Nineties nostalgia has been en vogue since millennials grew old enough to experience existential dread, but few games are as committed to the bit as The Big Con: a coming-of-age adventure that will mark Toronto developer Mighty Yell’s debut release. Though the title’s exact launch date, slated for this summer, has yet to be announced, you can sample about a half-hour’s worth of gameplay in demo form thanks to Steam’s Next Fest.
The Big Con casts subtlety to the side from the outset. The opening credit sequence winks at the design world’s attachment to the floppy disk as an anachronistic save icon, while the following main menu screen invites players to stick around and enjoy a power-pop theme song, which sounds like a b-side by That Dog. This isn’t just an attempt to evoke a bygone decade, though. The world of The Big Con feels like a funhouse mirror held up to the recent past. The era’s flannel, cartoons, and consumerism filters through the idealistic lens of memory, all melting together in a surreal dreamscape.
Case in point: the first thing you’ll see upon starting the demo is a skateboarding, backwards snapback-wearing ghost who serves as The Big Con’s de-facto narrator. Rad Ghost, as he’s so called, briefly describes the exposition you won’t see until the game’s full launch date. Our protagonist, 17-year-old band kid Ali, needs to scrape together $97,000 in order to rescue her mom’s video store from the mob. To raise the funds fast, she’s embarking on a cross-country quest to pick the pocket of any unlucky sucker who crosses her path.
Rifling through strangers’ wallets is pretty simple; sneak up behind one of the game’s easily-distracted NPCs, perform a quick time event, and add some loose change to your coffers. It’s a bit tedious, but it’s meant to be. The real money is in the longer cons.
In each stage of the demo, you’ll explore a small map presented in a three-quarters camera angle that reminds me of ToeJam & Earl’s overworld. Whether Ali’s wandering around town in pursuit of bus fare or scamming rich dads at the mall, there are many means of wealth redistribution more lucrative than petty thievery. The more detours you take, the more opportunities you’ll have to solve puzzles like cracking the code to the toy store’s back room to steal a Burpo (read: Furby) and figuring out the secret ingredients in a can of Horm (read: Spam) in order to win a cash prize. Though some money making methods are more efficient than others, they’re all morally dubious. But what choice do you really have in the matter?
It’s interesting that it feels more wrong to steal in a video game than it does to commit acts of violence — a dilemma that anyone who’s played Skyrim or Fallout knows well. And that’s kind of the point! The Big Con is billed as a “non-violent crime adventure”, allowing players to indulge in the fantasy of making mischief in a coming-of-age movie rather than getting catharsis out of inflicting bodily harm. By comparison, the point-and-click lawbreaking on display here feels relatively cozy.
The Big Con’s insular, cartoon-inspired visual style definitely outshines its gameplay. While robbing shoppers with a single keystroke got stale quickly for me, I wanted to survey every inch of each demo level before progressing. Taking cues from Infinite Falls’ Night in the Woods, Mighty Yell peppers their world with cheesy puns and deadpan dialog presented in the form of speech bubbles, and the sketchy art style laden with jazzy squiggles and rainbow of skin tones will resonate with Doug fans on a spiritual level. A few sarcastic fourth-wall breaks and a closing reference to the infamous “Winners Don’t Do Drugs” campaign add to the zany Saturday-morning atmosphere. I feel as though this game might be best enjoyed with a bowl of sugar cereal close at hand.
Seeing as it is a more plot-driven, atmospheric title, I think the total appeal of The Big Con isn’t going to come across in this brief preview of the feature presentation. Paying homage to classic road movies, Mighty Yell’s initial offering promises to be an easily digestible story that’s as comforting as a rented teen comedy. Now, if only my download came packaged with microwaveable popcorn and some Twizzlers…
[A review code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.]