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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Last Worker Melds Work and Play in Clever, Disconcerting Ways

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Last month, I finally got to play an extended chunk of The Last Worker, a game I’ve written a little bit about before. Specifically, in my Gamescom preview, I was drawn to the ways in which its dystopian Amazon warehouse environment both amused and unsettled me. You should read that if you haven’t yet because all my feelings about it then still hold true. But having now gotten to grapple with the game in full, I’ve stumbled upon another way in which The Last Worker clearly wants to break my brain: it’s putting me at odds with my own relationship with both work and play.

In The Last Worker’s first “act” of sorts, you’re playing a man named Kurt who works at Jüngle, the fictional world’s most profitable company that produces and delivers all sorts of bizarro goods and an unsubtle satire of Amazon. Over the years, the warehouse has become increasingly automated against mistake-prone human workers, and now only Kurt is left. Kurt’s job is to ride a little hover cart around the warehouse, picking items for delivery, inspecting them for defects or issues, and then either dropping them into a delivery hole or recycling them. This is what he does, day in and day out until the events of the game get the better of him, and eventually begins doing something decidedly different.

But during the job-doing bit, I found myself at an uncomfortable juxtaposition of wanting to do Kurt’s job well while mentally screaming at him to bail. Jüngle is a horrible company! Kurt sleeps in a garbage pit at the job site every night! He should quit, like, yesterday! Surely there’s something else he could be doing, how are all these other people making money to buy weird crap like baby VR goggles?! But through these thoughts I’m also, you know, a person playing a video game. Navigating the hover cart around in the 3D space of the warehouse is weirdly soothing. I like the little detective game of making sure the package is correct. I like to shoot the packages out of my little package gun into the recycle hole. And getting scored based on how well and fast I make him do his job makes a little meter go up, and my stupid monkey brain enjoys it when the meter goes up. It’s a concept that can get monotonous or much worse rather quickly in a real-world environment (and for Kurt, it does!) but in a nice safe video game, it’s satisfying.

So here I am, playing The Last Worker, running through an increasingly stressful loop of speeding to boxes, checking them for tears or incorrect sizing, dropping them off, repeating, and enjoying it, all while adamant that the guy I am piloting around should absolutely stop doing that right this second because it sucks sh*t. It’s uncomfortable in a way that’s probably good for me somehow. I think this is good ludonarrative, given Kurt’s reluctance to quit, yet it feels so dissonant at the same time.

Speaking to The Last Worker director and writer Jörg Tittel doesn’t help me reconcile that discomfort, but when he tells me about his passion for merging the worlds of theater, games, and film, I understand it a bit better. Tittel’s a filmmaker himself, and actually is producing The Winter’s Journey for release next year. It stars John Malkovich and Jason Isaacs, and is based on the “Winterreise” song cycle by Franz Schubert.

While The Last Worker is theoretically a small endeavor, Tittel says it’s brought a lot of disparate groups together. He worked closely with VR studio Wolf & Wood to bring the game to VR as well as PC and consoles. The characters are designed by Judge Dread artist Mike McMahon, with composer Oliver Kraus creating the music. Taiwanese studio Pumpkin is making 3D assets for them, and voice actors include Jason Isaacs, Zelda Williams, Tommie Earl Jenkins, and others. The international group largely worked together during the pandemic, only seeing one another a handful of times throughout development. They had a small budget despite the star power, Tittel says, but were given a lot of grace with regard to deadlines when meeting challenges during the pandemic.

The Last Worker clearly wants to break my brain: it’s putting me at odds with my own relationship with both work and play.


“I think we've all now learned that we don't have to spend all this money on bullsh*t,” he says. “Because the game industry makes a lot of money, but the meaningful games have no budgets to be getting made still. We still have so much explaining to do every day. Even on people in the corporate side one deals with, all the time, one has to justify one's existence and one's wish to just do something special, something really, truly beautiful and different. It's very, very difficult. The pandemic in a way has been a bit of a leveler in the sense that we have now looked into everyone's bedrooms and we've all realized that we all have them.”

I ask Tittel about what he wanted to convey with The Last Worker, as there’s a lot going on. It’s a pointed satire of a very specific real world company, but it’s also a commentary on capitalism and consumerism, wastefulness, automation, the value of human labor, and a lot more. It’s not subtle in its messaging, either, which can be a gamble for smaller games: you may end up courting an audience on board with your message, but you also risk players bouncing off, hard.

Tittel doesn’t seem to have any qualms about The Last Worker being exactly what it is, though.

“We just want to give people a fresh perspective on the world that we're already living in,” he says. “In a way, everything that's happening in the game, we're all living through every day and taking for granted. The way we receive our products, the way we do our jobs, the way we're expected also on your end of the business to deliver packages of content all the time. And whether it's this SEO content, and all this bullshit. It's bullshit, we're all working in a fulfillment center. And since the pandemic broke out, we're all like Kurt, working in the fulfillment center on our own.”

He notes that while The Last Worker has been in development for several years, during that time he’s seen the world catch up with the dystopia he created rapidly…except that the real world is decidedly “not fun” the way The Last Worker means to be.

“I wish our dystopian big tech overlords had sort of quirky flying robots representing their corporation because they'll be so much nicer than having these non-descript windows boxes in the supermarket saying, ‘Unknown object in bagging area’ or some other random bullshit. It's a very unexciting dystopia that we're living in right now. It's not pleasant, it's very gray and depressing.”

But that contrast, he says, is what makes The Last Worker appealing to him. The game has three endings, and depending on how you experience them or look at them personally, he says The Last Worker can turn out to be a hopeful story. He notes that, like many other dystopian stories, there’s comfort in reading a piece that understands the frustrations people might have with the world they’re currently living in.

“[At PAX], so many people were playing the game and telling me about their own experiences of hellish workplaces, and it was so incredible,” he says. “People were opening up about their lives to me. And I felt, wow. If indeed our games can be conversation starters, if they can allow people to engage with their own issues through them, I think that's when I feel our games will reach a point that I also always wanted games to be, because I think games are the ultimate art form.”


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