the jump!

    Edit: OK, either you fixed it right sharpish or the site just bugged out while I was loading it :S

  2. Noc says:

    “Oh yeah, ‘No Cut Quinns,’ I remember when he was still in the business. That was…man, that was years ago. It was a simpler time, back before Game Journalism Mk. IV came around.

    “What? Why’d they start calling him ‘No Cut?’ Well, I’ll tell you, and I’ll tell you up front: it wasn’t ’cause he was afraid to use a letter opener.

    “It all started back on this PC gaming blog, RockPaperShotgun. You may have heard of it…”

  3. Urael says:

    Oddly, I have been playing this just today and having a good time. However, this was after Steam did something secret to the game that made many of the bugs go away; previously I’d been able to get only so far before it crashed on me.

    It’s certainly a mad title but yes some extra polish might have made all the difference.

  4. bluebogle says:

    Good review! I pretty much agree with everything said. No regrets buying the game, but sure do wish it was a bit more fine tuned.

  5. lokimotive says:

    That’s unfortunate. Everything I’ve read so far about this game seems to be the journalistic equivalent of sucking ones teeth and saying “yeah…” If I actually had a steady income right now, I’d probably purchase it just to support Ice Pick Lodge. As it stands I’ll just have to wait.

    It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next, though.

  6. Tei says:

    Heres some screenshots of my vehicle (possible spoilers here)
    http://steamcommunity.com/id/tei/screenshots/
    http://steamcommunity.com/id/tei/screenshot/542891998621780675

    My faster vehicle manage 700 Km/h (I think it glitched a bit).

  7. ComradePenguin says:

    Surely a hula hoop would be tighter on a fat man?

    Sadly I lack patience with polished titles so I imagine this would drive me mad. Sad as it seems I’m missing out rather.

  8. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I think you’re maybe a little overly negative about it (& my home town :P) as a way for people who found their previous games inaccessible this represents an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about without having to commit huge amounts of time & effort, it also polishes a lot of their usual faults & all it did was sacrifice, a little, the sense of place their games usually have.

  9. pkt-zer0 says:

    That Japanese vehicle-building game on the PSX should be Panekit.

  10. bwion says:

    I’ll definitely be getting this, but this writeup has convinced me that I don’t need to ransom my firstborn to get it today.

    (Which would have been awkward, given the lack of a firstborn.)

    I also really need to go back and finish The Void.

    • Wilson says:

      Yeah, I need to have a go playing Pathologic and The Void again. I never quite got into them enough I think, but I do feel a desire to return. At some point.

  11. Mario Figueiredo says:

    The game could have appealed to me. Or my daughters, more probably. But really, the little guys freaked me out. I would be impossible for me to sympathize with these fellas and my eldest daughter (the young one actually thought them cute) made an ugly face too when she saw the screenshots.

  12. PleasingFungus says:

    My time with Cargo, in pictures: Standing on thin air. Becoming trapped beneath the seabed. Crashing to desktop over and over and over (not pictured)

    But I suppose all that is rather missing the point, because terribly buggy as the game is, it’d all be excusable if it was any fun.

    And it just isn’t, for me. “You go stumbling from situation to situation, perpetually tripping over the game’s awkward interface and bugs and unclear mission objectives” sums up the game about perfectly for me. Which is a shame, because I really wanted to like it! (I put down $20 on it – on the basis of Quinns’ earlier preview, as a matter of fact.) But after I’d reached about four hours of Not Having Any Fun, I decided it was best to cut my losses.

  13. Vinraith says:

    Speaking of Pathologic, any news on the translation project? It’s an amazingly atmospheric game, but I don’t understand how anyone English-speaking can play it, I can’t make heads or tails out of what anyone is saying.

  14. aerisdead says:

    Come now, Quintin. Not all of Glasgow. Sauchiehall Street, sure.

  15. enshak says:

    This might not be such a great game but what a fantastic experence of a world you won’t find in many other games. The vechicle editor is very frustrating to use at first untill you learn its ways. I can’t remember any bugs thougth. The game could have done with being longer like working more of the achievements into the game, but they are a small team so I expect this. I’am suprised you didn’t mention the music tool where you could import your own music tracks as I found this the most fun. Secret ending you say, off to play then.

  16. Giant, fussy whingebag says:

    Clearly everything about this game is a metaphor for life.

    The player-character represents an older person, whilst the ‘buddies’ are a caricature of the younger, trendier generations who always seem to be having so much fun but also just seem a bit daft. Meanwhile, you struggle to build something with your life, to make the world a better place, but it always seems that as soon as you have one thing figured out it becomes irrelevant. “it’s inevitably a bit of a disappointment- almost always a bit slow or awkward in some sense” sounds about right, doesn’t it?

