The Last Worker is a hand-crafted satire of late capitalism. Developers Jörg Tittel and Ryan Bousfield tell us all about it design and real-world inspiration.
Evidence of the singularity, or the point in time when technology advances far enough to negate the need for humans, seemingly surrounds us more each day. It’s there whenever you Google a question on your smartphone or scan something using a supermarket’s self-service checkout. Even then it’s still a struggle to imagine our fridge ever gaining enough intelligence to, say, want to put in a nine-to-five shift at the local Tesco Direct. The Last Worker, however, lets players inhabit a hypothetical vision of the future where society has already travelled far beyond this point. The robots are no longer taking over – they’ve already won. And now it’s your job as the titular worker to ensure things run smoothly.
At first glance, the incredibly colourful, cel-shaded warehouse that is the Jüngle Fulfilment Centre doesn’t seem like a bad place to work. In fact, we meet protagonist Kurt at the start of the story during a period of his life where he’s happy to merely “keep calm and carry on”. Unlucky for him (but fortunate for us), though, he won’t remain a cog in this machine for much longer, when the opportunity to fight back against his corporate overlord soon presents itself.
The Last Worker is a first-person narrative adventure game that aims to explore all these heavy themes while keeping the tone light and frothy – always with its tongue firmly in cheek. We spoke to writer-director Jörg Tittel and lead designer Ryan Bousfield to find out how…
How did you land on the theme of automation for The Last Worker?
Jörg Tittel: I was living near Marylebone, and there was a little Tesco Direct or something. I walked in and overnight there were four of the five employees that I knew by name, [until suddenly] there was only [a couple] left. One of them was behind the counter, and the other employee was standing by these machines that were taking up half of this front area and waiting for them to break down so they could press the reset button on the windows. I was like: ‘That’s messed up’. It happened so fast; there was no warning, and the whole counter was gone overnight. It’s almost as if they felt, ‘If we don’t do it overnight, people will rebel’. So we just have to do it instantly. It was this automation pop-up. Then, when you looked around, it was everywhere. All of the Tescos did it that same week, and then Sainsbury’s or whatever it was.
I thought about it more and realised that pretty much all of our thoughts are getting automated as well. It’s not just our physical lives. All the social media stuff has been going on for so long and now we’re being reduced to binary constructs of likes and dislikes, friends and unfriends, and other nonsense. There’s nothing new about that, but the thing that feels new to me is that there are a bunch of [pointless] jobs that need replacing, and it seems like they’re being replaced by jobs that are ultimately just servicing the robots. And so that’s wrong, too. I wanted to make something about that dilemma, that bizarre crossroads that we’re finding ourselves in right now.
The game is a collaborative effort between Oiffy and Wolf & Wood Interactive. Where did this relationship stem from?
JT: It all started at Gamescom 2019. I was walking around with my friend from Coatsink and we were talking about potentially doing this project together. But then they said you should talk to Ryan [Bousfield] because he’s awesome and I think you guys would really get along. I told Ryan the idea behind the concept I’d been developing for a couple of years. It turns out it’s a hard game [to make] today. To create something that is multifaceted and combines core gameplay mechanics with hard genre elements, but all blended together in a really non-obvious way.
Ryan Bousfield: [Jörg] popped up and it was unlike anything as far as a concept. We saw some of the concept drawings that [comic artist] Mick McMahon had done, and it was weird, freaky, and quirky. Just an unusual, interesting, and unique environment. Something that kind of tips into sci-fi but not too much, and tips into politics. But it’s not ramming it down your throat. We’re going to do it in a funny and personal way.
Tell us a bit about the main character, Kurt. Is he just a routine jobber, or is there something special about him?
JT: It’s quite rare to find an unsilent protagonist in the VR space. Here you are inside the body and inside the mind of a big, bearded man, and he’s quite vocal. If you spent 25 years alone at work, or working from home – as he cheekily likes to call it, even though he’s been stuck in his warehouse for a while – you start talking to yourself, which he does occasionally.
What’s special about him is that he was particularly dedicated to this [pointless] job that he’s had for so long. He believes that doing a good job is something to be proud of, and he’s clung onto it because everyone else has made at least one mistake that got them fired. He’s never made that mistake. It’s an interesting situation to be put in as a player because you’re being sort of teleported into the body of someone who has always been perfect at it, but you have to start with onboarding whether you like it or not. We figured out a narrative workaround, which I hope will amuse you. But yeah, he’s been part of his job and he’s never made mistakes. And then, of course, something happens that disrupts his routine after these 25 years, and his world is turned upside down.
How did you go about making the Jüngle Fulfilment Centre feel like a real place? Is it based in an alternate universe or a version of our own future?
JT: It’s a bit of both. Bizarrely, our reality has caught up with us during the making of the game. We thought we were being completely out there, and then suddenly, a lot of the concepts and nonsense that we were coming up with for the game turned out to be real. Corporations we may or may not be satirising have started actually normalising a lot of the behaviours that we were presenting as a sort of ‘imagine if this crazy stuff happened’ reality. For me, it started with Mick McMahon, who is an incredible comic book artist, a co-creator of Judge Dredd and lots of other amazing worlds and characters.
