It’s my last day at Gamescom 2022. I’ve been hanging around in the exclusive business/press areas for a while, and find them a reprieve from the packed halls of the public show. The only benches I can find are either in the business/coffee shop/discussion areas, directly opposite the sushi restaurant, or huge egg shaped fake plant pots.
I’m waiting for my last interview of the show to start, with the team behind the upcoming game The Last Worker, a dystopian first-person exploration of life as the last human factory picker. The game has an impressive cast list, including stars of screens of many sizes, from Jason Isaacs, to Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, to Clare Hope Ashitey, to Cube fan-favourite David Hewlett and more. A star studded production about capitalist dystopia, and the only video game featured at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.
I head over to Wired Productions’ corner of monitors in one of the halls. My interview subject is just finishing up another chat and in the meantime I’m offered a bottle of water, my second of the day. This time I don’t cut my hand on the bottle top, as I had earlier during a bizarre look at a new Asterix game, which I hadn’t asked to see.
I’m tired, and when I wander over to meet Jörg Tittel, writer and director of the game, it’s clear he’s tired too. Tiredness shows in many ways, and while very welcoming and friendly, it’s also clear that Tittel has a surface level tiredness with ‘bullshit’.
“It’s been a really really good show, but, Christ, I’ve had like 15 interviews a day, so I won’t be the freshest you’ve ever seen.”
Thankfully, as in most of life, I’m also tired.
We start off talking about that, and then about why I’m interested in The Last Worker, which, I say genuinely, is because it seems to be about something.
I hide the fact that I’m also curious as to where exactly the game pinpoints the issues with capitalism and automation. We have a great history of games that purport themselves to be about something, and that something turning out to be a very odd political viewpoint, or to have been created under contradictory conditions.
Tittel doesn’t need prompting to share his thoughts about this though, “How many games have you found that are about something?” He asks.
“Only a handful,” I answer.
“Now that’s weird isn’t it. I do find it really quite… are you recording?” The question takes me off guard, as yes I am, conspicuously having my phone pointed in his direction, and expecting a pivot. Thankfully it seems he just wants to be logistical and make sure the tape is rolling.
“I don’t always say the same shit, but I don’t say things I don’t mean. I rarely say things I regret. Honesty is the best policy.”
He continues about games on current affairs, “It’s crazy that games take up so much of people’s time now, and yet the majority of games are about nothing. And this is all set against a world where there’s a rise of fascism and reduction in democracy.”
This was a point that was salient last month, one which has the Russian invasion of Ukraine hanging over it, Le Pen returning with force in France and many examples I could go into regarding the UK, and before September 2022’s right-wing election wins in Sweden and Italy. Fascism as a European and North American cause seems undaunted, and Tittel points to media as a tool for framing this rise.
“It’s not the lack of story or purpose in fucking videogames that is making people fascist, but it sure is making them less resilient against it though. I mean, it must be, we become consumers, consumed gradually. And I think it’s important for us to say something, doesn’t matter how dumb, but just fucking something.”
I’m personally always sceptical of identifying artistic engagement, or any engagement, as passive behaviours, devoid of intent. But it’s not on Tittel, I think that many people, including the heads of media giants would agree with this idea, that their content is created solely as a product for consumption.
The next questions diffuse the heady atmosphere a little, talking about the creation of the game itself as Tittel says, “Well, I came up with this nonsense.”
He then talks about the way The Last Worker has been developed with VR in mind,
“Then we teamed up with Wolf and Wood, who are VR pioneers, true pioneers… their first game was A Chair In A Room: Greenwater which created a lot of the mechanics that go into future VR development.”
It’s clear from then talking about this and rest of the team that Tittel has orchestrated, including the original artist of Judge Dredd Mike McMahon, that it is a broad team of very skilled and long experienced artists tackling his nonsense and turning it into what it is today.
“We wanted to put a lot of effort into it, and make a story about humans being replaced as human as possible.”
Since it’s come up, and Tittel identifies it, I ask where automation as a key concern comes from, and he is clearly invested in what’s going on inside people’s heads.
“Automation, well, it’s a vague term. We’re automating thought more and more, therefore replacing individual thought. People are so obsessed with micro-identities now, which are important, because it’s important to know who you are, but I think I’d rather know you and then get to know you through your actions, rather than a label. The idea that we’re all forced more and more to put labels on ourselves as if we are products already.”
Identifying changes in social convention online via ‘identity’, as an example of the threat of automated capitalism, is not where I would go first here, but sure.
Brands and government organisations do weaponise the idea of labels as used to distinguish minority identities usually, as well as in The Last Worker the idea of employees being a ‘family’, so it’s not a frustration that I don’t understand in this context. The foregrounded presence of minorities in the operation of systems of oppression has been one move used to sugar-coat capitalism and fascism (which negatively impact said minorities disproportionately) since at least the 60s, and likely well before.
Being queer and online however, this did set off a tripwire in the well crafted fortress against the barbed idea that ‘it’s all young people online and their frickin’ pronouns these days.’
I don’t put that kind of thinking on Tittel however, it’s just hard not to go there.
Tittel pivots away from this kinds of speculation towards ‘content’, which appears to be the real frustration.