    Sorry, this pretentious over-examination of the subject matter just popped into my head whilst reading, so I thought I would share.

  17. Biscuitry says:

    My god… Richard O’Brien and the Heavy from Team Fortress 2 had babies. Thousands of them.

    I’m going to find a little hole to curl up in and hide now.

  18. Moonracer says:

    I thought about as much of this game. The world and characters are entertainingly nuts. The shift of constant tutorial level learning and moving to the next was a little unsettling. But all said I enjoyed that it was an easy and relaxing game and it was entertaining enough that I played through the whole game in a day.

    I was a little sad that I tried the sandbox mode thinking it would allow a relaxed setting to build but found that the buddies were under a constant and monotonous threat which I felt compelled to deal with.

  19. qrter says:

    You also don’t have to pay anything for the clouds.

  20. protobob says:

    I like the game, though I’ve been taking a break from it while waiting for the save bug to get fixed. The devs on the Ice Pick Lodge forums have been very helpful and the latest patch has fixed my problems.

  21. rasputinsownbear says:

    As a big IPL fan I was in a strange way relieved to see Cargo – there is no way reality could bear the existence of another game as breathtakingly awesome as Pathlogic produced so soon.

  22. faceface says:

    Well, I just bought it. It’s downloading now. Even if it doesn’t impress me as much as I hope it will I think I’ll still enjoy the novelty of experiencing the cheerier side of Ice-Pick Lodge’s game design.

    It’s like a McDonalds Salad or a non-alcoholic vodka.

  23. Wulf says:

    I’ll admit, the game is awkward to play, but to be honest I can overlook a lot of flaws for something as odd as this. It’s the setting that does it for me, really, the machine gods, the buddies, the giant penguins, I can enjoy this simply because of that. I suppose at the end of the day it depends on how invested you are in a game being unique, because that’s going to change your whole viewpoint around.

    For example, if this game had had a Fable sort of setting, with everything else remaining the same, I probably would’ve wanted to use that ice pick to stab it in the head because I’m so sick of that, but what they did is incredibly unusual, and while I admit that there’s a bug I’m waiting for them to fix before I can finish up, I will admit that I’ve loved all I’d played thus far. But as I said, were the setting different, I wouldn’t be so forgiving of the bugs and design flaws.

    But it’s worth buying and playing just to support games like this, this is the sort of thing we need to be telling developers we want more of, otherwise we’ll be perpetually stuck in the same cycle of dull medieval England fantasy settings, or ‘epic’ space operas focused around modern day xenophobic humans who’ve somehow remained unchanged in the future (even insofar as their hairstyles), or modern day games, or war games, or historic games, or… et cetera, as I mentioned before.

    This is so delightful in regards to everything else that the flaws that do exist I can just overlook, because at least this time I’m not playing the same game I’ve played five hundred times before, just slightly different. No, this time I felt like I played something genuinely new, that I’d not seen anything that was just this outright odd since the days of the home computer, and not just in regards to setting, but game mechanics and… well… everything! It was a fresh experience.

    Do you remember how on the home computers we had games that were batshit insane in both setting, story, and game mechanics just because they could get away with it? Well, Cargo is that. Cargo exemplifies that.

    • Wulf says:

      Basically, what I think I’m trying to say here is that this game is eccentric, it’s eccentric like the love child of Doctor Who and Stephen Fry after [s]he has consumed a large amount of some hallucinogenic substance (and yes I will say this now because I can see what people were talking about in one or two parts of the game, it’s unfiltered creativity). This is a good thing, but it goes from the setting, to the characters, to the visual flair, to the mechanics, and everything else. It also means that the game itself feels eccentric whilst being played, sort of like old home computer games did, in its own special way. Now in another game I might have felt that this would just extend the length of something that was annoyingly dull, but here I can tolerate it.

      So I’m saying that yes, the game can be a bit unintuitive and strange on times, but it sort of melts in with everything is being so bloody odd, and it becomes a tasty layered meringue of strange. And I think the bizarre nature of the rest of the game compels you to be okay with it introducing new ideas and game mechanics all the time, and never having you do the same thing twice, because it works for this game, and whilst sometimes you’ll be tripping over Ice-Pick Lodge’s inability to convey things properly, or the lack of signposting, you’ll never really be bored, frustrated, or angry. At least, I wasn’t.

      There seems to be some chemical combination here that just makes this game overall work and makes me want to forgive the parts that don’t, it’s fairly magical in that way because it compels you to be forgiving. It’s sort of like an incredibly, amazingly brilliant and creative child, stunningly insightful and amazingly forward thinking, but still a child. You smile when it stumbles.

  24. DarkFarmer says:

    I don’t mind having spent 20 bucks on this game, because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have researched Ice Pick Lodge further and found The Void, one of the most amazing singleplayer games I’ve ever seen.

