Thursday, 30 Jun 2022

Hardspace: Shipbreaker takes the labor movement to the stars

Every morning, I wake up in my company-provided bed on the LYNX company space station, and I get a reminder that I owe the company $1.25 billion. This is the debt I incurred just for the privilege of having this job. With interest and fees, it averages out to $500k per day. Welcome to the 23rd-century workforce!

So I suit up and set to work breaking apart spaceships with my future versions of a blowtorch and grappling hook. Scrap goes in the Furnace, composites go in the Processor, and electronics go on the Barge. I pick a ship and begin cutting off parts at conveniently labeled anchor points before guiding them to their destination. An automated voice chides me when I send something down the wrong chute and I watch the projected value of my work diminish. When I do everything right, I watch the value of my scrap accumulate. My goal is to make enough to break even for the day. If I can avoid penalties and rack up enough profit, I might even start paying down my monstrous debt.

Image: Blackbird Interactive/Focus Entertainment via Polygon

I’m happy as a productive member of the LYNX corporate family, generating value and efficiently meeting production goals. As I dutifully hack another chunk off the spaceship, I think back to the company-approved posters in my bunk, and I’m satisfied with performing a hard day’s work.

And then I smack myself directly in the face with a chunk of ship.

While I watch the oxygen leak out of my helmet through the newly formed crack, a warning reminds me that asphyxiation might prevent me from meeting my production goals. I jet back to the company vending machine to buy some more oxygen and a spacesuit patch kit — the cost gets added to my running tab. The next morning, I’m billed for the clone body the company gave me.

Image: Blackbird Interactive/Focus Entertainment

For a (presumably) straightforward physics-based sandbox game like Hardspace: Shipbreaker, that’s the extent of the corporate satire I expect. It’s a funny commentary and makes for an enjoyable experience, even if it’s not particularly unique. Shipbreaker is a meditative game when I’m not actively asphyxiating. I float around in space, untethered by gravity or concepts like up and down. I have to constantly reorient myself to get the best angle on a particular cut as I drift. Each ship presents me with a puzzle to solve — I have to figure out the safest (well, safest-ish) way to crack each one open to get at the more valuable parts inside. Each shift becomes more complicated (and more satisfying) as new hazards like explosive decompression or radiation rear their heads. And all the while I get funny reminders that my corporate overlords see me as extremely expendable.

I honestly expected Shipbreaker to stop there, content with being a quiet and contemplative sandbox sim with a general anti-capitalist message. But then I get a call on my radio from a co-worker who asks me if I’ve ever heard of something called a “union” — a way workers used to be able to band together and fight for better hours, safer conditions, and better pay — and Shipbreaker becomes something more.

Image: Blackbird Interactive/Focus Entertainment via Polygon

Before my next shift, I receive an email reminding me how bad unions are, and corporate sends in a productivity czar to keep an eye on us. It’s not quite union busting, but it’s awfully close.

The larger world of Shipbreaker plays out in the background, through brief radio conversations and emails. I get to know my co-workers and their struggles while we chat on the radio — at least, that is, until the corporate overseer shuts those unauthorized communications down. I get history lessons and corporate propaganda in between union organizing emails. I learn about conditions on Earth, where ever-worsening economic and environmental conditions toxify the planet, while at the same time reading about how wonderful it is that the LYNX corporation is basically an autonomous, quasi-governmental force.

Yes, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is sci-fi, but its setting isn’t the far-off utopian future that the wandering space socialists of Star Trek promised. This is just today’s reality extrapolated into tomorrow.

Every time I have to pay for the upkeep of my shipbreaking tools (which also adds to my debt), I think of the recent episode of Last Week Tonight about the trucking industry. Paying to do my space-job isn’t a made-up mechanic to gamify shipbreaking — it’s a reality for millions of people.

Each email from the secretly organizing union would make Jorts (and Jean) proud. Jorts may have started out as just a cat whose trash bin mishaps made him a minor internet celebrity in late 2021, but he has since turned his influence into a force for labor movements and organization in the U.S. (with Jean’s help).

Image: Blackbird Interactive/Focus Entertainment

Each major story development happens as I get promoted. Before long, I’m getting pretty good at my job. I’m making progress — I’ve whittled my debt all the way down to $1.15 billion. But, at the same time, management is pushing me into more and more dangerous situations in the name of productivity and profit. They’re also forcing my co-workers to do yoga (via remote control of their suits), unceremoniously firing them, or just making them quietly disappear.

It’s a strange pull in two directions — as I improve, I’m bettering myself and getting out of debt. But I’m also better at making money for the company. I’m getting messages from the company rep that, if I keep this up, I could move into management and leave all this blue-collar laboring behind (after I pay off the supervisor training fees, obviously).

I’ve even got my own clandestine spaceship that I’m slowly repairing. It’s an option for escape, but it’s also somewhat hollow. Once the ship is repaired, I’ll be “free” to start my own spaceship salvaging company — it’ll be the same dangerous work, but at least I’ll be my own boss.

Solidarity forever.
Image: Blackbird Interactive/Focus Entertainment via Polygon

And in the background, I’m getting emails from the union as they fight behind the scenes, reminding me that there could be a better way.

At the time of writing, 75 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize. Chris Smalls currently is the president of the first Amazon Labor Union. (Full disclosure: As I’m writing this, our own union is in contract negotiations with management.) It almost makes you think this bonkers, futuristic, sci-fi fantasy of labor unions might just be a good thing.

Haprdspace: Shipbreaker will be released out of early access on May 24 on Windows PC. These impressions were written based on playing on Windows using a pre-release download code provided by Focus Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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