Be a good vanger and take the nymbos to Incubator, would you? Grab a jar of phlegma while you’re there – the Podish bunch are due a good smearing. Maybe snap up a tabutask or two if you think your mechos can take it. What’s that you got? An Oxidise Monk? Pfft. Still, if it’s Plump-Up, you might try and run an Eleerection – though take care of that eLeech, vanger. They might just be reincarnated pod-eaters who plumped-out to death, but they still deserve better than to cark it in the back of some rattletrap raffa driven by some know-nothing rambler who crumples into the first stinker he sees. And if you don’t win Eleerection you aren’t ever going to reach Glorx, much less anywhere else in the Chain.
If you understood that, then you probably already have some idea why Vangers – re-released on Steam and GOG last year – is one of the oddest, most original and overlooked games in history. If you didn’t understand it then you are in the position everyone else was in June of 1998, bewildered by their purpose in a gameworld designed to be explicitly, unintelligibly alien in almost every respect.
Being a keen fan of gibberish, I was immediately entranced. Reviewers at the time were left largely nonplussed, however, crudely characterising it as a “racing RPG” and often making inapt comparisons to GTA, a game released seven months prior. From a development perspective, that was not nearly long enough for GTA to have been Vanger’s template, and, beyond the fact you control a vehicle from above, the two games share little structurally, technologically or aesthetically. Vangers is a game principally about perplexed and fearful exploration, a search for meaning in a foetidly gloopy alien world where nothing immediately makes sense, least of all the language. Even today, it’s hard to find an analogue. Maybe ACE Team’s weirdo Zeno Clash games get closest to the sort of mental sidestep Vanger’s world and lingo requires: a place with esoteric rules and rituals, an inhuman ecosystem and its own strangely beautiful lexicon to be revealed and understood.
As the novella-length introductory text makes apparent, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Contact with the Infinite Mind has propelled humanity to the stars and beyond, allowing them to construct intergalactic passages and connect distant worlds. Their appetite for exploration and conquest overstretches them, however, and a desperate war with an insectoid species called the Cryspo ends in mutual annihilation via genetic warfare – a conflagration that sees both species’ physiology combined in alarming ways. After aeons of genetic chaos, a new order emerges with Cryspo-human creatures stratified into many different symbiotic species. All live in thrall to elaborate rituals tied to the rapid seasonal cycles of the strange, interlinked toroidal worlds on which they live.
While all this is explained up front, it may be hours into the game before you really have the tools to interpret it, buried as it is in an unparseable deluge of unfamiliar words and delivered with a sort of casually unsympathetic patter that assumes your understanding. Impenetrable though it is, there’s something quickly charming about the babble of portmanteaus and neologisms Vangers pours forth. Some sound like infantile gurglings (Beeboorats), others like pseudoscience (Transmundane Bios), others still defy pronunciation with formations that resemble the desperate ploys of late-90s marketing departments (MacHOTine gun). Whoever wrote this stuff has an ear for language – for sounds that are comic or evocative in their mere enunciation, before any further meaning is applied. Kuzowocks. Podish. Plump-Up. Gulp-down. Softie. Glorx. Your starting vehicle, or “mechos”, is a bladed dune-buggy called an Oxidise Monk. Whatever that means, it’s fun to say. Vangers has a lexicon to rival A Clockwork Orange, a semi-comic sci-fi patois assembled from the fragments of human speech and the Cryspo’s chitinous chittering. Demystifying this weird argot is one of the joys of the game.
What you are, meanwhile, and what role you play in the world’s bizarre ecosystem, remains a mystery for much longer. You are a vanger, that much is clear: a beast encased in a mechos, a vehicle capable of traversing the surface of the world. You live in the service of eleepods, a subterranean grub-people partly under the psychic control of other, yet more reclusive creatures, who together exert a paternalistic control over the world’s social and biological hierarchy.
And so you set out, ferrying items from one eleepod burrow to another, buying low and selling high, earning beebs (a living, wriggling currency), upgrading your mechos and eking out information about the world from your grublike overlords. It is a strange and hazardous place – and an innovative use of technology, too, to create such a malleable, undulating landscape from voxels, littered with strange domes and decaying contraptions over which tiny crablike creatures skitter. The terrain most reminds me of mud-banks left by a receding tide, pungent and teeming, surrounded by stinking, salty slabs of rock, encased in molluscs and matted with weeds. It is not exactly an enticing place, though it is most definitely alive. Things move beneath the surface, creating shifting mounds that threaten to overturn careless drivers. Seasons change: the livid green of Plump-Up fades into the dangerous twilight of Gulp-Down. Ritual races are enacted, and may be participated in. Favours completed. Secrets bestowed. And eventually the glowing gates which act as the portal between other worlds of The Chain may be opened. New lands lie beyond and even stranger adventures: slavery, reincarnation and fourth-wall breaking revelations.
All this mystery, and the obscure language by which it is framed, is both the reason to play the game and probably the reason a lot of people decided not to play it after all. Today, however, I wonder if we are perhaps better schooled in ambitious obscurantism. Dark Souls and a slew of artfully mysterious indie games have taught us that discovery is as much a pleasure as play. There are, at any rate, multiple walkthroughs and glossaries for Vangers available, the best supplied by the developers themselves, written in the character of some burrow-dwelling denizen of The Chain.
A larger stumbling block to those picking up the game some 17 years late, is just how infuriating it is to play on a tactile, moment-to-moment level. Vangers did some pioneering work with the way its vehicle physics interacts with the rugged and rippling voxel landscape, but it is undoubtedly finicky and cruel. The most measly mound will sometimes upturn your vehicle and leave it flopping and rolling amid rough terrain like a dying fish. Jump buttons allow you to boost your mechos into the air, but once stymied, this carries no forward momentum, and so you land in the same place and remain mired until you laboriously wriggle free. Landing in water is even worse, while combat invites only more chaos, the camera spinning disorientingly upon impact, explosions sending you cartwheeling off-course. I may have contributed a few more four letter words to Vangers’ lexicon.
Of course, it’s absolutely worth tolerating the spasmodic driving model just to see the sights of Vangers’ alien world, to saturate yourself in that intentionally inscrutable jargon. Few games since have been so stridently, gleefully weird. Vangers makes no apologies for being unintelligible – indeed, when disorientation is the intent, nonsense becomes its own virtue.