Yuppie Psycho: Games, Work, and Nightmare Capitalism

Work sucks.

It is wild that we have collectively decided that 1) it is good to devote the majority of your life to your job and 2) that work is, on some level, supposed to be bad. Five years later and I still think back almost daily to my year spent full-time in fast food — to the hatred spewed at me for no reason, to the constant power-plays and internal social structures dominating the back room, to the exhausting dullness of it all and the horrible knowledge that there is no end, that it will keep going just as it has forever because that is how it all meant to be. And while I don’t personally have any experience in the field, it’s hard to argue that the job that has come to represent the unending badness of working is work in an office.

The menial jobs promising promotions to more menial jobs, the birthday parties for co-workers you don’t really like but pretend you do, the constant meetings and email chains that go nowhere and say nothing; it’s a world that has been parodied and satirized about as many times as you can imagine — just as everyone accepts that work is vital and good, everyone accepts the salary-man life as an existential, capitalist nightmare ripe for jabs and japes.

Yuppie Psycho, from indie studio Baroque Decay (side note: what a good name on both accounts), represents another employee in the undying business of making fun of this. But over time, Yuppie Psycho reveals itself to be something much more ambitious, weird, sad, and wonderful than many of its peers, ending as a game that is genuinely very special.

Taking place entirely within the towering corporate headquarters of Sintracorp, a mega-corporation doing business in who knows what exactly, Brian Pasternack is introduced, starting his first day of work. This is a world which immediately shows itself itself to be some sort of capitalist dystopia (but like, a fictional one, not the one we are in now), where people are literally separated into different class rankings, and the path of one’s life is decided before they are born — someone like Brian from class G denied opportunities and expected to live their life out in poverty because that is what class G does. But of course the structures and delineations can’t end there. Within the building exists its own social structure where, the higher the floor you work, the higher status you are. Two systems in place to ensure that you stay in yours; the world reflected in miniature.

And this microcosm of capitalist life is a quick highlight, the setting one of the most engaging pieces of the game pie here. Everything you could possibly need to live a comfortable life is within Sintracorp’s walls: bathrooms, showers, food, drink; one floor is dedicated to the building’s “garden”, a sprawling forest filled with dirt and rivers and trees sandwiched between cold metal ceilings. Even nature is controlled and owned. On one floor you can find a suite that would feel totally in place in some suburbs somewhere. Which tracks, because people do live here. You find time and time again individuals swallowed up by Sintracorp, having lost part of themselves to the company, hiding in walls and locked off offices and in the nature that should not be there; people who have forgotten what the world outside of the company looks like. And then there are the others. The ones like you.

Like all successful comedies of office life, Yuppie Psycho really shines thanks to the community it creates between those who are trapped with you in the drudgery of the day to day. It is full of people who have become exaggerated, near parodies of themselves as their identities have become necessarily heightened over a lifetime of work, an engaging personality a requirement if they ever hope to ‘make it’. You can’t be allowed to just have a bad day. You have to hide that, put a mask over your true self. But eventually those masks swell and won’t come off. There is a really incredible balance between the charm of the cast (and they really are about as charming as you can get) and moments of the genuine human connection to be found between those stuck in the same systems of oppression with the discomfort and unease of having your psyche whittled away by a company which all but owns you.

Out of everyone though, the easy highlight is your co-worker Hugo, a short guy who embodies toxic work behavior, who acts like someone desperate for their life to be like the shows; a life of friends and pranks and laughs. And everyone else is secretly terrified of this wannabe Jim because behind the pranks is, well, Jim, someone who is vindictive and manipulative and mean. And I think it is with Hugo and his quietly insidious nature that the game perfectly shows off its other face, what is hiding behind that exaggerated, satirical mask. Yuppie Psycho is a horror game.

Visually, Yuppie Psycho takes hard Japanese influence in both its presentation and storytelling. Pixel art anime cutscenes are interspersed throughout and are absolutely stunning, carrying the directorial confidence and flair (and style — the cinematography and editing are undeniably reminiscent) you’d expect from a Persona game. Yuppie Psycho absolutely belongs to the exploding amount of western work made by people like me, who grew up surrounded by Japanese media; story beats and aesthetic ideas of the country’s popular culture seeped deep into our bones. Which means, like many cartoons and comics and games coming out now, Yuppie Psycho gets it — it carries its anime inspirations with confidence and deep understanding instead of being another Kappa Mikey or whatever Butch Hartmann thinks anime is. This is surely helped by the fact that the people at Baroque Decay just generally aggressively talented. Character designs are clean and expressive, monsters are inventive, and the pixel work is at once simple and remarkably complex. It’s the same with the music, which is effortlessly cool and internet (and I know I’ve doomed myself by saying that to never being cool or internet again).

It’s not just anime though, and the single strongest influence here is one that I’ve never seen in a work of art before, and which I think similarly points to an exciting future like that growing understanding of anime. And that is that Yuppie Psycho is the first thing I’ve experienced that does not feel like Twin Peaks, but rather like Deadly Premonition. Yes, the bizarre cult kusoge masterpiece directed by Swery51. This is the first story I can think of that takes primarily from one of the descendants of Twin Peaks instead of the show itself, and I think it is a wonderful sign of the always changing landscape of art.

This isn’t just a theory either, because if you do a little poking you’ll find Swery himself making a cameo! I won’t spoil what he does, but rest assured it is extremely, uniquely him, and absolutely delightful. Swery very much comes across as a man who exemplifies the spirit of this game — breathing full of life and energy and a punk spirit of creation in the face of the corrupt systems we are trapped in, but also trapped himself. It is awfully difficult for art to be really free from capitalism.

