There’s a unique place in the world for games like Sludge Life. It’s not the polished Triple-A or Triple I experience we have primed ourselves to enjoy, but it’s not supposed to be, and it’s better for it.
MTV is oft remembered, or maybe wrongly remembered, as a channel that was only about music videos. “IZ WHAT THE MMMMMM STANDS FOR INNIT!”
For me though, the thing it really lost was the late 80’s early 90’s fringe street art ascetic. Punk, meets hip hop meets graffiti art meets free-thinking creativity.
What MTV lost in the transition from Mu-Tee-Vee to cheap high capital propaganda was this sense of dense vitality. This simultaneously vibrant and dirty creativity allowed for challenging inventive creativity in the televisual media space.
One of the things that exemplified this was the range of original MTV Animated shows that used to smear over the channels’ airwaves through much of the late-night schedule of the early days of the channel. Some of these shows appeared on BBC 2 in the UK, Liquid TV being made in conjunction with the BBC at the time. The BBC 2 and Channel 4 in the UK were also interesting spaces for fringe programming in the late evening or early hours. Providing exciting, disturbing, often spiritually honest creative voices to those of us who then, and now, feel the ever-present existence of the world’s darker underbellies.
Those opening strings of MTVs Beavis and Butthead are not culturally iconic, and somewhat less representative of a nihilistic decay ever that had been ever-present at the time of the shows’ original creation. The series losing its commentary, bite, and ability to offend once it had been produced as a movie and absolutely toothless as a rebooted show for the current generation of viewers.
The shows’ alumni are mostly forgotten or lost, The Maxx, Aeon Flux, The Head. Animated shows have fumbled past over the years from different avenues. Moments of Monkey Dust, as an example (released some years after the MTV animation crop on BBC 2) felt, and still feels dark, dirty, and challenging today.
That’s not to imply that this realm of animated creativity is non-existent, but now is more likely to be found in the corners of the internet where animated shorts go to live, or sometimes, occasionally, at four am on Channel 4 or Adult Swim at 4 am. This isn’t to say “Adult” animated comedy shows no longer exist, more that they are all very safe. Sorry any adult animation fans out there, but Richard and Mortimer are not the wild rebels you have been led to believe they are.
All this leads me to say that, Sludge Life is the spiritual successor to that nihilistic, surreal, dirty legacy. Every time I glitch into its island of digital and visceral decay I am immediately catapulted back into the days I spent watching those shows for the first time, late night, in a room smelling faintly of a damp musk that I was probably made to imagine was there, curtains not quite closed. The simultaneously dusty, comforting, and warm glow of the CRT making me feel like I wasn’t completely alone in the way I felt spiritually about the world in that moment.
Waking up in an abandoned shipping container, stacked on filth, sludge, and s**t. Every inch of this desolate reality, running on a degraded laptop so worthless you literally toss it to the side each time you re-enter the disparate nihilism. What is there for a 12 (maybe 12 and a half) year old kid to do but just whatever?
And while there is the vague concept of a set of goals here, they don’t really matter. They serve mostly to amplify the sense of abject pointlessness to the life lived here. You and everyone else on this island of disguised trash in an endless sea of filth are just living with the same feeling on under-motivated ennui.
At its most shallow you are tasked with climbing the abstract, impossible, and dangerous surreal spaces of this local and throw up your tags where you can. You’re making your name as the graffiti artist ghost worth something of note to the other denizens of this underwhelming berg. The game is much like other first-person platformers, traversal to challenging locations through whatever creative means are available to you. If I make this sound like an exciting and vibrant parkour-filled thrill ride a-la Mirrors Edge, please temper your expectations. Playing on Nintendo Switch the games’ controls are too loose and unresponsive to be enjoyed in that way. In many ways, this actually makes the experience better. You feel like an awkward and clumsy human being, clambering up walls and boulders covered in oil. Often slipping into the grime below only to try again before looking for another means to your creative end.
Over time, through interactions with the other distant and uninterested people of this society, you find items to help with this. A digital camera that shows where the tagging spots are around you, a glider that allows you to make longer distance gaps are examples. These things are equally tossed to the side the second you’ve finished using them that moment. Alongside the useful tools of your traversal, you’ll also find or be gifted new features for your festering laptop. Music tracks by struggling artist, software that will track your money, or lack thereof, and a puzzle game playable on the laptop/menu screen. A game that’s double hard to play due to the laptop’s clear malware infection.
Sludge Life isn’t really about these goals, though. Sludge Life comes to life in the moments between each location. In both the finding of surreal and often unnerving things in the world and in the interactions you have with the people you cross paths with.
These points of life in the void are equal parts disturbed and deeply human. Everyone has lost the bulk of will to live in life, just doing for the sake of doing. Existing in this electronic mold nightmare dream-scape as best they can.
Working what job there is, stealing, smoking, doing what comes along. The world is all the more believable for it. For the grime and for the nihilism. Everything about the world is surreal and darkly hilarious but also so absolutely committed to its own universal narrative logic, that it’s utterly true and honest.
Every few moments I would climb a building, or toppled crane to find another victim of life with something to say that would cause me to laugh out loud. Visual sight gags would cause a double-take and a laugh one moment, to not long after, become a much more deeply important part of this worlds’ cracked narrative.
The sense of anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, social rebellion is oozing all over the many spaces you find here too. Coating everything with a grime that you mentally feel under your nails with every space explored.
Twenty years ago Jet Set Radio brought graffiti art to life, both literally and figuratively, created a message of counter culture rebellion and made it cool. In playing Sludge Life that feeling is back. Like Jet Set Radio, it’s using the feel of the streets, the cell-shaded art, the vibe of youth to carry its weight. But where Jet Set Radio expressed that rebellion as cool and even a compelling lifestyle, Sludge Life is the dirty truth. It’s the dark corners of the London back alley at ten-thirty on a Thursday night. It’s the discarded can of larger under the bins, next to the wall green with algae from years of leaking drain pipes. Where Jet Set Radio felt like with paint, music, and action, there was hope. Fun to be had. Sludge Life is a world where things are too far gone and rebellion is just another way to fill time every day.
I love it. I love the dank and the grime. I love the dark humor and the way that this world brings to life the sense of nihilistic futility that someone can feel when they have next to nothing. It makes me feel dirty and entirely seen. The world needs media like Sludge Life, to let us know that in moments where we feel nothing, feel lost, or just one with the dirty voids in life, that we are not alone in feeling this way.
There is a place in culture that needs to be filled with the dirty and dank, that reminds us that we are not alone in seeing the dirty underbelly of life and being left with a sense of the void. Sludge Life's vibrant, hilarious, filthy representation of this back alley part of life is why it's brilliant.
- There's nothing good about this game, and that's good about it.
- Inventive visuals.
- Dark, surreal, very funny.
- Absolute commitment to worldbuilding.
- It's absolutely filthy.
- Overtly loose base controls make the game unpleasant to play sometimes.
- The menus are imaginatively designed, but changing options can be awkward and frustrating.