I’ve gotta go to work.
How many of life’s precious moments end with this curt phrase? The looming nature of labor teems at the edge of every interaction we have. Weekends, if we’re allotted them, are a brief reprieve—we’re expected to fit all the things we really care about in our life into two days, a whirlwind of family visits and trips to the grocery store and catching up on our favorite shows. We reflect intensely on our childhoods because it is the only period of our life where work isn’t a constant force, when curiosity and exploration are encouraged instead of stymied.
In Analgesic Productions’ Anodyne 2: Return to Dust, birth has been optimized. Newborns skip right past childhood and come out of their eggs ready to work. Eating, sleeping, language development, and free thought are nonfactors; every bit of life’s extraneous elements are automated, which means Nova, the game’s protagonist, can keep working indefinitely. After you’re born in Anodyne 2, you’re immediately tasked with a heavy burden. You are the Nano Cleaner, an agent of The Center, meaning you are the sole person able to cleanse the world of Nano Dust, a toxic substance that taints the bodies of New Theland’s inhabitants and brings illness and distorted desires alike. Nova is able to shrink to microscopic sizes and clean people, houses, and machines to free them of Dust’s inevitable decay.
Anodyne 2 is a game. Logically, I chose not to question the nature of Nova’s mission at the game’s onset. I bee-lined from one Dust-infected patient to the next, sucked out their blighted crystals, and made my way to the next. On the surface, Anodyne 2 uses conventions of both 3D and 2D platformers, notably Zelda. These environments are areas to be conquered, to suss out all the world’s secrets and then abandon it for the next. This is a concept that Anodyne 2 gradually becomes more and more uncomfortable with.
Within each person you dive into is a community. During the course of her journey, Nova meets countless people all surviving as best as they can in a decomposing world. Though initially unaware of it, this weighs heavy on Nova. Though her job as a Nano Cleaner is a noble one, she lacks the emotional development that can only be given to her by care, love, and kinship. At around the game’s halfway point, Nova collapses, unable to continue because she has been pushing herself so hard and refusing to take a break. Palisade, one of Nova’s two caretakers, arrives and reminds Nova of the importance of balance—between work and care, strength and weakness. She is promptly erased by The Center.
Distressed, Nova winds up in a village of Dustbound, people who have chosen to live outside of The Center’s reach and harness the power of Dust despite its deteriorating effects. Many things happen; Nova learns she is able to speak. She is taught to communicate her feelings, to eat, and to sleep. She realizes the joy of entertainment, the wretchedness of failure, and the beauty of a funeral. Near the village Nova finds a fruit, which contains a shrine Nova believes can restore Palisade. Every day she works the farmlands of the village for food and shelter then spends the rest of her waking hours looking for signs in chaos. Clouded by her obsession, Nova fails to notice the shrine is really a playground made in secret for her own sake. She blames herself—unfamiliar with death, Nova feels like it’s her fault Palisade is gone. She’s the Nano Cleaner and is charged with staving off death when its clutches threaten a life. But Dust will always return, and there’s only so much palliative care Nova can give.
Nova spends weeks in Dustbound Village. What would be a dungeon is recontextualized as a collection of living spaces, places of worship, and paved streets. Nova returns to the same squares on the map despite there being no treasure awaiting, no tasks to complete. She begins to take comfort in purposeless existence; despite skiving her mission, she makes friends, real intimate connections. But the seed implanted in her body won’t allow her to take comfort in it for long.
When Nova returns to The Center, C Visionary is introduced as Palisade’s replacement. In contrast to C Psalmist, Nova’s other caretaker, C Visionary is robotic and progress minded. Where Psalmist fills the role of a religious figure charging Nova with a divine quest, Visionary seeks to incentivize Nova—and me, the player—to continue exploiting herself for the sake of The Center’s goal. C Visionary introduces metacoins, a currency scattered across New Theland that Nova can use to purchase unnecessary unlockables. C Visionary is “gamifying” Nova’s quest to offer some sense of reward, a pointless sidequest to distract from the hollowness of her assignment.
And I collected those coins. I bought nearly everything the store had to offer, despite knowing the empty feeling it would all bring. It’s the sort of consolation prize we consign ourselves to accept; the shitty birthday cake our bosses give us once a year, to be eaten off the clock. The deployment of the metacoins also reveals how hollow collectathons are as a gameplay element; they’re scattered across all the areas Nova has previously visited and fail to add any meaningful mechanics. It’s senseless, self-aware padding, meant to obfuscate the cost-benefit of Nova’s mission (and, perhaps, games as a whole).
Collecting coins is lonely. The game’s 3D environments feel desolate and empty, and amassing coins is a solitary task. Attaining them instilled in me a distinct feeling of disgust with myself, as if my base desire for completionism was enough to justify what was a clear waste of time. I felt reminded to put more conscious thought into the actions I make while playing a game. Is there joy in sidework? Am I rushing through, failing to take in the majesty of the environments around me? In many ways, games prey on people like me—people with ADHD that speed through meaningful encounters and hyperfixate on menial repetition, gay young adults seeking a sense of belonging within virtual realms—which, when portrayed as acutely as in Anodyne 2, fills me with an intense discomfort. Games assure our work will lead to something awe-inspiring by their inevitable conclusion (or, if they don’t have an end, that we will find a spark worth chasing indefinitely).
The Center’s promise is similar: if we work hard enough and abandon all our earthly desires, we can attain a goal so lofty and mythic we can’t even envision its awesomeness. If Nova is able to complete her mission, she can achieve The Anodyne, which will halt the progression of Dust wholesale. But The Anodyne guarantees that no one will ever “feel” again. The popular saying goes “it takes a village to raise a child”—in New Theland, there’s a village within every person, waiting to be fostered and yearning to connect. The Anodyne ensures that the borders between these villages are strict and well-maintained, never intersecting.
Ultimately, Anodyne 2 finds hope in nothingness. If we’re all on a path of doom, we may as well spend the time we have with people we love. If we spend all our time blinded by work, no matter how gallant the end goal may be, we neglect to nurture the people around us and fail to stack up to the immense pressure we put on ourselves. Our bodies are our own, indelible from our desires and needs. We can sever ourselves from the toxic systems we internalize as our beliefs. We are privileged to live in a time where we acknowledge the interconnectedness of work and our personal lives—work takes a toll on us emotionally, and the lines between family and coworkers are sometimes blurred. We feel the urge to present ourselves as invulnerable to our parents and our bosses alike. It’s a facade that inevitably breaks the spirit, made trivial by the ease in which we are replaceable.
Anodyne 2, at its core, finds pleasure in taking a minute for yourself. Sometimes the grind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire