Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator is sticky, and squelchy. You can almost smell the decay in the cargo hold as you check your pixelated manifest of extra-terrestrial body parts. The acrid stench of libertarian economics having been allowed to fester unchecked in a galaxy gone insanely wrong.
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This striking sense of place – well, less of a sense and more of a chokehold – is a testament to Strange Scaffold’s skill at world-building. Your interface with SWOTS’ putrid reality is scarcely more elaborate than Amazon.com’s. Styled in monochrome green and evocative of sim games that your dad played on the BBC Micro when he should have been studying, what we have here is David Braben’s Elite stripped of what is supposed to be the exciting bit but is actually the boring bit (flying a space ship). Instead, it’s focused entirely on what is ostensibly the boring bit but is really what made Elite so compelling: buying and selling dubious goods in a morally ambiguous free market.
That SWOTS is one of the few Elite clones to jettison the Buck Rogers and double down on the Derek Trotter, as opposed to the other way around, is but one factor that makes it the most interesting twist on the formula in nearly 40 years. The other factor is that it’s completely unhinged.
The game starts with your mentor-cum-antagonist Mentaur Minty introducing you to the organ trade and setting you loose to learn it on the job (there’s no tutorial as such, just a screed of moral rationalisation for the spare part industry). You’re presented with a handful of tabs to flick through that show your status and reputation, available hold upgrades, cargo, and a big red button marked “TRADE”. Nothing quite prepares you for what happens when you first click it.
The music rushes up a tempo as distorted guitars cut in to play a tense free-market death march melody that you can imagine soundtracking a grotesque business montage from one of those films about Wall Street traders. Fulfilment requests and special orders fill your inbox at a rate that just teeters on the unmanageable. Items you need, and dozens that you don’t, fly onto the purchase list and disappear just as quickly.
If this is starting to sound too much like your daily grind, discard that thought. The trading window lasts just two and a half high-octane minutes and, unlike your wretched office job, is ridiculously fun. SWOTS is easy to pick up, but has leagues of hidden depth – the catalogue numbering system, for example, follows a logical code that makes identifying the organs you need a lot quicker if you bother to learn it (specialist requests often specify the size and condition of items, and carry a fixed fee). This can give you a split-second advantage over other traders. The dopamine rush you experience from sniping a cheap pair of lungs that a rival NPC is watching is no less thrilling than blowing someone’s ship up in the other kind of space game. More so, in fact, imbued as it is with all the cheekiness of swiping the last pair of joggers in a Primark sale.
Not only has Strange Scaffold performed wizardry in gamifying the life of a professional eBayer, and making it more exciting than dogfights off the shoulder of Orion, it’s also managed to weave something of a branching narrative into the proceedings as well, told entirely through customer requests and emergent systems. Bringing your first playthrough to a definitive story conclusion will only take a few hours, but there are over a dozen endings to ‘collect’, and figuring out how to steer toward them is a large part of SWOTS’ enduring replayability. How can you, a lone trader, direct the fate of the universe when your only interaction with it is buying and selling? The terrible power of money, and status. Amassing both is, of course, the goal.
Fulfilling orders isn’t the only way to make cash. There’s the stock market, where you can gamble on the fluctuating value of organs in what appears to be a properly simulated economy. You can also take advantage of less obvious systems – human souls, for example, improve the condition of organs placed next to them in your cargo hold. It is possible to long-game this by purchasing poor quality stock and placing it within their rejuvenating aura. And yes, you’re right, that does mean that human souls are just another organ, another tradable commodity in the fiction of this world.
It’s obviously a satire of the ultra-libertarian capitalist hellscape that we are either hurtling toward or already living in, depending on who you ask. You could also argue that SWOTS comes across as a dark mirror of the fledgling NFT market, the twisted irony being that disembodied organs are, at least, useful. Though it may be a layered rebuke of greed, it doesn’t forget to be laugh-out-loud funny while it’s at it. SWOTS knows that its universe, and the characters inhabiting it, are irredeemably awful. Having accepted this, it revels in being disgusting, visually and conceptually, to masterful effect. Everything from its grubby retro-styled interface to its lo-fi looping gifs of squidgy organ meat is designed to encapsulate you in rot. Not since Kane & Lynch 2 has a game chosen, and doggedly stuck to, such a wretched aesthetic.
It’s icky, and blood-soaked, and it takes great pleasure in reminding you that you, the player, are just a bag of meat. The in-game playtime meter is measured in breaths. There is a stat for counting how many bare organs you’ve touched. Video games tend to treat mortality as a minor inconvenience. An obstacle. A mechanic. Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, without even putting the player in any real peril, holds it up to your face and makes you ponder it. Like Xalavier Nelson’s previous work ‘Can Androids Pray?‘, it wants you to remember that you’re a decaying organism, and implores you to enjoy the time you have as a conscious entity.
And remember to never pay more than 200 credits for a stomach.
A masterclass of economic game design in more ways than one; a trading simulator brimming with all the excitement and personality of an action game.
- Captivating gameplay centered around cut & thrust capitalism
- Clever writing that inspires a lot of replayability
- Darkly funny
- You can play a dog in a hat
- The visual style may be too murky for some
- …and also the subject matter