It's worth stopping to read the employment agreement that opens Hardspace: Shipbreaker, the new game by Blackbird Interactive in which you take on the role of a blue collar astronaut tasked with salvaging derelict starships. Among the terms on the form are a promise that you've never been part of a union, that you will vote for a particular politician in the election for the "Pan-American Senate," and that you have no commercial interests in the "Nation-State of Arizona." The terms and conditions, meanwhile, grants the company ownership of your DNA in perpetuity.
Honestly, it's hard to tell whether or not this is satire.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker, which enters Early Access today, features the sort of grim humor that makes it a good fit for 2020 in general. It casts you as a laborer saddled with a horrific amount of debt; your only means of survival is to carve up starships for their precious materials. If you accidentally die, which is entirely possible given the incredibly dangerous conditions under which Shipbreakers work, you're informed that your surviving family will be billed for lost materials.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker's themes are reminiscent of Papers, Please, another dark working class satire that ranks among the best games of the decade. That's some lofty company, but Shipbreaker may be worthy of the comparison. Like Lucas Pope's opus, Shipbreaker mixes social commentary with some extremely clever gameplay conceits, which manage to feel fresh and interesting while tying into the story themes as a whole.
In Shipbreaker, the basic idea is to break a ship down into its component parts, steadily slicing it up with a laser torch and a grappling beam, exposing the valuable resources within. The tutorial is extensive, taking about an hour to complete, but it's needed given the intricacies involved. Carving up a ship is a delicate process; one in which you have to effectively turn it inside out by going into the airlock, depressurizing the atmosphere, then removing the ceiling and the walls in order to more easily transport the reactor.
The reactor, it should be mentioned, is a ship's most valuable component... and its most dangerous. When pulling it out, it'll shoot electricity, which can arc over to your suit and suddenly replace your radio feed with 1940s boogie-woogie music. Wait too long, and it'll melt down entirely, spelling the end of your brief career as a Shipbreaker.
I met this fate on my first couple tries as I tried to cram the reactor out of the airlock. It clicked for me when I discovered that I could remove the ceiling, making it far easier to quickly float it out into open space and push it down toward the salvage area. There are ultimately many different ways to approach the problem of removing a reactor, with open-ended physics-based puzzle solving that feels inspired.
It takes place in a free floating zero-g environment in which you have to gently manage both your momentum and that of the items you're attempting to harvest. One of the tools at your disposal is an energy tether, with one end being attached to a surface, and the other being attached to a heavy object you want to move. Attach it properly, and it's possible to work the momentum in just such a way that it'll go zipping through the appropriate area.
Moments like these left me feeling deeply impressed by both Shipbreaker's originality and the tightness of its design. Its loop is at once compulsively interesting and troubling, constantly holding debt over your head and encouraging you to head back into space. It's as if Tom Nook purchased a ship salvaging concern and started charging interest.
If these themes seem a little on the nose, that might be the point. In an era where corporations control so much of our daily lives, it's more than a little unnerving to read Shipbreaker's terms and conditions and think, "Doesn't actually seem that ridiculous, really." To paraphrase Marge Simpson, "Our world turned into a corporate dystopia so gradually we didn't even notice."
But whatever you think of its politics, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is worth playing simply by virtue of being one of the most original games of 2020. Pay attention to this one, because if it lives up to its potential, I see it being on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is available via Steam Early Access now, with PS4 and Xbox One versions due at a later date.