As I sit here writing this review, I am reminded of just how fortunate I am. I’m in a relationship with an amazing woman, we have two children, we have our own house and I have a circle of family and friends who support me. It really is very easy to lose sight of what you have when you take it for granted. Homelessness is a very tricky subject to translate into gaming, just how do you depict living on the streets in the form of something that is supposed to be fun and engaging? Even more so, should homelessness even be a topic for a game to begin with? Developed and published by Delve Interactive comes a rather interesting and often unapologetically stark game about living on the streets, CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience.
CHANGE is an emotional homeless survival experience set in a randomly generated city with rogue-like elements. Explore, survive, earn perks, find items and kindness to develop your character and escape to a new life.
With hundreds of perks, items, events and more, this serious game comes with a large amount of depth that opens up the more you play, and changes based on how you play.
Before I get into this, I’m pretty sure this is not supposed to ‘realistically’ depict what it is like being homeless. There is an older review on Steam that lambasts this game, from someone calming to having once been homeless themselves (that the devs have brilliantly replied to). The review is massively negative and says how the game is nothing like actually being homeless and so on. I’ve never been homeless myself, so I can’t say either way. But as I say, I don’t think the point of CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience is to be a 100% accurate simulation of being homeless anyway. The point of the game is something else.
I’ll make my own feelings clearer on this matter at the end of this review. Besides, 20% of the profits from this game will be donated to charities focused on the issues of homelessness and that is a very positive thing in my eyes. I will say this, the game seems to be a far more accurate depiction of homelessness than the very comedic Bum Simulator is.
First up, I want to cover the look and sounds of CHANGE. Given a very stylised 16-bit looking aesthetic, the graphics really have a level of gloom attached to them. Yet there is still some great use of bright colours here and there that break up that gloom. You have a happiness meter and the lower it is, the more greyscale and dull the graphics become. This is a wonderful little detail that you won’t even notice at first, as it happens so gradually. But when things do turn stark black & white, you do miss the shards of colour the game has. The music is strangely calm and foreboding at the same time. Gentle piano pieces play that are weirdly serene, even when things are going terribly wrong and your character is at their lowest ebb.
So, how does CHANGE play and what is it all about? What you get is a light-RPG, survival, rogue-like mish-mash of a title. You start out by picking one of several homeless characters to play as. Now, your first time playing and you’ll only have one character to choose. The others unlock as you play and hit certain goals. Each of the characters has their own unique story to play through and reasons for being homeless. For instance, the first character is homeless after missing payments on their mortgage and finding themselves in poverty. Other characters have their own issues to deal with, such as being a war veteran, suffering from mental illness, being an addict and more. Look, this is not a light-hearted game at all, it is very harsh and hard-hitting.
The controls and how to play are devilishly simple. Move left and right through the street that you find yourself on, while you use a pointer on the screen and click on things to interact with or pick up items, and that’s about it really. While the controls and mechanics are simple, actually playing the game properly is far more tricky. You have three bars at the top of the screen. One is your hunger, you need to eat or you won’t last long. There is another one for hygiene. If you don’t wash yourself or your clothes regularly, people will treat you badly. Then the third bar is the most important, your happiness. If you are starving, your happiness bar will drain, if you are filthy, your happiness bar will drain. Other incidents in the game will make your happiness bar drop too. When your happiness reaches zero, your character ‘gives up’ and it is game over.
The main aim of CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience is to get off the streets, beat whatever is dragging you down and begin a new life. How you go about that is quite open. I mean, you’re always going to need money and there are plenty of ways to make some much-needed coin. You can collect scrap and take it to a recycling plant for whatever you can get for it. Find the right spot and time of day and you can become a day labourer. Buy yourself a guitar and you can do a bit of busking. You can even just straight up beg for cash and ask the many passers-by for a few coins and food.
There are plenty of buildings for you to go into. Each offers something that can help or even hinder your progress. A homeless shelter is pretty self-explanatory and offers you food and shelter for when you need it. Shops sell all sorts of goods, food, clothing and more. Market stalls may offer some great deals on cheaper items. You can go to a library and do some studying. Restaurants are used to buy food from, or sometimes you can ask for any leftovers. There is a bank where you can deposit your money for safekeeping. Still, you need a residence first and for that, you need to be a regular at one of the homeless shelters and use it as a residence.
See, each of the buildings will have its own rules and regulations. For instance, a homeless shelter may only allow women and children in, it may have a strict curfew, it may give you happiness or food bonuses. Then again, it may not. The randomly generated city that the game takes place in means that every single run of this rogue-like will be different. Not just the layouts of the streets but the building themselves and what they offer will always change. Coupled with the multiple characters, a multitude of items and various scenarios, this game gives you thousands upon thousands of possible different ways to play.
Once you do land yourself a recognised residence in a shelter, if you have done enough studying in the library, providing you are not depressed and have good hygiene. You could apply for a job. Get a regular job with a regular income and just maybe, you could afford to rent your own house and get off the streets. CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience is crammed full of numerous ways to play and so many variables that it almost becomes an oxymoron in itself. The game is super simple to pick up and play, it’ll take you no longer than thirty seconds to get to grips with the controls. Two minutes later and you’ll have a firm grasp of how the game works. Yet, as simple as the game is to understand, it is far harder to play properly and reach that goal of getting off the streets.
