'Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor' Asks Gamers to Find the Beauty in Garbage
When you look past the alien starships and the haunted skulls, <i>Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor</i> is a perfect snapshot of what it feels like to work a thankless job in 2016.
Wake up. Clock in. Thank you, have a nice day. Go home. Wake up. Clock in. Thank you, have a nice day. Go home. Wake up. Clock in. Sir, please stop offending the other customers. Go home.
The life of a service sector worker is hell. Millions of people have seen their day-to-day become more about the repetitious rhythms of their employment, rather than the lure of adventure and fulfillment promised to them in their youth. Like a cosmic Seinfeld joke, life quickly becomes a show about nothing.
It's a sour taste that the young developer collective at Sundae Month know all too well, and one reason why their latest game, the "anti-adventure" Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, can find such beauty in the banality of a truly awful job.
I am the Janitor, an unremarkable woman of blue-skinned, elf-eared, and slightly pudgy nature. My home—my prison—is Xabran's Rock, a dense and sprawling alien bazaar, brimming with countless species so inexplicable as to give Mos Eisley's cantina a run for its money. My job allows me to eke out a meagre living among the many pilgrims and shopkeepers, incinerating the garbage these brave adventurers leave behind after they've purchased their latest spellswatches and plasma rifles. Giant whale-shaped starships litter the sky, beaming in and out of the atmosphere at a consistent rate, teasing me with their promise of grandeur. Somewhere, a man with a television for a head tells me to "smile, sweetie".
But it's okay, because one day, I'm going to get off this rock. That is, if I can ever save up enough money. There's also the matter of this cursed flying skull that follows me around everywhere I go, periodically screaming into my ears. No one said career advancement would be easy.
For writers and designers Bradford Horton and James Shasha, Diaries began during their college schooling, in the heat of 2014's Gamergate controversy. Disillusioned with a gaming scene that they felt was increasingly destructive and derivative (their own previous work included), they set out to make something new, but that capitalised on tropes and a lifestyle that many are familiar with.
"Obviously, [harassment] wasn't new. We all knew it was happening. We were feeling pretty disenchanted with certain aspects of the community. I think it's impossible at some level to separate certain cultural things about game spaces from games themselves. We had a lot of conversations about what player expectations are, and how we can either subvert, play with, or outright fuck with their expectations," Shasha tells VICE.
Rather than focus on an epic quest filled with the violence and antagonistic conventions of more popular gaming franchises, they were going to find a way to subtly satirise those tropes with a game that always kept them just out of arm's reach.
"We had a goal of making an adventure game with no adventure," Shasha says. "It seems like you're supposed to go on this adventure, but everything in the game is trying to keep you stuck in one position, at the bottom of this totem pole, crushed in this capitalist dystopia."
The pair were determined to build a game that made players feel lost and frustrated. "The first time we showed the spaceport to people outside our group, the first thing they wanted was a mini-map," Horton says. "They felt it was missing because it was expected."
The days roll into one another before long. I wake up in my studio apartment above the sewage processing plant, boot up my PrayStation 9, receive my daily payment, and head out my door. The cursed skull is still—always—there, a punishment for daring to venture into the port's sewer dungeons in search of its mysteries. The first order of business is always food, if I can even afford it. The meat vendors' grills outside my apartment sizzle and crack with hearty looking meals, but it's just too expensive. I settle for the nutrient bar kiosk just downstairs. Work comes immediately after, and on Xabran's Rock, you live and die by the luck of the eight goddesses, their altars spread throughout the maze of shops and streetwalkers. I stop to pray and offer a candle at each one, hoping like hell that these tentacled deities give a crap about my dreams.
A juggling anthropomorphic pear tells me he prays every day so he may become more beautiful. I keep walking.
If there is one thing that Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor absolutely understands, it's the crushing weight of uncertainty and instability that working class living brings about. Between the constant scouring of trash, the constant beckoning of shop vendors reminds you of your place. One is selling gems that give you ten points towards magic, while another offers high-powered rifles that can tear through any intergalactic beast. Then I look at the price tag. Then I realise I'm not a weapons expert.
"Video games and capitalism go together like peanut butter and jelly," says Shasha. "In most games, you do X thing and you get immediate feedback and progress. That's this sort of mythologized capitalist fantasy. Our game uses the same system, it's just that you're not expecting to get anywhere."
Like its protagonist, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor inescapably lives in the shadow of something larger. Games like No Man's Sky and Assassin's Creed promise infinite worlds full of infinite content, but quickly become exercises in repetition and boredom thanks to a dearth of variety. Rather than over-promising, Diaries scales back, turning a frustrating fantasy into something relatable (being lost in both a physical and emotional aspect), but absurd and charming too. After all, what is there left do but laugh at our pain?
A wizardly worm-turtle-thing informs me my curse can only be lifted by restoring a broken magical tablet. It's probably the most "video game" thing to happen to me yet, but the day is done, and my incinerator battery is dead. Sweet sleep beckons. The next morning, I boot up my PrayStation, keen to collect my reward. Instead, I'm staring down the barrel of a 25-credit paycheck, barely enough to buy two meals with. A literal slime ball with eyes asks me for some smutty magazines in exchange for the magical tablet piece I need. I'm short by 30 credits, and I've begun puking up my morning breakfast. My vision goes blurry, and I'm told that my alien body needs to conduct its regular gender change. I throw my last credits into a conveniently named "Gender Kiosk". "Congratulations," it says. "Your gender is now: Emoticon. You feel amazing."
On my way home, a gun-slinging thug robs me. I see him guarding the bank the very next day.
But Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor isn't all about a doomed existence. At some point in my own working class life, both real and digital, the sense of comfort provided by a modest routine became warm and familiar. Routine isn't necessarily easy, but it is a practiced skill. The cursed skull is as apt a metaphor for depression or anxiety, refit as an ally, constantly breathing down your neck, only to flare up at random intervals with an unsettling bark.
"We wanted to make it clear that the skull wasn't a character in the same way as you were or anyone else was," Horton says.
"When we originally came up with [the skull], it was a depression metaphor, and still is," Shasha continues. "But I like to think that it applies to anything that can hang over you. That being said, after all this time, I've grown to appreciate the skull. Some people think the skull is so annoying and ask how to get rid of it, but some are like, 'I like the skull. It's cute, and it keeps me on my toes. I don't want to get rid of it,' and that's a valid way to play."
Having lost count of how many days and nights I've spent collecting junk, it's nice to be reminded that embracing the bad with the good isn't something to be frowned upon. If I'm going to be a retail worker, burger cook, or a janitor, by god I'm going to be the best damn one around. My sadness and frustrations are fuel, if only for when sheer determination fails me. This is my corner of the world, and I'm going to inhabit it with every scrap of dignity I can cling onto. I'm currently still stuck on that rock, praying and scrambling for a bit of luck and direction. If I eat smart enough, run fast enough, and pray to the many-tentacled god of good luck hard enough, maybe my starship is just about to turn the corner.
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