    As for Cargo, my opinion of if changed greatly after playing The Void. Before, I figured they were just really weird and quirky, and this game was just totally strange, but after playing the Void I feel like Ice Pick was going for something else and ended up settling on this to try to recoup some moneys. I can’t feel like this is really the game they wanted to make.

    The Void proves that these guys are masters of making great games, and cargo isn’t what I think they really would make if they had all of the factors under control.

    But seriously, if you have not played it, do purchase and play The Void for 9.95 on steam before you go for Cargo. You will not be sorry. The Void is the real deal.

    • Wulf says:

      What I can’t understand is what evidence there is to even support this opinion. They didn’t want to make Cargo? Have they said so? Have they even implied it? Why is Cargo unlike something they’d put together? How is The Void the ‘real deal’ compared to Cargo? Is it because most people are just conditioned to believe that strange must also be melancholy? I mean, there are a lot of things said here but not one of them is quantified. You can say things, but they don’t make sense unless you explain them.

      In fact, thinking back to The Void, I think I’ve already nailed it and answered it myself. I think that people think that something can’t be strange without being melancholy, that somehow not being grimdark and emo actually lessens it, which is an opinion that I strongly disagree with. I mean, surrealist art was hardly grimdark or emo, and that’s what Cargo feels like.

      To me, Cargo feels exactly like something that Icepick Lodge would do, but it’s in a different style. This time they’re trying to make a game out of surrealist art.

    • Wulf says:

      To talk on this a little further without editing and losing my formatting…

      I actually feel a bit like Mr. Nobody of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol right now, as I recall one arc where he was trying to show people the joys of surrealism and imagination, but there were some people that could only see darkness in it, and that the surreal and the light-hearted couldn’t exist within the same space and make the world a better place by doing so. This was a position that Mr. Nobody was rather opposed to.

      And really, that’s what Cargo is, it’s happy surrealism, but just because it’s light-hearted and not emo that doesn’t mean it has to have less of an impact because it’s still bloody strange and surreal. I just think that perhaps even the majority are hard-wired to look at things this way and that’s actually a bit disappointing to me.

    • DarkFarmer says:

      My opinion of the Void as opposed to Cargo has nothing to do with the “emo ness” of its setting, and everything to do with the quote from Quintin’s review below.

      I actually love the setting for cargo, thats why I bought it. I was hoping it would have me exploring a large area of weird and fun floating islands, not hanging out at the same area for the whole game.

      “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.”

    • Muzman says:

      Not that I’ve played or anything, but it seems like a lot of the progression awkwardness could be fixed if the game just tread water (so to speak) for a while after each ‘mission’ and you had to accumulate X amount of Fun before the plot kicked off again.

      The structure as-is might not support this, but the mechanic of having to ‘create fun’ in a sandbox-ish environment is thoroughly ingenious. It’s a bummer that they might not have gotten the most out of it.

    • Halfgild Wynac says:

      We talked a bit on this in one of our interviews, rather an informal one. It was in Russian. Basically, Pathologic and The Void, different games as they are, both reside deep in the “gloomy, dark and dead serious” territory. Think that the company haven’t done anything funny or optimistic since 2002. So for once we decided to make something else, maybe even eccentric, but very different from what we’ve been doing before. As for making money – I never saw anyone complaining about that when The Void came out. :)

  25. enshak says:

    @ DarkFarmer. I would have liked the game you desribed too, but these games aren’t 2d worlds that most indies produce. These are full 3d worlds with alot of art assets and IPL are a small team. Having said that, I remember arguing the opposite about Amnesia on this site and being a complete dickhead.
    Good luck with them recouping their money when their publishers throw the game out unannounced a day after Portal 2.

  26. BenBen says:

    Man, I wanted to like this game. I made it to the first puzzle and hated every second of play along the way. It was actively unpleasant, which is unusual for a game. And $20 is just outside of my “Even if I’m not having a ton of fun I’m supporting independent thinking/games” range. Ah well, not the end of the world.

  27. KaL_YoshiKa says:

    Pretty big fan of Ice Lodge but I hadn’t heard of this game up until this point. Pretty concerning their lack of advertising. Have bought it now – even if it’s bad I still owe them for making two of the greatest art games of all time.

  28. GreatUncleBaal says:

    On sale over at Impulse for £9.99 at the mo.

  29. Halfgild Wynac says:

    Ice-Pick Lodge isn’t really working in a single apartment, it’s just some part of our team, in a somewhat disassembled state we are. I work from my home, for example.

  30. davidgilbert says:

    I have liked all of Ice-Pick Lodge’s games so far, even if it did take a while to wrap my head around the ideology of in The Void.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>