I sit on the side of I-5, the main highway running between Seattle and Portland. It’s nearly 19:00, the sun is quickly setting, and the wind has taken a sinister chill. My car sits, hazards flashing, on the shoulder in front of me. I’m flipping between tabs on my phone: my bank account, nearby mechanics, and quotes for towing companies to get me and the car back to my friend’s place. The bank account is thinner than I’d like, the mechanics are all closed, and the tow is going to drain me of the rest of my funds regardless of who does it. With a stiff gust breaking on my back, my hair flung into my face, I realize that this whole ordeal has a striking resemblance to my time spent with Jalopy.
Jalopy is a 2018 game from developer MinskWorks, Greg Pryjmachuk (@MinskWorks), with music from Jeremy Warmsley (@jwojwo). In it, you and your uncle drive a beat-up, breaking-down “Laika” which resembles a Trabant 601. Road tripping across Eastern Europe in the 1990’s, through the remains of the Eastern Bloc during a time of societal upheaval, where capitalist ideals wormed their way through countries, and your coffers are quite minuscule. Along the trip, you come across boxes along the road, containing various objects such as twine or wine. These can be sold to stores you stop at, turning a slow profit. However, your money will be constantly drained, as your Laika quickly falls apart on the road and needs ongoing, never-ending maintenance. Your profits will need to be turned into car parts whenever something begins to fail, lest you and your uncle end up stranded.
As anyone who has ever owned a beater can tell you: fixing cars is expensive. When taking a vehicle off the hands of another private party, with 200,000 miles on the odometer, and a leaky oil tank, any fixes to keep the car running add up monumentally. For instance, say you just bought a 2006 Ford Escape two weeks ago knowing the driver side CV joint is going out, and are now looking at costs running into the thousands should there be any further damage when that joint suddenly gives out, inevitably leaving you marooned on a highway in Washington as your car belches smoke, lurching when making attempts to drive it. The car itself near-bankrupt you, and you couldn’t afford a proper inspection or repairs until building up some money first, so now the worst possible outcome hits you and you’re cornered with a stupid 4 ton SUV that doesn’t even work.
Consider also the possibility that that car is what you make income with. This is the case with Jalopy, without that car running you can’t continue your cross-country journey, and you won’t be able to get it running unless you’ve got the boxes you find on the road, because those are your sole source of income. Reality is, this entire situation is exactly the position many gig economy workers find themselves in currently. For a large swath of those workers, Uber or Lyft or Postmates or Caviar are the only jobs they’re able to find. Driving them can certainly pay bills, but the pay is a pittance compared to full-time work as well as lacking the security something like that can offer.
Hourly wages create expected income based on a scheduled amount of hours. That wage is not going to fluctuate, so you can plan accordingly to create budgets and plan for expenses. But, when it comes to gig eco-work, the driver/courier is subject to the whims of not only these companies but their location, and rate of use from other users in the day. While ridesharing services are becoming more and more widespread, I’d be shocked if there aren’t hundreds or thousands of small towns littering America that lack widespread enough infrastructure or populations to support driving for it. There are plenty workers who will traverse multi-hour journeys to get to a populated city where they can make enough to get by with the pervasive usage these apps have in metropolitan areas.
But, much like the way in Jalopy that various countries will have differing selling prices for the objects you pick up leaving your projected income with nebulous certainty, the companies running these apps adjust their pay-out system for these workers seemingly at random, and usually to the detriment of amount paid to the worker. Income becomes an increasingly unsure thing, and the sudden expenses of emergency can destroy a person’s livelihood.
Living poor in America is a constant uphill struggle against the unmitigable. Getting out of the hole one can quickly be found in is not an easy feat, especially so when reliance falls on things such as a person’s tenuous health, or even gnarled wheeled vehicles always teetering on the edge of becoming undriveable. Unexpected expensives are calamitous when living paycheck-to-paycheck, much less with a near-random daily payout from gig work (provided you work for a service offering the benefit of same-day payment).
So, sitting there on the side of the highway, I size my Ford up much like I would the Laika. I think about how it’s intrinsically necessary for my continued existence, that without it I’m unable to pay rent or easily find a better situation, that it’s my sole link to income through food deliveries. My remaining money already thin, the need to repair it forces me into an uncomfortable position, one I’ve dealt with many many times, where I tighten my belt and push forward because I have no other choice but to do so. As I call the tow truck to begin the expensive, arduous process of repairing the car, I return to that trip through Europe, to my time spent picking apart rust buckets on the side of roads, scavenging parts slightly less damaged than my own. The hardship, the challenge of stretching a dollar for another carburetor, biting nails as I inch my smoking heap of metal to the next rest area. It’s shockingly similar, but far less fun, now. Abstraction of difficulty presents an enjoyable obstacle to overcome far from the stress of living through challenge. But, while my modern day experience is only tangentially related, at the very least Jalopy gave me a space in which I could prepare myself for this in some small way.
But really though, fuck cars.
Jalopy is currently available on Steam and is coming to Xbox One on September 27th.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.