There aren’t too many developers who would release two games with such polar opposite visuals as The Void and Cargo! It’d be like the next Call of Duty coming out with a vibrant pink overlay and every NPC soldier barking out philosophical musings on the nature of having a jolly good time. But then, there aren’t too many developers like Russian design visionaries Ice-Pick Lodge.
The Void was very nearly a masterpiece. Oppressive, tense and eerie, it was a how-to in creating atmosphere and tone. Colour was a sparse, precious commodity. All else was sombre and grey. Next to this, Cargo! looks like an explosion in a child’s paint box. As you can see from the screenshots dotted throughout this piece, colour is everywhere. It practically drips off the landscape.
Despite this surface distinction, the two games actually share a few things in common. In both, you’re essentially ‘trapped’ in a weird, unfamiliar land and left to bumble through as best you can. It’s the manner of this bumbling where the games diverge. While The Void is a slow, demanding slog, punishing you at every turn, Cargo! is more like being pulled along by a large, eager dog and dragged through a variety of multicoloured bushes. It’s exhilarating (if slightly alarming) while it lasts, but you may have picked up a mild concussion and be left wondering what exactly just happened.
In Cargo! you play trainee engineer Flawkes, a lady unfortunate enough to have had her blimp shot down over a series of volcanic islands by some overly-moronic inhabitants called ‘buddies.’ They weren’t trying to shoot her down, they were just having a fireworks display near a flammable blimp. See? Moronic.
Said buddies (who resemble short, bald, naked gnomes) are the creations of three mechanical gods who share the name Manipu. In their godly wisdom, they’ve been trying to reboot humanity and the brainless, fun-craving buddies are the result. After finding a great flood to be too much effort as a cataclysmic event, the gods have instead stopped the world spinning on its axis and broken gravity. As a result, quite a few objects of varying sizes (from a small bridge to Big Ben) are floating merrily in the stratosphere, waiting to be brought back down to the ground. It gradually becomes clear (well, as clear as anything gets in this game) that the only way you and your blimp’s captain will ever get back home is by getting embroiled in this weird society and its problems.
Cargo! is divided into ‘seasons,’ each one featuring a major task that needs to be completed before the game transitions into the next. For example, you’ll get roped in to re-start a volcano and bring an end to winter. This is achieved by bringing multiple buddies inside the structure via submarine, then getting them dancing while you prevent angry vuvuzelas ruining the mood by stuffing objects up their orifices. …Yeah. Or, you’ll find yourself having to save buddies from strange mechanical birds who want to take them back to a gigantic floating eggplant and hatch them like eggs.
Somehow, I wrote that sentence with a straight face.
No matter what objective the game throws at you, you’ll inevitably need some FUN. This substance is generated through your interactions with the little nudist chaps. Kicking a buddy up the arse will give you a small amount of fun, and triggering a moderately sized dance party (done by dropping some of the collectable notes that are dotted around the island) will give you even more. Amusingly enough, Cargo! even provides a tool to let you use your own music for this. The best way to create FUN, however, is to build a vehicle from the spare parts you’ll find laying around the place and take the buddies on a hair-raising trip across land, sea or sky.
FUN is also currency, which can be used at the god’s handy store in exchange for extra vehicle parts to make up any shortfall you may have (or just to expand your current project to be bigger, faster and funnier-looking). The better and bigger the vehicle, the more buddies you can take for an exciting ride.
When compared with Ice-Pick Lodge’s back catalogue, Cargo! is astonishingly accessible. Flawkes can never die (at least, I’ve not managed to kill her) and although there are times when you’re ostensibly supposed to be protecting the buddies from themselves (they tend to wander foolishly into turbines and the like) it doesn’t even seem possible to ‘run out’ of the little guys. Pulling objects back to Earth with your FUN reserves always creates more buds, and they seem to also respawn from the central island’s volcano too. Really, the only frustration comes from the sometimes rather vague mission instructions and the lack of a map. The latter is especially noticeable during an underwater segment.
Given the amount of freedom Cargo! offers, it’s rather a shame that its playing area is quite contained. It uses space about as well as it can, by providing tasks that take place on land, sea and in the air, but there’s no escaping the fact that the whole game takes place in an area you can fly across in a couple of minutes. Likewise, the unrestrictive nature of the vehicle building tool is hampered a little by how clunky it is (why, for example, is there no easy way to remove a single, misplaced component?).
These things can be aggravating, but they don’t spoil another Ice-Pick Lodge masterclass in creativity. The images around this page should testament to that, showing a bright, surreal style and a sharp understanding of distinctive videogame art direction. Cargo!’s music, just like The Void’s, is also utterly superb and provides the perfect accompaniment to the title’s visual absurdity. The Void’s tone demanded slow, eerie drones and distant echoes, but Cargo!’s tunes accentuate the strange nature of the colourful islands with pseudo-carnival melodies and off-kilter beats. I think I even heard some Kazoo at one point.
Cargo! is a little on the short side (I finished it in five hours and probably could’ve improved on that), but it delights and surprises at every turn as it propels you through its frankly baffling narrative. Much like Ice-Pick Lodge themselves, you’ll never quite be able to predict what it’s going to throw at you next.