A decidedly surreal 1-bit visual novel, Sonoshee’s Critters for Sale existed only in demo form for two and a half years, with two of the game’s five chapters available as free playable demos to those willing to dig through itch.io for them. The now-completed game, which we’ve soft-reviewed previously, received a proper Steam release in early June – yet remains just as noisy and discordant in its finished form.
If we’re to believe each chapter is in narrative order, then the plot is a looping little ditty that goes like this: just like the hitmakers of religion have been saying for eons, good and evil are in constant battle and humans can’t help but be caught in the middle. On one side are the Noid Men, classically coded baddies sporting dark suits and cheshire grins, who go to bat for – who else – Satan himself. On the other side is the vague bureaucracy of the Paradise Architects, with a name like a Vaporwave band and ruling control over the equally woo woo sounding Celestial Realm. The two camps are binary stars that orbit around each other, pulling humans in and out of their gambits, but for naively unaddressed reasons both parties keep an eye trailed squarely on musicians.
This is where Critters for Sale’s sloppy slam dance of a plot genuinely shines. Each chapter slots a mish mashed story around a different animal, musical act, and holy place, and within this framework Sonoshee finds new and creative ways to watch you die. Death in Critters for Sale isn’t just a slapdash function meant to toughen up the player to try again, but instead it’s a sacrifice. The engine of the game is martyrdom, and the plot swirls around what forces, or power brokers for those forces, we choose to offer ourselves up to. While riding this train of thought the game seems to surprise itself by accidentally stumbling over thought provoking ideas about how gods are made, how that intersects with organized religion, and what we’re building temples to when we build things like mosques, palaces, and – most importantly – nightclubs.
After all, music in Critters for Sale – and arguably in our world, too – is power. It’s a hotline to a higher calling, and the act of performance is shown to be a ritual offering to both the Goodies and Baddies lurking behind the cosmic curtain. NPCs in Critters for Sale kill, cheat, and lie to gain the power of music, and ask the same of you as a player. All of this sonic fixation spins out around a boozy, bass-laden soundtrack sourced from artists around the globe: Lynchian slow dancing from Berlin, hollow citypop loops from LA, haunted Taiwanese mountain songs, and buzzy doo-wop that all lend street cred to Sonoshee’s fixation with music’s power, but also perfectly match the fever dream/pitch that he’s created visually.
Yet the finished game doesn’t offer the kind of conceptual closure that the demo showed promise of. Ideas from religion, history, and ritual are slung around and fired off with a kind of teenaged exuberance, hacking religions away from their context and slinging them back stripped of all meaning. It’s the kind of pompousness only the young can land, and at times it’s workably gonzo – like the Aladdin-meets-Death Grips journey through the Jordanian desert. In other moments, though, it dwells in /b/-level tastelessness: a Muslim prayer rug hands you an IED with which to level a city block, and a Gnawa lila – a Black-Moroccan spiritual ritual born out of slavery – ends with human sacrifice.
But if Sonoshee’s weakness is his commitment to a certain genre of YouTube microdoser pop philosophy, his strength is his aesthetically sharper edge. The world of Critters for Sale is artfully demented, populated with 1-bit deep fakes and polluted with noise. The text and assets of the game crackle and fissure, while the gameplay itself – popped inside of a neat black frame – tessellates and shimmers with a griminess that feels like a punk nightclub flyer. Yes, the finished game is hammer heavy – Satan = evil, God with a capital-G = good – but Sonoshee has a compelling eye for texture that’s one part techno horror and one part Persian smoking den.
The game’s visual epileptic energy bleeds over into its structure, though, making a mess of whatever it’s trying to do or say. Each chapter is more unmoored than the last, and the stories told within them feel like tales of life on Earth as described by aliens raised on centuries old television static. The game has an obvious commitment to the visual touchstones of pop culture, with unsubtle appearances from the tile work of both The Shining and Twin Peaks, 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s monolith appearing at the death (and rebirth) of the world, and a sly namedropping of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, but Sonoshee hasn’t quite mastered how to alchemize his pop icons together into coherence. Luckily, the narrative sloppiness works within the No Wave punk visuals that dare you to ask questions about what the hell is going on, then chide you for not just enjoying the ride.
In the game’s “Snake” chapter, a silhouetted NPC accidentally sums up the experience of playing Critters for Sale, with its nervous jangling and blustering self importance:
“A beautiful night,” they coo at you from the staticky darkness, “But at what cost?”