You sit alone in a dingy room lit only by the glow of the terminal in front of you, breath catching in your throat as you prepare to hit the ominous red “Trade” button.
The second that button is hit, you’ll have to get your hands dirty in a breakneck battle shoveling through piles of organs for the juiciest, most valuable body parts, all to satisfy the ever-growing needs of an intergalactic society in decline. This is Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, an indie game that puts you in the shoes of an organ trader in a very grim future dystopia.
SWOTS might look and sound like an off-the-wall quirky indie, but it delivers thoughtful commentary about capitalism commodifying the very things we need to survive. Creator Xalavier Nelson Jr. tells Inverse his title is a direct rebuke of modern-day capitalism that simultaneously glorifies an underappreciated period in gaming history.
“There's a variety of places Space World Organ Trading Simulator emerged from,” Nelson says, “but one of the most prominent was realizing the utter depths to which capitalism has fucked us and destroyed our ability to process information in any way that still allows us to be human.”
Somehow, Space World Organ Trading Simulator’s organ-buying gameplay isn’t the weirdest thing about it. Released in December 2021, the game features full support for Microsoft Kinect, the full-body movement sensor released over a decade ago for Xbox 360 in response to the popularity of the Nintendo Wii.
With the Kinect, you didn’t need to use any controllers or extra peripherals. Your body became the controller. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, even after Microsoft improved the technology in the following years. Support for the Kinect eventually slowed to a crawl before it was officially discontinued in October 2017.
Yet for some reason, a contemporary video game about trading organs has resurrected the dead peripheral. Nelson says it had a lot to do with a callback to a bygone era when gaming was arguably weirder.
“There is an abundance of weird gameplay experiences with a peripheral that you see in the fifth generation and sixth generation,” he says, “basically ceasing at the Xbox 360 generation because of the scale of development required and the number of resources invested into a single game.”
The Xbox 360 alone worked with various peripherals, including Rock Band instruments, a turntable controller for DJ Hero, a keyboard “chatpad” that plugged into the bottom of the controller, and the Big Button Pad used exclusively for the Scene It? games. Meanwhile, Nintendo has long dominated the peripherals scene with accessories like NES R.O.B., the Power Glove, Donkey Kong Bongos, and most recently the entire line of Labo construction kits.
In modern gaming, the goal of most publishers is to acquire as large an audience as possible and keep them spending for as long as possible, but Nelson argues that approach means that developers “lose the ability to design for specificity.” Instead, he wants to focus on experiences that illustrate the “kind of absurd and empathetic people we are.” In the case of Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, this means catering to a niche group of Kinect enthusiasts among many others just for the hell of it.
“We get one small sliver of time in which to inhabit this planet,” Nelson says. “It is a joy to use that sliver of time to bring unnecessary things to life.”
Nelson works with programmer Sam Chiet, who was inspired one sleepless night to program Kinect functionality for Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. In the FAQ section of the game’s Steam page Nelson writes, “I work with a brilliant, slightly unhinged creative programmer named Sam Chiet, and one day, at 3 a.m., I blearily opened my phone to find a video of the game working with full functionality on a Kinect. And a tablet. And a Wiimote. You know, for the Nintendo Wii (2007).”
While the act of programming Kinect integration wasn’t terribly hard, the real challenge was making sure it would work for everyone — assuming they had the right hardware.
“I would say one of the biggest difficulties for Kinect is quite simply testing,” he says. “Even up until the day of launch, we weren't able to find someone else who had a Kinect outside of Sam. So there was this internal terror within the team of whether or not the Kinect integration really worked, or if it would work on more than one hardware setup.”
While Strange Scaffold did tell Microsoft of its plans, they kept the details brief.
”We took great pains to be as discreet as possible about what exactly we were doing with the Kinect,” Nelson says. “Because when a multi-billion dollar company decides to murder a piece of hardware, it does not seem incredibly wise to say, ‘Hey, by the way, we're gonna bring that back.’”
Even SWOTS launch trailer feels like a fever dream.
Physically juggling organ trading with your body, however, sounds like a total nightmare, not to mention navigating huge lists with hand motions. The Steam FAQ post promises a $50 gift card to anyone that could beat the entire game with a Kinect. That hasn’t happened yet, but not for lack of trying.
“Almost every other day, I'm getting a somewhat ominous message with someone's computer or TV set up with a copy of Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator running on it, and a Kinect sitting in front of that TV,” Nelson says. “So the response has been people looking for Kinects again and buying adapters for novelty's sake. It’s the equivalent of, ‘I played a Kinect game in 2022 and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.’”
The novelty of a video game with Kinect support today also speaks to the core of Strange Scaffold’s approach to unconventional storytelling.
SWOTS, for instance, delivers its story through bits of flavor text on organ requests and other scant pieces of text. The first time you boot up SWOTS you get the briefest of overviews, with the game taking place sometime in the far future, where organs have become the most valuable commodity for a variety of reasons. Through flavor text, you hear pieces about a massive galactic war as soldiers become your clients, robots look for fresh organs to replace their failing ones, and the world seems to be rife with scammers and conmen.
“I'm fascinated by the idea of telling a story in bits and pieces, in the idea that any one piece of a world is delivering an honest depiction of reality from its perspective,” Nelson says. “To establish an expectation using a small piece of flavor text then using another piece to undermine that expectation and provide a moment of delight or horror. That’s my bread and butter.”
While Kinect integration served as a small piece of the overall puzzle, there aren’t currently plans to use it, or other peripherals, in the future. Nelson notes, however, that it simply depends on what kind of game the studio makes. He isn’t opposed to the idea of using a defunct peripheral again if it fits. But who knows? Maybe that’ll change if he ever has to pony up that $50 gift card.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Nelson’s favorite Kinect game is Kinect Adventures.