Viscera Cleanup Detail: Beyond Comedy

So I started playing Viscera Cleanup Detail, and – guys, I’m in trouble. If you’re not familiar, Viscera Cleanup Detail is in the vein of Surgeon Simulator, or any of those hard to control games where the comedy stems from the ragdoll physics. In this one, you’re a space janitor, cleaning up in the wake of alien invasions or mutant plants or whatever. You play the guy who has to clean up after the hero in every other video game. You load chunks of torso or brain into the incinerator, you scrub blood off the walls, and you try not to spill biohazard everywhere – not because it’s dangerous, it’s just annoying to clean. And it’s a silly game, right. People describe your main mop as a squid mop, it’s got all these noodly bits that just flop around all over the place, your character is this big lumbering moron who keeps knocking things – everything is just deliberately unwieldy. One time, I was walking up the stairs with a fresh bucket of water, and the bottom of the bucket caught on the stairs and the whole thing tipped over. It’s that sort of game. It’s clumsy in a way that alternates between infuriating and hilarious. And arguably, that’s it. It’s a dumb, slapstick joke, one that outstays its welcome by asking you to invest upwards of 90 minutes for most levels. At the same time – I kinda want to take it seriously?

And I recognise that I’m the problem here. I’m looking at this game about cleaning up bits of spine and flinging around a noodle mop, and I’ve clearly gone yes, this seems extremely meaningful. I realise that says something about me as a person. But at the same time – I mean, I’m not wrong. One of the funny things about Viscera Cleanup Detail is how disrespectful it is towards the human body. It reduces people to objects, to chunks of flesh. You know, these people have been violently murdered, and you go to drag one of their corpses towards the incinerator, and it breaks into a dozen smaller parts, and literally your only thought is ah fuck, that’s at least three more trips. Viscera reduces human beings to literal trash. Your key form of interaction with other people is disposing of their trash bodies, which are functionally identical to the empty Chinese takeaway boxes, soda cans, and bullet casings that you also need to incinerate.

And that’s funny in itself. It’s transgressive, it’s scandalous – just the level of breezy disrespect is remarkable. You pick up a dismembered arm and it flops around like the head of your mop – yeah, that’s funny. But it’s also entirely consistent with the vision of humanity in the games that it’s referencing. If you’re playing Doom or Alien: Isolation, you don’t feel sorry for the murdered lab techs. You’re too busy blowing up demons. Viscera simply extends that logic of disposability – you didn’t care about them then, and you won’t care about them now. You’ll maybe just get a little frustrated when they fall out of the incinerator. From that perspective, Viscera is a sort of satire by exaggeration. It takes the same basic logic that you find in your first person shooter and extends it in a grotesque way. The comedy for the audience lies in the underlying consistency between the different texts. Viscera might not match Alien: Isolation tonally, but in terms of the structural logic, in terms of your relationship to most of the NPCs, it’s a perfect fit. The way it treats the human body is gross and funny, and that says something about those other games.

In a sense, then, I’m not really sorry for taking Viscera seriously. There’s nothing wrong with thinking seriously about silly games. Plus, I don’t think I’m the only person doing it. There’s a weird sub-culture around this game where people lean into the almost role-play aspect of it. They look at the space janitor thing, and all the demeaning and degrading tasks you have to do, and go well, that’s my lot in life. One of the more popular guides to the game takes on a working-class everyman voice, roleplaying this resigned, cynical janitor just trying to get through the day: “We’re a clusterf*** of shmucks that didn’t have much else in the way of employment choices. The bar’s pretty low, truth be told.” The guide gives you instructions on how to play the game, along with laments about corporate and comments about how life has done them rough (“not our job, but our fault anyways”). I dunno – it kinda just struck me how a bunch of other people are also willing to take this silly game extremely seriously. On one level it’s part of the joke, right – part of the comedy is imagining the dark, awful lives of the people who have to do this job. How bad do things have to get before you’re the guy dragging bits of bug monster to the furnace? At the same time, there’s just something about this game that makes you want to take it seriously. It’s almost existential. You play this character who just has the absolute worst life, who’s deeply dehumanized and forced in turn to dehumanize other people. And it’s shocking and grotesque, and absurd, and all you can do is laugh and get on with the cleaning. Maybe there’s something cathartic in that, something that speaks to our experiences of being in the world. Maybe it feels relatable. It’s bizarre, and that’s funny, but it’s also really boring. It’s plugged into that intersection in a really unusual way, prompting some pretty specific responses from its audience. People either drop out before the joke wears thin, or they interlace the joke with something… weirder.

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