Finding Worth in Space Servitude

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  • Working in the retail and service industry absolutely fucking sucks, but you know that. You’ve seen Clerks or just lived the experience yourself, dodging entitled blowhards in business blues or “Let me speak to the Manager” haircuts who think their sweaty bucks allow them complete dominion over your body and humanity. But work is work, and many of us were raised to believe that this toil is what gives our lives meaning. Clocking in and out, cleanin’ instead of leanin’, transmuting sweat and lactic acid into meager piles of green that is almost instantly forked over to landlords or lenders. This kind of work doesn’t provide concrete dividends, there’s no appreciable reward at the end of the day except resetting for the same tomorrow.

    But there’s a meditative zen to be found in this drudgery, a peace that has to be made in order to survive and even appreciate the act of sweeping up every night just to have to do it again, and again, and again. This is the aspect of service industry working life that the most successful procedurally generated games tap into, and ex-Bioshock developers Irrational Games’s new title Void Bastards really does clean up well as a metaphor of capitalism’s forced servitude. You take on the names of these titular bastards, dehydrated to dust for crimes against society like jaywalking and loitering and reconstituted one at a time in order to scrounge a fleet of derelict ships for all the bureaucratic pieces one needs to restart an automated space-prison railroad.

    This reading isn’t a selling point for Void Bastards, a game of eerily charming European accents, cel-shaded comic frames, spinning looted trash into crafting tree gold, and mobs of nebula-mutated ghostly citizens. It throws you into the vacuum of space with only barebones prep, with a few hints and lessons on the way, but the bulk of your education is spent in the field, boarding and pillaging. As you grow you need to drop farther into the nebula, meeting beefier juvenile delinquents and zombie space marines, avoiding pirates and torpedoing Lovecraftian space horrors. It’s all well and good, familiar to those who spent a lot of time in the similarly claustrophobic underwater mazes of the dev team’s previous work, though much more frivolous and pulpy.

    Thus is Void Bastards scripted: work endlessly for pennies at great personal risk with mostly the same maps but in regularly shuffled arrangements. You float endlessly through space with each successful task blowing up in your face and necessitating even more overtime, all in an effort to shave days off of a prison sentence that will last for a functional infinity. The endgame is practically nonexistent, a carrot hung off an impossibly long stick. On paper it all seems endlessly miserable but one still must find the dignity in this existence. Maybe this is just my indoctrination speaking, but the more this game drip-fed me the more willing I was to scramble through ships to collect staples and kitty drones and to dip my toes into ever more dangerous depth. I dutifully served my holy re-hydrator, grateful for the opportunity to risk my sliver of life to dig up a roulette table and some water-based lubricant.

    Eventually you will have crafted everything and filled every drawer with random batteries and body parts, and there’s probably an ending screen and some sort of final victory condition, but this is not Void Bastards’s ultimate reward. Joy in this game is finding solace in purgatory, stealing time from your corporate overlords, demanding value in one’s self not because of what you produce for your British AI warden, but because you’ve mastered your craft—which, in this game, is endlessly spelunking dead cosmic hulks for sammies and scrap.

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