Sending out emails, finding an available apartment, waiting in a queue of flat-hunters for a viewing, arranging movers: flat hunting in Berlin isn’t exactly fun. So it might not seem like the obvious choice to turn that process into a video game, but that’s just what Bastien Allibert did.
With a bit of extra time during the pandemic, he got in touch with his brothers (one a game designer, the other a musician) and they created Berlin Flat Quest, a game in which users choose a stereotypical Berlin character and try to land a coveted apartment in the city.
Creating characters, I found myself having to balance between stereotypes, satirical commentary and actual representation
The game is very funny, with users able to adopt the persona of a Brexit Escapist, Tech Evangelist or, “coming soon”, a Qatari Prince. But the low-fi graphics and retro charms mask a more serious intention. Allibert runs the website, Settle in Berlin, where he helps new arrivals adapt to the city, so he knows how stressful and time consuming it can be to find a place to stay. Making a game, he thought, was a light-hearted way to show how flawed and broken the process of flat rentals has become.
We spoke to him after he had released a new update, incorporating new contemporary references like inflation and the dramatic rise of energy prices.
What made you undertake the new update?
It’s no secret that if you have a Turkish or an Arabic sounding name it can be harder to get a flat
Well, Berlin Flat Quest was made almost two years ago now. The whole idea was to give it a really contemporary feeling. I did the first update a year ago to include the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen referendum. This time, I wanted to mention inflation, energy prices and the situation we have now where companies like Vonovia – I think they’re currently the biggest commercial landlord in the city – have frozen lots of their work because of the current economic situation. They can’t turn a profit delivering new projects. So, they’ve either frozen new permit requests or delayed them, which constrains the supply of living space. It affects all of us – but also it has an impact in the game.
One of the first things you notice in the game are the characters: the student, the Brexit escapist, the South German. Which do you identify with?
Those are all stereotypes, of course. When it came to creating characters, I found myself having to strike a balance between stereotypes, satirical commentary and actual representation. It’s something I’m not used to at all. But, well, I’m a product manager by trade, you know? So, I guess the tech evangelist. The startup guy. That would be me I suppose.
Do your choices make a difference? Is the game harder for certain characters?
Making a game was a light-hearted way to show how flawed and broken the process of flat rentals has become
Well, I don’t want to give too much away. But it’s no secret that if you have a Turkish or an Arabic sounding name it can be harder to get a flat in Berlin. That’s why I made that screen at the start, like in a role playing game where you choose your weapons or character class. You can choose to have a good Schufa, a bad one, or none at all – and you can choose a German or a foreign name. And then there are also different variables depending on the area you want to move to: Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Lichtenberg. The problem with that one is that you can’t keep up. The popular areas in Berlin change all the time.
Is that why you didn’t introduce the Qatari Prince? The game would be too easy?
That was also an indirect social commentary. It’s a symbol, the representation of big money coming to Berlin and buying lots of property. But you’re right, it’s not a playable character.
There’s more than one mini-game in Berlin Flat Quest. You’ve got an email stage, an interview and a bonus level where you drive a moving van. Which do you like best?
My favourite is the interview. It draws from personal experiences of having these weird interviews when just need a place to live. I can remember visiting some potential flat and after some time they said “oh and, of course, this is a naked WG.” But it’s partly from experience and from stuff you hear from friends.
But I liked designing the interviews. There are six or seven different variations in the game, and I was inspired by the game Monkey Island, where the gameplay is meant to be sword fighting but actually it is just all about the banter. If you’re good at banter, you win.
If you were going to introduce another level to the game, what would it be?
I wanted to have another one! Originally, we were going to do an appointment at the Bürgeramt and make fun of how insane that ordeal can be, but we didn’t have time. Also, we couldn’t decide on the gameplay. I thought maybe it could be like Mario. You run through and then the final boss would be the actual appointment. You’d collect power-ups along the way: a numbered ticket, the ability to speak German, those kinds of things. But it’s hard to write something funny AND be relevant in that one: the experience is so painful!
Finally, then, what do you think is the secret to finding a flat in Berlin?
The secret? Well, in my opinion, the secret would be sensible public policy. Mistakes were made along the way, going back to Wowereit. During his time in office, he sold 60 or 70,000 units to private investors like Lehman Brothers. Back then, real estate was still considered a liability, a weight on public finances. In hindsight, this was incredibly stupid. So yeah, my secret would be a major policy change.
Other than that… I don’t know. I guess my only other advice to people who aren’t rich and don’t have a lot of time would be to look outside the ring. It’s nice, it’s quiet and Berlin still has pretty good public transport to reach the city centre fast..