Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Take it from experience: It’s frustrating as hell when a space dog named Chad Shakespeare steals your heart.
And not “steals your heart” in a “I never really understood love before I met this pupper” sense. I’m talking about virtual organ theft by a fast-clicking, undercutting, canine son of a bitch, scooping up a whole bunch of hearts and other body parts I was planning to unload on some robot surgeons for a quick and easy profit. I’m talking, obviously, about Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator.
Developed by Strange Scaffold (the small team also responsible for An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, which is also pretty much exactly what it sounds like), Space Warlord is actually a remarkably straight putt, once you get over the basic concept. You log on to a virtual marketplace, loaded to the gills with lungs, eyeballs, livers, and gills, you do your best to buy them low, and then you offload them to clients in desperate need of a brand new gallbladder. Complexity comes in the form of other traders (including the hated Chad Shakespeare) who are also scoping the market for deals, and in the increasingly complex array of requests and organs you need to keep track of. (Careful handling alien rotcane, for instance; pricey on the open market, but it’ll corrode your cargo hull in seconds.)
On its gorgeously glitchy, retro-computer surface, SWOTS isn’t all that different from trading simulators like DrugWars that you might have played on your TI-83 in high school math class. (Note: I am old.) Buy low, sell high, buy more, repeat until Mr. Turner catches you ignoring your calc homework.
What makes the game fascinating, though—beyond its aesthetics, which have a little bit of that good PS1 jank mixed in with all the glowing green vector lines—is in its approach to frustration. Because Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator very much wants to frustrate you.
That’s not some kind of speculative dig on the game, either; lead developer Xalavier Nelson Jr. has talked on social media—and in a blessedly frank response to a negative comment about the game on the Steam discussion boards—about the intentional points of friction built into the game. That includes the scammers that flood the marketplace with fake requests; the flurry of dozens of kidneys, brains, and intestines that can make parsing the market screen nigh-impossible; the lack of control over what organs you’re getting fed. (“Just give me one goddamn lung,” you whisper to yourself, as clusters of useless neurons go tumbling across the screen.)
“So, you have my sympathy for aspects of Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator which you haven’t enjoyed,” Nelson writes, in a response that Strange Scaffold has now pinned to the very top of its discussion board. “However, I hope you would also appreciate how, to transport people to different worlds and perspectives, irritating, frustrating, and even ‘bad’ game design is necessary to bring that creative vision to life as clearly and cohesively as possible. You encountered several (intentional) examples of that here.”
It’s an incredibly bold point to make, especially in an industry that deliberately sands off every possible rough edge lest players be allowed to drift away. (Note also that Nelson distinguishes “friction” from accessibility; the game was just updated with things like hotkeys to help ensure that it’s equally frustrating to people regardless of their ability levels.) The reduction of any possible friction point, any moments that might make a player toss down the controller with an angry “Fuck it,” has become a staple of big-budget game design—especially as the goal of the industry has shifted from single-play experiences to ones designed to keep players coming back again and again.
And yet, friction is inherently rewarding. It’s the thing that keeps a long line of successes from collapsing into a uniform sludge of simple victories. When Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator feels clunky or obtuse, it does so because there are clunky and obtuse things in the universe, and it feels more real to have those elements intrude into play. As much as its lovingly rendered 3D spleens or spacebones or whatever, it’s what makes the game feel beautiful and real. You’re not just clicking buttons; you’re wrestling with an interface that genuinely feels like it might not have been designed for a human being’s paltry selection of hands and digits.
Because, really, games are about friction, about accepting the reality of an obstacle and then finding ways around it. Papers, Please wouldn’t be anything without the awkwardness of desperately juggling your various manuals; Pathologic would be pointless if it was easy to keep yourself from getting sick. Without its hardships, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator would just be another set of numbers going on a spreadsheet; with them, it’s a fascinating trip to a very strange and disgusting world.
Still want to kill that goddamn dog, though.