Indulgent fantasies and wish fulfilments that stroke the player’s ego have been the promise of video games for dozens of years. Be a hero saving the world; a super-soldier dominating the battlefield; a tycoon raking in vast fortunes. Only rarely will a game dare to withhold power from the player, to subject them to arbitrariness, and feelings of insignificance.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, developed by Sundae Month and published by tinyBuild, puts the player in the shoes of an “Alaensee girlbeast” (as the Steam page says), working as a humble janitor on an alien world. Each morning, she leaves her shantytown apartment to comb the city for all sorts of trash. The streets are littered with a huge variety of items, ranging from the mundane (empty cans, broken glass, junk metal, vomit) to the bizarre (cursed tombs, broken alien machinery, discarded body parts).
Every time you pick something up, you get to decide whether to destroy it with your handy, portable incinerator, or pick it up. The wages you receive each morning are dependent on the number of items you incinerated the previous day; yet some of the things lying among the otherwise worthless junk may be peddled to certain merchants. Wandering through the streets, perusing the items presented in market stalls to discern who buys and sells what for how much, and memorising the locations are a large part of the game (or can be, depending on how you play).
Some items are useful in other ways. You will find various kinds of candles or talismans that may be left at the feet of shrines dedicated to the nine goddesses of the city in order to improve your luck (which is represented as a number that will drop rapidly if the goddesses are not appeased). Food can also be offered as sacrifice, but perhaps you’re better off eating it yourself. (Good) food isn’t cheap, and the janitor cannot go to bed on an empty stomach. At the end of each day, lasting only a few minutes, you’ll get the chance to jot down a few thoughts in the janitor’s diary.
The everyday life of a spaceport janitor, it turns out, isn’t exactly glamorous. The work is often (and very deliberately, I’m sure) monotonous, your wages are lean and don’t allow for much more than barely scraping by, and your luck is always dropping slowly but steadily, even if you bring offerings to several shrines each day (at least in my case, but I may have been doing it wrong). And as if that wasn’t enough, the janitor is afflicted by a curse in the form of a floating spectral skull. Lifting it is one of the game’s main goals, and doing so will require you to complete a handful of simple tasks or quests, adding additional complications to your life of hardship.
The city through which the player moves is the game’s most obvious triumph. It’s a colourful, inviting, chaotic space full of movement and strange noises. The streets, lit by neon signs and large screens, are teeming with droves of imaginative creatures going about their business, walking around, selling things, playing instruments and singing, driving around on a ‘bus’ that looks like some sort an enormous, hollowed out trilobite. The city may change slightly from day to day, contributing greatly to its impression of a living environment: merchants change their stock and their prices, certain NPCs appear at different locations… The weekdays, one for each of the nine goddesses, have an influence on the city as well. You may look forward to the one dedicated to the goddess of parties.
Despite its vibrance and beauty, the city is an overwhelming, stressful, even frightening place – at least in the beginning. Its relatively big size, twisting tangle of side streets and unnatural geometry are disorienting, and you will spend a lot of time being lost, feeling incompetent and small.
The successful navigation of these alien streets is the main challenge of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. Some of the city’s inhabitants offer helpful advice on where to go or what to do, but many openly display their scorn for the poverty-stricken, unfortunate trash creature that you are. You are mostly on your own. Where do I get a cheap meal? In which part of the city could I sell that broken gizmo I found on the street, and which is the quickest route? Where are the shrines, and who sells which offerings? The changing stocks and prices won’t make your life any easier; nor will the roaming militia/bandits that will steal your hard-earned cash if you’re unlucky enough to get too close and draw their attention.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor isn’t shy about treating the player unfairly and harshly (even if you cannot really lose the game), and as a consequence, it succeeds in conveying the hardship that the lowest of the low have to endure in this alien, but in this regard still very familiar society.
It never succumbs to cynicism though, and there’s a lot of exuberant charm, love and optimism in those mean streets. After a few hours, you will have become a shrewder and wiser citizen of this city, navigating and reading the streets to find ways to use and exploit them, and accepting your luck, good or bad. At this point, you will lift your eyes from the ground more frequently, and admire the beauty and life of this silly, imaginative world.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor has repeatedly been compared to the brilliant Bernband. It is easy to see why, given their similar aesthetics and mutual experience of being thrown in an unfamiliar, lo-fi-sci-fi (please forgive me) urban labyrinth. Playing it, however, felt – at least to me – much more akin to another game about repetitive work, time management and barely scraping by: Cart Life. The urban setting of both games feels threatening as the player desperately attempts to wrap their head around an unknown space, and how it works. In both, you are subject to urgent economic pressures, the rhythm of everyday life and work, and the unrelenting passage of time.
Unlike Cart Life, however, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a ‘working simulator’ set in a cheerful, weird world with a strong sense of humour. This is especially obvious in the way it self-consciously and cheekily draws attention to its own undermining of video game, adventure and sci-fi tropes. The city, with its travel and commerce, is the kind of place you might be expecting to visit, say, in a 90s Japanese RPG. The heroes arrive after a long and exhausting adventure, collect a few new quests in the local bar, replenish their stocks of potions, upgrade their weapons, before taking one of the spaceport’s shuttles to move on to fresh worlds full of excitement.
This is the place you live and work. People on the streets mention famous adventurers and pirates, but you’ll never see them. There are stalls selling weapons, but you’ll never be able to use, or even afford them. There’s a local bar, but the bouncer will never allow a creature like you into a place like this. In a sense, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a brilliant meta game that provides access to a kind of world that is very familiar to gamers, but then makes it seem unfamiliar ‘merely’ by completely upending the usual point of view. It makes a strong point about the myopic perspective and privileged world view we unthinkingly adopt in so many games, and it makes this point with admirable subtlety.