Corey Milne stands at the intersection of gaming and world history to see what he can see.
For the prisoners who make up the character roster in Void Bastards, getting a reprieve from their imprisonment is as easy as making a Cupa Soup. The computer selects a sachet from a filing cabinet. The packet contains the dehydrated remains of the prisoner. Add some water and a little nutrient gruel, maybe give the mix a stir with a standard-issue foon and presto! A brand new inmate will be ready to risk life and limb collecting various bits of junk to escape a nebula, which seems to be mutating everyone into space ghouls.
Even though they’ve committed heinous crimes like closing a door in an executive’s face, or didn’t file a particular form with the correct color of ink, they’re willing to help out. Truth be told, they don’t have much of a choice, but perhaps this good behavior will see them get time off of their sentences. Plus the friendly AI voice which directs your actions keeps reassuring you that they think you’re the best client for the job.
The writing and voice acting, with its jabs at the unfolding violence and bureaucratic hurdles, strikes a very British tone. It’s Red Dwarf meets Brazil, through a 2000 AD lens. Perhaps unsurprising seeing as writing duties for the game fell to Scottish writer Cara Ellison. All of your characters are referred to as clients rather than inmates. “Prisoner” is a dirty word, but “client” gives the impression of there being an equal partnership. Both the client and the body they’re serving, in this case a prison-industrial complex, are working towards a goal that promises to reward them both. The word client connotes some form of rehabilitation, whereas describing someone as an inmate implies punishment. This is something that has actually been discussed within the British justice department. If we’re to treat prisoners humanely, with respect so as to not deny their personhood, shouldn’t we do away with damaging labels that deny an opportunity for growth?
If we’re to treat prisoners humanely, with respect so as to not deny their personhood, shouldn’t we do away with damaging labels that deny an opportunity for growth?
In the UK, crime and punishment is as ever a hot topic, more so in the face of Brexit and the conservative government’s ongoing austerity program. After more than a decade of cuts in community projects and centers, the gutting of local councils and rising poverty levels, Britain’s conservative government thinks the solution to this is more police. With so much of the onus placed on punishment, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in Europe. Here’s the kicker though, Britain has the second-highest share of prisoners being kept in private, for-profit prisons in the world. Second only to Australia, where developer Blue Manchu are based. Referring to prisoners as clients then takes on a much darker meaning. Why rehabilitate people when they’re directly tied to your profits?
It doesn’t take long for the veneer to fade in Void Bastards. You have complete control over where to go, which items to research and how you tackle the increasingly dangerous situations you find yourself in. Scenarios that call for you to condemn a little more and understand a little less, as you blast a gang of juves with a homemade shotgun stapler. The “condemn a little more” line sounds like it’d fit right into Void Bastards’ world, but it’s not from the game. They were the words spoken by conservative prime minister John Major regarding young offenders in 1993. And it’s an attitude the UK clearly hasn’t moved away from.
Any gains made within a system that views a person as a commodity or tool are ultimately meaningless. At one point in the game, you’re tasked with constructing an ID card. So that the ship’s AI can access the overarching bureaucratic system, which you’re fighting against just as much as you’re blasting mutants. So you collect the essential parts and construct the badge. In recognition of your good work, your sentence is reduced. Which offsets the extra days you’ve accrued for trespassing on private vessels, material theft and all the murder you meted out getting that ID card.
Void Bastards ends with a shot showing a planet with a ring around it. This planet’s ring consists of packets of dehydrated prisoners, rather than rocks. Imprisoned indefinitely because the paperwork to process them all would be more trouble than they’re worth. So ends a game about being shafted by space Tories. A tale as old as time really.
Corey Milne is an Irish freelance writer who likes to poke at that strange intersection where games meet history. A roundup of his writing can be found at coreymilne.com. You can join his Rad-Lands motorcycle bandit gang on Twitter @Corey_Milne.