Continuing the theme of 2016’s Greatest Indie Hits, I decided to spend the last week of January 2017 writing the Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. Sundae Month‘s low-fi exploratory clean-’em-up was a Christmas gift from a lovely friend, and one of my 2017 resolutions was to give it a timely playthrough and review. And, er, here we are! Last week of January is pretty good as far as resolutions are concerned.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium, I think.)
(Game source: Gift from a friend.)
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor wears its options on the outside. Many games seem to do that, nowadays. The options themselves aren’t particularly noteworthy, save that the default graphics setting level is ‘Bad’. When I move to change it, I learn that there’s only one other setting, and that one is worse.
As for the title proper, it’s… quite something. Where do I start? The stylized title, which contrasts with the pixelated style of everything else? The planet with like three colour tones? The spaceship with tusks? Maybe the relaxed, smooth jazz-feeling baseline that permeates the whole thing? The ads?
Okay, ‘ads’ isn’t quite fair, they’re more like… exhortations, to act a certain way. For fun and profit. I do actually look up the out-of-game manual, as I’m curious what kind of manual deserves this level of arcane treatment. As it turns out, it’s a PDF that you’re supposed to print and folder, containing (among others) a hand-drawn map, ‘tips’ on how to be devout to the ‘nine goddesses’, and room for personal notes. It’s nice, it reminds me of Shenzen I/O‘s operational manual, and I do print it out and put it on my desk. But what’s noticeably absent from this ‘manual’ is any real guide on how to play.
You’d think the menu section titled ‘How To Play’ would be of some help with this.
I’m taking the gamble that Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is one of those games that explains itself as you play.
Starting a new game only involves picking my ‘favourite’ of the aforementioned nine goddesses. I’m shown icons of each, along with a short description. This one is the goddess of death and rebirth. This one’s the goddess of luck. This one’s the goddess of booze and parties. I eventually settle on Onas, the goddess of ‘interiors, time, and the cosmos’, because I love spending time indoors thinking about space.
“One day, you’ll find your way off this ancient deathtrap of a planet.” This is easily the cheeriest video game opening I’ve seen this year.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor glooms at me for exactly two pages of text. Then the prelude ends, and I’m thrown into the bright bustle of day-to-day life.
There is a lot to take in on this screen. For a moment, the bright colours and the blurry pixel style cause everything to blend together, into a low-fidelity soup of clashing shades of everything. I try to get some perspective bearing on the scene, but that’s hard too. Is that thing in the lower right… a sprite of a rock? It is supposed to be a sprite of a rock?
Slowly, and through playing with the controls a little, I get my bearings. My viewpoint is that of a floating camera looking downward. So most of the soup of beige-brown I’m looking at is the ground, which also explains the sprites for rocks and vents. In the middle of the screen is a blue-skinned, green-and-yellow clad humanoid figure who I assume must be me. They move around when I hit the WASD keys, which lends some support to the hypothesis. The moving takes a bit of getting used to: I can swing the camera around with the mouse (just by moving it, not holding down anything), and the keys provide absolute-direction movement based on camera angle. So W always moves forward, but ‘forward’ is defined as the direction I’m looking at.
Let’s see, what else? Pressing E should interact with people and objects, but right now there’s nothing nearby. Tab opens my backpack, which is empty. In the top left of the corner I see the mysterious text ‘MC.100.7’, which I have to assume is some sort of radio station? Finally, pressing Escape brings up a menu. There are a few more options in this menu, including sound settings, colour sensitive mode, and the enigmatic option GHOSTS, which of course I toggle. And finally, there’s this handy to-do list, which for sure totally explains what I should be doing right now.
I walk around what I assume to be the spaceport for a little bit. The place I’m at looks like a market, with stalls full of goods and market keepers everywhere. I can only go a limited number of places: most of the side paths are closed off by translucent red force fields, which snark SELECTIVE CURFEW CORDON ACTIVE: INDIVIDUAL CREDIT SIGIL INSUFFICIENT. In other words, I’m not rich enough.
Suddenly, a small translucent globe pops up on the ground next to my character. I walk over and press E. It turns out to be an object on the ground. A… ‘Skitterer Spine’.
Well, it’s good to know that I can’t eat these bones, I guess. I’m not gonna keep them either. And dropping them back on the ground seems a little counter to this whole spaceport janitor thing. So, hup, into the incinerator they go! Nothing happens as a result, save that the bones now no longer exist.
I talk to the kitty person behind the nearby stall. Hope I didn’t just burn their property. But no, all this ‘Crestfallen Merchant’ does is beg me to buy their stuff. What kind of stuff? Weird stuff. Also stuff that I couldn’t even hope to afford, if the ‘MC’ rating on this stuff (which I suppose means that that’s currency) is to be believed.
What’s interesting is that I can’t just buy stuff from this merchant, but also sell it. Which is to say, I can sell to them exactly the kind of things they’re trying to sell me. I… don’t know if that’s how markets usually work? I’ve never tried selling oranges to a fruit vendor, I wouldn’t know. At any rate, this does suggest that I shouldn’t blindly burn everything I find; they don’t say that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure for nothing.