“If we become content, it’s a form of automation as well, because we’re all trying to feed the data all the time. We’re all becoming content, and I loathe the fucking word ‘content’. Boxes have content in them, a bucket of shit has content in it, and so I refuse to be called that, any creative work that I do, if someone calls it content I tell them to fuck off.”
I ask about the issue that The Last Worker is itself a product, and how he feels that, through games media, it will undoubtedly become the thing he wants to avoid – Content.
“I struggle with it every day, we can’t avoid having to use marketing in order to get our ideas out, but I do think there are things that we can do to fight the urges of going cheap with things.” Tittel says, seeing the attempt at creating something of quality and with resistant self-possession inside it as a way of responding to cheapening of artistic work.
“One way to do that is be truly original, which, when you play the game I hope you’ll agree it’s not like anything else, and another way also, it’s to be true to ourselves. I mean I will never be the best writer, I’ll never be the best director, Hideo Kojima of course is all of those things… no, but, and I’ll certainly never be a good coder, but I know that I’ll be really really good at doing my own thing.”
He also reflects that the aim was to have that approach spread through every input into the game.
“It’s also not just my own thing, because I’ve found a group of people who really truly have made it their own thing with me and doing that is cool, because every single time we made sure ‘does this really truly feel like this thing we’re making? Is everything, telling the story we want to tell.'”
He then, from this, reflects on the importance of telling stories at all,
“Because we have to tell stories, and once we lose stories, then we lose our soul, you know as humans. We are story animals, that’s why we still exist today, because we tell each other fucking crazy stories and then we follow each other to the end of time, based on those stories. It’s what we do. Whether it’s the Bible, or fucking, Donald Trump’s lies, doesn’t matter, they’re all stories right?”
At this point it’s clear the philosophical portion of the conversation is getting long in the tooth, “I’m babbling because it’s fucking late and it’s day three.”
Getting the hint, I indicate the game station, as with exasperated enthusiasm Tittel laughs, “Ah yes. Play some fucking video games! Enjoy the content!”
The Last Worker appears similar enough to others in the genre of capitalist hell satire to be familiar, but is full of it’s own charmingly sinister glee, especially in the attention to personal detail that Tittel highlighted.
Tittel mentions, as regard other games, that when he was pitching he would describe it sometimes as “Firewatch, meets Papers Please, meets Metal Gear Solid,” and points in terms of influence back to 1991’s Another World by Éric Chahi, a ‘cinematic’ platformer about escaping a hostile alien planet, and to games like Playdead’s INSIDE which continue this tradition.
It also generally seems, as I get into playing the game and learning the story, that automation itself is not identified as the ultimate omnipresent threat, but in a more grounded vein as a tool of capitalism; one which clarifies explicitly how people at work, like the main character Kurt, are treated as highly disposable resources in the search for money. However, this is just an early impression.
“This is a demo from about two months ago,” Tittel tells me as I play, elucidating on some aspects of the gameplay that have been revised. “We couldn’t be bothered to make a new demo for Gamescom, because it’s a huge effort to do these mini-demo things and we just want to finish the game you know?”
With that insight, into the amount of work the team are putting in themselves, I ask if Tittel has ever felt contention between making a game about exploitation and the stress of the conditions of game development, promotion and publishing.
“I completely overwork.” He says, “Yeah. At the same time it’s weird because I’m in this lucky position where I’m my own boss, well, lucky, it’s also anxiety inducing in many ways because you have so much responsibility.”
The discussion here pauses as I get stuck on a particularly involved bit of gameplay, and the rest of the conversation is interspersed with me getting stuck like this, a common occurrence whenever I play. Soon the topic returns to considering the question of self-exploitation.
“So, yeah I’m making this, I’m also making another game at the moment and I’m producing a feature film that my wife is directing, with John Malkovich in it, with Sony Pictures Classics and Media Molecule, we’re building sets in Dreams.”
Dreams is Media Molecule’s game creation game on PlayStation, and I’m surprised to learn about this project. However, I’m more surprised that Tittel is doing so much at once.
“I’m fucking tired.” He admits, “But at the same time, I feel that, I feel like if I didn’t make several things at once, what if one of them were to fail? Like, you know, there’s a sort of anxiety, where we become our own fucking content machines, you know?
“Of course I feel the tension within me, but, you know at least I’m my own boss, I’m my own Jeff Bezos.” Tittel laughs, “He doesn’t get to take that away from me.”
“In a really perverse way, I also feel like when I’m working on one project, and another at the same time, then working on one thing feels like a vacation from the other. Which is probably sick, but then, it’s how I am.”
I’ve felt these things before, and it’s something that sounds like the perpetual state of burnout that being a student or a freelancer in low-paying games journalism can be. I tell Tittel this much, and then get stuck trying to throw some kind of bomb at a drone robot.
As I drive further and further through The Last Worker’s demo I ask, fishing for the twist, “So what happened to all the rest of the humans?”
Tittel keeps shtum, and for that I guess I’d have to go further into the factory to find out on release.
While initially announced for an October 2022 release, The Last Worker has now been pushed into early 2023, a choice I hope in part was made to give Tittel and everyone else time to take a break.