Games of 2022: Roadwarden made some interesting money again

I started 2022 by suggesting that we question the importance of earning as a ‘gaming’ activity and of economic transactions in general in the video game worlds. One way to do this is to think about the many different currencies we’ve all dropped in various save files over the years. Rupees in Zelda. Glow, Legendary Shards, and Bright Dust in Destiny. Bottle caps in Fallout.

Some of these currencies are associated with building a colorful world; others connect to pleasantly volatile market simulations. But they seem pretty interchangeable to me in hindsight, because the process of making money in most games is so bland and inconsequential that it has little overall impact on the world, even in games that give you a choice of economic backgrounds. Many single-player RPGs, in particular, are just consolatory fantasies of constant, even passive personal enrichment, where the player’s wealth floats alongside everything else, pacing progress in an abstract way. You can argue that this is worrying because it teaches us not to think critically about economics in general, but the simplest observation is that this is a missed opportunity for drama: so many great stories are about follow the money.

One of the reasons Roadwarden is my Game of the Year is that it actually got me interested in buying and trading again. Rather than a generic acquisition process, he treats money and transactions as living elements of human relationships – tools for both surviving and understanding his gloriously dirty and discontented medieval society. Granted, this is to some extent another RPG built around stacking coins to spend on health refills and tasty gear, but it’s all incredibly specific.

Here is the Roadwarden trailer.

Take the coins. They are discs of shaved dragon bones, which puts the central theme of this fantasy in the palm of your hand: the existence of civilization at the expense of mythical creatures of the forest who can invade settlements unless you , the guardian of the road, keep both sides under control. Bones are rare to begin with, and as such look like goods with individual stories, rather than a generic HUD element. Even if you amass a large pile, you might remember how you came across some pieces – in a bag under a bridge, or in the pocket of a corpse with a name, loved ones and debts to uncover.

While you can trade many items for bones, coins don’t really dictate the value of your goods, as Roadwarden’s economy is based on barter. This creates an intimacy with the other characters: to trade with them, you have to get to know them. Some would prefer to be paid in fish and berries. Others deal with information – names to be fed in parser style when roaming a village, for example. There is no clear difference between wares and quest items: one person’s irreplaceable magical artifact is another person’s source of scrap metal for the furnace. The fascination of the world is as much about grappling with this perennial question of what is worth what to whom as, say, mapping the deep wilderness. In short, the game treats mundane transactions as a means of characterization and exploration.

Roadwarden’s success here stems from the fact that it’s both an RPG and a classic point-and-click adventure – it’s the descendant of a genre where you combine particular objects, imaginative ways to solve puzzles, rather than converting them into money. The game has many other wonderful qualities: battles are true narrative events, rather than filler; magic is more like a screwdriver than a gun; and then there’s the cautious way he thinks about empire. But what I find most admirable is that it makes haggling in taverns as gripping and wondrous as killing a gryphon.

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