Video games love space. It’s easy to see why – the setting allows for impossible vistas and a sense of wonder. It facilitates so many childhood dreams of having our own spaceships to take us on cosmic adventures, filled with fantastical creatures and laser beams. This usually goes hand in hand with a general air of optimism and hope, influenced by the vaguely utopian visions of the future of Star Trek and other seminal works of popular science fiction.
It’s something that was endlessly appealing in childhood, but lately it’s ringing more and more hollow as we move further into the future. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is refreshingly aware of this, bringing the fantasy of life in space back to Earth.
Hardspace casts you as a contract mechanic, living alone in a gigantic garage in high Earth orbit and saddled with a billion dollar debt to the megacorporation LYNX – the price of a paid job far from the now toxic surface. It’s the only chance you’ll ever have to see the stars, the slim hope of one day repaying your debt and flying off to the outer bourgeois colonies.
Until then, your days are filled with shipbreaking – the process of meticulously (or haphazardly, if you prefer) dismantling and dismantling decommissioned starships for parts and raw materials. Each 15-minute shift ends with a detailed breakdown of every penny of value you’ve managed to extract – minus your tool rental, room and board, and other service charges. Everything else goes to paying off your debt, another pin in the ocean.
The view from the only window of your tiny home pod is of countless corporate trash amidst a sea of scrap metal. A massive railgate – a central feature of the interplanetary travel network – occasionally vibrates with activity, a reminder of a larger universe you’ll likely never live to see. Daily routine settles into that paradoxical half-soul crushing/half-satisfying groove that many jobs eventually settle into – alternating between suffocating boredom and moments of fulfillment as you master the systems and tasks necessary to perform the job.
Watching that billion-dollar debt slip away may seem deflating, but that doesn’t take away from the feeling of goodness when you excel at the task of bringing a complex ship to shreds. So you comfort yourself with the loop, the drizzle of dopamine that you get every time you guide a nice big chunk of titanium through the oven. And you try to ignore this existential terror that’s slamming at your heels.
It’s a dark and pessimistic portrayal of what space has to offer. It’s a pessimism that feels incredibly refreshing, an essential and grounded counterpoint to the often uncritical way video games use sci-fi aesthetics for nothing but power fantasy. If space has always been the only place uncorrupted by capitalism, that’s certainly not the case in Hardspace. Every aspect of your daily life is owned and controlled by LYNX, an omnipresent entity that has colonized most of the solar system.
The brutal truth is that there is simply no fully automated luxury gay space communism waiting for us up there. Space travel is no longer the purview of specialist independent agencies – the necessary infrastructure and technology is now in the hands of private companies, nothing but one more asset to boost the egos of our vampiric billionaires in power. Terraforming is functionally impossible. Long-term human space travel is functionally impossible. We’re not going anywhere; we will all slowly run out of air here as our corrupt institutions allow the rich and powerful to hoard as much wealth as they can.
The very first thing you do in Shipbreaker is sign an extensive 24-clause agreement with the LYNX corporation which, among other things, signs ownership of your own body. More than that: your very existence. You are automatically enrolled in LYNX Health Insurance, which provides you with a downloaded flash developed clone with a backup of your personality and memories if you meet an untimely end during your employment. The initial process of extracting your biological information is fatal.
Right from the start, before you even leave the atmosphere, you play as a clone pieced together from DNA that is now the sole property of LYNX. Any intellectual or material property you may produce during your lifetime is now the exclusive property of LYNX. Any aspirations you have, any goals you are working towards – these are not the ones shared by the person you were on Earth. They are dead. You are a grotesque flesh ghost in the form of who you were. With each new clone, something else is left behind, the cumulative effect leading to the degradation of your personality and body. Eventually, you won’t even be a shadow of who you once were. You will only be a Shipbreaker, held body and soul by an entity that will only ever know you as a blip on a spreadsheet.
The world of Hardspace may not look like a place you would want to visit. It’s basically a game about having a rubbish job, in a medium that’s mostly used to offer various distractions from the one you probably already have. It’s brutal and cold and there’s not much to see. You will not go on emotional adventures in alien worlds or in exciting space battles. You’ll mostly be thrust into the innards of another metal giant, carefully trying to extract a barrel of fuel before it can rupture and blast you to pieces or worse – damage your potential recovery.
There’s a banality to the game that feels downright revolutionary; a confidence in the vision that makes it an absolutely essential work of video game science fiction. It takes real bravery to use boredom and repetition effectively, to have faith that players will engage on their own terms. Hardspace: Shipbreaker may seem like an ordeal, but it’s worth putting yourself through if you want to see video games using spaceships for anything other than evasion.