Early Assess: Hardspace: Shipbreaker Is the Labor-Conscious Game I’ve Been Waiting For

A game about working, with workers.

The most recent Hardspace: Shipbreaker update shows the reality of a bad shift busting down starships alone in the void. It does so by introducing the first act of the early access game’s true narrative, with new characters that range from young and hungry newbies looking to organize a union, to tired lifers who just want to do their jobs and be done. The added writing and voice acting to go with them  are solid, too, which is especially impressive since the  story update uses in-house VA by developers. Though they’ll later be replaced by professional actors.

In all honesty, I’ll be sad to hear some of the standbys go. This most recent Hardspace: Shipbreaker update doesn’t just add a new narrative. It simply uses that as a drop-off point to significantly overhaul moment-to-moment gameplay and progression.

I nicked a fuel cell on my third job back as a shipbreaker. That might not have been a problem. There was plenty of salvage left to save. Except my handheld laser cutter burned right through the sucker, detonating it instantly, while turning a quarter of the ship to scrap. It left my body broken, burning, and asphyxiating from a massive hole in my space helmet. My first “spare” body was spit out moments later. So I floated  back to finish my shift.

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As I returned to the site of my first death and returned  to work, I didn’t notice the force of the explosion had knocked the starship towards one of two burning processors on either side of the zero gravity yard. Or rather, I didn’t notice until a wall slowly drifted into me, before it suddenly accelerated and pinned me in place. Once I realized the entire ship had gotten caught in the processor’s gravity well, I quickly tried to cut my way out. The wall came loose just before the whole carcass slid into the same, blue laser grid I was desperately trying to escape. I wound up wedged between a metal plate and the furnace itself.

I needed  some way to get free. But my thrusters were too weak to counteract the pull of the processor. I decided to try my grapple — a little energy tether used to zip around chunks of salvage —  which was capable of moving pieces of scrap up to 3000kg, and actually managed to drag myself up the side of the processor. Unfortunately, my grapple was damaged in the explosion that started this nightmare chain of events. Just as I managed to get directly above that gaping blue maw, the grav well overpowered my lifeline and swiftly pulled me into the processor. Each death cost me at least 150,000 space bucks for another spare. Not to mention the slam of various fees for allowing incorrect materials to enter the processor.

It was a bad day.

hardspace shipbreaker tether

It’s been a while since I last hopped into the shipyard. Turns out being a cutter is more dangerous than I remembered. The decompression process in Hardspace: Shipbreaker has become even more complex. Certain areas of the ship lack atmospheric regulators. Crawlspaces, for example. Yet they can be directly connected to areas which are regulated, forcing you to get… creative when accessing these sections of the ship.

Explosive decompression —once a sign of a failed order of operations, now feels like an occasional necessity. You simply need to prepare for and mitigate the damage as best you can. You shove your body into the corner of the room, fire your cutter into a nearby door, and hang on for dear life. If you’re lucky, no heavy metal crates will slam directly into your poorly insured skull.

It makes you wonder how hard it would really be for the Lynx corporation to decompress ships before they arrived in the yard. It would make your job significantly safer, but safety isn’t really in its best interest, is it? The group actively profits off of the “spares” they make every time you find yourself caught in an accident after all.

All of this mechanical danger and exploitation makes the narrative focus on unionization a no-brainer. While other games claim to be about corporate malpractice and labor organizing, they often fall short of actually doing anything with these ideas.

hardspace shipbreaker story

The Outer Worlds is my best example from recent memory. For all its set-dressing, the game’s parody of capitalism never has any bite. You can be a Pinkerton if you want to (“choice” is after all the primary focus of the RPG Power Fantasy), but the game never mechanically engages with labor in any meaningful way. You’re always an outsider making decisions about workers, never a worker yourself. These factors make the game’s attempts to engage with labor feel incredibly hollow. Hardspace: Shipbreaker, however, centers both its narrative and gameplay logic around workaday life, and actually has some teeth.

The stickers reading things like “Safety Third” might feel like an on-the-nose parody of Amazon and Tesla… if it wasn’t actually real. In a 2009 Ted Talk, TV host and not-so-secret-douchebag lobbyist Mike Rowe coined the phrase before a room of unseen rich people laughing at all of his jokes. He opines that “…the ones who really get it done, they’re not out there talking about safety first. They know that other things come first — the business of doing the work comes first, the business of getting it done.”

The safety third mentality shifts the responsibility of safety from managers and institutions to individual practice. Your safety is your responsibility, not the company’s. It’s about moving accountability in an attempt to change behavior to protect those in power.

This shifting of accountability, however, prevents us from asking some essential questions. Like why the fuck was I sent a partially pressurized ship for processing? Or, why is the yard so cramped that an entire ship can get caught in the gravity well of a processor with you still inside? The environment within which we work is most often determined by our employers. When people push for more extensive labor regulations, they aren’t asking for more signs that say “Remember to wear a helmet!” They’re asking for more reliable equipment — for work hours that won’t force them to operate that equipment while exhausted.

hardspace shipbreaker impressions

Of course there are jobs which, by their nature, prioritize outcomes over individual safety. Take  firefighting for example. However, firefighters balance risk with social utility — not fiscal efficiency. A firefighter can rarely save lives without risking their own, but, motherfucker, I am not saving people from burning buildings. I am hacking  apart a big boat for parts. The social utility to risk comparison is totally different. Just as it is when bagging groceries, stocking warehouses, or what-have-you. And Hardspace: Shipbreaker knows this and makes sure you know it, too, by killing you. A lot.

In the update’s final story addition, you receive a message from a Lynx executive. You learn administrators will be dispatched to every shipyard to counter the nascent union organizing. When she says “The company is your Family, the Union is your Enemy” Her tongue drips the kind of love that actually means possession; it is hollow, hungry, and frightened. She has good reason to be frightened. The union’s three primary demands are as essential as they are reasonable: canceling the $1.25 billion debt shipbreakers are forced to undertake when signing up to work with Lynx, improving workplace safety to eliminate unnecessary risks, and investigating the contract clauses which grant Lynx permanent ownership over all your genetic material, as well as any intellectual property you create while working there. Given the specialized nature of shipbreaking, a strike could easily grind Lynx’s production process to halt. Couple that with reasonable demands that any cutter could get behind, and the union becomes an existential threat to the corporation’s ridiculous and sacred profit margins.

Last year I wrote about my hope for Hardspace: Shipbreaker to really engage with the absurdity of capitalism in a meaningful way and, based on this first story update, it really seems to be living up to my expectations.