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About the Story
The first thought is always the same: ‘coffee’. The warm glow of the kettle fills the van as it comes to life at an enviable pace. Suddenly, with a snap, the lights shut off, the kettle dies with dignity, you bang your head on the counter. You forgot to check the solar systems battery charge again...
100th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 9
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This is one of only two games in the 2020 Comp with the “educational” genre tag and credit where it’s due, it lives up to the billing. #VanLife is ship’s-biscuit dry, and while I can see the appeal of a rigorous, math-y renewable energy simulator, some implementation wonkiness and punishing difficulty spikes make the experience hard to enjoy.
The setup is a bit odd, but fine as far as things go: you’ve decided to live in a solar-powered van, so have to spend your days balancing power usage, purchasing upgrades for your power-generation system and your appliances, and occasionally posting inspirational quotes to Twitter, while hopefully making enough money from photography and freelance work to repay your #VanLoan. The gameplay is highly regimented: you start each day with social media, then you’re given two or three choices about how to carry out your daily tasks, usually involving some tradeoff between your mood and your batteries: you might need to decide whether the heat the water before doing the dishes, or see your mood decrease as your hands turn blue. Occasionally you get the chance to buy a new tea-kettle or oven. In between decisions, you’re often asked math and physics questions – it felt like 80 percent of them were simple variants on Ohm’s Law, though, so I didn’t find them very interesting, and it was unclear what effect, if any, getting the quiz questions right or wrong had on the game systems.
The implementation definitely feels wobbly. There are numerous typos, including one (“millage” for “mileage”) in the first game passage, followed quickly by a “you’re parents”. The interface is a bit obfuscated, too – I was confused by references in some of the pop-up hits to a side menu, which turns out is concealed under a pink arrow that’s only intermittently visible (it leads to a hideously complex series of menus and shopping options that’s pretty unfriendly, so maybe this is a mixed blessing). And while you can always see your mood and battery levels as a percentage, for the battery that’s not that helpful since you need to know the specific Watt-hours you’ve got in order to make good choices (in most of the decision points, you get told the current and voltage the appliance uses as well as a duration, rather than “running the water heater will use 10% of your battery’s capacity”). And there are flat-out bugs – after I restarted from my first failed run, the game started playing itself, automatically clicking options and shuffling through the choices faster than I could read them (a second reset fixed things, though). Plus the math on the loan repayment seemed off to me – I could only choose to repay a few cents per day, when actually I needed to pony up several orders of magnitude more to stay out of the red.
Compounding the unfriendliness of the game, some decision points are real widowmakers. Typically you’ll face choices that can impact your mood gauge by maybe 10-30%, but there are some that can drain you by almost half the gauge. These mood-killers require huge tradeoffs on the power-management side – having to run fans overnight to stay cool, or keep a laptop on for eight hours of work, seem to impose a ruinous toll on your batteries. And there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason behind when you’ll get socked with one of these spikes, meaning that you can’t even prepare for them by prioritizing mood or power in the run-up. As a result, even playing at the easiest difficulty level, I never made it more than four or five days in.
This is very negative, unfortunately, but that’s an accurate reflection of my time with the game – more focus on making the game parts fun, and a bit more forgiving, would make #VanLife a better pedagogical tool.
The puzzle of this game is figuring out its menus. I played on easy mode with plenty of money, but I couldn't figure out how to buy the stuff I needed to keep my mood from falling rapidly to 0.
It's possible that figuring out the menus is supposed to be the point, somehow, but I don't think so… I think the game was trying to force me to consider trading off alternatives (money, power, mood). But since I couldn't really figure out the menus, I didn't get the opportunity to make those choices.
If you found this game difficult it is understandable. Much of the technical information and questions don't make sense. The author (one of them?) clearly has misunderstood one or more basic concepts, especially watts, which the author seems to think is a unit of energy, which it isn't. It is a unit of power, which is energy per time unit. Joule is a unit of energy and 1 watt means 1 joule per second.
The best example in the game to illustrate this is probably:
"Excess Discharge Error: The amount of energy required by the load, 33600 watts, was more than the batteries and inverter could supply, at 4302.7 watts and 90% inverter efficiency."
