Save for the abysmal sex-sim Singles, there's not really been any challenger to The Sims in terms of megalomaniac life-control simulators. Presumably this is because of the tremendous amount of work it would take to produce enough assets as well as the difficulties of tying together a 3D world and a mass of behind-the-scenes information, rather than the distaste of most developers for games where you spend most of your time encouraging your naturally filthy avatars to perform their ablutions.
Enter Cliff Harris, stage left. Cliff used to work at Elixir and Lionhead, and has his sim-building principles down pat. Kudos, like his other notable sim Democracy, attempts to do an entire game through just one screen. Democracy was a political climate simulator that produced a series of flow-maps of the effects that different variables (pressure groups, laws, tax-levels) had on each other - resulting in a complicated screen that conveyed a ton of information. Kudos goes down the same route, pooh-poohing the overcomplicated 3D world of the Sims for a single controllable world, a single avatar and a much more British view of life displayed through a single 2D screen.
You start as a poorly-paid waiter with no discernible skills at the age of twenty. You have ten years to turn your life around whilst living in the town of Slough. (We feel obliged to keep in with the Betjeman season so; "come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, It isn't fit for humans now, There isn't grass to graze a cow. Swarm over, Death!") You are seriously dead-end; you have no prospects and few friends. There's no luxury here, no assumption of limitless wealth and the endless cheap land and buildings afforded by the American suburbs; this is good old English degradation, people scraping by on the breadline, just managing to live from day to day, with very few ways out. It's essentially a sink-estate simulator.
Like The Sims, there simply isn't the time to do all the things you want to and your character will spend an awful lot of time just trying to make a living. Characters can improve themselves by taking courses, but these absorb a lot of money and time, leaving the character feeling lonely. Thankfully, a character can have friends and relationships, which help fulfil his other criteria for life; he can go out for meals with them, or play sports, or go all cultural on them at the theatre, all of which fulfil certain needs and desires displayed on the right of the screen. Neglect friends and they simply disappear as they fall out of touch, as neglected friends do; new friends can be gained through activities or other friends. He can also buy a range of items that help his life development, such as speeding up his travel to work (skateboards, bicycles, cars, buses), pets (who can starve to death with depressing ease) or sports kit, but he's got to know how to use these things, which requires practice, which takes up time. Finally, his various statistics affect his chances of promotion at work or his chance of getting a new job.
So the two real resources in Kudos are time and money, filtered through your character's statistics. As you learn more skills, you can get better jobs, giving you more money, making you do things that make you happier, providing a positive cycle. Fail at things, and your confidence drops and you'll keep failing. You only get the chance to do one action each day, whether that's seeing friends, browsing for jobs, reading something of your book, taking a driving lesson or cleaning the house (something that has to be done with depressing regularity, just like life), and you've only got a few thousand turns, so wasted time feels really wasted.
Like Democracy (and like real life) there are arbitrary occurrences from time-to-time, such as burglaries (which seem to have happen far too regularly even for inner-city Slough), illness and muggings. These remove items you've bought, knocking you back a pace or two in your slow progression to being a "better" person. There are also free updates provided in-game supplying new costumes, jobs, kit for your house and so on; easily as satisfying as the pumped-out expansion packs of The Sims. Apparently, you can also mod it, but I'm assuming the community's either too small, the creative process is too hard, or no-one's motivated enough, as there's nothing out there at the moment.
Kudos makes you regret all the wasted opportunities in your life; it makes you see your life in the long-term, something hard to do in the day-to-day pace of modern economic slavery. It makes you think just how often you turn up to work "Tired and bored" and gives you a second chance. (Or a chance to try out that decade if you're not that old yet.) It pisses me off to sound so airy-fairy and pseudo-academic but Cliff Harris has again made a thought-provoking piece of art and social commentary masquerading as code.
As a game, it's not quite there; its arbitrary-ending point, whilst improving on the endlessness of Democracy, doesn't really tally with the feeling of controlling a life; really this should end only at death, with your last ten years spent scraping by on an even more impoverished income, and your skills degrading rapidly. We didn't really understand what the Kudos score was there for, except as a normally unnecessary reassurance that you were doing well. We also question how much you could face replaying it, and certain events (such as burglaries) crop up with unwelcome regularity. The barely animated interface, minimalist content and pointless cut-scene shots don't help. Yet as an interesting and well-thought -through study of the struggles of an everyday life, Kudos is well conceived and a welcome alternative take on life-simulation.
7 / 10
At the moment Kudos is only available from Positech games, though we expect to see it in Career Advice centres soon.