I walk down the only road I’m allowed down. Here’s a bookseller, way above my pay grade. There’s a blank sheet of ‘scrollcloth’, which I torch. On the corner of the bridge lies a blank data chip, which goes down the ol’ incinerator. An adventurer’s journal, filled with priceless notes — i.e. it’s garbage. And then, there… in the distance, I find a crumpled-up old map. It claims there’s still treasure in the dungeon! Something tells me I probably shouldn’t burn this.
I wander around the market area, trying to find the ‘dungeon’. It takes me a while; I run across a lotto shrine first, which gives me a daily free item — which I burn — and a bank, where I get some free money — with the ominous warning that the bank will ‘come to collect’ only after I accept. I find that the measure of my luck is 3, and I just generally take in the sights.
But then, finally, I find the entrance to the sewer dungeon — helpfully marked ‘sewer dungeon’. Entrance isn’t free, inasmuch as that my superstitious character first wants to eat an ‘eye of Beb’ (the name of one of the goddesses) for luck. But I find a vendor, and buy one, and eat one, and then finally I’m on my way to treasure.
This feels very strange.
In the dungeon, the view is suddenly first-person. I don’t understand how, or why, although I imagine a floating camera wouldn’t do great in a sewer. Anyway, that’s strange thing #1. Strange thing #2 is that, as I walk down a flight of stairs, the game credits start rolling.
Strange thing #3, because we’re still counting, is an ancient, diamond-shaped door… that slowly, creakingly rumbles open as I get close. It takes a full minute to do so. And beyond, I find…
I’ll skip you to the end. I approach the skull, slowly. When I’m almost close enough to touch, it lunges at me with a loud BLEH. Then I black out, or rather, blue out. I wake up the next day, in my junkyard-looking apartment.
The skull is also there.
Floating around me and occasionally shouting.
I look around my apartment. There’s a storage box, where I can store… things, I guess. I’m not carrying anything right now, but good to know. There’s also a shrine to the goddess Onas, my preferred deity. Here I can receive my payment for the last day’s work: for 8 pieces of waste burned, I receive 17.2 Municipal Credits — so that’s that abbreviation explained. WE THANK YOU FOR YOUR OBEDIENCE. I can also view my luck. Remember how, last checking, the measure of my luck was 3?
Finally, I pray to the statue, and my door outside opens.
First thing I do outside is talk to a nearby priestess, because she has a green exclamation point over her head. She knows of my skull friend! It’s a curse of some sort, meaning that only I and certain other people can see it. Which certainly explains why other people aren’t running in terror. She also tells me to ‘seek the three pieces of the skull’s instructional tablet’. She doesn’t tell me where to look, or how to do so, so I guess I’m mostly on my own here.
Well, not entirely. My quest log tells me to ‘speak to Orloqq in the pink market district’. Again, I have no idea what or how or why, but it’s a start.
It’s only a start, though. The whole town is open to me now, and it is large. And I don’t have an in-game map or anything — I have the printed one, but that’s not particularly helpful either. I feel I could wander around town for days before finding the pink market district. And that’s if I could spend all day every day doing just that! But I also still have my job: to find trash wherever it hides, and incinerate it — or keep it for myself if it looks valuable.
I wander around town for what feels like minutes. There is so much to see and do here. Close to my house, there’s a shanty market, and a tree-dappled central square with a statue to Beb, the luck goddess. There are coloured arrows on the ground, and following those more-or-less leads me to different areas. The blue area is the place I was earlier, with the bank and the sewer dungeon. The red area seems like the adventurer’s district, where fancy weapons and armor and spells are traded. The green and purple areas border the river, intersected by a giant blade. For a few minutes I stand on top of a ziggurat, enjoying the view from above. And everywhere I go, there are statues and stalls and people.
Some of the people I meet are cool. Some trade in interesting items. Some are creeps, in the sense that they’re saying things that I think are lewd offers. And then there are the black-and-red clad guards. I learn to dislike these early on, when I stray too close to one of them and they eat some of my money.
As I walk around, taking in the sights and failing to get my bearings and generally burning garbage whenever I get my hands on it, the light shifts from bright blue, to full blue, to the deep blue of night. And I notice that the energy bar under my ‘incinerate’ option slowly drops. Eventually, it empties, and I can’t burn garbage anymore. “You are hungry”, the game says, and I buy a cheap protein shake from a kiosk. “You feel very tired” follows. Time to go home and sleep. I don’t actually know where my house is, but Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor isn’t that cruel: my house in in the yellow district, so by following the yellow arrows, I should be fine. Specifically, my house is right next to the giant yellow sigil in the ground, and- ah, there it is.
Home sweet home. With nothing else to do, I decide to go to bed immediately. I’m not hungry and I’m out of power, so… But in a neat final first day twist, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor proves true to name by making me write a diary entry for a save file. I actually have to write a certain number of characters before I’m ‘allowed’ to sleep and save, and it’s clear that the game expects me to write something nice.
I fall asleep wondering about my new life. Floating skull curse, huh? Maybe I’ll find Orloqq tomorrow. And hopefully they’ll be able to help me with this ‘instructional tablet’ thing. The skull’s constant yelling is getting on my nerves a little. I hope it won’t take long to turn that off. How long does it usually take to find, master, and execute the control program for an eternal, observer-dependent floating skull curse?