"Motivating each choice narratively, keeping the world self-explanatory" - Jörg Tittel, Ryan Bousfield (THE LAST WORKER)
Presented as a demo at the 78. Venice Film Festival, The Last Worker is a VR experience at the intersection of gaming, storytelling and artistic production: a fun yet meaningful work that will see its full release in 2022.
I remember a conversation I overheard years ago at a festival I attended. It was about how its immersive selection made it look like an amusement park rather than an art event, given how it was made up of games and game-like theatrical performances. And I distinctly remember thinking, "That's a bit of a narrow view of art, ma'am" before I went to get my spritz and enjoy all those fantastic "game-like experiences" that would make my day a little brighter.
Not only is it reductive to think that only a certain kind of production can convey meanings and artistic vibes. It is also an extremely boring expectation, which does not take into account the fact that sometimes a work is even more effective in making people think and discuss relevant issues, if it does so through a well-told story that people want to know more about.
But telling a story and telling it well...that’s something that can be difficult to do even in VR, where storytelling is potentially at its best.
At the 78. Venice Film Festival one of the works in the lineup that looked most promising in this regard was The Last Worker, also known as “the only VR game in competition” (a phrase I heard more than once during my days in Venice and which populates many of the articles out there dedicated to this beautiful work).
Set in an automated, dehumanising world strongly reminiscent of a well-known digital retailer we've all used at least once, The Last Worker turns you into Kurt, the last human worker in JFC-1, a fulfilment centre the size of the sunken city of Manhattan. Along with his broken co-bot, Skew - a frankly adorable example of offering a tutorial, in a game, that is an intrinsic part of the narrative and goes hand in hand with character development - you, as Kurt, will discover more about his past, his routine... and the surprises the future holds for him.
Even if Venice hosted only the first chapter / demo of this experience, some things are clear from the beginning: the main one being that The Last Worker is indeed a videogame with fun game dynamics and a good pace... but it is also a strong, captivating story, a potential tool for public discussion of relevant topics, and a beautiful piece of art, with a haindpanted look rarely found in this kind of productions.
And then there's Kurt, a main character with whom you can't help but feel a connection. You find yourself at the intersection of “I am playing this character” and “I care for this character”, which is something I always appreciate in narrative-driven games. In this regard, the small rear-view mirror on the pod you're driving, where you can always see yourself as Kurt makes you aware that you're there to play the key role, but also that you're giving Kurt himself the chance to live his story through you. It's one of those effective details that The Last Worker plays with, and it really brings to life the whole world in which the story is set and the characters in it.
Admittedly, those who suffer from critical levels of motion sickness such as myself, might have found it difficult to experience this preview build in one sitting, but the three comfort settings were a solution that works for most users, with the developers promising more for the final release.
We contacted Jörg Tittel, director and screenwriter of The Last Worker, and Ryan Bousfield, producer and creative director, to ask them about this work and their Venice experience.
I promised them no spoilers so, if you're curious about where the story will take us.... well, the only solution is to keep your eyes open in 2022, when the full version of The Last Worker will be released, and to follow its updates on the official social channels, which you will find at the end of this article.
A reflection on progress at the origins of The Last Worker
AGNESE - Jörg, how did the idea of The Last Worker first come to you?
JÖRG TITTEL - It was the beginning of 2016. Every time I went to a supermarket, I saw those automated tools taking the place of human workers. The funny thing was that there was always an employee standing there, watching those machines doing their job, and waiting for them to break down so they could restart them! It wasn't normal. That couldn't be called progress. Human beings were being pushed out of their jobs for no reason, even when they could do it better than a machine, even when they were needed to make the machine work! And the same kind of thing was happening everywhere, even in social networks, where thought processes were being replaced by a binary system, in a kind of dehumanisation process that we cannot deny is happening. I was increasingly obsessed with this situation and wanted to do something about it. That's how the idea for The Last Worker was born.
For a couple of years, I tried to work with individual developers, and then in 2019 I contacted Ryan Bousfield. There was an immediate connection between us. Ryan invented a lot of the mechanics that are now considered standard in VR games, and he single-handedly made A Chair in a Room in 2014e. He immediately understood what we could do and where we could go with The Last Worker. He didn't just get the general idea, he saw beyond it.
A. - How did you start working in VR, Ryan?
RYAN BOUSFIELD - In 2014, VR was mostly rollercoasters, so I picked up a headset to try and create something more with it. That's how A Chair in a Room was born, which immediately sparked a lot of interest. I felt there were some good possibilities there, so I quit my job and started doing VR full time. The Last Worker is my fourth game - and the team has expanded from just me in the first 18 months to the nine people who have been working on The Last Worker over the past year. It’s been amazing!
