Remembering Vangers And The Virtue Of Nonsense

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.

Vangers is now available on Steam for £5 or GOG.com for £4.

26 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    The thing about Vangers is – admittedly while I did actually buy the game way back in the day, it’s been a long time since I played the thing. I own it on Steam (it was briefly in a really good Bundle Stars bundle which is no longer available) but I haven’t loaded it up. Anyway.

    The thing about Vangers is, as far as I can remember it was not really an especially weird game – I can’t remember if it was ahead of its time or not but IIRC it was pretty much an open-world ARPG of sorts which just happened to feature cars and driving around. The gameplay had absolutely no real relation to the plot, and hence the endless stream of gibberish had no real reason to exist other than because it was weird and stuff. The reason why people who criticise Neal Stephenson’s Anathem are dumb, and why they should feel dumb, is if you read the book it quickly becomes clear the plot is about (among other things) the meaning of words, the meanings we assign them and why, the information these meanings carry, how these things change over time etc., etc. – he makes it quite obvious a whole bunch of made-up words kinda come with the territory and serve a distinct plot-related purpose. Vangers, at least in one sense, is the opposite extreme – a perfectly unremarkable, straight-ahead genre plot where someone thought that if they replaced all the words with gibberish it’d suddenly turn their story into Stanislaw Lem or something. The thing you use for money serves exactly the same purpose as money, it’s regarded by the society you’ve created in the same way as money, so stop treating it as if it’s something mind-blowingly alien just because you’ve got a wallet full of maggots.

    I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, seriously. I haven’t played it in years, I admired it for making the attempt to be odd, I keep meaning to give it a shot again. But I certainly don’t remember anything about it to suggest it really was some forgotten classic that deserves to be stuck on a pedestal. Unless my memory’s really failing me, Icepick Lodge this ain’t.

    • fishdinner says:

      I’ll agree with you at the core of your argument. The game play itself as its written isn’t especially esoteric.

      However, at the age of 17 when it was released, and surrounded by a slew of very straightforward computer and console titles, things that were discovering 3D and trying to present themselves as directly as possible, the game was baffling.

      It also had the Dark Souls gate of being *really freaking hard*. So when you died after wiggling uselessly in the dirt, because you hadn’t completed a trade route properly and had to reload your (not auto) save, the lexicon just confused everything even more and it really felt like something special.

    • gorice says:

      If you’re playing Vangers like an ARPG, you’re doing it all wrong. It’s a game about being a clumsy mutant exploring alien worlds, and mechanically… Well, you’re a clumsy mutant exploring alien worlds. The obvious Elite- or RPG-style solution to a problem is almost always suboptimal.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        It isn’t a case of playing it right or wrong, it’s a case of arguing the alien gibberish isn’t adding anything like as much genuine mystique to the process as people are/this article is insinuating. That the “gibberish” in Anathem isn’t gibberish and is integral to the story, but the gibberish in Vangers could be removed with losing much of the effect, if anything of it at all.

    • Black Scalp says:

      People criticise Anathem? For what possible reason?

      It is up there with the best books I have read. I’m truly intrigued as to what the criticism relates to.

      • Tacroy says:

        It was really hard to read, my wrists got tired

      • Eight Rooks says:

        I am specifically thinking of this sort of reaction:

        link to xkcd.com

        I like Randall Munroe’s stuff, generally, but occasionally he’s, well, completely wrong.

        • gwathdring says:

          I agree with the point of the comic. I haven’t read Anathem so I don’t know if it would change my mind. But like most comics, it’s an exaggeration for effect not a hard and fast rule. If you do it really well or you have an ulterior motive, write however you darn well please. But in general, I find it unnecessarily annoying when books use made-up words for mundane articles we have perfectly serviceable words for. As a general rule, you should only make up words if there aren’t words for what you want to say. Want to talk about bread that’s just, well, bread? Call it bread.

          It’s like when a movie that takes place in a foreign country decides it really, really needs to make sure it’s actors have or imitate that country’s accent … while speaking English. If the whole conceit is that for the sake of this film, English is in fact Russian … giving them a funky Russian accent places them, I dunno, as form Britain or Jamaica or something. Now sometimes this isn’t an intentional stupidity but just a fluke of casting in a film where they just don’t care if the actors have accents of this or that sort–which is totally fine and doesn’t bug me. Sometimes it’s hard to tell so I lean towards no minding unless it becomes frustratingly obvious they think this makes the film more immersive and Foreign despite being too lazy to actually make the film in another language.