Hopefully, [players] will agree this is a very visually compelling and beautiful world with lots of places and corners that aren’t repetitive. There’s a huge sense of visual variety. We approached the warehouse a bit like a city rather than as a fulfilment centre. So to us, it was always, ‘Let’s look at the map of Manhattan and think about what makes a city visually interesting’. How do you create a distinctive corner, plaza, or a river that runs through it? We took all those ideas and abstracted them into this fulfilment centre concept.
RB: It goes hand in hand with the art style in general because you’re taking Mick’s concepts and his heavy line work. It has that comic feel, but without directly being a comic book. As you embody the character, even if you’re looking at sausage fingers, we still want the detail to be there. The team has worked painstakingly, putting every line in where you would expect one and where we think there’d be a bit of dirt or a dent. We can hand-draw that in on every model, every floor, and so on. I think that helps bring a bit of life to the warehouse, because then you know that somebody’s been in and touched all these areas.
JT: We wanted to make a game that was about humans being replaced, [so that] in every aspect of the game you feel there’s been a human that touched it and thought about it, and deeply felt something while making it. And so everything just feels that bit chunkier.
RB: It’s the same with the sounds as well. No door just opens… it’s all pistons, and older things that you would use. Why even use them in this world where you can actually float above the ground? We just classify it as old technology in that world. That’s how we rationalise it, I guess.
JT: It’s a dystopia we’d like to live in… I mean, we’d rather live in. Maybe that’s the better way of putting it, because it just feels a little bit more tangible.
A lot of the tasks in The Last Worker are intentionally monotonous – shifting boxes around, pushing carts, etc. Was it tricky to translate these types of actions into fun gameplay?
RB: I don’t think it has been so far because we gamify everything. The package dispatch part of the game does get interjected with the narrative thread running through, and then it takes you into stealth sections. We’ve got a balance where we’re constantly jumping between those two. The narrative loops you through all that gameplay. And then there’s the additional rules as you progress, the levels get gradually larger, and you’ve still got to hit your quota.
JT: There’s another aspect, which is the disruptive side of the story. There’s a group of activists that will want to recruit you as the only inside man in a corporation that, while you’ve been stuck in there for 25 years, has been doing some serious damage to the outside world. That will keep the gameplay fresh. The repetition is something that you’ll feel but not have to do for too long as a player. The disruptive aspects and the new skills that you gradually have to learn in order to do something that may even go against your own purpose being in the place to begin with, are going to keep it fresh and exciting.
What are the benefits of playing in VR, that those on PC or console might otherwise miss out on?
JT: I personally love the game on [Nintendo] Switch because it feels really good and beautiful to have this chunky, handcrafted reality in the palm of your hands. It just feels like the perfect frame for it. But yes, it’s amazing in VR. And it feels great to be someone who’s not the typical idea of a heroic character.
RB: We’ve not even mentioned the mirror yet! For a good portion of the game there’s a mirror just on the top left of your pod. And as the lines are being delivered by the main character, you can look up and it’s all delivered back at you as you’re going through the levels. When he calls a product ‘[rubbish]’ or whatever, you can see the reflection of that happening.
JT: It feels like a bit of an in-joke – one where you’re in on it with yourself. The lines may be scripted but by embodying someone else, you feel like you’re deeply embodying the whole story in ways that we haven’t seen in a VR or any other game yet. [With] the mirror, we’re really using that to full effect.
Is striking a good balance between comedy and a heartfelt story tough, especially when presented in first-person?
JT: For me, this was a perfect way to combine the theatricality of what I do in the film and theatre world, actually, but through gameplay and narrative, and experience and interactivity. It’s a natural evolution, and VR gives us even more strength to do this kind of stuff. It invites you to be more first-person than in most other mediums.
RB: I think that’s definitely our advantage. When we set up our first game, A Chair in a Room, the player’s essentially acting it out, and we can’t stop the player from laying down on the floor and looking on the underside of a table, or just doing anything crazy. You don’t have those restraints. You can’t just push the camera at something. So we’ve led with that as far as the design of this, whether you’re looking at a screen or in a headset. We’re putting all these little cues in the world to push the player through and lead them towards something rather than drag them to it.
JT: We have lofty goals – we’re ambitious with this game, and hopefully, we’re pulling it off. I mean, that’s for players to judge down the road, but I can assure you that there’s a lot of love and passion going into every corner of this game.
What feeling do you want players to come away with from The Last Worker?
JT: I want people to be spurred into action. And not in a way that’s, say, ‘[Screw] the system’, but to get emotionally and physically engaged with the world around them. I hope that by doing that in our game, being physically and emotionally involved in the story, they’ll feel inspired and empowered to do the same in their world, because I think we’re all made to turn into more and more passive beings and to consumers of content. We’re all being automated into using these terms. We’re consuming brands, but I think we can be more than that. So, hopefully, by bringing in these personal stories and telling them in a big way, it will inspire more people to do the same. Because I think games can be more than just games
The Last Worker is released on PC, VR, and consoles later in 2022