After you’ve taken a long break from a game, what was it that made you go back to it again? In the past, I’ve been on walks in woods and large parks that made me re-visit various fantasy MMORPGs, inspired by the scenery and the peaceful feeling of exploring a natural space. I took my kids to our city’s military museum a few summers ago, and that inspired me to pick up Combat Wings again, and finally finish CoD: World at War. I once started reading Norman Davies’ Europe: A History, and put it down half-way through to play Civilization III for four months instead. Most recently, it was spending two long, lonely hours cleaning and tidying after an impressive barbecue party that made me go back and look at RuneStorm’s excellent Viscera Cleanup Detail.
First appearing on Steam Early Access in early 2014, VCD had its full launch at the end of October 2015, followed less than a week later by a fun piece of Halloween-flavour DLC. It’s subsequently had two expand-alones, with the first tying in to the events of the 2013 Shadow Warrior reboot, and the second being set in a post-postal Santa’s workshop. Fascinating, you might say, but what’s it all about? In a nutshell, Viscera Cleanup Detail poses the question, ‘What happens after you finish an FPS?’, then answers it with ‘Someone has to come along and clean up all the blood, gore, bullet casings and destroyed stuff, and get the place ready for work again the next day.’ That “someone” is, of course, you.
VCD was developed and published by RuneStorm, a dev studio consisting of three South African brothers, the most excellent Nolan, Arn and Logan Richert. Like many success stories in our industry they began as modders, working in Doom and Quake before finding a long-standing home in Unreal. It was their now-legendary Ballistic Weapons mod for UT 2003, then UT 2004, that brought them their first taste of fame. Moving on to UT3, ultimately their modding work with the Unreal engine earned them ten prizes in the popular ‘Make Something Unreal’ contest. Viscera Cleanup Detail was then their first full game, and they’re now working on the next one too (in UDK, natch) – the “fantasy deathmatch and Chess hybrid”, Rooks Keep.
Viscera Cleanup Detail’s central shtick – that you’re working in environments familiar from the shooters we all know and love, as well as various icons of genre cinema – is ideally served by its Unreal Engine 3 housing. The colour palette tends to err on the side of ‘fun’, and fits well with the game’s overall sense of humour. The levels are solid and chunky, beautifully textured and full of hidden detail. In fact, the amount of thought and care that has gone into each level is very clear. They look and feel like they’ve been meticulously planned and carefully crafted by people who are as happy and comfortable working in their game engine as I am sitting in my pyjamas writing about it. Plus, you get a choice of 32- or 64-bit executables to launch, which is always a delicious cherry on any gaming cake.
Your interaction with these lovely levels, each of which is a separate, distinctly-themed whole, comes via a masterful implementation of PhysX fun. The entire business of collecting and disposing of trash and gore and operating the various tools and machines at your disposal primarily hinges on direct, real-time manipulation of equipment and objects using the player’s ‘hands’. Everything wobbles and jitters about in that superb physics-y way that the Surgeon Simulator and Octodad games do so well. Piling up body parts in industrial rubbish containers and collecting spent shells, crisp wrappers and old paper cups in buckets is a treat, especially when you can pick up a container and give it a little shake, causing everything to settle a bit more securely and freeing up space for another decapitated head or pile of broken computer parts on top. Crucially, that sometimes frustrating shakiness inherent in the manipulation of physics-based objects is not as frustrating as your previous experience with this mechanic might tell you. VCD’s physics are one of the central pillars of its gameplay, and it feels as though they’ve been carefully tweaked to remain challenging and fun, without being too safe or easy. If I accidentally topple a load of crap back onto the floor because I tried to stuff too much into the incinerator, it’s my own stupid fault for rushing at the last second and not being more careful. Ultimately, I have only myself to blame for screw-ups, not a dodgy technical implementation.
