It’s nonsense to say money doesn’t buy happiness, but people exaggerate the extent to which money can buy more happiness.
“The following is a contributor post by the Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage.“
“When we talk about the economy,” Yanis Varoufakis writes in the first chapter of his excellent book Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism, “this is what we are talking about: the complex relations that emerge in a society with a surplus”.
Surplus is what allows us to trade: we began by individually scavenging or gathering as much as we needed to survive, and then we learned that we could cultivate the land to create more than the bare minimum each of us needed to survive. From there, the ancient Mesopotamians began using a sort of IOU system, chits of writ upon which were marked numbers: the number of pounds of grain that a worker was owed for his labour. Therein began debt; metal coins emerged, but these were impractical. A worker might be owed grain, valued as a proportion of the weight of a large piece of iron, but what he would receive would be a shell or chip with a number engraved in it to indicate pounds of grain or shares of an immovable, immutable block of metal. The physical demarcations of owing gave way to a written system, with ledgers recording that a worker was to receive grain valued at a certain number of coins. Those coins had not yet been minted, and might never be.
So, you see, virtual money is nothing new. Banks these days can literally create money from nothing, adding arbitrary numbers to a virtual account in the form of a loan. Those loans only become real money once repaid. Or, of course, they never do, and then economies collapse.
Recettear is a rather adorable game about virtual money in more ways than one. In one sense, of course, all currencies we use within gaming worlds can be said to be virtual; Recettear, however, concerns its narrative primarily with a rather large debt hanging over the head of a young girl, and her valiant attempts to repay it.
The story of Recettear begins with a girl named Recette meeting a fairy called Tear. This encounter with the fair folk is, like all the best fairytales, deeply unfortunate for Recette: Tear, you see, is a loan shark. Recette’s father took out a pretty big loan with the Terme Finance Company, then promptly… uh, disappeared. He was, apparently, an adventurer of sorts, and vanished after what Tear rather understatedly refers to as a ‘fracas atop the local volcano’ (so many things to unpack in that phrase, but perhaps my favourite is that there’s a local volcano: like, ‘Which volcano?’ ‘Oh, you know, the local one.’ ‘Ah, but of course.’) with a dragon, which has somehow resulted in his daughter inheriting his enormous debt – or, actually, Tear explains that there’s a clause built into the contract specifically covering disappearing-adventure-dads. His house – the house Recette lives in – is up as collateral, which means that if she can’t pay it back quickety-split the fairies will take her house.
And all of this is communicated in animesque, kawaii visuals. The juxtaposition makes it all feel weirdly dark.
At any rate, Recette, who is endearingly, adorably, insufferably optimistic, decides that she’s gonna do her best to make a good thing out of this, and she and Tear – who’s reluctantly sticking around to help, since the contract apparently also specifies that in the disappeared-adventure-dad situation the collecting fairy has to stay and support to the best of their ability so that the debt can be repaid through child labour (hurray!) – open up their own item shop.
And so that’s what Recettear is about: running an item shop! Somebody’s got to supply items to all those adventurers; you didn’t think all those shops you visited in games just popped up outta nowhere, did ya? Recette and Tear establish the fine new store known as ‘Recettear’ (the similarity to ‘racketeer’ isn’t lost on Tear, but Recette’s already gone and made the sign by this point), and the game follows the two of them as they work to turn Recettear into a store to be proud of.
And also, of course – and never, ever forget this point, because it’s exceptionally important – a store that is sufficiently profitable to allow Recette to pay back the shadowy group of fairy loan sharks who are going to take her home if she doesn’t repay her father’s enormous debt.
Running an item shop works in cyclical phases: days are divided into a few chunks of time, during each of which Recette and Tear can complete a couple of different actions.
Around the town are a few places to visit: the important ones are the Merchant’s Guild, the Market, and the Adventurer’s Guild. The others all basically just act as NPC hotspots, so visiting them from time to time is worth it to advance certain characters’ stories.
