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Full Steam Ahead – Vangers

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: none

Dear readers, When I introduced the Steam-Powered Hope initiative during the holiday season last year, I expected to see a game moved here, or a replay there, gaining a few extra dollars for the Calgary Distress Centre along the way. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine someone would donate $100, and pay for five new games for me to play.

In recognition of this donor’s generosity, I humbly ask that you grab a pen, pencil, or sharpie, go to the nearest physical calendar you own, scratch out August, and write Adam in its place. Because my good friend Adam Nordquist has just bought this month, every post in August will see me playing through a list of games carefully chosen by him.

To give you an idea of Adam’s rationale our decision process, he presented a shortlist of a dozen or so games to me back in June. Then, he eliminated any game I had any familiarity or knowledge of. I’m diving into this blind, and I’m bringing all y’all with me. So, without any further ado, let’s get the month of Adam started with Vangers!

Those of you who don’t know Adam… strap in. This is going to get weird.

Vangers was initially released in 1998 by Russian studio K-D Lab. While there are several games on Steam that, while old, seem to have a massive dedicated following, Vangers does not appear to be one of them.

The plot of Vangers is… dreadfully confusing, and couched in plenty of unique technobabble. I’m going to try to explain it as clearly and simply as possible.

…and I will try to be friendlier than the first creature you encounter.

In the far future, after years of interstellar expansion, humanity encounters a species of collectively-minded insectoid aliens called Cryspo. Assuming them to be mindless monsters, the colonial explorers of humanity begin killing them. However, the Cryspo are, despite appearances, technologically superior to the explorers, and begin fighting them off. In an effort to protect humanity, the forces behind the colony isolate the colonists, cutting off the path back to earth.

The Cryspo begin using the abandoned humans, called “softies” as hosts for their larvae. In an effort to fight back, the softies begin using genetic engineering to attack the Cryspo. The Cryspo, originally from a different planet, perform the same isolationist maneuver humanity had earlier.

Years later, generations of genetic tampering and interference from both abandoned races have created a bizarre, combined species, called “losties”. Losties, in an attempt to understand the traits and holdovers from two separate biologies, have created a variety of cults and esoteric explanations for their biological drives. Society is broken up into different castes, cults, and clans, biologically driven to serve their groups niche.

The titular Vangers, of which the player is a member, act as explorers, couriers, and warriors-for-hire. While most of the other losties are restricted to life in a controlled habitat, Vangers race across alien worlds in biologically altered vehicles, exploring, trading, fighting one another, and racing in rituals.

Believe it or not, that is the simple explanation for the plot and setting of Vangers. The in-game explanation begins with eleven pages of text using terms like infinite minds, urban communities called bunches, and (my personal favourite) the sinister Bouillon of Spawn.

Lost? So am I, and I haven’t even started navigating the world yet.

So it’s maybe not the most accessible backstory in the world, but there are a lot of neat ideas to unpack there, ideas that rarely get explored well in games. I’m not sure the last time I played a game that discussed colonialism, genetic modification, or the use of ritual to explain biological impulses, much less opened with those ideas. So, what kind of gameplay and mechanics does Vangers use to explore these concepts?

Driving. Vangers is a very open-world sandbox game, letting the player define and pursue their own goals, whether it be through trading, fighting other Vangers, or by competing in the ritualistic races that support Lostie cults, but all of these pursuits tie back to driving.

Gamers and games journalists often define and categorize games not by thematic content, but by mechanics. For example, I would argue that Prince of Persia and Arma are action games by genre, but are usually defined in games journalism as a platformer and first-person shooter, respectively. In this sense, Vangers is  biological science fiction by theme, but… a sandbox, role-playing, racing game, mechanically.

That might seem like a lot to throw someone into all at once. That’s because it is. And that’s what the game does! No tutorial, no simple explanation of the control or world, just a vaguely humanoid (or vaguely insectoid) creature telling me to deliver nymbos to the incubator. Once I’ve done this, I get another creature telling me to deliver phlegma to the podish.

If you don’t mind learning by doing, it might be pretty easy to do decently well for yourself in Vangers. I however, mostly end up running small laps around the starting area, completing minor quests and trading runs for the creatures in charge.

Did I mention the creatures in charge relentlessly insult you, frequently using the same esoteric terms the rest of the game uses? I understand the the world of the game is a caste system, and I’m starting on the bottom rung of that hierarchy, but it’s not a lot of fun to play through.

And while I’m talking about things I don’t like, Vangers may just be aesthetically the ugliest game I’ve ever played. The creature and world designs are like if John Carpenter directed A Bug’s Life. What’s more, the font the game uses for most of its information dumps is almost unreadably bad. I don’t mind the game looking that way to reinforce the alien nature of the world; in that field at least, Vangers succeeds and surpasses all expectations.

However, the game’s bizarre sense of style means sometimes it can be hard to understand what is actually an obstacle, and what the Vanger’s vehicle can pass through. Put simply, excellent (albeit strange) aesthetic design supports the theme, but poor physical design hinders functionality.

Sometimes, during certain events, the entire world changes colours. Just don’t expect an explanation as to why.

However, I am having a lot of fun playing Vangers, despite its many, many flaws. You see, One of the limiting aspects of Full Steam Ahead is that they are all games from my library. Some I’ve played more than others, to be sure, but the vast majority of them are games I bought because I at least thought I would be interested in them. Even games I have received as gifts or as a part of a bundle have turned out to mostly match up with my interests. Vangers is not just unlike anything I have ever played before, it’s completely unlike anything I ever would have played, and this gives me a chance to explore that.

Vangers belongs to a different era. It features game mechanics and ideas from a variety of sources, some of which do not fit together at all, and many of which are hampered by poor design. And yet, it combines these things in new and interesting ways. I didn’t think about games in 1998 as much as I do now, but it strikes me that Vangers was quite revolutionary. Even now, 20 years after its initial release, Vangers feels like something completely wild and different from anything else recently released.

This doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable, however. There are some branches of science fiction that seem to pride themselves on their inaccessiblity. Vangers fits that description nicely. While it has been one hell of a neat trip, I think I’ve gotten just about all I’m going to get from this game. There’s a lot of depth to this game, but it’s nigh impossible to reach it.

Well, at least I completed something.

Next Episode: Year Walk

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