“It's too bad you were unable to handle that special request. But don't worry, you'll get your chance to try again someday. Keep practising for when that day does eventually come.”
Aero Porter's a puzzle game built around a peculiarly modern kind of horror scenario: work.
Work, with its daily doses of pure torment. Work, with its managers who heap on the pressure and then bawl you out when you screw up. Work, where a seemingly neutral piece of feedback like the one quoted above comes laced with hidden poison. “...for when that day does eventually come. You idiot.”
In this case, work means manning a luggage carousel at some lousy airport, matching the coloured baggage to the coloured loading rails - these rails are stacked on top of one another like the tiers on a wedding cake - and then getting everything onto the right planes before they depart.
Your carousel initially comes with just two controls - a trigger to lower a ramp that will move baggage up a level from one rail to the next, and another to lower a ramp that will drop it down a level - but it's soon bristling with hidden complications. Those triggers lower and raise ramps on all of the carousel's rails at once, for starters, meaning that you're likely to move the wrong baggage as well as the right baggage whenever you seek to impose order on chaos. Then there's a fuel gauge, which needs to be topped up regularly, before all the machinery splutters and dies. On top of that, throw in lights, which need to be switched on and off to conserve energy, and fuel-hungry controls to speed the carousel up (which is handy when the timer is ticking down to a plane's departure) or even stem the flow of new suitcases from above - but only for a while.
Most of all, though, there's baggage: endlessly circling ranks of baggage of different colours, jumbled together mindlessly, but with each piece destined for a very specific plane. There's VIP baggage that has to be loaded before everyone else's. There's politicians' baggage which is identified by the colour of the tag rather than the colour of the case. There are even bombs that need to be identified and removed before it all gets a bit serious. The baggage never stops. The planes never stop. The fines levied when a plane hits its departure time with no baggage on board and has to be cancelled never stop either.
Beneath the creeping dread and the endless, hovering sense of doom, Aero Porter's a neat piece of design. The graphical approach is quietly stylish without sacrificing readability, the text is all wonderfully nasty in an understated way, and the sheer feel of everything - the taut spring of the loading ramps, the cheap plasticky thwack of baggage moving from one level to the next, the thrill as you send two planes off in quick succession and start a combo going - marks this out as a superior piece of work.
And it's a very weird idea for a video game, really: not so much because of where it draws its mechanics from, perhaps, but because of the human kind of pressure it puts you under, with all those disappointed managers and harried VIPs ready to administer a shoeing. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that it's been directed by a fairly weird video game designer: no less a luminary than Yoot Saito, in fact, the force behind glorious feats of quirk such as Seaman and Odama.
With Aero Porter - like Liberation Maiden, it's part of Level-5's Guild01 series - he's moving the focus in close and offering something very compact and replayable. He's giving you the pleasure, and pain, that comes from witnessing a self-contained system go wrong under your stewardship: a system that's just itching to tie itself in fresh knots even as you try to tackle the worst of the tangles. So many colours, so much chaos, so many simultaneous objectives: Aero Porter purposefully divides your attention, and then it yells at you and plays hilariously ominous music when you make mistakes because your attention was so woefully divided.
It's a game about being the little man in a big organisation, the little man who gets all the blame but none of the credit. It's also a game about working your way out of that hole until you're running the kind of airport where space shuttles and presidents don't mind landing. If that's your, um, bag, then you're in for a treat. Even if it's not, this is still one of those weird little video games that stalks around in your memory far longer than you might expect it to.