"What if you had a character that left home to work in West Germany but then, for whatever reason, found themselves in East Germany. One day they wake up, and the Berlin Wall has gone up. That happened to a few people at the time, and they were trapped in East Germany." This is the narrative premise of Jalopy, as described by its UK-based solo creator Greg Pryjmachuk.
Jalopy, however, is not set in either East or West Germany. It's set during the fall of communism across Eastern Europe, spanning many countries traversed over the course of a road trip taken by yourself, the player character, and your uncle. The vehicle is a dilapidated heap of rust, a relic of the communist era. In contrast, the open highways and trading opportunities straddling them are indicative of the potential for a future fuelled by capitalism.
Despite the setting and the strong allegory linking broken-down old cars and open roads to communism and capitalism, Jalopy, currently in Early Access on Steam, is primarily a story about people, with the uncle tying everything together.
Said uncle is from Turkey, and as a young man travelled to Germany for work. Unwittingly, he ended up being trapped within the conflict and politics of World War II, living under the supervision of a system he had no interest in. Having spent so much of his life on this once alien side of the fence, how does a journey back into the comparatively free world affect him? Is he bitter about time lost? Have his experiences under an oppressive structure changed him as a person?
Pryjmachuk is quick to cite many influences for this narrative-driving conflict, but one of the strongest comes from his own family history. His grandfather experienced the war first-hand, having been taken from his homeland and only returning many years later.
"I was only eight years old when I went to the Ukraine with my grandfather, but it's something I still have a vivid memory of," Pryjmachuk explains. "His story sticks with me. He was taken from Poland, by the Germans. They would take the oldest son from each family, but his older brother had health issues so he put himself forward to go to the labour camp instead. Eventually he found himself in England where he spent a lot of years before he had the opportunity to travel back home, which is similar to the character in Jalopy."
Travelling back home involved encountering a host of political changes, the most dramatic of which being that the nationhood of his home had changed. Originally from Poland, border changes following the end of the war meant that his home now resided within Ukrainian territory. He'd been away for so long that his place of birth now flew a flag of blue and gold, rather white and red.
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"He used to tell us stories about there being wooden houses with storks on the roofs and there being vodka men instead of milk men when he was growing up," Pryjmachuk continues. "I used to think the stories were ludicrous, but then we visited that part of Ukraine and there were wooden houses with storks on the roofs. Also, he hadn't seen his brother for 50 years... I have a brother and to think of him not seeing his brother for that long floored me."
Jalopy, the title literally meaning "car in dilapidated state", didn't always go by that name. Originally it was called Hac, the Turkish form of Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make at one point in their lives, if they can afford to do so, and is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Pryjmachuk's girlfriend is Turkish, and they visit the country regularly. It's during these trips that the core themes of Hac started to materialise. Dismayed by the barrage of negative press being thrown at Islam, the idea was to create something that would explore more the personal engagements the couple had with Turkey and, in particular, Istanbul. However, religion is a subject that requires a deft touch and an understanding audience.
"The more I looked into religion as a theme, the more it felt as though it wasn't right to pursue it. When you're dealing with people's political beliefs, everyone feels free to argue each other down; but when you're dealing with religious beliefs you've got to take far more care. It's more personal. People base their lives around this. With politics, though, people change and adapt throughout their life. I've not seen many religions change in the past few hundred years."
However, Pryjmachuk is keen to explain that this is not a game built primarily around politics. It's about people and how they handle and react to a change in politics and personal circumstances over time. How you behave on your journey through Jalopy affects not the overarching narrative but the specific lines of dialogue the uncle speaks. In this sense you're not offered the chance to determine how the uncle reacts to returning to a more home-like environment, but the chance to impact your emotional response to his revelations.
The mechanical elements of Jalopy, which sees you driving across countries, engaging in trade to make money and using those earning to improve your vehicle, might be representative of capitalism, but to no greater degree than many other games. A lot of game design is built around the concept of working hard to attain rewards, and in that regard Pryjmachuk argues that his work is no different.
"I think a lot of the themes I'm chasing through the game mechanics fit into most games because of the way progression tends to work. You dangle a carrot in front of someone's head and tell them 'work hard and you can have the carrot' – that's capitalism. What you're really doing is exploiting people in the hope that one day they might attain a level that allows them to exploit others."
Once you've attained the carrot, you get to dangle it yourself. That's capitalism. The interpretation doesn't sound like a fun one, but who's to say that all games need to simply aim for a commonly accepted definition of "fun"?
'Jalopy', Steam Greenlight trailer
"I don't necessarily think all video games need to be enjoyable experiences. I really enjoy seeing what happens when someone tries to take a different route and explore something that hasn't been done. The most heart-breaking thing for me at the moment is watching annual games come out. I worked on one for so long, and you just don't get the time to take risks or try anything new. It's a shame."
The reference here is to Codemasters' Formula 1 series, on which Pryjmachuk had worked on and off since 2009 – his latest stint beginning in 2012 as a designer. Having become disillusioned with the concept of making minor updates to a franchise released annually, he made the decision to develop a game alone.
"I think everybody at a studio, even all the way up to the directors, realises that you can't make a game of much worth in nine months. All you're doing is shifting numbers around to change the handling of the cars, or whatever. You're not doing a whole lot other than changing the art. I think everyone gets frustrated with that up to a point. In a big company you're spending half of your time making sure everyone around you knows what everyone else is doing.
"I really love just working on games, and that's all. I don't have to worry about meetings and having people understand what I'm trying to put across. If something doesn't work I can change it, that's fine."
With this background, then, moving onto a project that involves driving is a logical step; even more logical when you consider that Pryjmachuk spent time working on Formula 1's dialogue systems, that see race engineers relay key information to the player. This information changes depending on the state of the tyres, fuel consumption and which cars are in front and behind you, and it's this knowledge of adaptive dialogue this has helped in designing the systems powering how the uncle reacts to your actions.
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If you don't want to hear the uncle at all, you can turn off his speech and play Jalopy as a cross-country simulator, in a manner similar to the likes of Euro Truck Simulator. It's these simulation elements that Pryjmachuk wants to test by through Early Access. As he's working independently on the game, this is his best way of efficiently gathering feedback from impartial parties. Not that working under such constraints is a bad thing, though.
"They say creativity flourishes under restraint, and I fully agree with that. I think constraints are essential in game development. It takes so long to make something that you have to think very critically about, whether or not it's worth putting time into making it work better or simply making it work. Those decisions are crucial.
"Really, though, I want to make a functional thing and get it out there. It doesn't really matter what the response is, so long as I can look back and say that, in this chapter of my life, I made this game. It was something I wanted to do and it was something I did."
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