Psychedelic indie does minimalist storytelling right
I’m a big advocate for enigmatic and free form indie games. The art comes in removing the constraints of typical goals and replacing them with what can be best described as “fun in the experience.” Here we find Sludge Life, a grungy, awkward, open world game that lets you explore and discover the stories you want to find. It’s not the typical environment you’re used to and delving into the intricacies of that are what makes this title so intriguing.
Sludge Life begins at a ‘90s computer desktop, complete with clunky login and boxy file windows. It’s a unique start to say the least, but this screen acts as your pause/inventory menu. Entering Sludge Life is as simple as clicking the icon and then you’re in the world: a sludge covered oil rig planet with a workforce strike in progress and a graffiti problem. You play as Ghost, a notorious tagger in the graffiti community.
The initial goal is to tag in hard to reach designated spots throughout the map, but with some exploration the world unfolds into psychedelic environmental interactions. Kaleidoscopic drug trips and uncomfortable lab experiments are very much part of the charm of Sludge Life. The view is first person but the art and character design are a surrealist, muppet-esque acid dream reminiscent of MTV’s Liquid Television. This motif is set to a retro synth soundtrack that brings some deep bass; you’re definitely in for an experience here.
While it may seem like I glossed over the goals of the game, that’s because Sludge Life is best played without a goal in mind: just explore the space. Poking at every nook and cranny to find a new story or interaction is what makes it special. Unfortunately, this lack of direction can leave some wandering aimlessly. If you want a linear path, this is not the game for you, and that’s kind of the issue overall. You either vibe with it or you don’t; it’s polarizing. The grimey beats hit weirdly, multiple endings can be stumbled upon accidently, and the hallucinatory nature of the story may not be for everyone.
If you do venture in, there’s deeper environmental storytelling about the oil workers’ strike, subpar living conditions, classism and mind-expanding drug trips. There’s lots to find, including secret lab equipment that lets you teleport to rocket ships and hang gliders. If poked enough, there are secrets around every corner. That’s where the shine is. There was rarely ever a time that I didn’t work hard to access an area and not be rewarded with some comedic conversation, environmental story beat, or new item. To accompany that thought, the world isn’t overwhelmingly large, so Sludge Life is relegated to a shorter experience game, and this works in its favor. It shows you insight into a fantastically stylistic world but leaves you wanting more.
Sludge Life is a stylish package that plays in both the absurd and experimental space. The art style evokes a feeling of being on psychedelics with a grungy style all its own. The visuals hit hard, and the bass beats hit even harder. I was always curious to find out more and usually there was something interesting around every corner. It’s understandable that this game’s drug use and lack of direction can turn some players off, but I found it wild and truly unique. There’s really nothing like it. Sludge Life is a vibe, for sure.