Whether or not video games are art is a tired debate, and one beyond the scope of this post. Viscera Cleanup Detail though, is strong evidence for the “yes” side. Art accrues commentary and criticism, deconstructions and challenges to accepted tropes and structures. Viscera Cleanup Detail is not a normal game, but a game about games.
There are countless science-fiction games in which you blast your way through corridor after corridor, facing down necromorphs and tentacled monstrosities. You watch, held back by windows and cut-scenes, as civilians and scientists are torn apart, limbs flung across the room. Using a variety of weaponry – bullets, bombs, laser guns and crowbars – you destroy monsters and scar the walls of the ship or station.
And then you win – the last monster stops moving, you maybe get the girl, the credits roll. But what games tend not to address is the aftermath – the empty station filled with gore that is still there, out between the stars. Games never address the horrendous mess you have caused.
In Viscera Cleanup Detail, you take on the role of a janitor, responsible for cleaning up space stations. In level after level, you must mop the blood off the walls, remove the corpses of hapless space marines, and incinerate bins filled with scraps and oddments of alien anatomy.
There’s no violence, no conflict or danger. You are alone on the station, and no one’s going to hurt you. You can’t really lose; you can fail missions, but there’s no death – failing to mop the floor well enough doesn’t lead to a clawed monstrosity tearing your throat out.
The gameplay is facile, even tedious. You remove debris, organic or otherwise, by picking it up and disposing of it in the designated place. You mop up blood and grime, using a bucket to rinse the mop. You replace the bucket’s water when it gets too filthy.
The only real difficulty comes from the timing – you do less well on the level if you are too slow, and it is not a fast-paced game. Every stain must be removed, every eyeball incinerated. Some places may have to be cleaned more than once, if you track grime through clean corridors on your boots, and moving fast might mean that you drop something, or spill a bucket of dirty water.
The controls are awkward, possibly purposefully awkward. Cleaning implements work the same as guns in other games, but picking up items requires you to suspend each one in mid air and try and drop it into a box without knocking anything else over. It’s roughly the object-moving mechanics that games like Oblivion has, where it is difficult to put them down in the expected place.
The graphics aren’t incredible, but they are faithful. Levels and sections seemed familiar, had the right colours and lighting to be Dead Space or Half Life or a thousand other games. Viscera Cleanup Detail has the aesthetic of the games it’s commenting on down perfectly, despite the vastly smaller budget. It is an atmospheric game – even when you know there’s no danger, the flickering lights and scrawled messages of despair are affecting.
There’s something very soothing about removing those messages, cleaning up the gore. At the end of the level, you can look back over a pristine space station and feel the satisfaction of a job done well. You are fixing a problem, making things more peaceful, and that’s something that games rarely let you do.
I enjoyed the game, as far as it goes, but enjoyment isn’t really the point of Viscera Cleanup Detail. It’s a game that wouldn’t make any sense without all the other ones that came before it, a game that can only exist because it plays off the tropes and atmosphere of games designed purely as entertainment.
For that, it’s a valuable game, even an important one. Gaming needs more criticism, needs more analysis and exploration of the medium. It’s not the most exciting game you’ll ever play, nor yet one that lets you be a hero or win a dramatic victory. But Viscera Cleanup Detail is a game that should exist, that we should have more of, because that’s how art gets better.