Friday, February 23, 2018

Time Is Our Kingdom: The Sluggish Morss Headspace

A preview of the future, apparently (source).
Jake Clover and Jack King-Spooner, using Game Maker, created four video games—if they can be called that—relating to a single storyline. The Sluggish Morss series blurs the lines between game and visual novel: there's ostensibly an objective to reach, but it doesn't matter much.

There are currently four games in the series:
  1. Sluggish Morss
  2. Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History
  3. Sluggish Morss: Ad Infinitum
  4. Sluggish Morss: Days of the Purple Sun
Days of the Purple Sun is a straight-up PvP combat game and is quite different from the preceding three games, so it will not be considered here. Instead, the first three-quarters of the series will be examined.

A lot of this is extrapolation and conjecture. King-Spooner's series is notoriously dense and heady, and a lot of this stuff has to be gleaned and chewed on (you might call King-Spooner the Shane Carruth of video games). What follows is an interpretation of the series as I've come to see it.

Content warning for violence, epilepsy/seizure warning for the visuals, sanity warning for everything else.

Penny for your thoughts?

Something's telling me I shouldn't take these… (source)
The MacGuffin for the first three games would have to be the coins. One character informs the player that "hopefully the coins are familiar," and obtaining them is required in the first game in order to advance, but there's no real explicit purpose for them. They decrease in apparent importance as the series goes on, not being paid so much as lip service in Ad Infinitum, where their one big appearance is during the landing of the spacecraft, and the player need not even try to collect all of them. Generally speaking, there's no real reward in most circumstances, aside from triggering the story to move forward in one or two places. So why bother with the coins in the first place?

There is an answer to this, I believe. My takeaway is that the first game is the dying dream of the player character (PC), who was murdered over a debt. Given the nature of the game, it's likely this was related to a drug deal.

"I can see your halo"

It's kind of hard to miss (source).
Where does this idea come from? There's one scene where the PC stands in front of another character who cycles through an animation of pointing a gun at him, and in several instances gunshots (and in one case, a Wilhelm scream) can be heard. Death and altered or lost consciousness are prominent motifs in the game as well. You get dialogue like this, from one of the headbanging aliens (q.v.):
The thought that keeps coming back to your head—our last encounter with someone you know of. It runs through your mind during the nanosecond before your death.
A Delicate Time in History actually provides some more supporting evidence for this. There's a sort of incidental dialogue in one scene where a character looks at a monitor displaying a situation from the first game and remarks on the supposed barbarity of the crew in G Quarters. The skipper of the Morss is then shocked to learn there's been an outbreak of violence the likes of which hasn't been seen in nine thousand years.

The aliens do a lot of talking about ill events befalling someone in this game, actually. There's a lot of symbolism relating to that among everything else, too, from the line "I can see your halo" in the concert lyrics in A Delicate Time in History, to throwaway lines about how "a weapon reflects the soul of its maker," to the infamous "lullaby and good night" scene where the PC is locked into paralysis while the aliens basically recite a lullaby to him, to the atomic bomb imagery that shows up in the first two games. There's also the explicit line from the PC's brother in the first game:
You know how I shot you in the head. I take it back. Please come back.

The life-death juxtaposition

Can you open your mouth a little wider? I'm losing the signal for the station (source).
On the other hand, there's also the recurrent motif of new life that contrasts this. The Super Babies (no relation, thank God) seem to be genetically-modified children who run humanity. There's one part in the second game where you basically give consciousness to one, who then informs you that he is "now aware."

There's also the new-life motif in the sense of a new lease on life. The aliens do … something … to the PC of the first game; it's not clear whether they're trying to save his life after he's been shot or if they make him ascend to a higher plane of existence. But the idea is still there. Widok, from A Delicate Time in History, is basically sent to a new post where she is confronted with the fragments of future events.

