Music is Magic, but you knew that didn’t you?
Developer Sonoshee describes 2019’s Critters For Sale as an opportunity to “experience death from the comfort of your seat”, and it’s a self proclaimed exploration of “time travel, black magic, and immortality.” The loading screen crackles and pops with VCR static washed over the visual dissonance of Arabian Night’s-esque titles, and all of the action of the game is neatly nestled into a series of crisp black Div tables. The meat of the game is only shown through these boxes – along with a text reminder of who you are, where you are, and, politely, what the current temperature is – presenting the core of the action as though you’re not actively participating, but watching a stranger live it out while watching along on your dad’s blown out CRT TV.
Time travel, black magic, and immortality aside, Critters For Sale also seems to have something to say about death, music, and religion, and the intersection where the three may meet. Presented as an anthology of separate but connected stories spanning time and place, each section of Critters For Sale alchemizes the power, emotions, and public likenesses of music in literal, often dubiously legal ways. In Snake, a 27 year old cab driver gets a mysterious text from Michael Jackson summoning him to a nearby night club. In Goat, a Bedouin traveler crosses the desert with a familiar Californian to find a cave supposedly lousy with riches. In both stories, good and evil meet, uncanny villains called “Noid Men” wreak havoc, and you face – and often succumb to – death. A lot.
Rip it up and start again
In Snake, the first story to be released, a 4 am text from Michael Jackson calling you to a night club is played up as a delightfully kitschy idiosyncrasy, but it’s also a conceptual shot fired from the hip: clubs would cease to be entirely if people didn’t amble towards the midnight sirens call of dance floor bangers from pop gods and goddesses. And amble you do, through the bleary lens of Snake’s cab driver protagonist, Sergei. Or, if you choose to stay in bed, you meet your very first brush with death: a glassy-eyed David statue who materializes in your Twin Peaks-esque bedroom to dispassionately choke you out, identified in your last moments only as the third inscrutable Noid Man.
Death in Critters for Sale feels less like a narrative roadblock and more like a puzzle to solve. In any given scenario you’re given two options – stay or go, take the white pill or black pill – and one choice will inevitably kill you and zip you back to the main menu to rinse and repeat the scene. This slipperiness of time and place gives each story a feel that, ultimately, time and place don’t matter, despite the constant textual reminders of who and where you are at any given moment. Immortality and timelessness are commonplace – but only for gods – and Sonoshee slyly points to the 21st century gods that we’ve all prayed at the altars of, whether through dance floor rituals or ticket sale offerings: musicians. It’s not a new or unexplored idea, but there’s messy joy in the unique way these ideas are zipped up with other big brain concepts. Death in Critters For Sale isn’t capital-D Death, but a spiritual death – and Sonoshee cuts no corners in correlating the spiritual with the musical.
All through Critters For Sale, Sonoshee picks at the threads that connect holy ritual and the ritual of music in a way that’s messy but generally plays nice with Critters’ jittery, incomprehensible style. In each story, prayer and pilgrimage gives you the option to literally face the music: a talking Muslim prayer rug in Snake asks you to examine whether your devotion lies with the “Highest Council” or serves the Noid Men. Pilgrimage in Goat brings you ultimately to your death, but allows you to witness the birth of a zealous band of evildoers of dubious intent meant to “fulfill Satan’s legacy”. Throughout all of this, you’re repeatedly given the choice – do the thing that moves your chess piece closer to the goals of the Powers That Be, or don’t. It’s no choice at all, though: If you don’t, be prepared to die. These non-choices do result in the best joke of the game, though: a grainy picture of George Lucas, Kanye West, and Elon Musk huddled around each other with in-game text implying that this is the band Death Grips.
Visually, Critters for Sale is like channel surfing in a foreign country at 1 am: The world looks familiar enough to be recognizable, but still leaves you wondering whether any of it is really, tangibly real. Videos are synthesized and compressed down to 1-bit images that shimmer with static. Familiar and unfamiliar faces alike morph and slurp until they bump up against the rough edges of the Uncanny Valley. Assets and text shake, shiver, and shy away from your touch, like they’re stuck in a version of time that’s slowly, dispassionately unraveling.
Time in the narrative of the game feels just as slippery. In the first section of the game, Snake, Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson) reappears in 2033 to perform a dance number at Limelight (yes, that Limelight) that catches on itself, looping, repeating, slowing, and glitching. The club scene at first reads as tongue in cheek silly: silhouettes of Monty Python characters are undercover spies, a dancer remarks to no one in particular that mosquito pulp doesn’t taste as good as snake, and a patron languidly muses that sound transcending the physical and becoming emotional is a curious phenomenon and maybe someone, somewhere, should be paying attention to that. (Wink, wink.)
Kitschy and twee like a knock knock joke, the scene abruptly shifts into a Lynchian masterstroke of umbras and halftones that shimmy to a punchy Russian post punk soundtrack. Something identified as the 2nd “Noid Man” insidiously floats over the dance floor, hazy and strobing with techno lights impeccably rendered by Sonoshee even within his 1-bit constraints.
“Who are you?”, Sergei asks to the devilishly suited specter, a Central Casting-handsome anybody that melts and shifts through ominous 1-bit abstraction. The non-choice of losing yourself in his familiarity shows you a rapid fire assault of temples, both holy to traditional gods and to the more contemporary gods of wealth and excess. Equating Noid Men with places of worship or religious significance makes their presence intellectually stickier. Are they temples? Altars to sacrifice on? Or better yet, are they gods themselves? If so, gods of what? Existential paranoia?
Michael Jackson is dramatically executed, but not before declaring that he’ll see Sergei “in twelve years at your second daughter’s birthday”, a seemingly obvious nod towards every family reunion or wedding dance floor where wine drunk relatives have halfheartedly moonwalked to Billie Jean. The musicians in Critters For Sale exist both within the world we live in but also completely outside of it, and every reference to a real person feels like unfocusing your eyes while staring at a puzzle to see both the hag and the young woman, then wondering lamely which one was meant to be there first.
Our Band Could Be Your Life
Sonoshee approaches music in a way that feels both self aware and suspiciously reverent: Noid Men work to assassinate the false idols of pop gods unmoored from time, but – as Goat reveals – the first Noid Man himself willfully escapes the slipstream and reappears a thousand years later as, curiously, MC Ride from Sacramento hip hop unit Death Grips. If Michael Jackson gets a disjointed dance number that reads as the last gasp of retromancy, Death Grips’ uninterrupted one minute performance in Goat feels like a ritual performed at their altar.
Where Sonoshee’s allegiances or opinions falls in the midst of all of this culture slinging is unclear, which is probably Critters For Sale’s greatest weakness. So much of the game rocks around big concepts and touchy subjects without actually taking a decisive stance on any of them, and Sonoshee comes off as a dispassionate passenger flirting with the raw emotion and striking visuals of both religion and music, without having to firmly commit to either. An over-thinker would peek at Critters For Sale and think it’s a disco dance with poptimism – pop gods like Michael Jackson are benevolent martyrs while rouge imps of rock like Ride bat for a more Machiavellian team – but the truth of the matter is Sonoshee doesn’t give us enough to work with in the two stories currently available to make either conclusion.
Three as of yet unproduced stories remain – Monkey, Dragon, and Spider – leaving plenty of room for clearer interpretations, richer story, and more unlawfully used likenesses of your favorite musicians turned gods. Punk, it seems, isn’t dead after all.
Wishlist Critters For Sale on Steam for updates on future releases.