Standing in the crosswalks of Xabran’s Rock, I can’t help but think of Constantinople. Like that once fabled city of old, the metropolitan trading post of Ealdeira IX sits as one of the great beating hearts of commerce and culture in the known galaxy.
The sky over the planet’s spaceport teems with a mammoth swarm of whale-shaped generation ships docking and launching into hyperspace. Manta ray warships soar ominously in low-altitude patrol, striking fear and reverence that deters the schemes of would-be thieves and transgressors. In every direction, one is greeted with a cacophony of noise and color in this city-port whose immense diversity daunts all attempts to comprehend its fullness. Hidden passages, exotic trinkets, and unscrupulous merchants—this is the world of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. How did such a world come to be?
“I was really inspired by this story that my sister had told me,” says James Shasha, one of the founding member of the Vermont-based design collective Sundae Month. “She was travelling in Morocco and got lost in this bazaar in Marrakesh, just wandering aimlessly for two hours before meeting another tourist who showed her the way out. That struck me as a scary but pretty interesting experience that sparked the idea of, what if you were wandering around lost not in Morocco, but some alien planet?”
The developers style Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor as an “anti-adventure” game, transporting players into the role of the eponymous Janitor who is stranded on the planet of Ealdeira IX, otherwise known as “Xabran’s Rock”. The janitor has no means of getting back home than to work as a sanitarian drone collecting and disposing of trash.
“At the start of each day, you’ll wake up with a readout of key stats and one of them is how lucky or not you are, and you can increase that stat by going around and worshiping those statues, which flex and play with your stats in different ways,” says Shasha. “Sometimes you’ll pick up more valuable trash, sometimes you’ll stumble upon a new as-of-yet-unknown mechanic—it’s all up to the player.”
As familiar as this premise of feeling your way aimlessly throughout an open-world might appear on its face, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor eschews presupposed conventions of the genre and instead chooses to turn them on their head. The game refuses to embrace the tired tropes of “the hero’s journey” or “greatness from small beginnings,” choosing instead to emphasize the unique slice-of-life charm of a “mundane” experience.
“This is sort of antithetical to most games, where they’re very much about [letting] you dominate your ultimate destiny,” says Shasha. “This is an environment that dominates you, so to speak. A lot of games center around ‘saving the world’ or ‘go slay the dragon’, these narratives of empowerment that I’ve found don’t allow a lot of room for other stories to exist. Though I obviously love those games as well, I think it’s really interesting to explore stories about average everyday people doing normal day to day stuff. And that’s kind of where Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor came from. I find [it] interesting that they’re aren’t a lot of those types of games out right now.”
Following in that spirit, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor also refrains from confining its protagonist within the binary constraints of a gender identity. “We intentionally wanted to leave the character’s gender very ambiguous, allowing players to infer what that means to the whole of experiencing the world of Xabran’s Rock, if it means anything at all,” says Shasha. “Gender is just one of many ways to make the player feel a little more ‘slippery’ and conducive to the experience we’re trying to create, to use a term.”
In that spirit of “slipperiness,” players have the choice to seek an object capable of switching the Janitor’s gender to whatever they so choose, similar to Fable 2’s Potion of Transmogrification. However, again, the implications and consequences of said choice are left entirely up to the player.
The gameplay is simple: collect trinkets and trash with the choice to either potentially sell and barter these items for greater worth at one of Xabran’s many vendors, or incinerate it for a modest sum fee doled at the beginning of each new day. Though this may seem “boring,” Diaries manages to make this activity compulsively entertaining by way of its clever flavor text and intriguing cryptic lore.
Those qualities aside, Diaries’ gameplay serves another purpose: much in the way that Katamari Damacy was intended as a veiled critique of consumer-based culture, so too does Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor take aim at the ramifications of single-minded capitalism and the all-consuming pursuit of commodities.
“Xabran’s Rock is a very violent, cutthroat, advance-stage form of capitalism that we’ve tried to communicate. There’s a lot of intertwining of the religion that we’ve built for the planet and how that dovetails into commercialism,” says Shasha. “We’re trying to pull the rug out from under this whole idea. You can try to progress in the game but you’re not going to be ‘promoted’ or find an item that burns trash faster. It’s really about running on this treadmill in a sisyphean way, but there are things that can pull you out of that loop. The crux though is subverting the idea of player empowerment and [using] that as a way to talk about the way that we engage with systems like capitalism or religion—not in a deliberately negative way, but in what they mean to us and what meaning do we ascribe them. Looking at these ideas with a critical eye, but also drenched in pretty pixels.”
This approach to criticizing economic “worship” and ideology in an interactive space is exemplified throughout Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor’s many spoken and unspoken systems of class designation—whether it’s in the surface level pursuit of incinerating ever greater heaps of trash in order to purchase, well, more heaps of trash, or through the Janitor’s “Credit Sigil,” a silent system whose significance is derived from a complex interworking of the game’s currency and worship systems.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is the product of a small team. “The company is technically myself, Levi Rohr, and Ryan Huggins, and an extended family of up to twenty people who all work together,” Shasha says.
When asked what design philosophies are central to Sundae Month, Shasha is avid. “I think that the coolest thing about the collective is looking out at the cool and varied world of alternative games and weird indie titles that are challenging the presumptions of what games are, what they should be, and what they should do,” Shasha says. “There’s room for any game we want to make. We don’t have to be nailed down to one genre or aesthetic. That freedom in trying to make something that people have never seen before, I think is what drives me in my creative process. As far as Sundae Month as a whole, it’s just to branch out and have the freedom to create whatever games we want to see out in the world.”
“We should ask more from video games,” Shasha says.