"Show, not tell": the mantra behind the experience
A. - The Last Worker talks about a topic that has a strong connection to our real world and at the same time it is an experience that is going to places, narratively speaking, that will surprise us. What is the peculiarity of this work?
J. T. - The real world is so intense, and so full of problems, and everyone is constantly talking about what they hate or love, who they are, who they are not, to the point that the subtext is dead and even the idea of discovery is gone.
This is also happening in films and games: everything has to be explained and you have to make it clear what you are talking about from the first moment.
With The Last Worker, we wanted to do something different. A dystopian world, sure, but a story that doesn’t tell you, from the first moment, what it's about. There are no characters telling you what happened before, no voice-over narrating Kurt’s past. Just a short visual moment where you can witness his backstory. No words, no exposition. We decided to show rather than tell and let the characters and the player do the rest.
On the iconic, essential style of The Last Worker
A. - The scene in the box is beautiful and very striking, both emotionally and visually. It gave me a clear sense of who Kurt was and his state of mind and gave a specific look at the experience, which is rarely found in works like this.
J. T. - We worked with Mick McMahon, the wonderful comic book artist behind Judge Dredd and other classics, to draw the characters and much of the world. We then used the storyboards created with him to approach Vanja Vikalo who became the 2D animator for The Last Worker’s title sequence and other key elements. I have always loved his work and abstract animation is very close to my heart. For that scene in The Last Worker I wanted a simplified and iconic style, reduced to its essence. We worked every day for several months to make it, but I'm very proud of it: it distinctly has its own identity, but at the same time it fits into our world perfectly and sets up the character's story in an original and beautiful way.
Motivating every choice narratively
A. - Ryan, you have been working with videogames for a long time. What are the most important things you've learned over the years that you've applied to The Last Worker?
R. B. - VR is its own medium and has specific rules. First, you have to be very careful about leaving breadcrumbs around, so that you attract people, guide them, give them feedback when they are looking at the right thing or call their attention when they are not. It's an underlying system that helps the user, and it's something we’ve been building since my early work. It's been an incremental learning process. For example, I learned that the original horror tropes that work in a movie don't work in a VR experience in the same effective way. And you always have to consider what works in VR and what does not.
Take the onboarding: with The Last Worker it became obvious early on in the conversations that it would be nice to have a little co-bot, Skew, to help the player with it. What was essential for us, though, was to bring him into the story as more than a secondary character giving you instructions on how to proceed. We wanted someone who would intertwine with the entire narrative and make sense as a character - and I can't tell you much more about Skew because... spoilers!
A. - In fact, one comment I've heard from some users is that Skew really does seem like a relevant character... One gets the feeling that there is more to discover about it.
J. T. - Once again we have chosen the "show, don't tell" route. If you're a game designer and the player doesn't understand what they're supposed to do or - even worse - doesn't care to find out what they're supposed to do, then you're doing something wrong. Everything about the characters should be emotionally motivated. If it isn't, then it shouldn't be in the game.
The same goes for the tutorial: a tutorial is not part of the story, nor should it be. So, in order to include it, we tried to motivate it narratively and use it as a way to bring a new character to life and get to know them better, while keeping the rest of the world self-explanatory.
Choosing a cast that believes in the story
A. - As a fan myself, I was very enthusiastic about your choice of actors for the voices of the characters. They seem to have enjoyed being part of this production. What can you tell us about working with them?
J. T. - I had been trying to make a film with Jason (Isaacs) for a few years, he is an actor I love very much. I had already worked with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Clare-Hope Ashitey on The White Knight, a film that Alex, my wife, and I co-directed a few years ago. And finally it is my first collaboration with David Hewlett, who has been part of The Last Worker from the prototyping stage. These actors have become friends and it's been great working together. There will be another big cast announcement soon, someone I've always admired very much. I can't tell you more about that, but you'll find out soon... (laughs)
A. - That’s very evil of you.... but I still appreciate the surprise element.
J. T. - It was important for us to have quality actors who believed in the story, because we've written something that is very character driven and very heartfelt. All the characters have huge story arcs, things you'll discover over several hours of play. The actors are going places, emotionally and in relation to each other, that will move people to tears... hopefully! I can't wait for the audience to experience the whole game.
Attending the Venice Film Festival
A. - The Last Worker, as several articles have mentioned, was the only videogame in competition at the 78. Venice Film Festival. Although, for me, it was more than just a game. What do you think of its selection for the lineup?
J. T. - It's quite difficult to find games that have the ambition to be something beyond mechanics or a general narrative. The writing isn't always good in videogames, so what we tried to do - a very story-driven experience, based on character development and discovery - was pretty challenging to make, especially since we have a limited budget. Ryan and team have had to give extra attention to how we build things, so the player never feels any limitations within our style and scope. It was a constant balance of mechanics, gameplay, storytelling, what was essential to us and what we could actually do. It's crazy what Ryan and his incredible team are pulling off!
