2010 Economic sim (?), developed by Easygamestation, published by Carpe Fulgur
Video games are self-contained world, ordered by a set of rules of human design. Thus, unlike the world in general, videogames can be fair. Indeed they can be simulacra of the worlds in which we would like to live. Recettear’s world is constructed in this way. It takes one of the most crooked and broken aspects of human affairs, the world of commerce, and turns it into a tale about hard work paying off. It creates a space in which hard work is rewarded, and where if only we are nice to people, good things will come our way. In this piece I would like to talk about the way in which this world is created by the laser like focus on long-term planning encouraged by the game’s mechanics.
Recettear is a bloody adorable game about a little girl called Recette. Recette lives in one of the strangest anime/fantasy worlds going. There are monsters and dungeons, adventurers and magic swords— but also automatic vending machines, mortgages and, seemingly, no kings or queens. Capitalism reigns here. The art of dungoneering and adventuring has been turned into big business; adventurers have to register with an “adventurers” guild before setting forth and there are large chain stores which sell all sorts of weapons, armor and magic items. Her only remaining parent, her father, has recently disappeared (probably killed by something evil, best not to think about it) while out in search of a fortune. He was in search of a fortune in part because he owed some people a lot of money. Unfortunately for Recette, these people still want their money. The fairy (a tiny person with wings, don’t interrogate it too closely) who comes to collect on the debt, is a serious looking lady (as serious looking as a chibi fairy can be) called Tear. She suggests the Recette could set up a shop in order to pay back the money. Thus we have the tissue thin reasoning for calling the game Recettear.
The game itself is split between two primary modes. The shop and the Dungeon. Play is structured around days, which consist of a period of four time slices. In any one of these time slices one can either open the shop to sell things, go outside to buy or craft things or go off adventuring for loot (which takes two slices of time). Repayments on the loan are due in at the end of every week, and therefore proper time management is fundamental to getting anything done in Recettear. I found myself writing out plans for my days in a jotter, making sure I had all I needed for the days ahead set down on paper in front of me.
There are a base set of customers who are almost always around. These common folks are the primary means of making one’s cash. Generally speaking someone will come in, pick a random item off a counter and come and ask Recette how much the thing is (which speaks poorly of the labelling in Recette’s shop). At this point a number appears on the screen which can be altered to a percentage of the base price of the item. One can almost always haggle for a high price if one wishes. One might be selling a sword to a young man, the sword’s base price is 1000 pix (the standardised currency unit). One could either go for something like 1400pix, which the guy might or might not accept, or 1300pix which, from prior experience, one knows he probably will accept. If one tries to sell for 1400 it is most likely the guy will say no, but then one could put the sword down to 1350 which he would probably accept—but would not have accepted on a first offer. This would make one a bit of extra cash, and that cash pays the bills. On the other hand one could just sell for 1300. If one does that, the advantage is not simply a quick sale, one makes also little more experience for oneself ; what does experience mean? Levels.
Recette has a merchant level, and as that merchant level increases she gets more options about what to do with the store, like changing the counters and the wallpaper. Importantly she also learns more crafting recipes. Every time Recette makes a successful sale she earns a little merchant exp, and if she makes the sale on the first try she also starts or continues an experience multiplying combo. This combo doubles with every sale (or purchase, as people will eventually try coming to one’s store to sell one things) that does not require haggling. Failing to make a sale or haggling results in the end of the combo, so if one wants to put exp away against the future, one is encouraged not too be too cutthroat about one’s prices. The question is a trade off between short term and long term gain, and it is not always easy to decide between them. The check required at the end of each week grows at an alarming rate, and that little hit of extra margin can be precisely what one needs in order to over the line. However, if one does not start building the combos, then one will not progress through the merchant levels as fast, and that means fewer tools in play for the really tough weeks at the end. Also, all one’s customers have a (hidden) level of their own, which determines what kind of margins they can accept, and what kind of cash they carry. Selling low now, means that one can sell high in the future. It therefore pays off to get to know them, as much as the game allows, because the better one knows one’s customer the more benefits one gets from interacting with them.
Who the customer is matters, and it matters who one sets out to sell to. Townspeople are always coming through the doors, but as the game progresses one will also encounter a number of adventurers. If one sells a powerful magical sword to some random bloke, it is gone forever. One has the money in one’s pocket, but that sword serves no future purpose. However, if a friendly adventurer pops by and you flog him that sword, he will be able to use it while out adventuring, helping one gain loot more efficiently. All the adventurers one meets want different things, and they will only come into shops that suit their preferences. The player has responsibility for every part of the shop’s inventory, as well as the placement of all of the items on counters around the shop. To start off with, the placement of items—and what items one stocks the shelves with— is simply a matter of personal aesthetic. However as the game progresses it becomes clear that what the one is selling attracts different people. It can be plain or gaudy, light or dark, depending on how one decorates the place. The lady thief, Charme, likes the place dark and gaudy, while the Elf archer Tille likes things light and bit plain. These adventurers also need to buy a certain number of things from the shop before they will actually agree to work for one. Thus an element of forward planning is required if one wants to get the right equipment into a dungeon in their hands. This is further complicated by the fact that adventurers seldom have as deep pockets as the common people (being that most of the adventurers spend their free time drowning their sorrows in the pub), so one will not only have to take a loss by denying a sale to another customer, but will also make a smaller margin on the sold item.
