In a world full of games focused on being fun or exciting in some way or another, it’s oddly refreshing to play a game like Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. Billed as an “anti-adventure game”, it’s a repetitive experience about the daily grind of being a trash collector – but within that framework, it manages to achieve something quite special.
In Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, you play as, well, a spaceport janitor. With a portable incinerator strapped to your back, you walk around a bustling alien bazaar picking up and burning trash, eking out just enough of a living to buy cheap food from a vending machine. Then you go home to your ramshackle apartment, sleep, and wake up the next day to do it all again.
You dream of much bigger things, of course. You plan to one day leave Xabran’s Rock, and the discovery of a mysterious dungeon beneath the spaceport early in the game offers a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, all you get for your effort is a curse, setting you on a series of quests to try and free yourself from the skull that now haunts you. Unfortunately, red herring after red herring gets you no closer to salvation.
I don’t know if it’s actually possible to leave the spaceport – I certainly haven’t been able to – but that seems to be the point. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a game about the mundanity of a custodian job, and this vague nigh-unachievable goal only drills that home. It’s a source of frustration, but also of hope; a light at the end of the tunnel that’s always on the horizon but never seems to get any closer.
The myriad of vendors around the port offer more tangible, immediate rewards, at least on the face of it, but they’re similarly unachievable. Not far from the vending machines where you get your simple grub are bakers and chefs selling glamorous morsels that are far out of your price range. A nice meal would take weeks to save for, which is to say nothing of the fancier, pricier goods on sale at other stalls. You have to eat, though, and so you scrape by with your pitiful janitorial earnings. On a good day with lots of trash, you might even find yourself with a little bit of disposal income; on a slow trash day, you won’t make ends meet.
It’s not just food you have to buy, but gendershifts. Dotted around the spaceport are machines that can change your gender for a small fee, and every now and then, you’ll get a warning: “your body feels weird and itchy. you need to gendershift.” Ignore the message, and the game becomes increasingly distorted, to the point where just playing the game becomes difficult. It’s a surprisingly lucid look at gender dysphoria, especially because there’ll be times when you simply can’t afford it, or have to choose between a gendershift and food.
This is something that the game’s programmer, Jame Sasha, spoke to ZAM’s Danielle Riendeau about. The whole article is well worth a read, but here’s Sasha’s most salient comment: “The representation of gender in the game was something that we wanted to do from the start… Maybe it is a pretty direct statement? I’m personally not too sure — mostly we just wanted to include it as a thing that happens to you, which (like other things in the game) would be really horrible if it weren’t cute/hopefully funny/visually interesting.”
That last bit is certainly apt, because as serious and bleak as Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor can be, it’s all wrapped up in cute, quirky packaging. The spaceport is full of weird and wonderful alien designs, the pieces of trash you pick up all come with funny little text descriptions, and even the genders you shift between are delightfully outlandish – I’ve been a prismorph and a HELLGENDER, among others. Pastel colours and heavily pixellated, low-poly graphics give the game a offbeat look that’s fits the tone just right.
It works because it takes a game that could easily become dull and makes it interesting. Even though the tedium of menial tasks is the core of the game, it’d be moot if the game was so boring that you had no reason to keep playing. Instead, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor balances the intentional banality of what it is you’re doing by making what you see and feel along the way into something oddly captivating. It also takes a bit of the edge of the game’s more sobering themes, allowing them to sink in without beating you over the head.
It’s difficult to build an interesting game about boredom and banality, but Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor has done just that – and it manages to say some important things about class, poverty, and gender in the process.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is developed by Sundae Month and published by tinyBuild. It’s available now for PC.
A press copy was supplied by tinyBuild for this review.
Review impressions are reviews published for games where the reviewer hasn’t been able to play the game in full for some reason – usually time constraints, technical issues, or difficulty with the game. We always endeavour to play games in full before writing a review, but this isn’t always possible.