Here’s how it works, basically. At the Merchant’s Guild and the Market, Recette can purchase items. At the store, she can put out items for sale (visual merchandising is very important!), and open up shop to allow customers to come in and buy things. Each item will have a base price, but Recette needs to make a profit (or, I say again, fairies will make her homeless because her indebted dad fracas’d with a dragon); you can haggle with each purchase, trying to get as much as you can out of each customer. You can also sell items back to the Merchant’s Guild at base price, but you don’t really wanna be doing that if you can avoid it.
Your other main source of stock is in the nearby dungeons. As you’d expect from dungeons, they’re full of treasure but they’re also super-dangerous, so Recette can’t go down on her own. You’ll need to hire an adventurer to escort you down there; at this point, the game changes from point-and-click mercantile negotiation to a top-down action game in which you play as the adventurer rather than as Recette. New adventurers with different special attacks, or completely different playstyles (some are speedy rogues, some slow wrecking balls, others ranged or magic glass cannons), are unlocked as you progress through the story.
Progressing through the dungeons will net you better and better items, and rarer ones than can be found at the Merchant’s Guild or in the Market. You can’t sell everything you find or buy, though; you also need to keep a few items back for yourself so that you can outfit your adventurers, in order to ensure they can keep you sufficiently safe, and for HP/MP restoration purposes.
The gameplay usually goes something like this, then:
- Buy a few items from Merchant’s Guild or Market
- Check out the other areas around town to see if there are any NPCs around worth talking to (some may allow you to unlock them as adventurers eventually, so it’s worth doing)
- Head into dungeons with adventurers to get Moar Itemz
- Open up shop and sell your phat lewt, trying to make as much of a profit as possible
- Rinse and repeat.
It’s a satisfying cycle, but you do need to be careful managing things. Fail to do enough adventuring and you’ll run out of stock pretty quick, but too much time spent exploring and you won’t have time to sell any of your hoard. There’s also a little bit of time-zone consideration to do, since certain areas are only open at particular times of day. (The Merchant’s Guild is a notable exception, being open twenty-four hours on account of the fact that the Guild Master doesn’t want to go home because he hates his wife. That’s genuinely the reason.)
You need to make a certain amount each week (and there’s a steep week-on-week increase) in order to meet the Terme Finance Company’s Repayments, or Recette has to go live in a cardboard box and it’s game over. (It’s implied, and I’m not kidding, that if this happens she may end up selling her organs. This game is tonally all over the place, but in an internally consistent and always entertaining fashion.)
There are a few interweaving narratives in Recettear, which I wasn’t expecting. The first layer is, of course, Recette’s struggle to keep a roof over her head, but a large cast of characters soon enter the story as customers, adventurers, or rival shop owners, and they all have their own storylines and motivations. Recette has a huge heart; a lot of the joy of the game is just seeing her bond with all these people over time, which causes them to reveal new parts of their tale. Really, every character is multi-dimensional and has some well-crafted backstory and goals, which is hugely commendable.
The primary story, other than Recette’s immediate problems, involves a powerful evil trapped in the deepest parts of the most dangerous dungeons, a storyline which unfolds as you progress through the dungeons with your adventurer friends. It’s not a bad story, but it’s nothing new; the interesting thing, though, is that you might not realise it’s there for a pretty long time, since it is possible to complete a playthrough and repay the whole debt without actually getting to that stage in the dungeons. Equally, while you’ll have to be interacting with a number of characters regularly in order to keep your shop going, most of the key interactions required to progress their narratives or learn more about them are optional and can be missed. You’d have to be trying really hard to complete the game without seeing any of this wealth of content, but you’re certainly not guaranteed to trigger the majority of it, which means you might get through Recettear thinking Recette’s quest to not be homeless is pretty much the only story told in this world, and that’s not the case at all.