I need to talk a bit more about the levels before we finally hit the gameplay in detail, because they’re just so damn good. There are 17 with the base game, which vary between Small, Medium, Large and Huge. Each has an “Average Length” of between 1 and 3 hours, although on my first map, the “Large” Revolutionary Robotics showroom and offices (think the crisp oranges and whites of early Half-Life 2 builds, with a bit of Alien Isolation’s android showroom area and a smidgeon of Robocop humour), I apparently took over 8 hours to arrive at a 98% Performance rating (maybe I left some faint blood smears somewhere, or overlooked some bullet casings). Very best of all, each level’s distinct theme is based on various games, films and genre concepts. There’s the one I’m playing now, Frostbite (which came free in an update two months after release), which is an homage to the Arctic horror of The Thing; the superbly creepy Gravity Drive, with its Event Horizon-style space ship, and the very Red Faction/Doom-like Martian hell-scape of the absolutely massive Unearthly Excavation. Then there’s the aquatic horror of the undersea Paintenance Tunnels, complete with gigantic severed tentacles, and the Triffid-like terror of Hydroponic Hell’s pulsating egg-sac-stuffed botanical research installation.
A great part of the pleasure of playing is the delicious time spent browsing through the menu of possible Worksites and finding something that resonates with some favoured horror or Sci-Fi concept. Pleasingly, these themes don’t end with the physical appearance of the levels, but also have some small influence on how you clean them. For example, in a space station whose occupants were apparently devoured by Geiger-esque Aliens, you’ll need to find a way to reach up to clean ceiling ducts and vents, through which a hapless victim was carried off for later munching. Further enhancing the self-contained thematic pleasure are the assorted letters, notes, tablets and PDAs that you can find scattered about. Each one offers a brief journal entry, memo or report, usually related to a nearby corpse, that helps piece together the real story of what happened… (this is given its ultimate expression in the House of Horror DLC, that tasks you with clearing up after a mass murder and uncovering the actual truth of the crime in the process). These personal insights are layered on top of the official mission briefings presented to you at the start of each level, and serve to add a good dollop of intrigue and gallows humour. Was the much-unloved Dr. Frederickson the one who deliberately released the spores, as the data pad dropped by this limbless corpse implies? And are these his legs I’m holding now? Furthermore, where is the rest of him? It’s these kinds of questions that preoccupy the ever-diligent staff of the VCD.
Occasional light scares are also part of VCD’s superb, strange atmosphere. All of your senses and gaming experience tell you that you should find a gun and be prepared for a fight to the death. Instead, you’re a duty-bound pacifist, weighed down by mops and brooms, working quickly through the aftermath of the great carnage your brain tells you to keep expecting. Here, the game provides another surprising answer to that earlier question of what it’s like in the aftermath of intense FPS gaming – it’s actually still quite intense. And although you’re coming in after the dust has settled (a little space-janitor humour there), there are still some small thrills to be had – standing on top of a precarious stack of crates to stretch out and open the cover of one high-up vent, I knocked it loose with my mop (also beautifully physicsy) and got a surprise shower of meat and blood in the face.
While the game’s unique atmosphere is primarily conveyed by the level design (which is as much an integral part of the puzzling and strategy behind your actions as a backdrop to them), the sound effects also make an excellent contribution. The background loops are great, with the creaking and pinging, booming and thudding of the ocean’s waters working their weighty wiles on the metal structure of the underwater base being a particular pleasure. The one-off SFX, like the gentle sloshing of water in the bucket and the wet slap of your space-mop on the floor are also highly pleasing. The tinkle of metal bullet casings, the crinkling of crisp packets and – my favourite – the roar of the furnace as it eats another big load of rubbish – all are hugely satisfying.
The lighting too is visibly the product of an experienced dev team. Each level has a distinct overall colour theme – white/blue in the Arctic level, green in the Hydroponics lab, crisp white fluorescence in the Robotics company and so on – with carefully coloured and lit zones and areas within. And like the geometry, the lighting also plays a part in your approach to actually cleaning a level. There are shadowy pockets and corners that ideally need you to manually light them using a portable lamp; the light and shadow cast by various environmental sources, such as the incinerator, also require a considered approach. Making your final inspections of a level, it’s a good idea to carry a lamp in front of you, rotating it in your grip as you look around to make sure you’ve made every nook and cranny spotless.
The overall effect of all this word-building finesse is an incredible amount of immersion; I found that each time I played, quitting and leaving had as much of a momentarily jarring effect on me as I used to get after a marathon Morrowind session, or from hours goggling at my tiny cities in Sim City 4.