audio storytelling, blackbird interactive, design, early access, focus interactive, game design, hardspace, hardspace shipbreaker, narrative, single player, steam early access, story, storytelling, visual storytelling
I’ve got a new gaming obsession. It’s Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a game where you play the role of a Cutter that chops up derelict spaceship and repurposes the various components, either by refinement or straight-up salvage. It’s already a brilliant and unique bit of gaming and is only just in early access, meaning that its already impressive gameplay can only grow from here on out.
I could write up plenty of effusive praise on this game as it is, but I’m not really here to write a review on the title as a whole. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of this one that it absolutely nails: telling a story without outright writing one out.
The whole thing starts off with a first-person view of your character in an extremely dingy and noisy apartment complex, filling out authorization forms to join LYNXCorp as a Cutter. Almost immediately, there are a number of details that tell you the world of Shipbreaker is a tough place; news articles discuss famine and disease, emails warn of utility final notices and family illness, and the entire apartment itself looks no larger than a dorm room, all the while the thudding obnoxious sounds of bad music, worse neighbors, and a squalorous outdoor environment bleed through paper-thin walls.
Shortly after that, you’re treated to a cutscene which involves what we can only assume is your character’s little daughter reciting what sounds similar to the “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” prayer:
Each day he steps into the yard,
To earn his wages working hard.
I pray to the stars and heaven above
To return my daddy to those he loves.
If there comes a time when he and Death meet,
Bless the next Cutter that takes his seat.
Again, several little details pour out of this little introduction. The girl’s age suggests that this prayer is a commonly known thing, adding a sense of how lived-in the work of Cutters really is. The ship entering the yard is absolutely assailed by fragments of space debris yet keeps on soldiering on, once again giving a sense that things have been this way for a long time. All the while, a grimy banjo plucks away in the background, filling the scene with a workman, blue collar vibe that’s both endearing and heartbreaking all around.
Even the yard itself tells quite a bit about the life of a Cutter, keeping you in a very basic open part of space that has almost no safety protocols whatsoever, illustrating how insignificant you are to the company’s greater machinations in spite of how important the work of being a Shipbreaker is. And that’s ignoring the near billion dollar debt you’re working off from the get-go.
That’s not to say it’s all desolation, though. Over the course of playing, there’s a sort of satisfaction and determination to cutting apart a spaceship and sending its individual pieces out for recycling and salvage. This is helped by how perfect the locations of various ports to put pieces are, turning a careless workspace of a soulless major industry into an efficient area. This holds hands with more of that comfortable yet grimy banjo music that plays in your helmet as you work, imparting a sense that this is your lot in life now and that you might as well do a good job. I found myself wanting to go above and beyond the work order tasks and completely break down the ship in my yard.
At one point, when my character got electrocuted by a power source, I was warned on my HUD how injury leads to less job satisfaction and experienced a radio malfunction that replaced the drawling bluegrass tune I’d grown accustomed to with a hyper-happy jazzy number. My character bopped the side of his helmet, though, and the music returned to normal. It would have been so easy for Shipbreaker to simply apply that damage and just move on, but those little touches were brilliant and drew me even further in to the world.
There are more traditional visual cues as well, like the opening crawl that sort of sets the scene for the game’s world and some data logs that can be decrypted to add additional flavor text, but even these routine narrative additions feel like dressing compared to the brilliance of Shipbreaker’s overall worldbuilding and storytelling. I’d even go so far as to say they could be removed entirely — everything else about this game’s audio/visual narrative is just that strong.
It’s hard to know how much I’ll be investing into this game, but I already am looking forward to becoming more familiar with my tools, growing my skillset, and eventually working towards larger and more complex ships. The fact that Shipbreaker recently added a mode where time and oxygen aren’t factors is a boon, especially since there are still plenty of other ways things can go wrong in the yard. But I will say that the game’s initial presentation and overall vibe have sucked me in like few other games have.
Sometimes, it really is best to just show and not tell, and Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a master class in just how that axiom can be applied. I don’t know how many of the game’s devs will ever read this, but I needed to put out there how appreciative I am of those little touches.