Some of my favourite stories are Nagi’s (a woman you’ll run across a few times in the dungeons, who has a horrible sense of direction), Tielle’s (a young girl you can recruit as an adventurer, who’s just looking for her sister), Alouette’s (she seems to be a prissy, elitist rival shop owner, but has hidden depths), and Euria’s (this hard-bargainer looks like she’s gonna turn out to have hidden depths, but she really does just wanna rip you off to the best of her ability).
Even if you do play through the majority of Recettear without learning about many of these stories, Recette and Tear’s own journey is really well-done. Their relationship progresses believably, and their characters are always consistent.
Props, by the way, to translators Carpe Fulgur; Recettear is a doujin game, basically a Japanese indie, published in 2007 by EasyGameStudio. There must be thousands of doujin works which never get a Western release, but Carpe Fulgur published a really interesting blog on their 2010 localisation of the game, which I highly recommend taking a look at for both a great insight on the localisation process and business more widely and some fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff about how the characters’ voices were created for Recettear. I really like the team’s approach to localising this game: literal translations were never going to work, so some lines are hugely different to their original meanings, but the spirit of the characters is retained and made accessible to a Western audience. It’s a huge part of Recettear‘s charm, since each and every character has a distinctive way of speaking with their own recognisable quirks, and I think that an inferior localisation would have an enormous effect on the overall quality of the experience.
Recettear‘s visuals are really nicely done, with a good-looking cutesy pixel art style for the most part, and very well-drawn anime sprites for when characters are talking. It’s colourful, and the characters are all recognisable, translating neatly between little pixelly sprites and fully-drawn artwork.
The visual aspect that perhaps falls down most frequently is the limited assortment of dungeon backgrounds; each time you enter a ‘floor’ (level) of a dungeon, you’ll find yourself in a procedurally-generated layout of rooms containing various treasures, traps, and enemies. There’s a limited set of dungeon themes, so you’ll spend quite a lot of time progressing through floors that look pretty much the same before unlocking a new dungeon, where you’ll have a whole bunch more floors that look pretty much the same to explore. The enemies, however, are pretty recognisable – if simple – which means you can quickly identify the actions you’ll need to take based on their distinctive attack patterns. Most enemies are a few collections of pixels, but there are some pretty well-designed bosses to overcome too.
The final thing I should note here is that there are, I reckon, hundreds of items to be bought and sold, and each of them has its own little icon too. Little details, but ones that really contribute to the success of the game.
If asked to identify the themes of Recettear, I think I’d point to a few things:
- Unlikely friendships
- The power of optimism
- A good old ribbing at capitalism’s expense
- The value of hard work
- Sometimes people will unexpectedly come through for you, but just as often they’ll let you down in brutal and unexpected fashion
So it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I think there was always going to be some difficulty balancing, on the one hand, the condemnation of a socioeconomic landscape whereby a young girl’s life can be irreparably damaged by debts accrued by her parents with, on the other, the need to make a fun game about said young girl profiting and finding happiness within the system that forced her into labour in the first place. I think a big part of the reason this doesn’t cause as much whiplash as it perhaps ought to is down to Recette’s character; she’s naive but perceptive, immature but hard-working, and you can’t help but love her no matter what she’s doing. That likeability really helps to establish a tone for the game, allowing it to acknowledge the darker aspects of its world while also finding a way to be hopeful.
I think it’s also worth noting that the gameplay reinforces Recette’s own take on things: that the best way to thrive is through friendship and optimism, not ruthlessness. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the founders of a field of study called behavioural economics (it’s somewhere at the intersection of sociology, psychology, economics, and game theory), have written at length about how humans are often very bad at making optimal decisions for a variety of reasons, and while I’m not sure Recettear is a deliberate commentary on this subject it’s telling to me that the best move is not always to try to get the most money out of someone for a particular purchase. Your better play is to sell to them at the fairest value, the one that allows you to make enough of a profit to remain in business while ensuring that they see you as a reasonable and community-minded retailer; this way, customers will keep coming back, and start buying bigger-ticket items at increasingly favourable margins.
