Sludge Life Review – Casual Nihilism in the Graffiti Scene
Developed by Terri Vellmann, Doseone
Published by Devolver Digital
Available on PC, Nintendo Switch
I like the games Devolver Publishes. When it comes to offbeat, strange content, they know what they like. This strategy can sometimes lead to diminishing returns. Thankfully, Sludge Life does not have that problem. Sludge Life is a whole-ass mood. It’s a bit of Jet Set Radio Future mixed with the I-don’t-even-care-look-how-much-I-don’t-care attitude of modern graffiti culture. I’m not a graffiti artist. Rumors that I may actually be Banksy or some other type of performance artist are unsubstantiated at best.
Sludge life opens with Ghost, an up-and-coming graffiti artist, waking up in their weird shipping container house. You aren’t given any goals directly. As you leave and start to explore, you’ll notice areas with small spray can icons floating near them. These are tagging points, and it’s up to you to tag everything. As you move through the world, you’ll run into various NPCs. This is where the game really shines. The pure, unfettered nihilism that pours forth from every character you talk to is hilarious. The town is home to megacorporation Glug, setting a stage for a classic anti-corpo story beat.
The Glug employees are on strike. They’re more than happy to tell you this. There are teleporters set around the world, but they’re inactive. You can activate them by standing on them. You know this because the teleporter maintenance person is on strike. You’ll have to activate them manually. These points act as your fast travel in the world of Sludge Life. The whole map is open to you at the beginning. You can go anywhere and do whatever. Mostly you’ll be tagging and interacting with the NPC’s. The pause menu doubles as a laptop that you can use to check on different, inconsequential things. I’m not saying that the laptop isn’t cool, but you can beat the game without ever opening it. It’s just there for fun.
The attitude of Sludge Life seems to be, “just there for fun”. The nihilism of the game seems to wash over to the player. It doesn’t care if you’re playing it. If you are, cool. If not? Who gives a shit. I’ve never seen a game that cares less about the player. This is not a bad thing. I have to keep saying that, because it seems like I’m being negative. I’m not. I love what the game does. Sludge Life feels like street art. You don’t have to interact with it. If you do? cool. It’s there as a statement from the artist. It isn’t explicitly for you but it isn’t explicitly not for you.
Now that I’m done with my wank about “the message” of the game, I want to touch on everything else. The graphics are a fun cel-shaded mess. Characters are cartoon-y and weird. There are human NPC’s but also human-sized flies. They all don’t care, in case you were wondering. The world of Sludge Life feels full. Everywhere you go there’s something weird to take in. Go underneath the large Glug tower and you’ll come across a weird ostrich-like bird that will beat you to death if you steal it’s eggs. High up points of interest are often populated by other taggers, who will tell Ghost he needs to get better at tagging. There is always someone, or something, to talk to or interact with.
As you work your way through the world of Sludge Life you’ll accrue different upgrades to help you on your tagging quest. An old veteran tagger will give you his eyes in a jar. When held, they’ll automatically look towards tagging spots you may have missed. Breaking into a sealed laboratory will score you a warp device. This device will let you anchor on a certain point to teleport back to at your leisure. The list goes on. I won’t spoil everything you get, but a lot of it is useful and funny. You can also find games and apps for your laptop. Stuff like LifeLoop, which is installed after your first death – oh yeah you can die in Sludge Life – is just on your laptop as a reminder of your crippling medical debt that you can never hope to pay off. There is an app called Worms that just lets you move your mouse around to make art. Like I said about the laptop earlier: You don’t have to interact with it at all, but there’s cool stuff if you do.
The music is this lo-fi hip hop weirdness that I deeply love. There are lyrics but it’s almost like listening to simlish – the made up language from The Sims– in that you can’t understand anything. Not being able to understand the lyrics does not detract from the absolutely bumping beats. Like I said, everything is available from the word “go”. You can go anywhere on the map. in true tagger fashion you’ll be doing a lot of breaking and entering. The only complaint I really have about this, is that I accidentally beat the game. Sludge Life is so open-ended that I messed around and beat the game. I hadn’t done all the tagging spots. I didn’t have all the upgrades. There was no indication that I was beating the game.
I stumbled into it. It’s not hidden or anything. It was on par with most of the environmental puzzles you figure out to get to new tagging spots. All of the sudden, the game was showing me the end credits. It’s probably the first time I’ve accidentally beaten a game through sheer goofing around. Sludge Life has 3 distinct endings. If you accidentally beat it, you can always go back and try for the other endings. The endings are: Good, bad, and weird. I won’t go into what happens in the endings. I’m sure you’ll accidentally get the same ending I got at first just through playing the game naturally.
The level of interaction with the world is fantastic. One of Glug’s corporate mascots is Ciggy; a red, smiley-face bedecked weirdo who encourages you to smoke. Cigarettes can be found around the world, and with a push of a button you can burn one. This ties into an app on your laptop called “Smoke With Ciggy”. It keeps track of how many cigarettes you’ve smoked. There are no warnings about the dangers of smoking because Sludge Life isn’t in the business of caring. It’s casual nihilism, all the way down. Later, you’ll find Ciggy crushed to death underneath the head of a massive statue. Smoking kills, everyone.
What a weird game. I enjoyed my time with Sludge Life. From smoking with Ciggy, to being beaten to death by a giant bird, and even spitting in the Glug CEO’s food, there was always something to do. I haven’t gotten the weird ending yet, so I’m gonna go take care of that. Maybe I won’t. Maybe Sludge Life’s mission statement has worked, and I just. don’t. care.