FINAL LEVEL: Climate Disaster in Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life
Following a winter where states like Texas faced unprecedented cold and state and federal governments refused to intervene, and following years of summers that see widespread wildfires in California and ominous red skies, climate collapse remains a clear and present danger to everyone but the powerful. While imagining what these environmental calamities may mean for the future of human life is a task so existentially daunting, two video games released in 2020 dared to look the storm in the eye. Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life represent an emerging type of eco-minded video game, which drops you in a toasted terrarium to simulate a stylised version of what life may yet become.
Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life go about simulating their ruined worlds in ways specific to games, but starkly refuses to wield immersion as a tool to motivate the player into saving the world. Traditional games have typically presented players as the hero, but doing so would lose these titles’ sense of limitation and scale: you are witnessing a larger system as it breaks down. This is not your world, you just live in it. In both Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life, however, you’re simply exploring the world as a photographer and a graffiti artist.
Neither game explicitly tasks you with trying to fix their world or stop environmental destruction—rather, these games offer cosmetic tasks to encourage exploration and drink in the details of their ruined worlds. For Umurangi Generation, that means taking photos set within minutely-detailed areas and learning about the universe’s environmental collapse and geopolitical tensions. Meanwhile in Sludge Life, you’re motivated to tag as many graffiti spots as you can while looking for a means of escaping the city, leading you towards corners of the tar-soaked island and mingle with the striking workers, listless populace, and aggressive police.
Fixing pollution and the climate
By making these polluted environments impossible to fix, and limiting the actions the player can undertake, these games reframe how we perceive their worlds and their setting. This role as bystander, or rather witness, is especially true in Umurangi Generation. As a photographer, your job is simply to take photos as laid out in a contract, and document the collapse around you. Most characters you encounter in the world don’t pay you any attention, so you feel like a fly on the wall passing through the increasingly fraught day-to-day life of humanity’s final generation. That’s all you can really do from behind your camera: you watch. You record the end, because someone has to be there and click the shutter while there are still people to see it.
Sludge Life, in comparison, is less about seeing, and more about being seen. As a graffiti artist named Ghost, you traverse the map and leave a signature spectral logo in their wake, while meeting other graffiti artists, DJs, and breakdancers—people looking to leave a mark on what’s left of their world. Awash in a haze of cigarette smoke, these people are determined to go out in flames doing what they love, even if that means barely being conscious, be it through artificial substances or a general sense of nihilistic malaise.
It’s too personal to be dismissed as simple nihilism. One of the characters, a blue frog named Big Mud, is defiantly focused on his burgeoning rap career, as he tells you, “I’m trying to BLOW UP yo! I gotta get out of this ship container, and off this pile of pipes ASAP.” In a world drowning in oil, the nihilistic undercurrent running through this world is also, in a sense, optimistic, as the people do what they can to salvage their sense of purpose in a seemingly purposeless place. Faced with the impending end, who among us wouldn’t want to stare eternity in the face and say “I was here, notice me”? It’s a very human impulse: to live life on one’s own terms in the face of crumbling reality beyond their control.
Big Mud also exemplifies a thematic similarity between the two games: life just keeps going. Sludge Life is filled with people seeking entertainment and gratification, and Umurangi Generation presents this perspective as well, with whole maps dedicated to neon-choked escapist hubs like the city block-sized arcade called “Gamers’ Paradise” or counter-culture hubs where brightly-clad youths dance their troubles away. This isn’t played as cynical or disparaging—even as the world winds down, life continues: culture is formed, entertainment is created, and humans while away the time with amusing distractions. Whether that’s the rap music of chain-smoking frog guy in Sludge Life, or a wall full of posters for movies that are transparently propaganda in Umurangi Generation, entertainment and culture don’t cease, because humanity won’t stop etching a living. These games reflect an atmosphere of impending ruin that’s tinged with life and activity. It may be fleeting joy, but it’s no less effusive.
Another element to establishing such well-drawn apocalypses—those that feel closer to reality than merely just work of fiction—the way the games never lose sight of how, whatever the cause of our end days might be, institutional structures will likely only exacerbate our world’s decline as they enforce the status quo. They are wont to turn a blind eye to the concrete steps necessary to enact long-term change. Littered around Umurangi Generation are newspapers detailing how the powerful have chosen to ignore the atrocities around them, with frequent references to government officials going away on holiday. Ominous UN troops, armed to the gills, also dot many maps and introduce a foreboding air. In Sludge Life, single-eyed officers, aka “Clops” (Cops/Cyclops, you get it) will knock you around for merely speaking to them. The officers aren’t interested in helping—they’re just there to keep the peace with a strong swing of the truncheon. Such clear antagonism inspires solidarity with other citizens against the oppressive upper class.
Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life aren’t the only games in recent months that deal with themes of living through environmental catastrophe and climate collapse. Titles like the upcoming Endling, and the experimental Soon Only The Ocean also add breadth of insight into how this genre of games approach the ramifications of climate change. Even major releases like Final Fantasy VII Remake and Breath of the Wild, in ways both explicit and implicit, impart the experiences of living in a world on borrowed time—a debt that’s being collected at an alarming pace.
However, what sets Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life apart is how they present their worlds as concise snapshots of larger conflicts and ecosystems, placing clear limits on what little control you have beyond witnessing the catastrophes taking place. These are two divergent examples on making small worlds feel comprehensive as reflections of real-world crises and the collective responses towards them. In doing so, they allow players to feel like a mere cog within the larger machinery behind their virtual worlds.
Like our world, players have very little control over the crumbling climate as it inevitably brings more ruin—one person can’t stem the tide. While Sludge Life and Umurangi Generation present worlds further along in their deterioration than our own, the atmosphere of impending doom and the lingering sense that something must be done are both familiar and relatable. For however long we have, these games suggest that people will find some way to work through the inevitable. You may not save these digital universes, but these can, perhaps, inspire change in our flesh-and-blood reality.