Headbanging aliens

They may look vaporwave, but they're all metal (source).
The aliens appear in each game, decreasing in prominence each time. In the first game, they feature in about half the scenes. In the second, they appear in one particularly beautiful scene asking philosophical questions in an almost Gregorian call-and-response. In the third … they show up at the end and basically tell humanity that they're disappointed in their failure to colonize outer space.

The aliens sort of seem to become more real as the games pass. In the first game, they're a Technicolor fever dream of cyclic animation. In the second, they appear to the player character on an elevator, incorporeal but more composed. Come Ad Infinitum, they have a 3D gravitas about them and helium speech. (Hey, can't have your cake and eat it too, I guess.)

So what do the aliens represent? In the first game they appear to try to save the soul of the player character—it's unclear if they succeed or if the PC just ascends to a higher plane of existence. In the third game, they primarily show up to remark to humanity that they're disappointed in them. In the second, there's that call-and-response wherein the alien asks the following six questions:
Where do dreams go, when you awaken?
Where do prayers go, when left unanswered?
Where do flames go, when they're extinguished?
Where do souls go, when they're not living?
Where do wishes go?
Where does love go, when it is gone? 
To McDonald's, where else? (source)
I have a thought that the aliens represent a contrast to humanity tantamount to an inherent one. I'll get to that shortly.

Numbers, numbers everywhere

The Super Baby asks the question that's on most people's minds about halfway through any given game (source).
In the second game, it's mentioned that humanity has developed to the point where basically history, in all senses—past, present, and future—has been reduced to the cold equations of statistics and probability. There's real-world subtext to this, e.g. Asimov's idea of psychohistory (which has actually sort of become a thing) or the nascent field of cliometrics. In the Sluggish Morss universe, however, it's become the guiding and driving force behind societal operation.

Widok, the PC from the second game, is basically a glorified accountant who audits future events. That Widok basically defies everyone's number-crunching is a big deal in A Delicate Time in History. Numbers and hard, unfeeling data are part and parcel behind the conflict in that game, with the captain of the ship mentioning how many years it's been since the last violent episode and mentions of scans and probabilities.

The iron butterfly of perception

Cuphead this isn't, but it's still a unique idea (source).
That the franchise could be considered psychedelic is putting it mildly. The first game is basically a bad trip in interactive form: the protagonist is constantly seen puffing on some sort of pipe, and there's explicit reference to Bob Marley and marijuana culture at several points throughout the game. A lot of the incidental events are also seemingly nonsensical and/or slightly shifted out of what you would expect from reality, with Technicolor visuals, palette-swapped animals that talk, and … reggae music.

The second game de-emphasizes this, but the whole psychedelic, seventies-sci-fi atmosphere is still very much present. There's one point where Widok is basically on a space elevator and gets a vision of two guys with headphones, headbanging (sort of like the aliens from earlier). It seems random but illustrates how Widok is sort of starting to transcend reality. In the third game, the visuals get a lot goofier and trippier, even when compared to the first game, and the PC is seen at one point explicitly hitting a joint. There's also a dual art shift: in the style of the game, there manages to be both a more cartoony, fluid aesthetic and a more concrete, 3D idea, to the point that certain parts of the game are handled using claymation.

Bounding to the carrier Morss

Here goes nothing… (source)
So what is the gist of Sluggish Morss in toto?

A reasonable takeaway would probably be that humans are violent. You have the aliens representing the Freudian superego, trying to guide us and getting frustrated when we fail. Humankind is trying to adhere to the superego ideal but, after nine thousand years, falls back on the id in G Quarters thanks to the PC's drug habit. He borrows money from his brother, who shoots him when he can't pay up. This wrecks the nice, neat simulations and calculations of the Super Babies (whether this was Widok's fault, directly and intentionally or otherwise, is not really spoken to) and mankind is thrown into chaos. This disappoints the aliens, and is basically the payoff of the story.

Where do comments go, when they're no longer in draft? Is this too sluggish with not enough Morss? Let me know below!


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