You won’t take your homeless person from the streets and into their own house on your first playthrough. This is a rogue-like remember and you will fail… a lot. Still, you earn experience with every run that you do and when you level up, you earn permanent unlockables. Be they new items, new buildings and such. Technically, the more you play CHANGE, the easier it gets. However, this is not an easy game… pretty far from it in fact. Given the periodically generated nature of the game, each run you do will be different and always throw new challenges your way. Perks can be earned for each run that only last for that run. These perks are awarded when you level up a skill and you level up a skill simply by using it. For instance, the more you collect and return scrap for money, the better you get. The more you beg from strangers, the better you get. You level up and are given a choice of three perks to choose from linked to that particular skill. Keep on playing, level up those skills and the game becomes just a little bit less punishing, without ever making the game too easy.
There are only so many hours in the day and you’ll need to find shelter before 9pm as the day ends, or you’ll be sleeping on the street, which is far more dangerous than if you were in the relative safety of a shelter. Each end of the day is separated by a little text that will throw you into a random situation. Sometimes, these situations have you picking one of two options. These little scenes can help or hinder your progress. You can earn rewards or be punished. You can even befriend a dog, which itself bring its own positives and negatives. For instance, your dog can protect you from being mugged but some shelters may not allow pets. Then you’ll also need to feed your dog too, which will cost you some much-needed coin. Still, having a dog may help with the begging a bit more as people may show more sympathy towards you. The dog is just one example of the very nature of CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience, there is no one right or one wrong way to play. Not everything will be an apparent help and not everything that seems like a positive help will necessarily be one.
What kind of homeless person you will be is completely up to you too. Will you take an ‘easier’ route to stay happy by using drink and drugs, which will lead to addiction and all sorts of problems. Will you be a thief, break into parked cars and steal from shops. Or will you be more selfless and give what little you have to other homeless people? Each action you do will have an impact on the world you are in and your character. You can build a friendly relationship with other homeless people that can lead to trading possibilities, as an example. But getting and maintaining friendships takes time and (often) money that you may not have. It is up to you just how much you are willing to sacrifice to help others and yourself. Nothing ever comes easy in CHANGE and the game isn’t shy in letting you know it too.
Police will warn and then arrest you for begging, so you’ll need to keep your wits about you. There will be citywide changes that can affect the entire game. Cleanups in the city will mean less scrap for you to find and recycle, meaning less money coming in. Measures put in place to prevent homeless people from sleeping on the street. Changes at shelters can ruin your stay at them. Newspapers printing lies about the homeless that will make civilians act more negatively towards you and more. Weather like rain and snow affects your character too. The world in which CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience takes place is in a constant state of flux and will never be the same way twice.
There really is a lot packed into CHANGE and the depth of the game will not be apparent right away. But moving on from the gameplay for a moment. There is a real sense of emotion and gravitas here too. For instance, this being a rouge-like and the fact that you do need to fail (a lot) to finally succeed means you’ll see the ‘game over’ screen many times. Whenever I did, it felt like I was being kicked in the balls, hard by someone wearing steel toe-capped size elevens. I pushed to get my homeless person off the streets, I gathered scrap to be recycled, I begged for food and money, I busked for spare change and more. I would make some progress and then, everything would go wrong, my happiness meter would drop and my character would fall into a pit of depression and give up. It was all over despite my very best efforts. It hit me hard that I had failed (many times), there is an emotional edge to this game that is unlike anything I have experienced in a game before. If you have even the smallest bit of sympathy for people living on the streets, this game will hit you harder than you may expect.
CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience may not be a 100% realistic simulation as to what it is actually like living on the streets but it definitely highlights many of the problems that homeless people face every day. From simply being ignored by passers-by to falling into drug addiction. This is a harsh game and, very often, a bleak one too. CHANGE is a title that gladly tells you that not everything is sunshine and rainbows, then proceeds to keep reminding you of that fact regularly. This is a very downbeat and heart-rending title. But I tell you what, after so many failures, after seeing that game over screen so many times. When I did finally get my character off the street and into their own rented home, I felt amazing.
CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience is going to set you back a little over £11 on Steam. I feel that is a fantastic price point for the game and I definitely highly recommend this one… with a caveat. I know this game won’t be for everyone and I don’t think it’ll be possible to sit on the fence about it. You’ll either absolutely love it or it will be a title that just outright pisses you off. The mechanics here are basic and simple, this is, in no way meant to be a strike against the game, the simple mechanics just work. The depth of the game comes from many items you can buy and use, the perks for each individual skill, the randomly generated streets, the multiple characters and so on.
If anyone ever wants to know why I adore and am such an advocate for the indie game scene, CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience is a damn good reason why. I knew nothing of this game until my friend Badger over at Stoffel Presents told me about it. It’s the learning of or discovering such amazingly brilliant titles like this that excites me about indie gaming. Games that big AAA developers wouldn’t even dare to think about, let alone actually make.
As I write and publish this review, CHANGE is currently on sale on Steam with 40% off. The game is well worth it at that price. It is well worth it at full price, to be honest. Depending on just how charitable you are feeling, you could get the game now and save a few quid. Or you could wait until the sale ends and get it at full price, giving more money to not only the developer but also the homeless charities that 20% of the game’s sales will go towards. Either way, give this game a go.