Hustler’s Tale explores poverty and desperation, shows game creation as catharsis
Video games can be powerful tools for self expression and catharsis. Vander Caballero told a semi-autobiographical tale of alcoholism and abuse with Papo & Yo's characters, and Raffaele Mele is another example of using games to tell a personal story. In this case, Mele is dealing with the desperation he felt when his mother faced cancer. In Hustler's Tale, you play as an unnamed character whose mother has been diagnosed with cancer. The character's struggle leads them to dealing with an unsavory cousin, who offers a way for the character to pay hospital bills: drug dealing. Mele calls it a mix of Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto, but to compare Hustler's Tale to those games is a little unfair. Hustler's Tale is a poem written on a napkin, not a hardbound book.
Hustler's Tale was created entirely by Mele in the Unity engine, a versatile tool popular with smaller teams in game development. He's a self-taught tinkerer; his first experience with modeling came from Blender, 3D development software he downloaded at a whim while skipping class, and Hustler's Tale is the second game he's ever made. Mele dropped out of his first college due to failing grades. Skipping class that day to download Blender probably didn't help. Soon after, he shifted his focus to an art school which offered game design, and also provided him with the Macbook Pro he used to create Hustler's Tale. He buckled down on studies and got straight As, but only stayed for five months before the stress of tuition caused him to drop out again. He's intimately familiar with poverty. “People living in poverty are put into very desperate situations, and those situations are a lot of the times why people commit crime. Criminals are not always bad. A lot of the times they are, but not always,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. Selling drugs, Mele explained, is just one of the less-than-legal methods a person might resort to due to stress brought on by poor living conditions and the feeling of being trapped financially. “It also might make you steal clothes and food if you have no money, which I have done personally growing up.” Mele said he thankfully didn't have to resort to crime when his mother was sick, though he came close. Like the character in Hustler's Tale, he was offered the chance to make money via drug dealing. It wasn't something he was comfortable with. “I have witnessed transactions, and even have been present when they have gone wrong,” he said. Still, nothing was off the table while his mother was sick. “I wanted to infuse the game with the desperate feeling that I felt at that time in my life.”
The right medium, at the right time
It's hard to recommend Hustler's Tale as a piece of entertainment. As a concept it's intriguing and encouraging, but as a product it's not engaging; at least not in its current state. Mele is planning a Kickstarter for early next year, but it's hard to see the game being well-received without many improvements. What's fascinating about this story is that Mele expressed a difficult time in his life, and while that need could have been filled with music, writing, or drawing, in this case he chose video games. Even more telling is that he had access to the tools needed to create a crude first take on his ideas. With nothing but a laptop and free software, four years after he started teaching himself, he has something to show for his efforts.“I feel like video games allow you to do so much more than any other creative medium,” Mele said. Video games weren't just an option Mele was familiar with; they're the only option he felt could tell the story he wants to tell. “Video games can offer a truly immersive experience that I feel can’t be duplicated in any other medium.” “It really is amazing to me, and any other creative medium is great, but they are restrictive to me. I can’t express myself fully with any other medium,” he explained. Still, video games are not Mele's final goal when it comes to advocating for the impoverished. “I personally hope one day I can help generously through philanthropy. I think everybody can help with poverty,” Mele told me. “Donate food or old clothes to a homeless shelter. Give homeless people your change… We have no idea why a person is in their situation. We really don’t need to go buy a $4 latte everyday, so just give when you can. Be aware and understanding.” Until then, he's going to work on his game. This is the real power of the inexpensive computing power and readily available development tools we enjoy. A generation ago Hustler's Tale may have been a written story, but today it was created as a game. It's possible Hustler's Tale doesn't go anywhere, and it's also possible other people begin working on it and the Kickstarter takes off. Maybe Mele simply learns more about game design and creation through the process and takes on a more ambitious project. The important thing is that he's creating something to bring what's inside himself out. That has value. Not every poem needs to be read to be effective.