I’m not usually drawn to games that wallow in frustration or hopelessness. The “it’s miserable, and that’s the point” kind of games like Papers, Please sort of miss the mark for me. For me, a frustrating game needs to provide a certain tonal balance to be worth the effort that it’s asking of me.

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a game that leaves players confused, frustrated, and discouraged with alarming frequency. It has a degree of inscrutability that doesn’t feel like it should work, but it somehow does. Thanks to a strange and compelling setting, enigmatic shrines and gods, and labyrinthine world design, it always feels worthwhile to push through the setbacks.

Life of a Sanidrone

On the surface, life as a spaceport janitor is pretty simple. Pick up trash, save and sell anything valuable, and scrape up enough resources to get out of this crummy place.

Of course, you’ll need to eat food, and since you can’t really store it, you’ll have to buy it from vending machines. Prices vary unpredictably, and some food will make you sick, sometimes. Also, your character begins to feel weird if they don’t periodically “gendershift”, which can be accomplished by… buying it from vending machines. Guards patrolling the station will occasionally get mad at you for no reason and rob you.

To be more direct: Spaceport Janitor is about wage slavery. It’s about ways in which socioeconomic precarity compounds upon itself through stress, exhaustion, illness, and despair. Though the basic mechanics of the game are explained up front, important details are consistently left out, evocative of how wage labor is often downplayed as easy or mindless. Sure, I know I need to pick up trash, but how is my payout even calculated? Which foods will make me sick? What are these “eyes” for? What does gendershifting actually do?

The spaceport itself is illogically laid out and difficult to navigate. While being often lost or aimless is part of the game’s emotional arc, it’s also crucial to making Xabran Spaceport feel chaotic and endless. The art style is blocky and angular, and uses some shader magic to add a layer of pixelation, turning the spaceport into a blur of dull pastels. Each area is recognizable, but the connections between them are difficult to comprehend, and they seem to spill endlessly into one another.

Xabran Spaceport alludes to a wider world with small, evocative fragments of culture. Cheeky item descriptions add flavor to the junk you’ll endlessly pick up. NPCs are often found expressing or peddling certain beliefs about religion, luck and good fortune. Tons of tiny, offbeat details spill out of the world, often raising more questions than they answer.

Dear Diary: Capitalism Sucks

The game’s daily cycle revolves around the same routine; get payment for yesterday’s work, go out and work until it’s dark, then come back, write a diary entry, and sleep. The diary entries serve as an interesting means of grounding the experience. As the player, you’ll jot a note about the progress you think you’re making, what item of interest you found, etc.

Inviting the player to catalog their own experience has two purposes. The first is that it helps the player keep track of their goals from day to day. The second is more of a diegetic narrative effect. How does your character distinguish between day after day of the same drudgery? What details do they point out? Are they resigned, sarcastic, hopeful?

While the details of the game world stitch together into a lot of broad ideas about capitalism and culture, the daily diary entries ground everything back down to the janitor’s more specific, personal experience. What the game communicates through fiction and metaphor still ultimately needs to be recontextualized through the lens of the protagonist.

In the end, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor puzzled me enough that I needed to find guides to help me accomplish a few objectives. But it’s also a game that relentlessly drew me in — I played my entire 10-hour playthrough in a single weekend. I find it difficult to describe exactly why this game is so interesting, but the ease with which it weaves commentary and humor into its world is plenty of reason to give it a chance.