Begscape is a short, choice-based piece about a life of homelessness and begging. It is not possible to win, to the best of my knowledge, but I have played to an ending a number of times.
Porpentine actually sent me a preview copy of this before the comp, so I’m not seeing it for the first time here.
Begscape is simple and repetitive. You arrive at a location with (apparently) autogenerated features and a set price for lodgings. You can beg repeatedly over the course of the day. If you have enough money to pay for the lodgings at nightfall, you get a place to sleep; if not, you spend a night outside and take a hit to your health. In addition, unfair random events can occur, like people stealing your coins; begging is not guaranteed to be successful, and people who don’t give you money will often make mocking remarks as well. Sometimes the police beat you up. Often you’re forced to leave a community by communal pressure. Once — by carefully preferring to stay in towns at the low end of the average shelter cost and always moving on from the high-cost ones — I managed to live 37 days. That was an extreme high score.
The autogenerated place descriptions are often lovely. This is something Porpentine does to excellent effect in a number of her works, combine a few evocative phrases to suggest a whole landscape or a whole society. And the perverse thing about Begscape is that you almost immediately stop reading them at all, because the only part of the screen that actually matters is the brutal count describing how much shelter costs, how many coins you currently have, and how close you are to death.
That’s part of the point.
Another part of the point is what people say about you: their indifference, and their eagerness to assume that you’ll spend the money on alcohol or something else pointless. But even when they don’t say anything or make any assumptions about you, their indifference means you’re one step closer to death.
This gets to something that I struggle with a lot, intellectually and emotionally. Our ability to help one another is limited, and each individual’s ability is minuscule relative to the total need in the world. That’s obviously true with money, and also true (though less obviously) with emotional energy and time. On the one hand, it’s logical to try to spend your resources in whatever way will, as far as you can determine, help the most people and go the furthest. But a corollary to that, if you apply it strictly, is that you are likely to have to ignore some needs that are right in front of you, and say no to someone who is directly asking for help, thus sending the message that their miserable situation nonetheless did not meet your standards for charitable giving, whatever those might be. And that message is in itself damaging. On the receiving end, it’s indistinguishable from “I don’t care about you.” Begscape captures that.
The growing dislike of the community was familiar too.
Once in a bleak Ohio winter, tired of walking past people, I took a homeless woman into a 7-11-style shop to pick up some food, as well as a couple other things she wanted: pain relievers, something to drink, I forget exactly what all. If she hadn’t been living on the street, I would have guessed her age as about 65, though that situation is so aging that she might really have been quite a bit younger. The clerks watched us both with hostility. I think they assumed she was going to pocket extra stuff while we were at it. “She does this a lot,” said the guy behind the counter. “Gets people to bring her in here.” As though the information that her need was both severe and ongoing would be evidence that she deserved no help.
But even so I felt chastised for making them worry about her maybe shoplifting, upset that maybe I was helping her wrong and that there was a different better way, and at the same time angry, for her, that they’d talk about her like that when she was standing right there looking for medication to take the edge off what I imagine to be the chronic pain of sleeping on the sidewalk in freezing temperatures. When we got outside again I gave her my gloves too, and then I went home feeling like shit.
Begscape doesn’t moralize, nor does it rigorously simulate. It excludes some options that might exist in the real world. It doesn’t try to explain anything or offer a philosophy for dealing with anything or indeed ask anyone to do anything. It is, rather, a haiku of interaction: very simple, very short, capturing just one aspect of being isolated and unable to focus on anything but the immediate prospects of survival.