IF Comp 2018: Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise

canadaLet’s Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise is a game where you have a big truck and a million dollars and you drive around Canada buying and selling stuff.

I wasn’t sure if this was going to be an edutainment joke or not. Well, OK, I mostly assumed it was going to be a joke. It’s not a joke. It is really a game about trading commodities in Canada, pitched for an educational market, told entirely straight. It bears a distinct resemblance to the 1986 game Crosscountry Canada, which is also a thing about driving a big truck and trading things without ever deigning to venture into the US.

Now, OK, I’m not the biggest fan of Taipan-like trading games, but it’s a mechanic I can accept if it forms a mechanical support for more interesting things. These, alas, are not on offer here. There are no objectives except to travel around, buy things, and sell them at a profit. You have to do some trivial management to avoid running out of gas or falling asleep at the wheel, but this is more busy-work than anything.

As a piece of UI it’s deeply wretched. You make your choices entirely by selecting radio buttons and then hitting a regular button to submit your choice. This is pointlessly awkward and slow, especially when you want to buy or sell several commodities at once: you have to go to a separate menu to see your inventory, and pallets are sold one at a time. Sometimes the radio buttons are kind of messed up, and display completely empty options. It takes you to new screens of text for the sake of very trivial and predictable actions, which adds friction and nothing else. It shows you the option to sell goods you don’t have as a way of saying ‘they buy X here’, with no indication that you can’t presently sell anything.

I cannot emphasize this enough: any Twine newbie could design a better interface than this in an afternoon. Even if only by virtue of not using radio buttons.

Commodity-trading games nowadays often have some kind of in-game affordance to keep track of local prices without having to take notes. This doesn’t. On one hand, it makes it more difficult to plan anything, especially since the game only goes on for thirty days; on the other, I don’t want to imagine what kind of menu from hell would have been used to deliver this information, so, y’know, I’m good.

A more crucial complaint, though, is that the game’s text is extremely bland. I have traveled only a couple of sections of the roads described on the map; several times from Whitehorse up to Dawson, and once north from there through Tombstone up as far as Eagle River. I’ve been privileged to be on some pretty extraordinary road trips in my life, and the Dempster is one of the most awe-inspiring: hard, bleak, vast country, black mud. Ersatz inukshuk by the roadside. The long, slow fade of the subarctic krummholz, stunted trees struggling to form a forest, burns from fires who knows how many decades back. The disquiet of going well below half your gas tank before seeing another place to refuel. Grizzlies the same colour as that unsettling mud, small and rangy.

In the game I made a point of making it as far as Inuvik, despite all. (In the real world we didn’t get there, because the Mackenzie River was thawing, at which times of year you can neither drive across the ice nor get the ferry across.)

That’s one road in a vast country, a land full of stories and possibilities and journeys and people, an immense and varied landscape. What Commodities Trader gives you is one lukewarm tourist destination or factoid per major town, and nothing about the space between. I’m legit mad at this because, well, I would love a real-world travel network game, an 80 Days made by people who intimately knew and loved the paths and roads they were describing, a Fire Tower writ large.

There’s no beauty in this, no excitement, no awe. Canada, and schoolkids, deserve better. 2.

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