I love me some indie games. If there's one thing that can combat the stifling lack of creativity that dogs the larger game developers, it's independence. Small-time operations working on limited budgets and resources can periodically produce ground-breaking games because they have less to lose and can experiment more. See Armageddon Empires. Also, World of Goo. Also, Dwarf Fortress.
For this reason, I keep a close eye on indie games and try to support them when I can. If you're interested in seeing what's out there right now, check out the winners of the annual Independent Games Festival. This NPR story on how graduate programs in video game design are feeding into the indie-game scene is also good listening.
So I've had my eye on Kudos 2 for a while now. It's creator, Cliffski, has released a number of positively received simulation-type games through his company, Positech Games. Kudos 2 is a blatant and unapologetic homage to Will Wright's disturbingly successful franchise, the Sims. In Kudos, you create an avatar and live their life for 10 years. Imagine the Sims model, but pared down - both in terms of play and interface. While there are some intriguing and creative elements to Kudos 2, I can't strongly recommend it unless you have a deep love of this particular genre.
Here's my boy. I was pretty pleased to find that, as in the Sims, I could pursue a career in "science." I immediately started taking evening classes in science and biology, eventually applied for a teaching position at the local academy, and quit my crap job as a waiter. Pursuing a career is one of the main foci of Kudos 2, but unfortunately it doesn't quite provide you enough gameplay "rewards" to make your actions truly meaningful. Yes, you will earn more money as you become more educated and get better jobs. But nothing much happens at work - each day passes like the one before it, even after you get promotions or a job at a better company. You just click to commute, click to see how your day goes, click to commute home, and that's it. It's significantly more boring that going to my real job. It would have helped to give players a choice of "projects" that they can pursue at work, which are completed over time. Different projects could have different payoffs or long-term effects on gameplay.
Kudos 2 focuses most of its efforts on your social life. And admittedly, this is where the strengths of the game lie. It can be challenging and fun to juggle a healthy social life, along with the demands of work, school, and general "upkeep" (cleaning the house, getting exercise, etc.). Every weekday night, after getting home from work, you can choose to engage in a single activity. On weekends, you choose two activities per day. These activities can be "social" or "solo."
Solo activities include jogging, walking in the park (with your dog, if you buy one), taking a bath, watching TV, reading a book, etc. Each of these activities affects a number of your "attributes." You've got a bunch of these to keep track of: happiness, energy, excitement, cleanliness, fitness, weight, confidence, charisma, IQ, etc., etc. ad infinitum. So for example, reading the newspaper will increase your IQ but also reduce your optimism.
Social activities involve your network of friends. You can go out for drinks, see a movie, eat at various restaurants, play soccer, or attend the ballet. Again, engaging in each of these activities will have an effect on your attributes, and part of the "game" is choosing certain activities that will alleviate your current deficits. Feeling uncultured and uncouth? Go to the opera. Overweight? Organize a weekly soccer match. Lacking charisma? Have fun at the comedy show and learn a few tricks of the trade. Furthermore, each of your friends has a set of interests that determine how likely they'll be to join you in a particular social activity, and how much they'll enjoy it if they come along. You might convince your friend Susan to go bowling, but if she'd rather be eating Chinese food, she's going to have a pissy time. Play your cards right, choose the right activities with the right friends, and you can end up with a healthy, extensive network of friends who adore and admire you.
Note that I got to be quite the lady's man, here. And you might also see a small heart above the top-most female in my network - that indicates I was able to achieve a romantic relationship with Helen. If your relationship with someone gets very close, and there's a chemistry between you, they'll call and ask you out. Relationships are tricky to navigate: your loneliness is significantly reduced, but you need to include this person in nearly all your social engagements or risk incurring their wrath.