          Anyway. I generally don’t like it when authors make up words just to have things sound more Exotic. If that’s not what Anathem does, well, good for Anathem. Dune certainly does it and it bothered me.

          I find it’s much more effective to, when you find yourself wanting to use a special word to make something more exotic, instead create an exotic object and describe it’s odd behavior in mundane terms rather than special words. Use the normalcy of the exotic to render your setting alien and wondrous.

          • YeGoblynQueenne says:

            Wait. You mean Russian does not actually sound just like English spoken with a Russian accent?

          • YeGoblynQueenne says:

            OK, for real: that thing with the accents is really annoying, but there’s a method to the madness.

            To begin with, there are so many different English accents and it would be weird to see an actor that’s supposed to be from Louisiana speaking with a British accent, or someone who’s supposed to be Scottish speaking like they’re from Liverpool. Even someone who doesn’t really know what a real Scottish accent sounds like will do a double-take there. And of course the critics will savage you.

            So you have two options: either every actor in your film, series etc tries to sound like their character would, or everyone tones their accent down until they all sound Canadian.

            The problem with the second option is that this takes a good chunk out of actors’ and writer’s ability to portray a character. This might be a bit of a vicious circle since, the more accents are considered acting, the more the industry invests on actors who can do accents and so on, but that’s probably besides the point.

            The other alternative of course is to have anyone who plays, say, a Russian character, actually speak Russian. There are problems with that too: traditionally, Hollywood considers subtitles difficult for audiences to read, or a distraction etc. and anyway films where actors actually speak their characters’ language are labelled “world cinema” (imnaaho that’s the bit that’s really dumb).

            The other problem of course is that it can be difficult to find actors who speak a specific foreign language adequately. From experience (I’m Greek) (well, now I’m an immigrant) attempts at having Greek-speaking actors to speak a bit of Greek on screen have had mixed results. Sometimes they get a second or third generation Greek speaker and they totally sound the part, pun intended. Often I wonder what actors are saying when they’re speaking a language I don’t understand… a-la Der Undergang, I guess.

            Well anyway. Ha’penny ‘orth :)

            P.S. Oh right, forgot: obviously, where you have fantasy “accents”, like Tolkien Dwarfs speaking with a “Scottish” accent and so on, that shouldn’t be allowed. Should be banned on pain of pain.

        • LionsPhil says:

          I’d say that one’s bang-on target.

    • Darloth says:

      Well, yes, and also no.

      Beebs are just money, but they’re also scurrying around the world where you can run them over and pick them up. It’s not a LOT of income, but it is income, and I don’t know of any other circumstance where coinage would be moving around a planet of its own volition in large, uncoordinated numbers.

    • xesaie says:

      The difference is that it’s funny, seriously funny, and not only because of the fact that it’s hard to parse.

      The difficulty of understanding is also in actuality part of the gameplay. It’s a discovery game, and figuring out what you’re actually supposed to do or how to get some of the things you need despite the language barrier.

      It’s not Stephensonesque try-hard gibberish beyond the way it sets the alienness of the world. It’s lighthearted fun gibberish, which succeeds if it makes you smile.

      And if “Doughey Meatloaf” didn’t make you smile the first time you saw it, you’re not human.

    • Widthwood says:

      While I can’t speak for English version, original one did not really make up lots of random words. There was common style and usually either direct or subconscious likeness to real, if sometimes strange and archaic, words. It made sense as an integral part of the version of our world that was dissolved and mutated long time ago. Normal words just wouldn’t fit to describe life comprised of these twisted customs, that gradually replaced meaning of life for entire planets when human goals and ways of life lost all relevance.

      In a way, this is like Adventure Time – on a first glance looks like random weirdness made by artists on acid, but actually is normal and internally coherent world that looks weird only because it differs from what we are used to.

  2. LionsPhil says:

    You maniac! Don’t encourage people to expose themselves to this!

