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September Games: Wilmot's Warehouse

There are a lot of games I keep meaning to play, and not getting around to. So I’m going to play as many games as I can in September, and write a little bit about each one. First up: Wilmot’s Warehouse.

The Manifest: all the products currently in stock in my warehouse.

The Manifest: all the products currently in stock in my warehouse.

So, my household has a small and poorly-thought-through Brexit stockpile.

This is mostly food we ordered back in January, at what was - worried friends and I reassured each other - the "ethical time" to stockpile. We could buy from supermarkets; then those supermarkets would restock before the anticipated Brexit date of late March. Really, by stockpiling we were helping free up storage space in warehouses across the country. How moral we were! How filled with forethought!

If everything turned out okay, great: I wouldn't have to buy beans for a while.

And if everything went badly, well: at least I'd have anchovies, tomato paste, red wine, coffee, and plenty of cumin to add flavour to the turnips and rhubarb and whatever else there is that actually grows in England. A load of artists were meant to be coming to the UK to take part in an event I was running, with Brexit scheduled right in the middle: if they all got stuck here in some sort of airport deadlock, at least I could make them a big stew.

Our stockpile is not very well considered. I tried googling for "what should I stockpile", but for every only-slightly-panicked "here are some tinned goods that last well?" blog post I found, I came across half a dozen forum posts going "TOP PRIORITY AFTER BULLETS AND 3D PRINTER FILAMENT IN KHAKI: MAKE SURE you get a LOT of VODKA, it's great for disinfecting WOUNDS and you can BARGAIN with it in the POST-APOCALYPTIC MARKETPLACE". (I bought one bottle of own-brand vodka. "If everything turns out okay," I thought, imagining myself in some sort of charmingly rustic farmhouse with an unusual focus on flavoured spirits, "I can put a load of late summer fruit into it and it'll end up sweet and flavoured and delicious in time for Christmas").

Anyway, now it's September, Brexit is an ever-weirder and more impermeable fog on the sea whose distance cannot ever be determined, and the main thing I've done with this stockpile, other than gradually eat my way through it over the course of six months, is to rearrange it.

Occasionally I'll buy an extra bag of something on sale, or add in another jar of something-for-the-stockpile to the normal grocery shop, and bring it home, and try to work out where it fits. Should the jar of raspberry jam go by the honey, or the tinned peaches? Should the bag of dry beans sit next to the dry rice, or should it sit by the tin of chickpeas?

Once I went into a Waitrose, which is always a bad idea, and came home with a duck confit in a tin. I don't even fully understand what a duck confit is: should it go with the tuna, in a general non-vegetarian protein area on the shelf? Or with the massive bags of herbs from the cash-and-carry, because it's kinda fancy and French? Or: oh, how about it goes with the other bullshit groceries I bought in a panic and don't know what they're for?

In retrospect, I guess what I was doing with all this was: trying to feel like I was doing something. Brexit is such a strange looming thing, everything feels so ineffective, so why not get an extra jar of harissa - look, it's on three-for-two! - and then spend ten minutes slowly moving groceries to make space for it next to the spices, then rearrange everything again and put it over by the pesto?

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Anyway, Wilmot's Warehouse, from Richard Hogg and Ricky Haggett and Eli Rainsberry and Ruari O’Sullivan.

Wilmot's Warehouse is a game where you run a warehouse. Goods get delivered to your warehouse, and you have to store them. Later, colleagues come to the front desk of your warehouse and ask that you bring them some of the products you have in stock - maybe one of them wants a purple banana and three anchors, maybe another wants a load of eyeballs and a thermometer.

You receive regular deliveries of goods; you sort them according to your own developing classification system; you retrieve them against the clock, and hope that your classification system is up to the task. There's some extra bits and pieces - upgrades to make your task a little easier, a little robot buddy that helps you out - but an alternating rhythm of “sort deliveries” and “collect orders” is the heart of it.