The best option in all of these scenarios is, of course, the long term option. It makes the most sense to prepare early for the difficulty later. However Recettear presents the dilemma so well that the short term option often looks almost irresistibly tempting. There is quite a lot of psychological pressure just to make the most money. However, if one tries to burn too hard, one will find oneself out of fuel in the midgame and bone dry by the late game.
What, however, of the second aspect of the game I mentioned earlier? One can leave one’s shop for a part of the day to go to the adventurers guild, hire a warm body and throw them into a dungeon (the kind with monsters, not the kind with chains and torture). One can bring some equipment along for them if one chooses, but if they have not bought that equipment in the shop, then it will still end up taking up some space in their limited inventory (which has only twenty spaces). This is bad because the whole point of adventuring is to run around picking up items which one cannot otherwise buy. While a portion of one’s stock will come from items that one buys from the market and the merchants guild, real money is made by crafting one’s own items and selling them in the shop. Thus making sure that one can get a reliable supply of different kinds of ingredients is an important part of Recetter’s economy, especially in the late game.
Once again adventuring represents a trade-off between long term and short term gain. While in a dungeon one controls the hero that one has picked. As adventurers are put through dungeons they increase in level, which also increases the cost of hiring them. If one uses a single hero too much running through low level dungeons with them can become prohibitively expensive. However using a new, low level, adventurer runs a greater risk of them getting defeated. If that happens then one can only return to town with a single item from the run, losing anything that one may have given them to make them less pathetic. Adventuring also uses up a great deal of one’s day, so failed runs in the later section of the game can lose one hundreds of thousands of pix in lost sales and wasted time.
Again and again Recettear comes back to the same, central, point. Investing for the long term, in people, is what pays off. Recettear wants the player to, in a sense, value people above things. Of course, the reason that one values people is that they bring in pix. However, while the player values people for the pix, these actions are presented in the context of Recette’s character, who is relentlessly cheerful and full of love. By playing the game well, one performs the kind of actions for profit which Recette would take because she likes people. In presenting a series of trade-offs between squeezing one’s customers and making sure that everyone is happy, Recettear presents one of the central dilemmas of buying and selling. Namely that what one wants is money and that money is possessed by other people. Recettear, however, is about the soft, not the hard sell. What matters, in the end is having built up a stockpile of friends, allies and resources, rather than having made the killer sale. Moreover, Recettear presents its world as one in which this approach is the one that makes the most sense.
The first time I played Recettear I tried to squeeze the maximum money out of every single customer. It worked well for a while, I made more than enough money to carry me through the first couple of weeks. Indeed, I made so much money I thought that there was no real reason to go adventuring. I simply bought low and sold as high as I could possibly manage. I thought I had broken the code. I had not broken the code, in fact I was falling into something of a trap. As the game progressed I noticed that I had very few options, that all I could really do was seek out cheap items and hope that a twist of fate would make them expensive in the next few days. Without any ingredients to make any crafting items though, I was always paying at least fifty percent of the base price of any item. The margins on that are just a touch too low—especially when one’s customers do not really have the money to buy the most expensive stuff. I had not saved up for the long and difficult days near the end, and so I failed and was knocked right back to the beginning.
Recettear is not harsh, it is not a game that really wants the player to fail. After failing to keep up my repayments on the shop I was treated to a brief scene of Recette going to sleep in a cardboard box. She then wakes up back at day two, with all of the unsold items from the shop, a thousand shiny pix in her pocket and a spring in her step. You see, it was all a dream. First time through this loop I had no idea that this was going to happen, I simply thought that I would have to go again from the beginning. It was a pleasant surprise to see that not everything was totally and irreparably fucked. The game cares about the player’s hard work, about the hours of grinding and saving that go into the shop. This “loop” mechanic of sends the player back to the start of the game, without taking any of their items (or indeed resetting their merchant level) upon failure, is a stroke of genius. The theme of almost all the mechanics in Recettear is that hard work pays off, to contradict that theme by destroying all of a player’s hard work upon failure would be for the game to speak against itself in a profound way.
Indeed, Recttear is set up so as to allow almost any player to succeed, so long as they put in the time investment. One might worry that this renders the game facile or throwaway, presenting no challenge at all. There is challenge, however the game does not seek to entirely pinch off attempts to achieve the win in more than a single run. In this context the challenge becomes trying to achieve the win state as quickly and efficiently as possible, something which is only possible by achieving a considerable mastery of the game’s systems.
Recettear has a laudably cohesive design. All of its mechanics work towards the same goal. In doing so the game achieves an impressive clarity of message, and a distinctive emotional footprint of play. Recettear is a tremendously uplifting game. This is not simply because it has bright visuals and cute characters, but because it creates a world which affirms again and again the idea that hard work pays off. In almost every aspect of the game there are options to invest in one’s own future. These are, also, almost always the best choices to make among those that are available. In the real world, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go straight to fuck. However in Recettear’s ordered world, seeds planted grow into mighty trees. This, I think, is also what turns some people off the game. There is little risk in Recettear, and one is only ever really playing against oneself. There is little real conflict, and few very interesting stories to tell. Even the adventuring is predicated on a deeply predictable set of circumstances, which system mastery can render into a uniform slog. However, the point and the purpose of the game caters to the kind of people who really like gardening. Watching something grow, and trying to aid that growth, are the joys that Recettear so ably caters to.