'Hardspace: Shipbreaker’ Is a Beautifully Dystopian Sci-Fi Job Simulator


Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a sci-fi job simulator that gives you a laborer’s-eye view of a setting that we’re used to dominating from the god-like perspectives of rulers and admirals. Developed by Blackbird Interactive, and employing the brightly industrial Homeworld-esque aesthetics that they perfected with Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a literal exploration of the detritus of capitalism.

Shipbreaker isn’t aiming for thematic subtlety, with a bluegrass soundtrack that gives the game a “Harlan County in Space” vibe and frequent reminders of the debt-indenture that has trapped your character in this lonely scrapheap. You spend the game crawling over and through the carcasses of decommissioned starships in a remote breaking-yard, dismantling them for scrap or salvage value. For each shift you have a work order that specifies which exact pieces you need to recover from the wreck and either load onto a salvage barge or fling into either a recycling bin or a trash incinerator. By the same token, you are as disposable as these ships: every mission ends with a statement showing the value of your work (according the company) against your debts and charges (again, as assessed by the company, which pointedly charges you rent on your tools). Even death is no escape: if you die doing this extremely dangerous job, you are simply loaded into a cloned body in time for the next shift. The cost of the clone will be added to your statement.

Your chief contact right now is an ex-Scrapper named Weaver, a voice on the radio who claims he has moved into a supervisor’s role ever since a complication with the cloning process left him medically disabled working in the scrapyards. After the introduction, Weaver mostly serves to remind you when your shift is almost over. Beyond that, your window on the world comes via audio logs you find aboard the ships you tear apart, some of which are fully voice acted and some of which are electronic readings of the script. Mostly they serve as testaments to the boredom, small indignities, and occasional mania of work.

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The conditions might be awful, but the work is fun and the views are terrific. Developer Blackbird Interactive is once again channeling the aesthetics of the Homeworld series, and a lot of the ships you encounter look as if they have just been retired from service in the Homeworld universe. Eschewing busy textures for sharp, clear models, every ship you chop apart presents a deceptively simple appearance. Look closer, however, and you’ll see bits of modular framing bracing the hull, or dense nests of load-bearing joints hidden in the heart of a ship that hold its sections together. Every part of these ships is an object you can cut apart or destroy, and it’s impressive to see how the coherent ship’s model that existed at the start of a shift turns into a skeleton surrounded by jigsaw puzzle-pieces that used to be its skin and muscle.

More will likely come to flesh out the world and give your character things to do in their off-hours back in their quarters. For now the only thing to do between missions is review old audio logs, choose whether to continue working on a scrap job or start on a fresh ship, and buy upgrades for your various pieces of equipment. Bigger ships have more valuable salvage, and better gear lets your work more efficiently, but there’s also a risk / reward correlation to consider. Ships loaded with valuable salvage often have volatile components still attached, and a misstep can be lethal.

For instance, the early Mackerel-class light transports you develop your skills on are mostly proofed against mistakes. The engines are mounted externally so using a laser beam to melt one of the yellow-striped connection points will allow them to float clear of the hulk and be deposited for salvage in the barge that sits toward the bottom of the breaking yard. Then you can go inside the Mackerel and just start severing more connections to let pieces of bulkhead and hull float freely. It’s basically tied together with string, and all you need to do is cut the knots.

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But on a more advanced ship, the engines are probably secured in an inaccessible compartment between ship’s exterior plating and its frame… and there’s a good chance that things like live fuel lines and massive capacitors are lurking in there as well, so if you just start using a plasma cutter to shear through pieces of the interior bulkheads, you might trash something valuable or cause an explosion. Obviously, methodically taking a ship apart in safe sections would be best, but a “shift” is only about 15 minutes long. The slabs of hull plating you’d salvage by painstakingly breaking up a ship are nowhere near as valuable as the reactors, fuel pumps, and computer equipment that the hull protects. So there’s a strong incentive to just yank a ship’s organs out with little care for the body, but until you know the quirks and surprises of each ship class, that can be easier said than done. You can certainly pull a reactor out through a narrow chute you’ve cut in the bottom of a hull, but that quick-and-dirty solution also means that a single slip can send that reactor smashing against a bulkhead, causing a massive and potentially fatal explosion.

The tricky thing for simulators like this is evoking the exact mix of danger and mind-numbing routine that goes with an industrial job. The danger has to be real and ever-present, but also manageable enough and simple enough to reduce that you can become contemptuous of it. Hardspace achieves this largely through simplified, semi-Newtonian physics that make it pretty easy to zip around the hull of a ship and whip pieces of scrap into an incinerator, or pieces of valuable materials into a processor… but also easy to misjudge.

The number one example of this is your grapple, which creates a whip-like thread of energy that tugs pieces of salvage toward you. But objects with greater mass have greater inertia, so while they’re hard to get moving, they’re equally hard to redirect or regain control of. For instance, I was racing to get a massive thruster loaded into the barge and was yanking it along behind me. I figured it had enough momentum to get the rest of the way to the barge (objects do slow down on their own, just very slowly), so I released the grapple line and then took a moment to reorient myself back toward the ship I was salvaging, and hit my thrusters to return to work. Effectively, however, I’d just killed my own momentum while hundreds of kilos of rocket engine continued toward me. I realized my mistake just in time to see the massive thruster blot-out my view as it smashed into me. It was a freak, very stupid accident to have. But it stemmed from the fact that I’d stopped thinking of the grapple as a tool that required much thought at all.

In its early access state, Hardspace: Shipbreaker hits a sweet spot between meditative work sim and physics puzzler. Hours passed fairly effortlessly as I cheerfully botched one work order after another, and queued up the next ship to try and do a bit better. If Shipbreaker were just a sci-fi work sim, I think I’d be content. I’m very curious to see whether its story can make me convincingly discontent with a job that’s hard, but still quite a lot of fun.