The game is a race management sim where you run an errant gang of misbehaving squirrels, who act a bit like glamorous soccer stars. It is set in the dark underworld of the international squirrel racing scene. Bribery, debt, hotel room trashing, gambling and secondary careers in reality TV or the pop charts are rife.
In the up-tree urban training facility you purchase squirrel homes, build up your team from a selection of bizarre characters and train them up using running machines, lift weights, receive massage and practice the ancient martial art of Squdo. When your team’s ready, it’s off to the racetracks in their private jet. From jungles to futuristic cities and streets to deserts, the squirrels face a barrage of opponents who get harder as the game progresses. You watch the race progress from above with live-generated race commentary and, as team manager, dive in with mini-game boosts and power-ups when it’s time to overtake.
what We Think:
This one caught me off-guard. When I got wind of it, I pondered how it was that what appeared to be a racing game featuring cute little critters could be a finalist at IndieCade – something unusual had to be going on here to grab the judges’ attention.
Well what this is, as the video interview below with game designer Rob Davis will demonstrate, is anything but a simple racing game. In fact, what International Racing Squirrels is, is an experiment in money and resource management; in other words, a gentle lesson in good basic economics, budgeting, financing, credit building and so on.
WAIT! Don’t run away yet. It is also fun, and even though you have to pay bills, rent and watch your credit limit, you rarely feel like you are doing so. What makes this so effective, however, is that you are able to observe your own tendencies and even habits, and these are accounted for in the game’s design. A very difficult thing to pull off, and the more I look at it, the more masterful I realize Playniac has been in achieving this.
While a tutorial is omnipresent in the form of a sleazy cat manager named Jarvis whose motivations for helping you are questionable (does he just want to fatten up your rodents to eat them?), you can toggle it off at any time. What it should do is hand-hold you long enough to figure out how to build a racing squirrel, set them up in an apartment and get through your first few races, during which time you will get a better handle on what this truly clever and experimental game is really hiding under the hood.
Spoilers and Racing Stripes
For example – rather than talk about how to effectively take a corner, these are the kinds of quick tips I can offer you:
-Don’t forget to go back and get a better credit card with lower APR, higher credit limit and lower fines. Or a better savings account with a higher interest rate.
-Spend your money on upgrades and training, but don’t forget about those bills at the end of every month!
-I learned a little too late that building up a single squirrel is not the best choice. (Don’t store all your acorns in one tree trunk…) Apparently the value of new squirrels scales with your own status.
But rather than give you any more spoilers, I will leave it at that you really must keep tabs on every available element in play here because they snowball and scale as you level up. Mo money, mo problems.
The musical score is very spare, in that it repeats often. It could stand a few new cues and variety, particularly for the varying race settings – perhaps some international musical themes would be on order here? I asked Davis about this, here was his reply:
“We did actually compose about 4-5 different themes for the different race tracks – so you get some jungle drums in Africa, some koto in Japan and trance in the desert (well you’re probably hallucinating by then). We wrote an English Country Garden dub step track but it was too bizarre! It might end up in a new gothic racetrack we just designed.”
Hrm, maybe I was just too distracted by the race at hand. Or perhaps I just spent more time in the management screens and so it felt loop-ish.
At times the game asks you to make a moral decision – turn in your racer after they have committed a minor felony, or cover their backs no matter what. In this sense I sometimes was a little concerned by the outcomes and started to suspect this was secretly some sort of Private Catholic School 16mm educational school film, only because in “doing the right thing” you are almost always rewarded, whereas taking the “low-road” in spite of any possible financial advantages to doing so led to punishment and setbacks. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work this way, and in this respect I found it slightly skewed. However, in speaking to Davis about the possible leanings of the moral compass, he said that though they took great care to ensure neutrality:
“This is absolutely not the case. We worked with brilliant script writers Failbetter, who also made dark, gothic and narratively ambiguous Fallen London. The stories are always morally complex, but they are not in any way morally righteous. The outcomes are complex – you never know what is right or wrong, just that the choice was interesting. When I said I’d look at the decision trees I more meant for the fifty new stories we are writing at the moment – the existing stories were written from outset to be suitably ambiguous.”
I am not sure how the game mechanics operate in this area, but if proper answers are “hard-wired,” then I still felt a strange leaning to the halo. But if, in fact, the results of these choices are also based on your progress thus far and the moral path you have followed, well then maybe it’s just the choices I made. It deserves another playthrough to be sure…
The Finish Line
International Racing Squirrels is an outstanding experiment in hybridizing genres to form a powerful experiment – using the pretense of a team of rag-tag and morally questionable rodents on race-tracks to investigate one’s own spending habits – created by some highly experienced game designers interested in pushing the boundaries of what a game can mean while remaining accessible to all audiences.