Finding Meaning in Absurdity in Hardspace: Shipbreaker

The first time I died was slow and dreadful. It was a routine job, although I was still too new to the work to know that. I miscalculated the mass of a wall and tried to use a grapple pulse to knock it away from me. Instead, I was slammed back first into a gap between two nanocarbon panels, driven through hard enough to bend the post-steel material around my body. Then, unable to drag myself free, I watched the minutes tick away until I died of asphyxiation. But the worst part was when I was handed a bill for $150,000. The debt counter in my HUD rose from $997,834,134 to $997,984,134.  Death may not be permanent in Hardspace: Shipbreaker, but it sure is expensive. 

Hardspace is a game about salvaging large derelict spaceships for a massive shipping and production conglomerate, the LYNX corporation. The core loop involves decompressing rooms, cutting key structural points on ships, and peeling them away piece by piece. Disassembling each ship is meditative and soothing. The work feels good to do in the same way that cleaning a window or making breakfast feels good. You’re performing simple tasks in a predictable order, for which there is clear feedback and stimuli for when you’re doing well. That’s part of what makes the game so appealing.

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Debt Drive

There are a lot of days where I feel directionless and deeply anxious. Media jobs are self-directed, often heavily dependent on your ability to come up with capital C “Content.” My job has meant learning the ever-evolving lesson of what constitutes content. Hardspace: Shipbreaker didn’t teach me this lesson, but clearing work orders and to-do lists every shift provide enough consistency to salve my poisoned brain.

The work itself is rewarding, but the system it’s built in is poisonous. Hardspace: Shipbreaker opens with a one billion dollar contract, a number so big that my imagination actively rebels against it. Ships are worth, at best, $15,000,000, and at worst, around $2,000,000. That isn’t how much you’ll make off of them, though. On my best days I’ll earn two or three million. Most days are not my best days. That’s just income though, which doesn’t account for the dozens of daily fees and costs involved in being a shipbreaker. It all amounts to about half a million dollars’ worth of bullshit every shift. 

Hardspace is, at the very least, suspicious of our all-consuming economic system, enough to lean into parody. LYNX is every hell corporation turned up to eleven. Given how only one act of the game’s campaign is available, we’ve yet to see exactly how LYNX and the people indentured to it will fare. But I can’t ignore what’s there right now: a shit ton of debt.

It reminds me of Albert Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, which uses the story of Sisyphus to argue that the world is fundamentally absurd and without meaning. Everyday, Sisyphus pushes a rock up a hill as punishment for cheating death one too many times, for having the audacity to live. Everyday, it rolls back down. Yet he still continues in this endeavor, knowing it is pointless. Camus goes on to suggest that, for this reason, we have to imagine him happy — otherwise, he would cease to be. When presented with the absurdity of life, there are three options: accept absurdity and sink into oblivion, deny absurdity and create a false reality, or rebel against absurdity and actively create meaning in one’s life. That Sisyphus has a task he can put himself into means he is happy. Every time his rock reaches the top of the hill he finds meaning. And then it rolls. The next day, he finds that meaning again.

By this logic, one must imagine the Shipbreaker happy, as well. The debt is absurd; capitalism is absurd. So, find a way to invest it with meaning. Lean into the joy that derives from the rhythm of a good day’s shipbreaking. The golden fire of the lasers, the gentle waves of gravity — find some reason that all of this matters. This is what people mean when they say “If you find a job you love, then you don’t work a day in your life.” And those people are wrong.

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Carving Out Meaning

I’ve found a job that is meaningful to me, surrounded myself with people I love and respect — and yet every day part of me wakes up angry. Angry at the student debt I will probably never beat from a school I never liked. Angry at the cheap insulation that killed my grandfather. Angry at the world that made my mom pick up a second job not only because we need the money but because she couldn’t imagine any other way to fill her days. I had to choose between anger and despair. Between rejecting absurdity and accepting it.

To accept it is to cease being. For Camus, that means death. But The Shipbreaker doesn’t get to die. The contract you sign with LYNX guarantees you clones, each of which adds $150,000 to your debt. There is no accepting absurdity; in fact, death makes it more absurd. Giving up and letting your body dash itself against the side of the ship forces you further and further down into the anti-space of debt. The same can be argued for Sisyphus; he’s already dead in Hades. Embracing absurdity and giving up looks like laying down and wallowing in despair, but he can’t just stop being. Neither will I.

So I tried something different. I started fucking up on purpose. Explosive depressurization, dead. Reactor meltdown, dead. Using my grapple gun to send a fuel tank hurtling into my own body, dead. Eventually, I learned how to cause mayhem without getting myself killed.

The LYNX corporation has standards for what kind of condition a part has to be in for processing, which are lower than you might think. So I cut things that didn’t need to be cut. I made every single part I deposited as shitty as possible while still adhering to the minimum quality standards. My pay was the same for all of it. Every bisected panel, every half melted reactor, every useless pressurization unit. I made an art out of handing back valuable trash.

We’re taught that failure isn’t productive, that it’s something to be avoided. That’s because it isn’t profitable, at least not directly. In that case, maybe failure under capitalism is a quiet revolution. One that builds over time. Someday someone else will decide to fuck up. They will look at a broken reactor I sent them and they will not pull it from the assembly line. It will be installed in a ship that LYNX is trying to pass off as a new model. Some executives will take it on a test drive to try and finish a sale, and it will explode mid-flight.

Imagine Sisyphus angry, pushing his boulder up his hill. Except today, he doesn’t stop there. He pushes it up another hill, and another one, and another one. Imagine him pushing his boulder through the River Styx, Charon looking on in bemused shock from its banks. Imagine him pushing it all the way out of Hades, and then up Mount Olympus. All gilded halls and ambrosia fountains, nocent gods waiting on their thrones. Imagine him letting it roll. Pillars turn to dominoes as he brings heaven down around him.

The world we live in is absurd not because we’re being eternally punished by Zeus, but because we made it that way. And we can make it better. 

Find meaning in the face of absurdity, give yourself a reason to keep going. But don’t stop there. Invest so much meaning that you remake the world altogether, get angry and replace an absurd world with one that cares relentlessly.

I don’t know where the story of Hardspace: Shipbreaker is headed in its next acts, but I can already imagine the Shipbreaker happy. I know that, much like Zeus did for an angry Sisyphus, they’ve been handed the kinds of tools that are good for breaking things. They understand systems and how they interlock with one another. They know how to cause a meltdown. Maybe being able to burn it all down is enough, maybe they’ll never put it into practice, maybe they’ll never imagine a better world. But I hope they do, because I don’t think they have many alternatives.