  3. drewski says:

    Thank you for being the first person to ever explain Vangers in a way that makes conceptual sense. I got the feeling from most of the reviews at the time, and even retro reviews, that most reviewers had bounced off it so hard that they didn’t even understand the basic concept of what they’d played.

    So +1 games reviewing cred for you, Marsh Davies.

  4. das_fleisch says:

    Is that goatse in the first screenshot?

    • masarius says:

      I think if you exchanged his nose with his mouth that’s definite goatse territory

  5. Tony M says:

    The joy of Vangers is being dropped in an Alien ecosystem, and your job is to figure out what your role is in that ecosystem. Who are the predators? Who the prey, where is pollen, where flowers, what are seasons, what effect do they have on the ecosystem? Plus many parts of the ecosystem are sentient creatures, so you also have alien cultures, taboos and religions. And when you figure it out your reward is to be transported to an even more alien world and do it over again. Terrific game.

    I’d love to see this structure applied to a survival game. Survival games are fun until you learn how to survive. Then theres not much to do except build an impressive base of operations. But what if you had to learn to survive over and over again, with different rules each time?

  6. Kempston Wiggler says:

    The thing that really hooked me on KD Labs’ games – including the amazing Perimeter – was the underlying meta-fiction lore they’d clearly put a lot of effort into. It was essentially a zany multiverse where just about everything was different enough from our own reality to seem truly alien. The concept of the “chain” you mentioned is used to brilliant effect to explain the progression of levels in Perimeter. I’ve always been drawn to the more outre conceptual stuff and really enjoy all KD Labs’ games on several levels that most games never even think about reaching.

    The Zeno Clash comparison is great. Another classic “weird” game is The Tone Rebellion, from the makers of 4x classic, Ascendancy. All these years later and there’s really nothing like Tone or Vangers out there which I think is hugely commendable and makes these games absolute treasures.

    • Darloth says:

      I still haven’t found anywhere selling the Tone Rebellion in a form that I can play it :(

  7. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    The bizarre lexicon reminds me pleasantly of The Gostak, a text adventure with English grammar but alien nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. You play as the gostak, whose goal is to distim the doshes, but you can’t pell at them because the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds. Since it’s a text adventure, the main goal of the game is to figure out enough of the words that you can form sentences to advance your goal. Be prepared to take copious notes.

    Obviously a very different type of game, but if you like figuring out bizarre vocabulary, it will delight you. I recommend playing it with a friend if you can, because by the time you finish you’ll both have a rough grasp of conversational Gostakian and can drive your other friends insane with it. (“Wanna rask some leilage?” “Yeah, I could leil.”)

    If it’s not clear from context, to play the game you’ll need its file and an interpreter such as Frotz.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    The bizarre lexicon reminds me pleasantly of The Gostak, a text adventure with English grammar but alien nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. You play as the gostak, whose goal is to distim the doshes, but you can’t pell at them because the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds. Since it’s a text adventure, the main goal of the game is to figure out enough of the words that you can form sentences to advance your goal. Be prepared to take copious notes.

    Obviously a very different type of game, but if you like figuring out bizarre vocabulary, it will delight you. I recommend playing it with a friend if you can, because by the time you finish you’ll both have a rough grasp of conversational Gostakian and can drive your other friends insane with it. (“Wanna rask some leilage?” “Yeah, I could leil.”)

    (I had put some helpful links about getting the game running here, but apparently multiple links in one post triggers a moderation hold, and it’s not looking like anyone will get around to it until after this comment section has sunk beneath the waves, so I guess you’ll have to figure out how to get an interpreter running by yourself. It’s particularly frustrating since the very next post after mine was non-blocked obvious spam. Oh well!)

  9. AyeBraine says:

    The weird alien lexicon must be even weirder because it’s a double translation – it was originally written in Russian. So Kuzowock is an obsolete word for a kind of food basket that’s also shares a root with the modern word for “car body”. Anyway, seems the English version was very creatively translated (I’m pretty sure they did it themselves, unsurprisingly).

    • cartoonka says:

      to AyeBraine:

      We recently (when re-released it on Steam) made corrections to the text and a lot of terms in Vangers with native speaking professinals from US, so it become less ackward in few situations.

      But basically yes, old version was translated in-house back in the days by our own 3D programmer. :)

  10. guygodbois00 says:

    Vengers assemble!