Grind has been a part of videogames almost since day one. We grind for experience points, we grind for gold, we grind for loot and every so often we even grind for fun. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor subverts this formula, but not by removing grind. Instead, it removes — or at least makes you question — all your reasons for doing it.
You play, as you may have figured out, a spaceport janitor. You wake up each day tasked with roving a bright, colorful spaceport, picking up assorted trash to keep, sell or incinerate. Incinerating trash rewards you with a salary the next morning, which you can use to buy more items or just pick up exciting futuristic food to keep you on your feet through the day. It’s basically a survival sim for ennui.
What keeps the game from being numbingly depressing, is that it’s so knowing about the conventions of games. Early on you explore an underground dungeon, which sees you rewarded with a curse: a skull that continuously floats behind you, shouting every now and then.
That quickly nets you a few quests to free yourself of the curse. Conversations with the various shopkeepers dotted around can pick you up a few more. There’s also the tantalizing suggestion that some items can be sold for much more than they’re worth through incineration, so long as you can find the right buyer.
Now, you’re probably thinking that Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor sounds like a pretty traditional game after all, but it’s not done screwing with us. Sure, you can get more money for selling items. But you need to find the right vendor out of tens, possibly hundreds, in a sprawling metropolis with no map. And yeah, you could complete the quests to clear the curse, but they take almost insurmountable amounts of time and money — can you ever spare enough of either to make it happen?
When I started the game, these objectives seemed tantalizingly achievable, and I began feverishly collecting trash, holding onto objects that seemed valuable and doing my best to memorize maps and shops. This didn’t last long. By my fourth or fifth in-game day, it took all my time to scrape together the money I needed to buy food.
Not enough food to satisfy me, mind — just enough to manage, to stay hungry but not quite collapse in the street. Day by day, removing my curse or making my fortune looked more and more like a pipedream. I stopped checking into shops, trying to find those elusive big-figure sales. I began to doubt whether they even existed at all, whether my quests could ever be accomplished. I began to distrust the game, to doubt the system.
It ground down my hope, my aspirations. I only strove to get by, to continue existing. I stopped glancing up at the fluorescent world as I walked by, instead looking only down, for the next piece of garbage to collect. Then I stopped playing, and I never intend to start again.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is perhaps the most faithful janitorial simulator in gaming history, and it’s exactly as depressing as it sounds. We need more games like it.