PAX East: The Last Worker
By: Roberto Nieves
Package Handlers are the unsung heroes of our world today. We need something; they pack it, ship it, and deliver it. We want anything, even those absurdly priced figures of anime heroines; they pack it, ship it, and deliver it. The world of shopping and retail has changed, and package handling has exploded between Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and other shippers. In the last few years, there has been a sharp increase in clarity for package handlers and the hardships they endure at work, from the struggle of Union votes to being tracked for every second spent in the restroom. In art, there is a way to convey a message, one that gives knowledge and thought. The Last Worker is one such game, an adventure that encourages players to think and be aware that this dystopian future may not be as far off as they think. I had the chance to play the game at the Wired Productions booth at PAX East, and the game has me thinking with a lot of thoughts.
My demo took me through the first two levels of the game. The demo started with the player being the last human employee of a major global conglomerate dedicated to package handling. Robots have taken over most of the company, and as one of the last humans returning to duty, you are brought in through a training regimen. Of course, this training regime is a waste of time, as the disgruntled character voices his grievances to an overly enthusiastic robot who is more than happy to serve the company. The demo introduces the controls to my employer-provided vehicle and tools. I am taught by the robot how to catch and send packages, as well as the importance of each package. "You are delivering miracles and dreams," says the ever-loyal robot, a moment which kind of harkened back to my days working in Disney World.
The entire opening sequence introduces the overall look and feel of The Last Worker. Some will say it is reminiscent of Borderlands with its comic book-styled cel-shading, and it worked tremendously well in giving a more engaging look into an otherwise crushing dystopic setting. The Last Worker is unafraid to have humor on its sleeve, too, even if it's dark humor. The package delivered turns out to be a wireless VR headset, fit for a baby, designed in pink specifically because the baby is a girl. The player's character detests this observation, calling this sexist, much to the ignorance of the loyal robot.
The second part of the demo introduced a new character, a rebellious robotic hummingbird that wants to help the player. It turns out that the company has bad plans for the player, likely to terminate the player and not just employment. The hummingbird chases the loyal robot away. The rest of the demo plays like a stealth action game, avoiding sentry robots while negotiating obstacles through a dark and rusty factory hellbent on sending packages to every single customer on the planet. Defenseless, all I have is speed and reflexes. However, at one point, I am encouraged to take and sling a package back to an enemy sentry robot, temporarily paralyzing the bot and allowing me to slip by. Throughout this brief segment, I bear witness to corridors of dark, brown steel, conveyor belts that go for miles, and a near limitless supply of boxes.
Speaking to the developer, The Last Worker has been clearly inspired by the shaping of capitalism in the last decade or so. The main antagonist is molded from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. The atmosphere feels and underscores its corporate intentions. The feeling of exploitation by the player is representative of today's labor market and how these corporations effectively become a meat grinder, with workers being the meat. Visually, the developer is evoking the look of a grungy graphic novel, namely novels from 2000 AD, such as Judge Dredd. Those novels, in particular, depicted a worn, gritty depiction of their worlds and atmosphere, and in the case of Judge Dredd, it's a world barely hanging on, emaciated and tired. Based on the demo, the voice work was excellent, with what felt like a strong script and a spot-on delivery.
What intrigued me about The Last Worker wasn't about the theming but how it presented what it wanted to say. The warnings of corrupt capitalism have been told for decades, especially for myself as a 90s kid, growing up with a myriad of anti-capitalist and pro-environmentalist media. Captain Planet, Sonic The Hedgehog, Vectorman, and even the trippy animated classic Fern Gulley all had glaring warnings to unregulated capitalism. That last one had Tim Currey pulling a Handsome Squidward, doused in pollution and ooze. Younger audiences will remember movies like Avatar, which highlights militarized capitalism in the far reaches of space, and Wall-E, which highlighted the dangerous semantics of the Walmart-sounding BNL throughout the movie. It's a tried and true message, but The Last Worker invites players into a world that gets players to think and perhaps even reminded of the harsh reality of similar workers in the real world. It didn't beat players over the head of what they may already know but instead simply had them participate in a plausible scenario.
While my demo was brief, it brought back a few memories and a deluge of thoughts, which, if the game intends to do that, greatly succeeds. I was reminded of my time working for Disney World on their college program, and while I have no regrets doing the program, the fact that we were paid less as interns than other workers doing the very same jobs will always have a stinging feeling, among many other grievances I had with it. At one point, years later, I decided to take a stab at package handling in an old, decrepit FedEx facility in Kearny, NJ. The facility was old with no air-conditioning. We were tasked with handling 390 packages an hour, a number that is far more difficult than it sounds. Working in the heat of the summer, the trailers would become human ovens, rising to well over 100 degrees. Since I so happened to work during one of the hottest weeks ever recorded for the New Jersey area, working at that facility felt like a violation of basic health codes. I remember being coated in unending sweat and time slowing down as the unbearable heat and humidity sapped my energy. I asked to grab water and use the men's room but was denied as I had to move faster. At each trailer, there was a light. If that light was constantly lit or burning, it meant that every package in the facility was being sent down your chute, and if you couldn't move fast enough to get the light to go off, it slowed the entire facility down. My shift would begin with my particular chute being filled with an unending waterfall of packages, with only me to move these packages. I remember the supervisor getting mad at me for having all these packages down my chute and not moving fast enough. As if it was my fault that every package in the facility happened to be down my chute a mere minute after the shift began. A package the size of a table could be 5lbs, but a package the size of a basket could be 50lbs, making handling unpredictable. With the fact that each trailer had to be packed like a twisted game of Tetris, this was a grueling job. The fastest I was able to go was 292 packages an hour, to which I was written up for failing to meet demand. After a month, I departed the facility, collecting $600.00 for my labor. I give my respects to those that do this every day, but I concluded that this job, and any job related to it, was not cut out for me. Whatever I dId next, I would be mindful of those that work at such a horrendous facility and encourage efforts to make their lives more humane.
I'm a firm believer that games, at their center, can and should be about pure fun and escapist entertainment, but we've seen games evolve into an effective storytelling device to tell relevant tales that can lead us to ponder the world of today to make better choices for the future. Games like The Last Worker have the power to do that, while also providing an entertaining experience that is unique and distinct.
There's more to the Last Worker that remains to be seen. The game sounds like a solid, many-hour adventure, with plenty of story and laughs to behold. The first two levels have already sold me on a comedic and immersive dystopian journey, but that leaves so much more to the game to be experienced. With a sharp direction in script and presentation, The Last Worker is shaping to be entertaining, while its focus on puzzle-solving and stealth should keep players hooked through the whole journey. The Last Worker is shaping up to be a game with a lot to say and plenty of laughs to be had along the way. It's been said that there is truth in comedy, and The Last Worker is, at least based on the demo, a game about truth.
The Last Worker is slated for release on PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5 in 2022.