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Friday, June 21, 2024

The Last Worker Preview: Welcome to the Jüngle

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A very neat and cool thing about being a millennial is watching an endless parade of news headlines revealing that the dystopian novels I read in high school are effectively a day-to-day reality now. It’s understandable, then, that in answer to that our own generation’s artists have turned around and upped the ante on dystopian fiction by satirizing these horrors that now exist to new levels, whether in an effort to spread awareness or simply out of reasonable fury. Which is, I suppose, how I ended up both playing and loving The Last Worker – a narrative game that takes capitalism to its worst, most fearsome extremes while laughing sardonically at the result.

I played two segments wearing the cap of protagonist Kurt, the titular “Last Worker” at Amazon-parody company Jüngle. Jüngle is the most profitable company in the world, and largely runs on automation. But Kurt, for whatever reason, has managed to hold down his job delivering packages from one side of the factory to the other in his company-assigned hover cart. On the tutorial level, it promises to be appropriately boring work: pick up a box, take it to its destination, and drop it. Kurt in his cart can move in all three dimensions – which took me a moment to get acclimated to but promises to make the VR version of this game very interesting – and he can pick up and fling boxes using a little grabber device he has at hand. A Wheatley-like robot companion who seems to think Kurt is new on the job walks you through the basics, all while laying on thick the extremely Bezosian nature of Jüngle’s founder.

That’s the opening. And then The Last Worker cranks up the capitalist horror several more notches.

You see, all is even less well than expected in the hellscape of Jüngle. A beautifully animated introduction indicates that Kurt once had many fellow human coworkers, including a woman he was romantically interested in, but something unsavory appears to have happened to most of them, and it may have been caused by the automatons that replaced them. Kurt is left, then, grisly and unwashed, a shell of himself, but unable to escape the factory, moving boxes from one end to another to no clear purpose, surrounded by robots doing his exact job, nothing human left about any of it.

While I’ve seen my share of dystopias, I’m hooked on what’s going on here due to the strength of its writing and performance.

A later section of the game involves Kurt exploring the factory after hours in a stealth mission, where being caught by any of the robotic workers results in a grim end for the one remaining human. As he ventures through the factory he hides behind enormous crates containing withered, defeated cows that appear to be headed for an incinerator or something like it. Boxes upon boxes fly through chutes, delivering useless plastic commodities to invisible people who must surely exist out there, somewhere far beyond the metal prison Kurt’s trapped in. And all the while, a second robot companion urges him on, seemingly leading him on a mission to stop something even worse at the heart of it all.

The Last Worker isn’t offering up hardly any of its plot secrets in the demo, but that’s okay. Because while I’ve seen my share of dystopias, I’m hooked on what’s going on here due to the strength of its writing and performance. The Last Worker is deeply, darkly funny, with a laughing acknowledgement of its depressing premise that somehow works even as it clearly lays its railway tracks from our current capitalist mess of same-day delivery to the fictional future it’s portraying. It’s easy to feel for Kurt, who’s trapped in a job where death is the only imaginable escape, as he spends his days fulfilling the cynical “dreams” of people placing orders on the outside.

The Last Worker Screens

His only companion is an obnoxious company robot that treats him like an optimistic newcomer, offering a stark contrast between the company promise and the reality of Kurt’s situation. Their banter, which undergoes a significant shift between the two segments of the game I played, is underscored by the voice of Jüngle’s tech bro head echoing through the factory in every corner, urging the workforce onward in a thinly-veiled attempt at spit shining the ambitions of a billionaire. There’s nothing subtle or soft about The Last Worker, but its aggressive, deliberate portrayals of these horrors ultimately landed within the sections I saw.

It doesn’t hurt that The Last Worker also happens to be extremely nice to look at. It’s got that cel-shaded style we’ve come to know from games like Borderlands and Telltale, but a bit more spiffed up perhaps thanks to time and tech. It’s especially evident in Kurt’s face, which we can see weathered and defeated in the rearview mirror of his cart, but there are plenty of well-made little details throughout the factory as well. Trailers indicate I might at some point get to see what’s inside all of those boxes I’m delivering back and forth, too. It sounds (wonderfully) horrible.

There’s nothing subtle or soft about The Last Worker.

Based on the short preview I played, what I’m left the most unsure of is if The Last Worker can ensure its gameplay remains interesting enough and married closely enough with the story it’s trying to tell to keep players hooked. But I’ve also seen so little that it’s hard to suggest it won’t, either. Most of my session was the basic movement and box moving tutorial, followed by the stealth sequence, but every trailer I’ve seen indicates there’s so much more going on here, and a VR version only compounds that.

Either way, the Last Worker was by far one of the most surprising breakout games I played at Gamescom. I went in expecting to end up depressed based on its premise alone, but for reasons I couldn’t quite explain,y I was elated instead. Maybe it was because the absurdist hell of The Last Worker hit close enough to home that at a certain point, all I could do was laugh. Or maybe it was the feeling of inherent power that came from the fantasy of being the last person left against an impossible force, and choosing to stand against it anyway. Whatever it was, all I know is that I simply must find out what’s going on at the heart of The Last Worker’s Jüngle, even if I have to drag the reluctant Kurt and his hover cart all the way down with me.

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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