Someone should make a game about: architectural salvage • Eurogamer.net

A carved Shakespeare head. Several, in fact, set into a balustrade of an old house that was being torn apart for remodelling, maybe even demolition. I forget. It’s all just more wood to break down and get out of the way to some.

But one of the demolitionists saw it differently. He didn’t see something in the way of the job. He saw a long-dead tree someone had cut into the shape of a poet and built into their house. In a town close to Stratford-upon-Avon, no less.

He didn’t see refuse. He saw salvage. He was one of us.

When I complain there aren’t enough (any) games about salvage, I usually mean space salvage. My dream of being the savvy roaming space wrecker and dealer may never come to be, but architectural salvage already exists, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. History might be only the percent of a percent that survived, but the bulk of human edifice is not truly gone. Even some of the grandest of ancient temples and monuments throughout the ages did not vanish, but were gradually broken down and used to shore up a house or tannery or boundary wall, their stones and bricks forming part of a new being like nutrients in the biosphere. Most of it will never be known. And that’s exactly why it’s so precious when you find a little piece of it.

Provenance is the magic word. A decent brick is qualitatively no different to any other, but what if that brick helped build the farm that fed your great great grandmother during her harsh first winter here? What if the local watchmaker the whole street is named for turned that doorhandle on every morning of his life? What if the calloused palm of a famous general once warmed that mantelpiece as he stared at the fire, unable to sleep before the biggest disaster of his age?

Architectural salvage is about recognising the value in things. The monetary value, of course, but also the value that time and narrative can imbue an object with. These businesses and individuals recover things that might otherwise be lost, and find a new place and purpose for them. But you need more than just a sentimental vision mode to make it work. You have to find these things to begin with, and that means making contacts. It means knowing your area, knowing your materials, your trades, your suppliers and buyers and operators. A game about that could be utterly captivating.

A lot would depend, of course, on how you went about it. In the wake of Teardown and Hardspace Colon Shipbreaker, it’s clear the technology exists for a somewhat literal game about recovering usable parts while taking a building down. But a focus on the wider work would get to the heart of it more. You can easily imagine a game combining that with a strategic/management layer on which you visit depots and yards, drop in on trade shows, and opportunistically scout a demo site you spotted while out for lunch. Naturally it would keep track of what you have, and who you might be able to sell it to. It should be a simulation-ish business management game foremost, but it shouldn’t just be another trading game. Trading games tend to focus so much on the numbers and the sheer bulk of goods and cash rather than what you’re moving and who for. The salvage trade is a perfect one to contrast with that, because it’s a bit special.

Trading games tend to focus so much on the numbers and the sheer bulk of goods and cash rather than what you’re moving and who for. The salvage trade is a perfect one to contrast with that, because it’s a bit special.

It’s about culture, and people. It’s not the thrill of watching numbers go up or heaping more gold on the pile. It’s making the connections. It’s knowing your patch and your people. It’s knowing an overlooked irony of trade: that some goods are not interchangeable. Value is not a rational or reliably calculable thing to a species that will care more about an object if you give it a name, tie it to a place, or tell a story about it. And that’s true in games, too. Sure, this dwarf fortress spiralled because of a megabeast just like the last one, but this megabeast sprayed terrible venom straight into the well and set the entire booze stockpile on fire. Sure, these floorboards do everything those ones do. But these were taken from the town hall, right under where the loyalists signed the armistice.

And none of this keeps it from being a solid business game too, because you’ve got to manage all this while turning a profit. But that comes from real expertise about your trade, not just memorising the most efficient routes. Knowing the worth of specific items to specific people, and bringing them together. And if you managed to save something from the refuse pile in the process? That’s a win that even a hardcore anticapitalist can appreciate. It’s that base principle of trade; a positive process in which everyone benefits. It doesn’t have to be some cut-throat zero sum contest about who can be the most ruthless.

It’s knowing your patch and your people. It’s knowing an overlooked irony of trade: that some goods are not interchangeable.

Sure, it could be, though. Most real salvagers take pride in their ethics (there’s even an honest-to-god Salvo code in the UK), and a good sim would encourage honest and sustainable practices. You could become a bulk trader, supplying eco-friendly modern building companies with low-impact brick and timber and fittings. You could ply the boutique item circuit for insufferable middle class couples. Maybe you’ll make your name as a talented sourcer, the one who can find anything for anyone, importing marble and granite statuary from italy, flagstones from India, timber from the USA. But maybe you’ll be a bit shadier instead. Take that cheap haul of ironwork “from my skip” and shift it for fast cash before anyone looks too closely. Use the supplier who won’t comment on the asbestos content if you don’t ask. Ship a few dozen escutcheons “from Darwin’s house” to innocent Americans (don’t worry; this trade is how I learned what an escutcheon is too). Surely it won’t all catch up with you.

A good architectural salvage game would do what the best games do. It would unite the systems of business and analysis and management and trade with the vital human urge to find connections to our past, and to each other. There should be more games about that.

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