There's a popular school of thought that says almost all video games, when you get right down to it, are about tidying up. From clearing the skies in Space Invaders to eating every last dot in Pac-Man, to the blissful calm of an empty Tetris screen, and on through the games that have descended from similar bloodlines, there's a powerful human compulsion to sweep things clean. Most of the time, that impulse is subtext or metaphor. In Viscera Cleanup Detail, it's in your face. And all over your shoes.
This is a tidy-'em-up, a game where your goal is literally to clean up a bloody big mess. It's a first-person janitor simulator in which you play as the hapless, blue-collar schlub who must venture into secret labs and space stations in the aftermath of unseen gory FPS battles and restore them to their pristine state.
To aid you in this task, you're armed with a mop, your rubber-gloved hands and a handheld "sniffer" which tells you when you've missed a bit. At first, you think it's going to be easy. You choose one of the game's seven scenarios and proceed down blood-spattered corridors, ready to mop away the body fluids. And, for a few sweeps, that works fine. Then your mop gets soaked in gore and suddenly you're making the problem worse, sploshing the mess even wider with every stroke.
Luckily, every map has a Slosh-O-Matic, a machine that can produce endless buckets of clean water with which to clean your mop. So you set off to find the Slosh-O-Matic and then return to the bit you were cleaning. Only now you realise, having waded through guts and body parts to get the bucket, you've left bloody footprints all over the floor you cleaned. You press on, only to discover that now your bucket of water is so dirty that you're once again splashing even more mess onto the floor rather than cleaning it up. Back to the Slosh-O-Matic you go, this time being more careful about where you tread.
And that's just how you deal with the blood (and also the gooey black bile stuff that is probably alien blood). There are body parts everywhere, and these must be picked up and disposed of. You can throw them in the incinerator, once you find it, but all these dismembered torsos, limbs and heads will also mess up your clean spots if you drop them or kick them. More than once, a rogue section of intestine hiding in a pool of blood caught me unawares, sent sliding across the clean floor by my enthusiastic mopping, leaving a grisly crimson trail behind it.
This isn't a hard game in the sense that it punishes you with increased difficulty, but nor is it a game that offers much help. You know what you need to do. Get on with it. You have to be as methodical as you would be if you were doing the job for real, a natural sort of puzzle mechanic that forces you to work out the best order to do things. Is it best to dispose of the fleshy bits first, then worry about mopping up? Or should you clean the floors and walls, and put all the body parts and shell casings in tubs to be carried away later?
Even with good planning, it's easy to get careless. The physics, while never as intentionally hilarious as Surgeon Simulator, still have the floatiness of early FPS games. More than once I managed to spill an entire bucket of bloodied water all over my nice clean floor in my haste to dispose of it. Good luck if you manage to drop that crate of severed limbs while trying to wrestle it through a doorway.
There are small adventure game elements as well, as you'll sometimes have to work out how to access other areas, and there are machines that can supply other items - portable lights for working in dark rooms, "wet floor" signs and, for some reason, pizza cutters. You can also find a laser gun, but there are no enemies in the game - or at least none that I ever found. Instead, you'll use this weapon to melt errant boxes or to burn up corpses and body bags into more manageable, charred lumps.
It sounds like a grind and, well, it kind of is. But in a good way. Back in 2012, I wrote an article asking where the working class heroes of gaming had gone. Call me weird, but I've always been a big fan of gameplay that is based around seemingly mundane tasks.
Playing Viscera Cleanup Detail, I'm once again reminded of the suburban slog of Trashman or the endless domestic treadmill of Mrs Mopp. Those happy, mindless hours spent helping Shenmue's Ryo Hazuki earn his wages also echo here, and I even found myself thinking of the notorious Desert Bus as I dutifully sloshed away at another giblet-festooned room. There's a perverse pleasure, a zen-like peace, in seeing how much digital drudgery you can tolerate.
Mop in hand, you can only grumble to yourself as you casually wipe those desperate, unanswered pleas to SAVE US off the walls
"No major studio is going to spend months and millions on a game about a henpecked manual labourer struggling to make his next payday," I wrote in 2012, and it's no surprise that Viscera Cleanup Detail springs from the fertile PC indie scene, where developers are increasingly taking the tools used to build bombastic first-person shooters and subverting them for more interesting and human stories.
There's a playful gallows humour to the way this game undercuts the clichéd shock tactics of the big, gruesome action games. In Dead Space or Doom, hopeless messages smeared in blood and ominous text logs foreshadowing some violent cataclysm are expected to elicit a shiver of fear. Here, mop in hand, you can only grumble to yourself as you casually wipe those desperate, unanswered pleas to SAVE US off the walls and mutter at the sheer selfishness of the NPC technicians who have left their entrails all over the floor next to their datapads. The great comedian Steve Allen once said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, and by setting its mundane stall in the days after events that would be taken oh-so-seriously in another game, Viscera Cleanup Detail manages to be morbidly hilarious without ever telling a single joke.
In Viscera, how much effort you want to put into the task is up to you. You can try to tidy away every scattered box and pick up every shell casing, or you can shove it all in a corner and leave it at that. There's a console on the wall of each map that lets you clock out, either telling your bosses that you're proud of your work, or informing them that you've done as much as you're going to do and they can take it up with the union if they're not happy. At the moment, punching out simply takes you to a small and apparently exit-free office map, but presumably in the finished game there'll be praise or bollocking depending on how thorough you were.
Also in a nascent stage of development is the multiplayer mode, which lets you form a crew of up to four space cleaners and tackle the maps together. At the moment, you have to create codes and share them with friends to let them into your private games, rather than use an matchmaking mode. It's with friends, though, that I think Viscera Cleanup Detail will come into its own. Played solo, the task ahead of you is, frankly, too much. With others, not only is the job more manageable, but there's also more potential for fun as you try not to get in each other's way or tread sticky red boots through someone else's hard work.
In its current unfinished state, it's easy to write Viscera Cleanup Detail off as a joke, but developer Runestorm has gone about things in the right way. The core mechanism of cleaning up works and is compelling for a short while at least. Now all they need to do is iterate more gameplay variety on top without losing that mundane magic.
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