There are some nice subtleties to gameplay in the social sphere. For instance, there are always 3 different movies playing at the theater. One is a hit, one mediocre, one terrible. If you go to the hit with your friends, you'll get large boosts to your happiness, excitement, relaxation, friendship, etc. Take them to the dud, however, and you might become ostracized. How do you know? In other social engagements, like going out to dinner, your friends will talk about that "really great movie...", or mention that there's an awesome rock band in town, or tell you to avoid the museum this week because the exhibition is boring. If you pay attention to these snippets of conversation, you can use them to your advantage.
I also like how your friends' traits rub off on you. In the game I'm playing right now, I have a friend who's very charismatic and honest. I make sure to always invite him to social gatherings, since all my other friends like him and he tends to improve the quality of the event. Also, he makes me more honest and charismatic. In contrast, if you hang out with dishonest or pessimistic people, you'll become more dishonest and pessimistic. An interesting and realistic feature.
But in the end, Kudos 2 is just too repetitive and dull, as well as a bit vague. There are far too many traits to track; they don't all fit on one screen, which is a frustrating design decision. And some are clearly redundant. Why include both "weight" and "fitness"? Why both "happiness" and "stress"? I also dislike how for some traits, a high % is good (90% happiness) whereas for others, it is very bad (90% weight). This means that I can't just glance at my attribute lines and quickly focus on which need to be addressed.
Most importantly, Kudos should have learned from the Sims that "life-simulators" can suffer from a feeling of "what's the point?" If you don't offer concrete goals and objectives, your player will eventually lose interest with the process. In one sense, this mimics real life - whatever goals we have are those we set before ourselves. But the fact is that real life also offers some pretty spectacular goals: like getting married, having children, creating great works of art & science. Kudos doesn't incorporate "existential" goals like these into its design and it suffers for it. You can form a relationship but it doesn't get any more serious (it can only degrade, leading to a break-up). You can't spend your extra time writing a book or working on a painting.
Kudos 2 is a decent simulation but, oddly, it focuses on the most tedious and mundane aspects of existence - like what dish to order at the Mexican restaurant. The biggest "goals" that I've found in the game are purchasing really expensive objects, like designer sunglasses. This hurts me to my anti-materialist core. It's successful insofar as it periodically makes me wonder why in the hell I'd play a game about my real life. I think lots of people had that reaction to the Sims and later, Second Life: is it fun to have a virtual self brush his/her teeth and take a piss? And then there were those truly absurdist moments in the Sims when you'd tell your avatar to sit down at the computer and play a video game. If you haven't yet seen this brilliant Onion piece, now's the time:
'Warcraft' Sequel Lets Gamers Play A Character Playing 'Warcraft'
On a final note, there is one redeeming aspect to Kudos 2: it's modable. Not infinitely so, but you can easily add your own content if you feel that something's missing from the game. Very quickly, I was able to mod in "going out to coffee" and "getting ice cream" (these were ideas posted in the forums), as well as "playing boardgames" at home. But it still felt too empty and meaningless. So I decided to add in Sex.
This actually made playing MUCH more enjoyable, which says something about how much meaning sex gives our lives. I designed it so that your charisma, confidence, cleanliness, and energy had to be high enough - and the person you asked had to have some interest in sex (analogous to an interest in "food," for example). This led to some amusing situations:
I was in a relationship with my girlfriend, Helen, and decided to throw caution to the wind and have sex with my friend, Nancy. She was always inviting me to rock shows, you know? So she agreed, but... well, you can read the text: "It really wasn't something I enjoy." Ha! Thanks a lot.
Later that night, I got the call from Helen:
But she put up with it - especially after I took her to the Opera.
I wish Kudos 2 had more depth to it, and I wish I wasn't looking at the same screen and interface all the time. It really cuts down on the longevity. But it's an interesting little diversion, and I certainly appreciate how quick it is to pick up and play, even when I only have 15 minutes or so. I was able to get it on sale for $6, so I don't feel ripped off in the least - but I'm not sure if it's worth the normal $15 tag. You'd be better off playing Defense Grid. But then again, if you're curious and want to help out an indie developer, you could certainly waste your money on much worse things. Like designer sunglasses.