Weedcraft Inc was an Inevitability – Preview
The latest from Devolver and Vile Monarch is a game wanting to start a serious conversation about the future of drugs in America.
Weedcraft Inc was an inevitability. Drugs have existed in games forever, whether they’ve been portrayed in them or been quite literally in them. Take a look at a list counting the games featuring them and it’s likely bigger than you’d think. We needn’t look further than one of the biggest properties in games, Grand Theft Auto, to see that drugs absolutely have a place in the gaming industry. Unfortunately for drugs, they’re almost never brought into the fold in a way that exists beyond a rudimentary mechanic or as a plot device or just the butt of a joke, really. It should come as no surprise that an industry regularly taken to task about its maturity still lacks a nuanced way to debate an otherwise serious subject. I don’t know that it is the answer, but Weedcraft Inc, the latest from Devolver Digital, has lofty aspirations of being the game that starts the dialogue.
Right off the bat, this new game from Vile Monarch, developers of Oh…Sir! The Insult Simulator, is an interesting take on drugs when considering the genre it occupies. Weedcraft Inc is a tycoon game which focuses on the industrial side of producing and selling marijuana. The game is set to be broken up by vignettes providing a multitude of perspectives from varying locales as the game tackles “the social, political and legal aspects of it [weed] in America.” However, upon first glance the game seems much more complicated than its premise. Regardless, a drug empire needs to start somewhere, so my demo began in the mean streets of… Flint, Michigan.
My session began as two brothers, each with two vastly different backgrounds, laid out their plans to sell drugs. Together, for the betterment of their family and the precarious position it’s in, they decide to make and sell weed to help pay for necessities, which starts the player down the path to becoming a weed mogul.
The formula begins quite simply: soil, seeds, and dingy lightning. Before you know it, you’re growing amateur weed! In order to profit off of the drugs though, Weed Inc. requires players to water, trim and ultimately collect necessities from the plant before going out to sell it at the marketplace. The local spot is filled with the exact kind of stoners that one might expect to buy weed, but true to the legality of marijuana itself, complications arise in the minute details.
Soon enough a competitor shows up, selling a better product for a lower price, forcing players to adapt if they want to survive in the market. Here the game begins to introduce the idea of breeding plants to create new and interesting flavors, which involve experimenting with temperature, sodium levels, and more in order to find a more sustainable and profitable strain. These improved strains will help to introduce or experiment with prices to undercut rival tycoons to gain back a share of the marketplace. It’s also implied (but was unexplored during my demo) that players may talk to a competitor to see if an uneasy alliance of sorts can’t be worked out. Scott Alexander, the lead writer on Weedcraft Inc, clued me in that this is a wrinkle that adds even further complexities to the game since an RPG system is tagged atop the already existing managerial simulation. In this particular scenario, hiring an employee (multiple of which can be hired as the empire expands) to spy on the competition could’ve provided me with the dirt to push them off my territory. However, this would put us at immense odds and spawn a situation that could prove less than beneficial down the line. Here is where another system was introduced: shadiness.
Business is dirty, especially in the age of capitalism and when dealing of things whose morality is murky just by their sheer existence. Not everyone is cool with profiteering off of weed and so comes the introduction of cops via a meter that rises as players continue production, ultimately increasing their visibility. The wise decision would be to reinvest income back into the production process, streamlining it and thus making it less obvious. Perhaps it’d also be smart to incentivize witnesses to look the other way. Maybe that means developing cozy relationships with cops, paying some officials off, lobbying for legislation or setting up fronts to cover for an otherwise illegal drug empire. This line of action would constitute the shady immoral side of business and is wholly represented by a skill tree that’s opposed by its virtuous and otherwise wholesome opposite. When I pushed Alexander on whether or not a player could theoretically get through an instance or vignette of Weedcraft Inc entirely on one end of the moral spectrum, he likened it to a game of Civilization, wherein players could invest all of their resources in science, culture or even military conquest to win a game. Though the game will tempt its players to flirt with other possibilities, it’s entirely doable, if not a simple option.
This all made for an incredibly complicated game which tackled a complicated subject, but in the moment, everything was manageable. About halfway through my time with the game, I wondered if my skill for cultivating weed was a sign that I had missed my calling – a joke that got a laugh out of Alexander as he remarked how much of a natural I was. Caring for the plants really is a simple enough task that someone could easily find themselves in an addictive loop in less than an hour just like I did. There’s an immediacy and intimacy to the process that makes it rewarding to hone the craft while just enough difficulties arise to make every cycle novel and at least a little distressing.
While mechanically the game comes across well, it’s in the writing and story where the most ambiguity – and my concern – lies. Drugs in America come with a lot of baggage and none of it’s pretty. It’s no secret that federally launched campaigns along the lines of the “War on Drugs” have been particularly damaging to minority communities. Elon Musk, a white man and billionaire entrepreneur, makes an appearance in the trailer smoking a blunt live on a podcast and has incurred wrath since, including his company’s stock dropping and departures. Regardless, Musk retains his livelihood, his billions, and his privilege. Meanwhile, his Tesla employees, which work under sub-par conditions, have been fired for failing to pass drug tests. Additionally, incarceration rates are wildly skewed for possession of even an ounce of weed dependent on how someone looks.
During my time with Weedcraft Inc, I saw characters and dialogue that, while occasionally funny, didn’t come across as more than familiar archetypes. Though Vile Monarch shared in the knowledge of these facts, none of that was showcased in the demo I experienced. Weedcraft Inc is the rare game so thoroughly entrenched in politics that not even the most ignorant audience can complain about the ideas that it puts forth, which means there’s an immense pressure in correctly portraying how drugs affects us as a society. Actually, “correctly” may be too binary a term for what I mean, so let me just say Weedcraft is a game that should be honest about its rumination on the subject at hand and aware of the nuance the conversation it wants to have demands.
I’m excited at the prospect of Weedcraft Inc, as the game struck a chord with me in regard to how directly it aims to address its difficult subject matter. As I’ve grown into a more politically savvy person, Devolver Digital’s upcoming release is exactly the kind of game that I want. It contributes to a conversation that industries and social circles in other parts of the world have been having for much longer than we have. While the outcome remains murky for now, Weedcraft Inc is refreshing enough that I believe it’s worth the chance when the game tentatively releases in the early months of 2019.