It’s also worth noting that often the only way to unlock powerful adventurers to take Recette down into the dungeons for treasure is by befriending them (which, as we’ve already discussed, is by no means guaranteed to happen without some effort on the player’s part). In other words, Recette becomes successful not because she’s trying to make the most profit but because people just can’t help but like her, and the player’s choices in gameplay feed into that. It’s a really neat system, I think.
I almost think Recettear could function as a sort of introductory tutorial to the art of retail: it teaches about stock management, profit margins, visual merchandising, and even how to deal with difficult customers. There’s quite a lot of depth to its gameplay, to the point that it takes a pretty long time to start consistently understanding the effect that pricing strategies will have on not only Recettear’s immediate turnover but also on Recette’s relationships and the game’s economy as a whole, but it’s all introduced in a way that makes it feel super easy to pick up and get going. And, somehow, it’s all fun!
It’s ridiculous, really, to think that I spent so much time in college working retail jobs and hating them, and yet Recettear has actually managed to make it enjoyable. I mean, it’s not even that far of a remove from actual retail work (well, apart from the dungeoneering and dragon-volcano-fracas-ing and so on); I recognised a lot of the things the game was teaching me as being legitimate elements of real-world store jobs. Yet, somehow, it’s incredibly engaging.
Perhaps that would have been the answer to my misery while actually working in these roles: just think of it as supplying adventurers with the gear they need to go off and complete epic quests and whatnot. If anyone reading this is still in that sort of job, give it a bash and let me know!
Because of the way Recettear‘s narratives function, as we’ve discussed, it’s very easy to complete a main playthrough without even touching a huge wealth of content. Finishing the game, technically, just means managing to make enough to cover each instalment of Recette’s loan repayments until the whole thing’s paid off, and while it’d be very tricky to do that without exploring a fair bit of dungeon and progressing a fair few characters’ stories, it’s also not guaranteed that you’ll see… pretty much any of the extras.
Recettear does have a New Game+ function, making it much easier to restart the main story and start checking out all the side bits on account of the fact that making enough money to cover the basics is pretty easy in NG+. You’ve got probably upwards of five or six characters who are optional encounters, or who you need to invest some time in to progress to their stories’ conclusions, and hundreds of floors of dungeons which culminate in a wider-scope story about an encroaching evil. So there’s a lot to love there.
Plus, of course, simply replaying the game from scratch is also really fun. Starting up a fresh playthrough and trying out some different business models – emphasising volume, or trying to sell just one or two high-ticket items to cover costs, or switching up stock acquisition from Market or Merchant’s Guild to dungeons or vice versa – can make each game feel really different from the last.
I’m sure there must be other games which put the player in some sort of trade, perhaps even specifically in the business of running an item shop. (I wonder what other sort of NPC duties a game could put the player in charge of: I think being a side-quest-giving character could be pretty fun. Not sure how it’d make for an engaging game, but it’d feel kind of amusing to wait for a player character to come along and then ask them to fetch me twenty bear asses for no good reason.) The best-known example in recent years, I think, is Moonlighter, but Recettear did it a full decade earlier so I give this one the points for innovation.
Each individual component is deliciously simple, from the Zelda-esque top-down dungeon adventures to the bartering – which is really just the reverse of the standard RPG haggling system, revolving around finding a price on which both parties can agree. It all fits together into a deceptively deep, thoroughly engaging package not quite like anything else I’ve played.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I really like Recettear. It’s wholesome yet thought-provoking, simple to learn yet difficult to master, and gives you the chance to get to know a whole host of multidimensional characters whose stories are self-contained while feeling like part of this larger world.
Come for the innovative concept, and the ability to live the life of an item shop owner; stay for the friendship.
Aggregated Score: 7.9
Though he’s been known by many names across the vast and peculiar landscape of the Internet, every iteration of The Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage has shared an urge to look far too closely at tiny details and extrapolate huge, important-seeming conclusions. These days, in addition to Mage duties, he can be found discussing gaming and other pop culture (and occasionally sharing some of his own musical and fictional creations) at the Overthinker Y blog and on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review