Here, it becomes clear that the author (one of them?) thinks that watts are energy ("The amount of energy required by the load, 33600 watts, was..."). That wasn't a big deal if watts did not play a big role in the game, but it does. It is at the core of the game, that you shouldn't run out of energy. Most tech questions concerning energy are completely wrong. This is a problem, since many may walk away thinking they learned something. But they learned something wrong, which will confuse them if they later need to learn about watts, joules, power and energy.
One more example:(Spoiler - click to show)"How many watts are required to run the loads of a kettle that uses 26880W per hour for 3 minutes?
-134.4W 1344W -13440W 8064W"
Again, the author thinks that watt is a unit of energy. If the kettle had used 26880 joules per hour, it would make sense to say it used 26880 joules / 20 = 1344 joules after 3 minutes of operation. Best case, this was a trick question (but it isn't), because, if a kettle uses 26880W, it uses 26880W whether you run it for 3 minutes or 10 hours, simply because watts means joules per second. But according to the game, the "right" answer was 1344W.
Most questions seem to hold this misconception. However, I get the impression that more authors might have been working on this game, as parts of the game seem correct, e.g. when looking into the solar panel: "The batteries currently have 1734.9WH of energy" (though it would normally be written Wh, not WH). Here, the author applies an energy unit for energy as she should.
I hope the author will be able to learn from the mistakes and update the game. I think it has the potential to be a good game for people interested in technical stuff, if all the incorrect technical stuff is corrected and the difficulty level is appropriate. Until then I recommend NOT to play it.
#VanLife is a day-to-day personal economic simulator with some interesting mechanics, but sparse writing. You live in a van with solar-powered appliances. Can you balance your mood, your cash, and your battery charge to succeed in this minimalistic lifestyle? At its core, the premise is great, and I’ve got to give props to a game that encourages less-resource-intensive living.
But the implementation can be wonky at times. Everything depends upon a small pool of random events which cause wild and unpredictable swings. You can be doing great one day, only to lose the game on the next because you got stuck with a couple bad events that you couldn’t do anything about. Or you could be on the cusp of failure, only to skyrocket back to prosperity because of one or two lucky events. Your decisions kind of matter, but I felt like they were totally overshadowed by the sheer importance of luck.
The other thing that hampered my enjoyment here is… I quickly came to dislike the protagonist. That feels odd to write, since the protagonist doesn’t have any lines and isn’t ever described directly, yet they come across as someone who isn’t serious about the #VanLife. I felt like I had to constantly battle my own protagonist’s unreasonable expectations. This is a person who earns a living by posting photos with inspirational quotes. Regularly, thousands of dollars fall into their lap from making guest foodie blog posts. They never have to pay money for food or gas or parking, and they never get harassed by the police for parking illegally either.
Basically, the protagonist is privileged in many ways, and yet they’re constantly unsatisfied. Got an offer to receive a bunch of cash and a free appliance, possibly more energy-efficient than the one you already have, in return for a product endorsement? Well, your protagonist loses mood, because capitalism = bad. Craving some pancakes but don’t have the right cooktop because the game hasn’t given you the opportunity to buy it yet? Well, you’re about to lose a giant chunk of mood, my friend. Want to hop online and frag n00bs, but you don’t have enough battery because you already spent it on two cravings for avocado toast today? Well, that’s probably a game over. Sucks to be you.
I found myself losing the game often in the first few days because the protagonist was full of so many capricious requests that there simply weren’t enough resources to indulge. The protagonist is defined by one personality trait: the trait of being someone who never should have set foot in a van.
According to the webpage, the game is still in beta, and that makes sense. It feels like a rough draft of what could (and hopefully will) become a good sim. A wider variety of random events would help spice things up, but what the game would benefit most from would be a rebalancing of the events’ effects so that they don’t cause such wild and unpredictable mood swings. Then, there would be room for players to start thinking about long-term strategy, without the immediate threat of game over due to lack of pancakes looming over their heads from the start.
#Vanlife is an odd game whose goal seems to be to juxtapose the veneer of an enlightened life on the road with the hell of dealing with freelance work (and terrible batteries).
I was very on board with the wry humor underlying this piece, and I appreciated the design: nice visuals and interface, and what appears to be a storylet engine that generates events.
Unfortunately, there are issues that make the experience very hard to enjoy. The math problems are jarring and not very accessible, the resources don’t seem balanced, and the events feel a bit random and repetitive after a while. Above all, it was hard for me to stay motivated after losing repeatedly to obscure battery management issues, even on “easy” mode—funny the first time, not so much after that.