It is a soothing, engrossing frustration-and-resolution of a game. It's an absolutely perfect instantiation of the thing that it is. It is hard to imagine a better "classify stuff" game. I love the details of how you move and work and how the challenge escalates just on the edge of manageability. The weird huge inexplicability of the warehouse, the loosely-drawn late-80s setting, the gentle lull of the music, the things you stock, the terrible motivational posters you occasionally receive from your distant and distracted boss. The icons that you sort are bold and distinctive and suggestive rather than clearly pictorial, so there's a tempting space for interpretation about what they are (I've gradually grown to suspect that an object that I classified as a lunar lander might actually be a can of spraypaint).

The pleasure of playing is difficult to describe, but one thing is: the system that you come up with feels genuinely expressive of you.

This is the “game design tools” section of my warehouse.

This is the “game design tools” section of my warehouse.

As far as I can tell, a lot of players sort by colour, although the tiles are designed to confound this system, with two-toned backgrounds or subtly different shades; plus many of your colleagues want you to bring them objects that are thematically related (someone who wants sausages seems more likely to want cake than paint), so sorting solely by colour can be inefficient.

A smattering of players sort by shape.

And many, many players sort by function - but exactly what function means in this context is very much up for grabs.

I have the hair dryers in my art supplies section, because I don't blowdry my hair but a long time ago I used to blowdry a lot of paintings. When I was at uni I was a reshelver in the library, and we used the Dewey decimal system, so instead of having a a "cold" or "winter" section (which makes sense! It's what supermarkets do, after all!), I've got eg igloos in my "pre-industrial architecture" section (as opposed to my "industrial and contemporary architecture" section, which is just over by the road signs). Snowflakes are in the "earth sciences" section, naturally.

Art supplies.

Art supplies.

Classifying stuff is just intrinsically satisfying, and that's partly because any system you come up with is slippery and never quite right and so you can always, always make it better. You can always look at an object from a different direction and think: ah, maybe this should be over here instead. The confit should be with the bay leaves. The lightning should be with the weather section, not in physics. Hashtags should be with technology, not literature.

It's like how early modern philosophers were always trying to invent new perfect languages that sliced the world up into one ultimate all-powerful set of concepts; except instead of making this all-encompassing classification system your life's doomed work, instead you can get through the whole game in five or six hours.

New objects arrive at the warehouse, and you have to invent new categories or expand your old ones. You interpret or misinterpret to make them fit into the world you're building: is this wine, or paint? Well, there's space in the "vices" section but art supplies is full, so let's say it's wine.

wilmot-foods.png

I played an early version of Wilmot's Warehouse a while back, and I enjoyed it, and I played and kept playing and kept playing some more, and then I stopped playing and I felt - a bit hollow, I guess. I resented the time that I'd spent on it. I had used the parts of my brain and motivation that I use for work, and then at the end I had done no work.

The game's better now. It's not radically different, but the tiny changes have shifted it away from an experience that felt, when I stopped playing, a little like trickery - like fake work, like it had misdirected my desire to get something done into nothingness - towards a different kind of game. A game that obviously isn’t more useful, but which draws on a different part of my desire to do something. It feels like leisure or relaxation or distraction, like rearranging my bookshelves, like re-sorting a tiny stockpile and knowing it's ridiculous but wanting to do it well.

Three more thoughts:

1. If you play long enough you get a little robot buddy who helps to sort things, except it's not a very good robot buddy. But it does its tiny ineffectual best! And sometimes while you're moving things around your big warehouse it whizzes by on the way to put a ladder or a microscope close to (but not exactly in) the place where you want it, and the big warehouse feels less lonely.

2. I stack to the front of the shelves instead of the back and this is 100% the way to go, it's slower for stocking but quicker for collecting, and collecting is where you really need the extra efficiency.

No, you fool, you’ve brought me the cool yellow bananas! I wanted the warm yellow bananas!

No, you fool, you’ve brought me the cool yellow bananas! I wanted the warm yellow bananas!

3. These two almost-identical bananas are clearly bullshit and made me fail a level and they're also one of my very favourite things in the game.

Holly Gramazio