Autumn in Hieron, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, and the Game Beyond the Player

Link is too damn important. The hero of time, of wind, of Hyrule itself is always the center of the era he is born in. He explores a world designed for him to pick apart, unlock, and leave behind. Even Breath of the Wild, which leans into a frantic, shifting world, feels built for a player to consume and never ask the player to examine that consumption. Common narratives imply that games can only be this player focused. They rely on input from a player and thus they center their focus on that player. However, every medium does this to some extent. Even works which defy easy readability still provoke a reaction from their reader. That response is not always focused on the reader’s pleasure. There are thousands of reasons people read and write books, and only one of them is a rush of power. The artificiality of games does not make them empower the player, just as much as books or film do not have to be about empowering the reader or viewer. A game’s input can be about smallness and quiet as well as greatness and bombast.

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No game I’ve played communicates this like Diaries of A Spaceport Janitor. A RPG from studio Sundae Month, its title communicates the game’s premise. You wander a spaceport, picking up junk, trying to sell or incinerate enough to survive. In addition, you’ve been cursed. A floating skull taunts you every day. To be rid of it, you must complete a bundle of tasks. The pressure is high, but the stakes, at least by video game standards, are low. It is just one life that you must care for. The game world takes every turn to make that life untenable. Cops will harass you and steal your money without provocation. Most food costs more than you can afford and the cheap stuff can make you sick. Sometimes, gender dysphoria hits, and you have to spend money on pills to adjust. Most days, you only make enough money to survive the next day, and that’s if you don’t get robbed on the way home.

All this makes a game about asserting your own meaning. The world is filled with heroes of other games. The spaceport is flooded with spell casting equipment and weapons meant for paladins, wizards, and fighters. This is a world that doesn’t care about your presence. It only benefits from your service and moves on. To survive and free yourself from your curse, you must care and take time for yourself. The primary way this is communicated is through worship. You pray by leaving offerings at shrines to one of nine goddesses. The idols are not signposted, so you must seek them out yourself. Furthermore, it is a quiet act, as these shrines are not tied to institutions. There are no ecclesiastical leaders. The loss of those oppressive structures makes a simple act of giving and prayer an assertion of worth to an indifferent universe. By praying, you are saying “Something must care, and if it doesn’t, I will make it.”

In Diaries, you are far too small to change the world. The spaceport will always move on without you. But you can change yourself, offer your worth up, and find joy in small beauty. This is a very different kind of power than your typical RPG would offer. A silent, practical grace that could lead any one of us along in dreary circumstances. The game asks you to write in a diary at the end of every in-game day. The oppression of an outside world forces the player to examine their internal one.

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However, an emphasis on player power can also cause self-examination. That power must be placed in the context of a broader world. In the first season of Friends at the Table, a role-playing podcast, they play a game called Dungeon World. In this Dungeons and Dragons adjacent title, every character is the only one of their kind. The paladin, Hadrian, is the only paladin in the world. Hella, the only fighter and so on. This gives every player a historical importance. Almost like they are the axis on which the world turns.

Still, that world exists beyond them and is not tailored to them. There’s a moment in episode nine, when one group of characters chooses between saving their friend or completing their mission. Austin, the player in charge of running the game world, emphasizes that the outside forces will continue on. He says, “Whatever’s happening down there will happen and the clock will tick one hour further, closer to midnight.” Indeed, these players never revisit their previous mission and the world shifts accordingly. 

The flexibility of tabletop role-playing and a strong, intimate focus lend this first season, titled Autumn in Hieron, a dynamic permanence. Things happen outside of the player’s control, and they cannot always avoid consequences with a dice roll or a clever move. The impact the players have on the world is still massive, but it has a cost. Even choosing not to engage will see the world move anew. The power that is usually so gratifying in DnD becomes terrible. The world’s axis may turn on these special individuals, but they are only one point on a map. Their actions ripple out in waves and come back a hurricane. Those consequences act as a tragic mirror of the characters, their hubris and ambition cursing them.

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The open world games that have become the de facto AAA genre are clear examples of the opposite effect. One can waste time forever in Assassin’s Creed: Origin’s Egypt or Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule. The world is unchanging until you move it. Much of the rhetoric surrounding game relies on them staying the same, forever pledging themselves to male empowerment. In the broad strokes, this might be true. The biggest AAA titles shown on stages at press conferences are often about reaffirming the way games have always been. This is not permanent. Games are ultimately a small space and there are far more than one would think who try to present a new way of making them. Most of us are not important enough to be a Hadrian or a Hella (heaven forbid), but we are strong enough to be a Spaceport Janitor. To make and show off games that complicate player agency, to show the terrible hollowness of power fantasy, and to assert our own quiet worth.

Both of these games show us new ways of expressing and experiencing player power. They move in opposite directions, but both value and prioritize a game beyond the player. That outside movement forces us to look inward. To examine our own ways of experiencing power, our own selves. Just as games that indulge our fantasies let us disappear, games that question and re-contextualize our dreams let us see ourselves.

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