Hardspace: Shipbreaker Review – Playing This Game Is Against Company Policy

Last summer Amazon founder Jeff Bezos climbed in a rocket and took the world’s first unpiloted suborbital flight with a civilian crew. When the $5.5 billion, 65 mile trip ended 11 minutes later, Bezos put on a ten-gallon hat and told reporters he wanted “to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you paid for all of this.” Bezos’ trip off-planet succeeded Richard Branson’s nearly identical trip to innerspace by just nine days.

Billionaires fucking love space. To a class of people that have accumulated unimaginable wealth through coercive means and exploitation, space represents infinite opportunity to extend their power beyond the limitations of things like taxes, laws, and morality. When he’s not showing his penis to flight attendants (allegedly) Elon Musk is already fantasizing about colonizing Mars with indentured servants – which is illegal under the 13th Amendment, but apparently not in Musk’s handwritten Martian constitution. Corporate billionaires are not shy about their ambitions or motivations to industrialize space and expand our capitalistic nightmare to infinity and beyond. Assuming the world doesn’t prematurely end in climate disaster, the industrialization of outer space by the billionaire class is inevitable.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker takes place in the world Musk and Bezos aspire to create – though, like any good sci-fi, is also a reflection of our society today. It’s a game about class inequality and the mechanism that those in power use to subjugate the common laborer through corporate propaganda and wage slavery. Those themes are explored through a group of spaceship salvagers that aspire to organize in order to protect themselves from a bevy of human rights violations committed against them by their employer, Lynx Corporation. Hardspace is also a game about our relationship with labor itself, and the cognitive dissonance we experience from reveling in the satisfaction of ‘a good day’s work’ while knowing our effort has produced nothing but more wealth for our corporate overlords. Where those themes intersect is the beating heart of Hardspace; a thoughtful, prescient, and rewarding experience that may just be the most important game you’ll play this year.

In the not-so-distant future, the world has been completely used up. Food shortages, pollution, and economic collapse have fractured society and left people with very few options. Lynx offers able-bodied young workers a way out – but at a great cost. The starting fees to transport, train, and equip you to become a shipbreaker puts you more than $1 billion in debt to Lynx, which you’ll need to work off before you can start earning any money for yourself. What’s more, the EverWork Asset Replacement program – which provides an infinite supply of ‘spares’ should you accidentally perish on the job – requires you to go through an irrevocable DNA extraction process. Before you even start your first day you’re required to give your body to the company, literally. The EverWork program serves as the ultimate symbol of worker disposability.

I’ve written a lot about the joys of shipbreaking (which you can read here), but it’s worth reiterating how novel and well-tuned the gameplay loop is. Your office is an outer space salvage yard – a wide area surrounded by receptacles for sorting ship parts. Using a cutting tool and a grapple beam, your job is to surgically dismantle each ship and deposit its components into the correct collector. Scrap metal goes in the furnace, expensive nano-carbon goes in the processor to get recycled, and everything else – from lights, to computer terminals, to the ship’s reactor – goes into the barge to be cleaned up and reused. The faster you are at taking ships apart, the more money you’ll earn and the quicker you’ll unlock upgrades and bigger ships to strip down. Any misplaced materials or accidental damage your ships incur are counted against your earnings, so it pays to be quick and careful.

It takes a lot of practice to get the hang of shipbreaking. While the smaller ships are simple to take apart, the bigger ones require you to carefully exhume specific components in a precise order, less you create an unstable environment for their reactors and cause a meltdown. You also have to manage your oxygen, thruster fuel, and a supply of tethers and demolition charges. Lethal accidents are frequent if you’re not careful. You can suffocate if you run out of oxygen, break open your helmet with a fast-moving piece of metal, or get yourself crushed in the chaos of a depressurizing ship. Respawns are infinite but costly, thanks to the EverWork program – though the hit to your pride might hurt more than the hit to your insurmountable debt, all things considered.

