Developer Sundae Month calls Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor an “anti-adventure game,” and I guess my only qualm with that is I’m not sure how the word “game” got lumped into that descriptor. It’s an anti-adventure, that’s for sure, but trying to figure out how roaming around a Mos Eisley-esque spaceport while incinerating alien waste and litter and nearly starving to death constitutes a game is like trying to wrangle an earthworm through the eye of a sewing needle. I know, I know; either you hate when writers try to define video games or you find that it’s such a multifaceted question that it can’t possibly be answered in a review on a small website like ours. I get it. Defining what exactly constitutes a video game in the year of our lord 2016 is probably someone’s grad school thesis somewhere.
My only argument is that, in this particular case, Sundae Month should have dropped the word “game” from their Steam summary because, Jesus Christ, is that a cruel way to describe what goes on in Spaceport Janitor.
You are The Janitor, an Alaensee girlbeast whose only goal is to leave the planet of Xabran’s Rock. Your days unfold in doldrums and tedium. You wake up, strap on your incinerator backpack, walk the streets of the spaceport picking up garbage—maybe you can afford to buy something to eat from one of the many vendors, or more than likely you end up chowing on a discarded goop of jelly or half-dead cockroach—pray at altars, go to sleep, wake up, do it again. It’s an exercise in futility, a sci-fi Sisyphean stone, and Spaceport Janitor deserves credit for achieving that.
In fact, it deserves credit for a good handful of things. In its own way, Spaceport Janitor is incredibly beautiful and does a fantastic job of capturing what I’ve always imagined a seedy spaceport to feel like. On a visual level, the quasi-2D sprite character models on a 3D plane give Spaceport Janitor a unique aesthetic that, when coupled with the overall art and sound direction, equates to a purely affective oracular experience. Disorienting lights and colors, a bustling city where every building looks just as threatening and unrecognizable as the last, the never-ending noise of street musicians and beeps and boops of alien language, the ominous and crooked spaceport guards, and me, The Janitor, the tailbone of consumerism, the sphincter that all this mess passes through—it all had me literally begging for a cesura. If this kind of life is a “game,” then I don’t think I want to play anymore.
That’s not to say that this sad monotony is all there is to Spaceport Janitor. There is a “game” buried underneath this thick film of detritus, or, at least, Sundae Month wants you to believe there is. Shortly after starting Spaceport Janitor, you’ll fall victim to a curse that amounts to a very annoying floating skull following you around and shouting in your ear at aggravating intervals. You’re told that, in order to break this curse, you’ll have to find three magical tablets. The first part of this quest is fairly straight forward. You must barter with a slug-beast who’s addicted to expensive smut, but once that’s finished, the quest unravels into intentional obscurity.
You’re sent on an arbitrary nine-part fetch quest that relies upon mostly luck. The items you’re looking for show up randomly, and there’s a part of me that believes it’s not even possible to find them all. For the most part, your days are spent in the aforementioned grind of incinerating trash for money, spending money on food to stay alive, shifting your gender (which is something I still don’t understand; personally, I think it was added in for “shock value”), and praying for luck, all while hoping you come across one of the nine items.
There are breadcrumbs meant to allude to some grander journey, but ultimately this never pans out. Market vendors offer weapons and items at exuberant prices you’ll never be able to afford. There’s a system of underground dungeons that claim to contain secrets and treasures, but in my time in the underground, I didn’t find a single thing. An alien sits outside on a blanket asking you for an unspecific amount of a specific item with the promise of something good when you’ve met your quota, but always says, “More still!” Every day starts the same, and every day ends the same. Before heading to bed, you’re allowed to chronicle your day in a journal, which was novel at first, but soon became just as tedious and underwhelming as the rest of my day.
It’s easy to see that Sundae Month uses these breadcrumbs, this faux-gamification as a subversion of expected video game mechanics. After all, it is billed as an anti-adventure, and I think there’s something compelling about using an interactive experience to tackle the emotional drudgery of day labor and mundanity. I’ve worked in retail; I’ve worked at a convenience store; I’ve more or less been this Alaensee girlbeast—picking up after people I don’t give a damn about, feeling the burden of some undefinable curse, and wanting nothing more than to leave my home planet. The only difference is, I can quit the Steam client and uninstall Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor whenever I want. The followthrough and execution of this concept feels like a half-step toward something evocative, but without any real incentive to remain, the evocative-ness wears thin. Once you’ve seen one alien marching band or floating party barge or smut-loving slug, you’ve seen them all.
There’s not a part of me that wants to play Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor again—unless, of course, you count the sadistic masochist that lives within all of us. Admittedly, there’s something intriguing to Spaceport Janitor’s design, and even though it was short-lived, I did have an emotional response to the title. At $10, I’d say it’s worth it just for the vibrantly beautiful and affectively charged assault on your patience. And who knows, maybe there is something deeper hiding under its film of banality, something that I just didn’t have the stamina to find. Out now on Steam.