An hour with Sludge Life 2: more jokes, more graffiti, more cynicism, more brilliance
And the first game is free on Steam at the moment!
One of the purest videogame ideas is a room whose interior you can see but not access. Not yet, anyway. This is games' four four beat, its Alberti bass and its cadmium yellow. Sludge Life, which exploded into my life a few years back, a two-hour long game that has kept me happy for days on end, knows about the power of a room you can't get to. Not yet.
Why is it so good? Because that room festers. You try the handle, nothing. You can maybe see through a window but you can't fit. So you have to think, regroup, return to your core skills and see how you might use them differently. You have to try things that otherwise would never have occurred to you, and when you find new items and new skills, that room you can't get to yet is always there in your mind: hey, how about me? Is it my time yet? In short, you improvise, you test the boundaries of the rules, and you explore. And that, I hope, is videogames.
If you never played Sludge Life, you should play it now because it's free on Steam, and it's also everything I hope you will love: it's brisk, colourful, inventive, defeated, disgusting, exhilarating, curious in every sense. It's funny and burned out and gymnastic and cynical. It's a bottle-sized open-world with parkour and spraypainting spots and people to talk to and puzzles to solve. And it's free right now because there's a sequel on the way, freshly announced.
I played a few hours of Sludge Life 2 yesterday, and I'm already delighted. It feels wonderfully familiar - the same operating system you load into, the same style of patched-together world to explore, the same kinds of characters who remind me of the older gen-xer slackers I used to look up to when I was in my early teens and had yet to work my first nine-hour shift in a kitchen. There's a new plot that I won't spoil and a new location, which I am still exploring, but everything I loved from Sludge Life is here. Just more of it. And new. New gadgets. New secrets. New rooms whose interiors I can see but can't access.
Sludge Life 2, like Sludge Life 1 can be surprisingly hard to talk about, in part I think because it has the thrill and difficulty of being almost privy to someone else's in-joke. You know that weird contradictory chaotic precision of a great Vine gag, with the perfect glitchiness, the perfect mid-work cut? Sludge Life has that. And so much of it. In Sludge Life 2 I wander around, talk to an annoyed hotel cleaner with a smoking vacuum, scale a building and find myself in a fast food kitchen where employees are making out behind boxes as the food burns. I think: oh I should remember this. But then I die and wake up in hospital on a gurney next to a sleeping dog, and I travel up a sort of Willy Wonka magic elevator and I see a bouncing mascot designed to sell cigarettes to kids. There's just so much.
What ties it all together, I think, is that secretly Sludge Life 2, like Sludge Life 1, is an exceptionally well-crafted videogame. The environments are intricate but readable, the secrets nag at you, the animations and the sense of speed and movement to the parkour is just magical, while the graffiti spots are always ready to distract you from what you were doing and lead you to something new. The warp stations, which provide fast travel, are a case in point of everything that Sludge Life does well. They're fast travel, but they're instantaneous, and they feel fantastic to use, with that lovely little quantum ripple, that migraine flash before you find yourself somewhere new.
Playing Sludge Life 2 for a couple of hours I ended up thinking that, in a lot of ways, this is as thoughtful a response to the slightly over-vacuumed carpet place that Zelda found itself in before Breath of the Wild. If they didn't go big and tool-based with Breath of the Wild, they could have gone small and intricate and silly, but brilliantly, studiously silly, where all the silliness just worked perfectly. Here is a world that feels like a crumpled-up ball of scrap paper. It's just brilliant. Can't wait for more.