Lynx uses heavy-handed tactics to ensure its vast labor force remains docile and tractable. The corporate propaganda it employs is often overtly satirical. Posters in your habitation pod read “LIVE LAUGH SALVAGE” and a robot wakes you every morning with inspiring quotes like “Some people dream of great salvage while other people get up every morning and make it happen.” But while this kind of propaganda is easy to spot and scoff at, Hardspace is also working its indoctrination on a much higher level. It leverages the romanticization of the working class that permeates American culture. The kind of blue jean, big truck, bootstraps work ethic that tells us work is its own reward, and a man’s worth is measured by the breadth of his toil. Another inspirational quote says “The greatest pleasure in life is to work hard at work worth doing.” It’s hard to deny that there’s some truth to that.

The work is lonely, monotonous, and thankless, yet simultaneously enjoyable and rewarding. The negative balance in your bank account only seems to increase as you continuously accrue more fees at the end of each day, but the work – and improving your skills at it – truly do become their own reward. A constant stream of upgrades increases your efficiency at shipbreaking, while your knowledge of ship layouts and time-saving techniques also improve. Experience gained from completing salvage goals increases your rank and unlocks more complex, dangerous, and valuable ships to cut, but I felt my proficiency increasing irrespective of any rank or hard-coded metric the game offers. I enjoy practicing my craft and working hard to become a better employee, and I’m fascinated by the way Hardspace makes you reckon with that fact.

The story of Hardspace is interspersed throughout dozens (63 for me) of shifts, which follows a budding union effort among the employees and Lynx’s attempts to snuff it out. After discovering the existence of a union newsletter, Lynx sends administrators out to intimidate workers and sniff out organizers. Your administrator, Hal, is the quintessential class traitor – so jealous of what little power he’s been given that he’s willing to enforce cruel corporate policy to protect it. Your fellow shipbreakers are similarly archetypal. One is young and idealistic, believing against all odds that unionization is possible if everyone works together. Another is an underperformer who lives in fear of losing his job for not meeting company standards, and is too afraid to draw unwanted attention to himself by engaging with the union initiative. The other two are much older. They’ve been in the game long enough that any hope that may have once had has been successfully stolen away. They’re against the union because they’ve been convinced – by the company, by society, or by political agents – that unions make things worse.

The dynamics between these five players drive the plot, and while nothing especially surprising or unexpected happens, the realism of the scenario is engrossing from beginning to end. Hal uses every union-busting trick in the book to sow the seeds of doubt and create division between employees, all at the behest of Lynx and its president, who is omnipresent despite never directly engaging with any of her employees. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Lynx goes to such lengths to stamp out the union that the employees – even the ones that started out anti-union – eventually come to believe they have nothing to lose, and unionizing is the only hope they have.

Hardspace launched in early access in 2020, and since then we’ve seen union efforts across the US gain a lot of momentum. Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island successfully voted to become the company’s first union. 30 Starbucks locations have unionized, with more than 150 petitioning for recognition so far. Yesterday, Raven QA workers won the union vote, becoming the first group to unionize under Activision Blizzard and the second game industry union in the US, following the formation of the United Paizo Workers last October. In almost all of these cases, the workers overcame ruthless efforts made by their companies to stop them. Hardspace essentializes the dynamics between workers and employers for the sake of condensing its story, but there’s no doubt it realistically represents the conversations that are happening every day across the country, in private Discord servers and at bus stops outside warehouses. Hardspace shows us how difficult grassroots movements to organize are, and what it takes to succeed.

Despite its ambitious scope, Hardspace never bites off more than it can chew. It is unapologetically pro-union and anti-corporate, and it shows a remarkable deftness in handling the social complexities of those positions. It distinguishes the personal value of labor from the material value – two products our corporate overlords are eager to conflate – and offers a perspective of hope in an otherwise hopeless world. I consider Hardspace: Shipbreaker essential media for anyone that is employed – blue-collar or otherwise. If nothing else it will provoke you to think about your relationship with work in a new way. Considering we spend one-third of our lives doing it, it’s a worthwhile experience.

A PC review copy was provided by the publisher.

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