IF Comp 2013: Vulse (Rob Parker)

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Vulse is a short, surreal choice-based game, taking about five or ten minutes to experience. No spoilers follow.

No spoilers follow because if you asked me to write down exactly what happens in this game, I would be unable to do so. The game’s blurb on the IF Comp site says this:

A dead body floats down a river into the heart of an infuriating small town. As the locals grapple with the murder, they must also contend with the breakdown of cause-and-effect and the realization that the world is not for them anymore.

Which is helpful, because I wasn’t completely sure which of the things I encountered were meant to be real, which memory, which hallucination or mental illness. The writing is stream-of-consciousness. Some of the days are out of order, I think. There are paragraphs suggesting the breakdown of unique identities, the replacement of the freeway with something else, a mental fog possessing the narrator. In the course of play, I formed the opinion that the narrator was going mad; then, on another occasion, that all the occupants of the town were merging into one super-consciousness; and at another point, that the world was being taken over by alien insects that made a repulsive chewing and chittering noise. Even after several playthroughs, I would not care to place a wager on whether any or all of those are the intended meaning of the story.

Much of Vulse takes place in the protagonist’s apartment, which is gloomy and ugly, and in which sometimes things don’t work for no reason, like in Shade. The mention of ration wrappers on the floor seemed a pointer to howling dogs, where the accumulation of wrappers marks the passage of time and the disintegration of the protagonist’s environment. There is also, in Vulse, a line describing what the radio is playing, and if you wait a while on this page, the sentence about the radio swaps out, and swaps out again, and finally becomes exasperated with the player and says

The sound system supreme wonders idly when you’re going to click on something, motherfucker.

Which is aggressive, but I was already feeling quite antagonized by the narrator at this point. I was relieved when the story admitted openly that it didn’t like me, its reader. This confirmed what I had been suspecting all along.

Elsewhere, the text perhaps hints at its own construction:

Your chain will be evaluated. If it is good, you can leave. The chain you’ve forged is not linear, but a webwork of interwoven and broken links that vibrate in your hands.

If the “chain” is this text itself — a webwork of vibrating links — then the reader becomes the judge and jailor.

There were many other sentences whose meaning I could not work out at all, even granting that they might be intended poetically. Here’s the sort of thing I mean:

Our neon grins chew through this machine.

That’s the whole content of one page. The context did not make it clear to me who “we” are, or what the machine is. I can imagine a grin being figuratively neon, but that idea doesn’t square very well with the image of chewing teeth. Elsewhere there’s imagery that’s clear enough — a reference to a hand of glory, a dead body found in the river, a broken radio — but that still didn’t click into place for me. What is clear is that the protagonist is miserable, and that he projects that misery outward, at everything and everyone:

Perpetual wheelspinners that don’t so much live as subsist off entitlement and a crass celebration of their own boiling hate. Christ, you fucking hate it here.

The protagonist hates the townsfolk for being such haters. Everyone lives together in a contempt stew. This lifestyle certainly sounds godawful, but I cannot sympathize with any of it, because I’m not actually seeing what the protagonist is reacting to. We’re told how he feels, but not shown what he’s having the feelings about. I tend to have trouble with art that claims everyone is contemptible, but Vulse doesn’t even really make a case for this, just assumes it to be so.

I have to admit, I was relieved when this was over. (Except then I made myself go back and play it three or four more times to make sure I wasn’t missing loads of content, and so that I could try to identify more clearly the sources of my difficulty with it.)

Vulse communicates a particular feeling of sticky disgust at oneself and everything around, and if that’s the intent, then it succeeds well enough. But despite certain superficial resemblances, it is not much like either howling dogs, which was full of strange beauty and joy, and whose sentences have a definite meaning most of the time; or like Shade, which was structurally disciplined and paced in such a way that you could tell when you were moving towards the end. Beyond what I’ve described, I did not understand Vulse, and did not enjoy it.

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