Like Deadly Premonition, Yuppie Psycho carries a more overt horror to it than Twin Peaks, and frequently engages in sudden, jarring shifts between quirky comedy and horror. It also borrows from the much more unhinged strangeness of Deadly Premonition: here the characters aren’t just weirdly into drapery, but disguise themselves as superhero frogs, form obsessive underground video cults, and are members of not so radical resistance groups (the ineffectual union). There are TVs sewn onto heads, horrible mutations, organic machinery. Again, it carries that energy of Swery.

And in this back and forth of fun and horror, horror slowly starts to win as the loud satire of killer printers, an HR department that spits deadly acid, and the never ending cycle of filling out one form just to get another gives way to much more insidious horrors of power harassment, social pressures, and the ways capitalism seeps itself like a poison into every inch of one’s life.

One scene in particular which occurs a bit more than halfway through and represents the point when horror completely takes over and irrevocably changes the game, is also one of the most jaw dropping, terrifying, wonderfully directed moments I’ve experienced in a game in, well, ever. It’s the kind of moment that honestly would make any game an instant must play from me. A moment that sears itself into the brain. An office party gone horribly wrong, where bubbling frustrations explode and reveal the depths of evil people are capable of when the only choices in life are to win by any means necessary, or stagnate in poverty. Even the mild frustration of having to repeat it about 5 times from dying did little to quell my enthusiasm.

Not that that enthusiasm wasn’t tested. Death looms heavy as it does in most games here, but in saving Yuppie Psycho borrows from the classic Resident Evil ink ribbon, requiring you to first find an ink cartridge and then paper to save yourself to. It’s a fun idea thematically and systematically, adding the push/pull tension of “do I save or risk it and keep going?” that survival horror excels at; a tool that hits the same endorphins as gambling while also being a cute play at how there is never enough ink or paper at work. Ever.

The problem is that player gambles don’t always pay off. Because much of Yuppie Psycho operates as an adventure game, it isn’t uncommon to die in ways that feel hard to predict. Random. You have to explore, and test things out, and sometimes doing both of those punishes you. Worst, that punishment was tediously running through upwards of 15 minutes of puzzles and hiding and dialogue I’d already heard before just to end up lost, confused, and eventually dead all over again. There was never any challenge or interest between where I’d saved and where I’d died. Just boredom. But I suppose there’s no better metaphor for the frustrating tedium of work than resetting to an old save. It’s an issue compounded by some small nicks which show its indie status, namely that the tutorials happen a bit too late, there is no hint that autosaving is not present, and there is no warning message when loading a save or exiting to the menu. One wrong click separates you from the pain of being told by your boss that you missed a line, and you have to do everything again.

Still, the puzzles you go through in the game do strike a nearly perfect balance of not being sure you are doing the right thing and yet somehow pulling it off. This too quietly nails the reality of work. There’s a common idea that people are promoted until they arrive at a position they are not equipped to handle, which is where they remain for the rest of their career, just out of your depth, the ocean swallowing your mouth but not quite your nose, and being able to mimic that in the game is an impressive feat. This is aided further by the fact that, with limited healing items, you will rarely if ever be at full health. If that doesn’t scream 9 to 5, I don’t know what does.

So that’s Yuppie Psycho. Or it would be, but a few months ago (on Halloween, I think) the game received an update adding a new route and set of endings to the game, and it is with this that I think Yuppie Psycho becomes something really special. Though it is a new route theoretically accessible from the first time you start, it very much feels intended to be played after experiencing the original story. Here, the game disrupts and twists plotlines you have already experienced leading to something wholly new. The game ceases almost completely to be funny. It ceases to be charming. And as identity and memory collapse in on themselves, the thematics built up over the course of the game are stripped to a skeleton, to the most basic story of capitalism and power you can tell — one of a family. This extended section is strange, unnerving, and almost overwhelmingly sad. Brian and love interest Kate enter into the home of the creator of Sintracorp and find themselves increasingly, inexplicably becoming those people. Their memories become muddled, their actions and words coming without them meaning to until the transformation completes itself. The corporate office setting is completely shredded and the entire rest of your time is spent trapped inside this home, becoming familiar with this much more intimate location that also feels so much lonelier, the large cast of characters replaced with a tight ensemble slowly falling apart.

This also sees the balance between puzzle solving and survival horror fully bleed as obscure puzzles are worked out in a way which mimics the slow replacement of Brian’s identity, while simultaneously engaging in a genuinely scary game of hide-and-seek. There are several new endings here, and all of them essentially end the same. You are always going to have to work. You can’t really escape this. A happy ending is a suggestion that maybe this life won’t kill you for a while yet.

I am perpetually struggling with the existential dread of work. I wonder, probably once a week, if maybe I’m wrong somehow, if there was some failing in how I was raised or something deeper that’s defective in me. Why do people seem so capable, so content with dedicating every moment to productivity, to business and their jobs? They say if you do what you love then you will never work a day in your life. But what happens when you don’t love anything enough to do it 8 hours a day every day for the rest of time? How am I supposed to make it in a system like that? How is anyone?

I don’t know if Yuppie Psycho has answers to that. But there is value to it asking those questions. I’m glad that it allowed me to think about them. At the very least, Yuppie Psycho reminds me that even though we are all being eaten and infected and turning the same by the few who are in power, we all still have names. We all still exist. And that’s a start.

I said work too many times, didn’t I?