I’m out of my mind. I ate a creepy eyeball and got a new perspective on life. A woozy, trippy, ever-so-slightly nightmarish first-person perspective, instead of a cutesy, plinky-plonky third-person one. My ongoing quest to rid the off-world streets of garbage was replaced by a desperate drive to find anywhere even slightly familiar, and from there orientate myself back to my shabby studio apartment and sleep off the bad trip.
Never again, I swear. Of course, it’s not long before I’m poised to pop another eye into my mouth. Beats street-cleaning, right?
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor [official site], with which I have spent a few half-happy, half-frustrated hours, probably secretly wants to be a walking simulator, but perhaps has baulked at the potential commercial pitfalls of such a thing and overlaid various layers of Videogame. My overriding feeling when playing Diaries was that something amazing was just about to happen.
Many carrots were dangled in front of me, promises of amazing things to come which never seemed to arrive after several hours, and I am yet to establish whether they were true vegetables or mere phantoms. Truth be told, I felt slightly mocked, but I honestly don’t think that was Diaries’ intention.
It is a game inherently about grind. You’re a janitor, fer crissakes, and that means dutifully picking up and, officially at least, incinerating any spills, rubbish and mysterious containers you find littered about the floor of a bustling, beautiful, noisy and extremely colourful spaceport. That’s your job. That’s what you do. The life of a janitor is rarely one of high adventure, after all.
This is where the walking simulator aspect comes in: the key pleasure of Diaries is to wander the confusingly large spaceport, taking in the weird and wonderful aliens, the bright, ship-flecked skies and architecture which pings between off-kilter Blade Runner and futurist fantasy stuff like building-sized swords.
You also get to (in fact have to) buy suspicious food from street vendors, get your meagre earnings seized by corrupt guards, wind up being tailed by a floating skull that bodes unspecific ill and occasionally have to visit a machine to change your gender to delightful categories such as “Susan Sarandon.”
Half of me wants to say that it’s a fountain of ingenuity and otherworldly sight-seeing, but half of me wants to say it’s like being assaulted by every scribbled note and doodle from someone’s filled Moleskin notepad. Diaries can feel overwhelming, in all its flashing colours, all its noise, all its teased possibilities of what this item or that location might mean, and though I admire the hell out of the richness of ideas, overwhelming can become, well, tiresome.
Diaries is a sensory barrage; personally I wanted to wander its streets and its markets and admire it all at my leisure, but I felt that my attention was forever dragged in a dozen different directions at once. It has much in common with Bernband, but where that was a calming stroll through an alien city, this is hectic, even stressful.
Again, I don’t think it’s trying to be annoying – and also, in fairness, this could be said to be what modern city life is like – but if it dialled it down a bit I might be in wonderland rather than a fever dream.
Because it’s not just a street-cleaning game, you see. It’s also a trading game. And a quests game. And a dungeon game, although the whole thing stuck so many needles into my brain that I had to pull out before exploring this – and, to go back to the carrots thing, I remain unsure whether this stuff was actually going anywhere or was just tantalising me with possibilities.
I know this: various creatures in the city will buy certain junk. Piles of dirt, old rags: all these things, with the possible exception of vomit, have value to someone, and the very dedicated janitor can turn a slow profit far beyond her humble wage by pursuing this. The lack of a map and the confusing to the point of nightmarish city layout effectively put paid to this for me: finding the right vendor for even one thing was a frustrated oddyssey of wandering in circles.
(I’ll note also that, much as it feels ugly to complain about a consciously lo-fi game’s technology, the wildly spiking and often very low frame rate made every journey a touch uncomfortable too).
Same was true of the ‘quests’ related to the skull that haunted me; a bitter traipse to find magic creatures and lost components that I didn’t have the stamina for. And of accruing various magic items that might or might not help me. Noise. I wondered sometimes if I was being mocked, teased for being prey to videogamey instincts: collection and questing and money. I honestly do not know if this is the case.
I do know all is lost upon a quit: this is not a cumulative thing, but following all its trails to their end seems impossible within a moderate play session. This makes me suspect, but not certain, that this is intended to be an experiential affair rather than anything to do with progress.
In the end, I decided to eschew all that and just do my job. Just clean the streets as best I can, incinerating everything regardless of potential value, and collect my wage for it (weighted according to how much I’d cleaned) at the end of the day. The pay was bad, the hours were long, all I did was the same thing.
But you know what? It was my thing. It was contained, it was pure, it meant I had no particular place to go, and it meant I could shut out half the distractions and just feed off the flashy ambience. A band playing on that corner, a creature type I’d not seen before by that stall, the river, and oh, yes, the skies. I began to appreciate some of the many noises, some of the flashing lights, and the general tone of cheer. There is wit, ideas and experimentation aplenty here, but the best stuff risks being drowned out.
Those carrots – maybe they do mean there’s something else, that my destiny quest might go somewhere. I don’t believe I want to find out. I just want to clean these alien streets. I don’t even think I’ll eat any more eyeballs.