R. B. - It was great to be in competition, and fantastic to get this kind of exposure and show our work outside of the standard video game industry. I think it helped us get artistic credentials. But there's still a lot to do. The project shown in Venice was a kind of pre-alpha demo of the game that we are now expanding for the full 2022 release.
A. - Was it a race to get everything ready in time for the festival?
J. T. - We found out we had been accepted to the festival six weeks before the event, so that was the time we had to put everything together! It was very stressful but also enlightening. In some ways, the Venice Film Festival became more than a showcase for us to exhibit our work. It became a platform to test our work under the pressure of the public.
Ryan was fantastic, he dealt with all the problems we encountered on the first day of the festival with an adaptability and responsiveness that I frankly admired. That's what I appreciate about working with him: he looks at things and doesn't see problems. He sees puzzles, challenges that he has to solve... and he always succeeds!
R. B. - We are aiming quite big with The Last Worker, but at the same time we had very real limitations - a relatively small budget, numerous deadlines, the festival itself. So, we started to react and face the challenges as efficiently and intelligently as possible. For example, we had to keep the world within a relatively narrow game but give users the impression that there was a larger universe at play. Build a story that feels big, without letting the player wander too far to explore it. Also with the characters: we have a game where you don't see a lot of them... but that will make you feel like you did.
Creating a main character you can relate to
A. - Speaking of characters, I confess a kind of crush on Kurt. He’s different from most characters I’ve played and what I love is that you both feel you’re him and that you’re *with* him.
J. T. – The sort of in-body and out-of-body experience you have with Kurt is really unique and creates a connection between you and the character, something we’ll be exploring much more in the full game, you’ll see.
When I first conceived the project, I wanted everything to feel chunky: chunky character work, chunky storytelling, chunky details. And Kurt was part of that. One comment I got when we were working on his character was that it wouldn't work with female gamers, because women want to play video games where the main character is a “strong woman”. However, in my opinion, as long as you create a well-rounded character with strong psychology and motivations, anyone will want to play it - and relate to a middle aged, overweight man, and perhaps even a weak one at that!
R. B.- It's relatable, we are thrown into these positions where we are made to feel less and less important in certain roles, we become numbers, statistics... machines. I think that's where most of the empathy for Kurt comes from. You relate to his essence. He's stripped to the core and that’s where you meet.
Limitations as a means of artistic intent
A. - You mentioned the small budget you had to work with. A real limitation or an incentive to work better?
J. T. - VR is much closer to theatre than to cinema. Theatre is determined by its limitations. We have a stage that doesn't move, but from which we have to move people. Three walls and a fourth wall made up of the audience watching us. But when you have the actors, the set designer and the lights to create a world you can relate to and be transported into... theatre becomes magical.
The same goes for VR: it's the limitations that make the craft. The best artistic endeavours come from having a small budget. If you have 40/50 million dollars to use for a game, everything gets polished to such a degree that there is no artistic or narrative direction anymore. The lack of limitations brings with it a certain lack of intent, and everything is thrown on the screen to impress you with the budget and the production. When everything is in HD focus, the world can become a blur. That's not of interest to me. I'm interested in style and artistic intent because that's what lasts and matters. And I hope the audience recognizes that in our game as well. That's what we want: for the audience to feel that every part of The Last Worker was made with love and care and is there for a reason.
Waiting for the game release in 2022
A. – I know it’s all hush hush... but what can we share about the full version of The last worker?
J. T. - It's going to be a big adventure! It's about five, six hours of gameplay depending on your style of play. It can be much longer if you want to find everything there is to find. There will be more characters and beautiful performances by amazing actors. Just last week I had to work through more than 500 lines of dialogue... and this is just one of many “chapters” in the game! R. B. - You haven't seen anything yet in terms of game mechanics either. In fact... you haven't seen anything of The Last Worker (laughs). The point you reached? That's when the real game starts! So you have to think of what you've seen as a little, tiny prologue...
A. – You’re good at this. Giving hints without spoilers. I’m not sure if I want to hug you or leave this call now (laughs)
J. T. - What I like is that this is not an "Automation is bad: discuss!" type of game. The Last Worker is much more complex - and fun - than that. And while people might think, at first, that's what it's all about... it's not. Not only that. There's so much more to it and I can't wait for players to find out.
And the audience will find out soon: The Last Worker is coming to Oculus Quest 2, PC VR, XBox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 in 2022. You can wishlist the game on Steam and enjoy the teaser trailer here.
Updates will be shared on The Last Worker's social channels too: follow the game on Instagram and Twitter (@TheLastWorker) and keep in touch with director Jörg Tittel and the developing team at Wolf & Wood Studio.