The sound of chainmail clinks in your ears, drowning out the merrymaking behind you. A gauntlet covered hand digs hard into your arm, and you stifle a whimper with whatever pride you have left. You stammer and plead, your pencil thin legs pumping wildly, your eyes darting back and forth for a kindly soul to come to your aid out of the sea of strange faces looking on with morbid curiosity. Despite your pleas, the guard hauls you towards the gate, his face grim and uncaring, and tosses you to the cold hard ground that has served as your bed for far too many nights. Thus begins this experimental art game from Scott Brodie, The Beggar.
Now is the point in the review where we would normally discuss the goals and controls of the game. But much of what makes The Beggar a worthwhile experience is exploration. Not necessarily exploring the world itself — the entire map of the game is only a handful of screenshots long — instead, you must explore the mechanics of Brodie's pixelated world. It's up to you to discover the ins and outs of The Beggar, though I suppose it won't hurt to tell you that just about everything can be done with the [arrow] keys and the [Z] key.
Beyond that, you must carve your life out for yourself. You must figure out how and what to eat. You must figure out where to go and what to do. You must learn the laws of the land the hard way, and you must discover the nuances of interacting with the people you pass by on the street.
It's this last bit that is most important. If you've ever had the misfortune to live without a roof over your head, you will know that survival is often a gift bestowed upon you by the kindness of others. You must learn to subsist on the charity of strangers, lest you fade and wither away to nothingness.
Analysis: Like Gray or Passage, The Beggar distills a complex and difficult concept into a small package that sloughs off the white noise of everyday life. Brodie then takes this simplicity and combines it with the sense of serendipity found in games like The Majesty of Colors, to create something that is at once simple and complex. Your personal experience in The Beggar is governed by your explorations of both the game and your own thoughts.
It seems that these days to call a game with big pixels beautiful is all too easy. Still, The Beggar is quite beautiful. The anonymity provided by the simple graphics works well here, as it highlights the actions of the characters, and frees the player to attribute emotions and feelings to them. Meanwhile, an interesting selection of colors, both bright and drab, do a good job of subtly setting the mood.
Though the graphics are simple, Brodie is masterful in expressing complexity and making points with visual cues. Pay attention to how your beggar fades and withers as he goes without food, or how people throw their money on the ground for you. A careful eye may even detect the shrinking of bread as you carefully ration out a loaf as long as you can.
But these are all a sideshow for the main focus of the game, which is your interaction with other humans. There is a world of communication expressed here without a single word of dialogue. Furthermore, you find that over time your relationships with others can change, evolving from your own choices and actions. I would say more, but I would hate to ruin the sense of discovery for you.
Unfortunately, The Beggar has its shortcomings. It can sometimes be a bit too vague and abstract. Abstraction in works like this can be good, because it lets the audience draw from their own thoughts and experiences, but there are times when Brodie fails to give enough cues to trigger this form of introspection. Perhaps a bigger letdown are the endings, all of which are abrupt and a little unsatisfying.
The endings can be forgiven, though, because the game itself is its own reward. No one game lasts very long, but there is quite a bit to do, and once the doing is done there is even more to think about.
The Beggar's greatest success as a piece of art is that it doesn't preach. It never drags you by the nose or forces the message down your throat. In fact, perhaps there is no central message to the game. Maybe it's just a vehicle for you to contemplate a subject. Whatever moral you take from The Beggar is one that you have arrived at yourself.
Update: For anyone experiencing issues with the Shockwave browser version, free download versions are available at Scott's site for both Windows and Mac.