The Dirtiest Job in Video Games
Here's your blood mop and tentacle incinerator. Now go clean up.
Image: Ben Ruby/Vice
The last time I was surrounded by bloodied limbs, I was standing in a space facility in the video game Dead Space—and I was the one who dismembered them. The body parts belonged to a Necromorph, a creature that reanimated the corpse of a slaughtered crew member. It had sprinted towards me, and I picked off its grotesque legs and arms with my weapon to slow its movement down before shooting its head and watching it pop.
This time I'm in a space facility surrounded by the familiar sight of bloodied limbs—but I'm not playing Dead Space. A Necromorph isn't charging at me, and instead of readying a plasma cutter, I'm holding a mop.
At the end of a chapter or checkpoint, a gun-wielding protagonist never again has to think about the mess they left behind. But two new games simulate what it's like to be the person dealing with the aftermath—and all the horror and mundanity that entails.
In Viscera Cleanup Detail, currently available on Steam, my occupation title is "Sanitation Professional." The game begins with a note from my employer reminding me to do a good job and keep my mouth shut because I can be easily replaced for doing poor work. The mop I've equipped is for the floors, walls, and ceilings—bloodied after an unknown incident occurred.
There are few tools to help me wipe clean the mess some unnamed space hero or mad scientist no doubt left behind. There's a machine that dispenses buckets of water for when my mop is too soaked in blood, and an incinerator to toss away both human and alien body parts and figures in body bags.
There are two defining characteristics of VCD; the mess and chaos created by someone else and the mundane bureaucracy of your [company]," Arn Richert, one of the game's designers, told me over email "We heightened the contrast between the absurd gore and destruction caused by the hero or incident and the nature of your job as the person that has to clean it up."
According to Nolan Richert, another designer and programmer working on the game, the intent is to show "familiar situations from a different perspective—the perspective of someone who gets to see the worst of things when all glory is gone," he told me via email. "Whether it's the violence of a typical action game or the machinations of powerful corporations, they both look as ridiculous as they are from the perspective of the janitor."
Although gore is splashed everywhere—often exaggeratedly—"the blood and mess is 'defused' of shock I think, because it's just this challenge that you have to deal with on the job," Arn explained. "As the cleaner, you're more involved with the aftermath and the effects of the incident. This way you're on the scene long after everything has settled, with no possible chance of seeing any of the 'action.'"
But space isn't the only place in need of a janitor. An upcoming game with currently no release date, DO NOT CROSS by Tobi Frank, is about a forensic cleaner who begins to investigate the crimes he is supposed to clean up—a deviation from the usual detective protagonist. "You are alone at the scene and that your intentions are not as clear. Nobody is there to guide you or to watch over you," Frank said. "Nobody will know if you decide to look through old photo albums of the victims, read their mail, steal valuables. It will not be a simple cleanup simulation."
For Frank, rather than having the player create the violent scenes, arriving at the aftermath of gruesome crimes or incidents is part of the game's appeal. "I never understood the point of [violence as a game mechanic]," Frank explained. "There is nothing more horrifying than the things that are happening in your imagination. I think it's unnecessary to show explicit violence to create something that's unsettling or disturbing."
In both Viscera Cleanup Detail and DO NOT CROSS, there's a level of absurdity involved when gore and violence intersects with the banality of everyday work and routine. In the former, I began splashing more blood on the floors I had just cleaned when my mop became too soaked, and struggled to fit tentacles that were several feet long into the opening of an incinerator. In the latter title, Frank hinted at the psychological struggles the forensic cleaner will face as he becomes more involved with the work that he doesn't like doing.
But it's not enough to merely clean, burn, and disinfect the horrors of space and crime; there's an anxious attempt to scrub away the immoral frameworks that caused the mess, whether it's the employer, evil scientists, a hulking space marine, or a serial killer.