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The best games you missed in 2021: Sluggish Morss: Pattern Circus

What dreams may come

As a child struggling to sleep at night I'd dream of three worlds. First and least of these was Desert World, a blithe eternity of golden sand always viewed from kilometres up, where fizzing white rings rose toward me like expanding surf. I'd try to find my way down to the surface, but always at the risk of glitching straight through and ending up in Snake World, where monstrous serpents emerged from darkened kitchens.

Somewhere between these two poles lay the realm of the Animals, not that they were really animals, but clouds of eyelash-thin mandible, grot and sparkle, like rotten food on the point of becoming a school of tropical fish. I loved Animal World. I used to spend hours trying to mind-hack my way into it. I was pretty shocked to find its likeness in Sluggish Morss: Pattern Circus - an irresistibly strange, gristly, sorrowful, comical and inventive album of creatures, songs, places and phrases from Jack King-Spooner and composer Helena Celle.

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I think “album” is the best word? Each room and encounter in this game feels like its own dream, its own hypnotic grotto of tones and effigies, lashed together by some complex artistic techniques and fixations: twitching, CRPG-style characters of clay and garbage; the sparing use of live action footage; an overwhelming interest in glitching, distortion, interference, gruesomely bright colours and the ugly or grotesque in general; a kind of fizzing, post-club atmosphere of melancholy and dehydration. Cronenberg's Existenz seems like a solid reference point though the first one I thought of was Red Dwarf, with its monsters made of curry.

There is a story loitering in the corners – an off-beat murder-mystery involving a racing driver and an impoverished scientist. It takes you to places like underground bars, ponds and space stations. It involves tasks like scanning worms, shopping for pet food, fighting insomnia, and piloting hoverships or submarines that look like half-digested Walkie-Talkies. You are rarely asked to do anything more elaborate than move around an area and talk to or collect something or someone. I've only played through once but there appear to be several endings. The writing is terse, poetic, whimsical, wandering and damaged. The music is doleful, giddy and exploratory; it makes me think of prog rock, though I suspect this is completely the wrong comparison – Jethro Tull but cool, perhaps? Here, listen for yourself. Whatever it is, it's one of the best soundtracks I've heard.

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