It doesn’t take Network’s Howard Beale screaming at television cameras for anyone to realize that modern times can feel rather bleak. A cursory glance at headlines on most major news sites will reveal dire predictions that humanity is killing itself with global warming while many in the United States continue to be literal prisoners of the tumultuous and often cruel nature of their government. A while ago, amidst personal issues that I’ve written about before, I deleted much of my social media presence. A huge reason behind obliterating my share of that platform is that I could not bear to see the unceasing procession of news telling of a crumbling world day after day, watching helplessly as the people in charge choose to allocate resources to persecuting the helpless instead of steering the world in a brighter direction.
Even without being bombarded constantly by tweets about heart-rending news, I’ve found my thoughts often lingering on a murky future and asking myself difficult questions that I know many members of my generation are also pondering, often in silence. One such question: if I wanted children, could I really bring them into a world with a future I dread? Would it be fair to them? Likewise: is there any point to trying to put down roots somewhere when most industries are being dramatically changed by the beats of a technical revolution and job security is fading further into the realm of wishful thinking? As I slide into my 30s, I find I’ve at last inherited all the deeply adult fears my parents spent years trying to keep me blissfully ignorant of.
However I’ve also discovered that one of my balms for these displeasures is experiencing media that acknowledges the bleakness of the world we live in and then does the unthinkable by laughing in that world’s stupid face. A Clockwork Orange, a book about society trying to rehabilitate a sociopathic murderer, is a despairing analysis of the motivations behind supposedly altruistic actions from government bodies. It’s also a hilarious book, one that laughs at the dark, uncomfortable folly of what happens when people and the systems they create collide with one another. See also Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five for art that looks at humanity’s viciousness, its unfathomable and unending appetite for all things evil and despairing, and finds ways to laugh about it. Laughter, like love, is a radical response against this sort of oppression, a defiance to being brought low by forces working to topple your spirit. It’s this sort of rebellious humor that endears the recently released Void Bastards to me.
I just finished slowly working through this strange but alluring combination of System Shock and Spelunky, and have found myself laughing at its barbed tone and the devious delight of its world, one where you play an unending line of prisoners trapped aboard a space vessel belonging to a mysterious corporation that’s become adrift.
The job of all the prisoners aboard this ship, called an Ark, is to help loot junk and cargo that range from high-tech machines like line printers to wacky but useful trash such as cool pops and distended testicles (yeck). That expertise is useful given the vessel and its crew needs to gather tons of parts by scavenging ships filled with dangerous foes to build navigation machines and repair the FTL drive so the Ark and its prisoners can get back home.
Life is cheap in Void Bastards – unbearably, hilariously cheap. Every prisoner you play has a number of traits that can give you positive and negative benefits (like using up your oxygen meter faster or slower) and they’re all pretty fragile until you get endgame upgrades for armor and weaponry. I probably tore through at least 50 prisoners before my playthrough was over, Void Bastards content to speed me along to the next body without even a moment’s silence for the previous prisoner. In these instances it feels like the game is jabbing me for being a willing orchestrator in this system as much as it is the real-world practice of prison labor, for being so callous and forgetful of these characters and considering them as vessels instead of characters – much less people. I don’t even remember the first prisoner I played, what his traits were, or what he even managed to accomplish during all his space-faring.
The callousness of my actions extends further beyond my poor, disposable protagonists. On board the various vessels we come across, I collect not just trash and tech, but also the literal human body parts of enemies I defeat simply so I can use them as currency to fund better upgrades. In Void Bastards’ portrait of a future gone awry, being a living, breathing person has no inherent value attached to it. Everything and everyone is ready to be recycled into something better. It’s a despairing thematic sentiment but one that’s made chuckle-worthy and devious by this pulp presentation and over-the-top satirical tone. Sure, my prisoner’s life is worth less than zero but also I just used a portal pistol to teleport one of the deadliest enemies in the game inside an airlock and then blasted him into the coldest reaches of space. My handler, a robotic Jeeves type, immediately informs me I am his favorite among the prisoners of the Ark, which is the same exact thing he said to the last 25 prisoners I’ve played as.
Even the ending of Void Bastards is brutally funny. I won’t go into specifics about it for the sake of not spoiling anyone’s experience, but I will say that the conclusion is a nice, bureaucratic bow that puts your struggles to get the Ark home in a context that’s paradoxically disheartening and amusing, a sucker punch that would be right at home as a scene in a downbeat chucklefest like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
There’s something reassuring about being able to look at awful things on the horizon and just laugh, to be able to let go of that despair even for a moment and find amusement in experiencing the absurdity of what it is to be alive. Thanks for the reminder, Void Bastards, that the world is an awful place but it’s also an awfully funny place. What else can you do but laugh?
For more on Void Bastards, check out our review.