“The idea of this game is just general hopelessness.”
tinyBuild’s Mike Rose takes a certain malicious pleasure when describing Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, a game from developer Sundae Month and being published by tinyBuild. In the game, you play as a janitor trying to earn enough money to leave the spaceport by cleaning up an alien bazaar. It doesn’t pay well. “You also need to eat every day and spend that money on food,” Rose explained. “So you generally just get into this horrible loop of never being able to leave.”
“You’ve also been cursed by a skull, who every 20 seconds or so just screams in your ear,” he adds with a laugh. The game, stylized with a classic PC adventure look where every object is a flat plane that always turns to face you, opens with your character getting inadvertently high on a hallucinogenic drug and stumbling on the aforementioned skull. “There is hope, though,” Rose said.
Rose prefers to stay cryptic when talking about ways to progress the story. Giving away too much would spoil the depth of the game, which is meant to come as a surprise to players. Poke in a corner here, you might find “goddesses,” he says. Poke in a corner there, a “shady figure.” Your character has dreams at night “which seem to allude to something.” Maybe you’ll find some “interesting trash” you don’t want to incinerate, or maybe you’ll find an “interesting part” of the spaceport to explore.
Spaceport Janitor is being billed as an “anti-adventure” game because the relentless monotony of the core gameplay will tempt you to venture further into the game’s alien world, but contrary to most exploration games, pretty much anytime you find something in Spaceport Janitor, it’s probably bad for your character.
“Oh, this game is horrible to you!” Rose said. “You literally start the game by getting high and getting cursed.”
But how do you keep a game like Spaceport Janitor that’s in concept very funny but in strict gameplay terms dry and unexciting from being too boring? I threw the comparison to Rose that the game reminds me a bit of Work Time Fun, a quirky PSP take on Nintendo’s WarioWare series that traded in the manic pace for crippling endurance. The “Pendemonium” minigame, for instance, tasked players with capping as many pens as they could. There was no time limit, no break, no other minigames to switch to for variety. The game simply asked you to cap as many pens as you could and let you make the call when to stop.
Rose laughed at the comparison. “Exactly. And I love trying to find the point where people break. It’s one of my favorite things.” He explained that the game’s balance comes down to player behavior. “It’s all about working out how long a player is cool with just picking up trash before something happens,” Rose said. “But it’s difficult because some people, they pick this up, right, and they walk around and they can walk around for an hour, just around the spaceport, just walking. […] Whereas other players, they’ll walk around, and they kind of, they won’t know what to do, you know? They’re just lost. And that’s actually kind of the point.”
Rose cited one of the developers’ experiences in the brash, colorful bazaars of Turkey as the inspiration for the game’s setting an psychedelic look. The developers want players to feel overwhelmed by their surroundings and even a little uncomfortable, but drawn in nonetheless. Your core job as a janitor won’t offer too much variety, but the world around it will. Every day in the game, there will be new conversations to eavesdrop on, new events taking place, new secrets to discover.
Rose said he’s watched many players “create little stories in their heads” as they explore. They’ll abandon any sense of objective or focus in order to follow specific aliens around to see where they go, what they do, who they talk to. Every character in the game has their own path, Rose said, so you really can follow them through their day and see what they get up to as they wander through the spaceport and eventually fly off.
“There’s some absolutely weird stuff in this game,” Rose said. “When you get into it, it gets weird. Really weird.”
Given that players take such different approaches to the game, there’s not a great estimate for a definitive hour count. Rose said that now that he’s played through the game so many times and knows the optimal path to the ending, it might only take him about an hour. But he reckons it’ll take most players around four hours, though it could take much longer for players with a penchant for exploration, finding all the secrets or just using their imagination.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor will be out this summer with a beta launching very soon. It’ll be out on Steam with plans for a console release.