It’s easy to dismiss indie games when triple-A publishers take over the news. A lucky few manage to garner some attention, such as Undertale, Stardew Valley, or Devil Daggers, but they’re not the only titles worth looking at for those who seek something unique. Released in September, Sundae Month’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is another of these gems that everyone should experience, even if only for an hour or two. Its simplicity makes it easy to overlook, but its requisite parts are cult-classic worthy.
The player assumes the role of an “Alaensee girlbeast” working as a janitor in a cluttered and lively alien bazaar on a planet known as Xabran’s Rock. The gameplay is comparable to walking simulators, with a basic routine consisting of waking up, looking for trash, incinerating, eating, and sleeping. Rinse, repeat. There are little to no gameplay mechanics besides picking up items and interacting with the bazaar’s inhabitants and terminals on occasion. Yet this simplicity opens space for a variety of activities that few people expect from such a small title, confirmed by the 44 achievements.
“You have been saddled with a dread fate, custodian.”
Unlike many other games that attempt to simulate a world of any kind, the bazaar in Xabran’s Rock feels alive. The multitude of aliens going back and forth, interacting, and even lining up to pray at the shrines of the nine goddesses look authentic. As mentioned, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is very simple, an aspect that carries over to its AI. But that doesn’t mean that NPCs are less interesting despite doing little beyond making funny sounds when you interact with them. You can spot anything walking the streets and alleys of the bazaar, from cute robots and slimes to kids sporting egg-shaped heads and sentient cacti. The characters that can be interacted with, such as the many vendors and worshipers of specific deities, are windows to speculative lore. Much like Dark Souls, Diaries manages to tell a story through its scenery, the world’s inhabitants, and item descriptions. It’s actually surprising that there isn’t a wiki detailing Xabran’s Rock’s pantheon, society, and theories.
A study in “CUDDLESLUT”
The title may seem mundane and unimaginative to the less intellectual type, but those capable of grasping themes and references may find in Diaries an interesting study on life, playing video games, and even gender. The title is a complete grind where the character spends the day picking up trash and either incinerating it or playing the market with the many vendors around town in order to make a buck.
Her dream is to one day make it off of the planet, which leads her to venture into the sewerdungeon. The janitor’s break in cycle ends up landing a curse on her—an adorable skull that follows her around and feeds on her luck. From there, breaking the curse becomes one of the main objectives, and in order to do so, “ala-sweet” (as some aliens will call her) has to work hard. The idea of grinding endlessly to achieve a goal that would seemingly solve every problem is the perfect analogy to video games and life in general as we humans have to go through jobs we’re not fond of in hope that one day we’ll be able to fulfill our dreams.
On top of that, Diaries has a gender mechanic. As explained by James Shasha (programmer) on a thread on the game’s Steam discussion board, “I personally happen to be genderqueer/non-binary and was hoping to sort of reflect my own feelings about gender in the game.” He also states that many members of the development team identify as non-binary, trans, or gender non-conforming. His intention was to translate how gender works in real life with the alien girl feeling uncomfortable with her own identity and having to take gendershifting pills in order to be comfortable (a reference on how expensive treatments may sometimes be a requirement for someone to feel comfortable with themselves). Failure in doing so will make the screen glitchy and impossible to read at times.
Shasha goes on by saying “[…] as an alien, it doesn’t really make sense to have a gender that aligns with human social expectations, so we felt this was an opportunity to do something potentially interesting.” Upon taking the pills, the character may swap into the most interesting genders such as “cuddleslut” and “emoticon”, all of which make her feel amazing.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor succeeds at things some similar games have failed at in one way or another. It’s simple, filled with speculative lore, clever analogies, and a message regarding minorities that doesn’t force itself on the player, rather sparking curiosity and instigating research. That said, this little gem is not without its faults.
Although the store page suggests GLaDOS should be able to run it whilst powered by a potato, the game struggles with constant frame drops more common on Theday, a day in the Xabran’s Rock’s 9-day-calendar filled with festivities and an increased number of NPCs. On other days the performance issues are less prominent but still noticeable.
On top of that, players have reported a few bugs, such as the character Rhiande not showing up atop the ziggurat when she’s supposed to (something that should’ve been fixed) and an inability to get past the “good morning” screen on Aggraday. Another issue that might get on the nerves of those making use of the native controller support is the complete lack of axis double inversion, generally a common feature of most games these days.
Despite its performance issues, it’s not difficult to give Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor a high score. The simplicity, lore, and subtle, unforced social message make it a game worth playing just as much as indie darlings like Undertale or Braid. Sundae Month’s ability to make such a small game feel expansive and alive is remarkable.