Vangers dressed like a racing game, but it was really a descent into madness

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, an ancient slice of madness returns to the commercial world to wreak havoc once again, but this time, those who would oppose its chaotic rule are ready...

I knew immediately why I'd been summoned. The poor man's face was slick with saliva, except for the bubbled areas no nurse wanted to approach that his bound hands were unable to wipe. 

But he didn't even seem to have noticed. 

His bloodshot eyes just stared up at the fluorescent light, flickering only when each spasm ran through him. Occasionally, he made a sound that was less a word, less a cry, more a cruel joke played on vowels and consonants by a dark eldritch force that lorded over futile ambition. In all my years as a professional insanologist, I had never seen anything so tragic or so unnecessary.

"What happened to the poor bastard?" I asked, fearing the answer.

"I'm afraid..." The nurse bit back a tear. "I'm afraid he tried to play... Vangers."

I froze, praying I'd misheard. "My god," I whispered. "Why was I not called at once?"

Vangers. It's not that it's a bad game, not at all. It just is. There. Eternal. Waiting for its chance to re-emerge, and to spread like spores of madness on a wind of chaos. They said the first outbreak was in Russia, or maybe Ukraine, and normally that would have meant containment. Generally works, except for those Stalker things that think they're acronyms worthy of all capital letters, and that game about incredibly shoddy wall construction. But no. This one had slipped the net. This one had escaped.

I set down my recording device by the man's bed. "Tell me what you understand."

I stopped the tape. Rewound. Reset. "Tell me what you think you remember."

Of understanding, he said nothing, for no reply could have been made. But remembrance? Oh, that loosened his lips. He spoke of alien worlds, of cars, of pods and of phlegm; of voxels and races and aliens. My leg twitched, but I was ready for it. I stabbed it with my pen until it drew blood, focusing on the pain. This was not my first encounter with Vangers. The thing nobody ever realises? Vangers is... intriguing. Compelling. It's one of those games so original that it goes the other side; that harnesses the natural human desire for something fresh, only to reveal why so much else is cliché. There's a price to be paid for originality like this. Specifically, £4.99 at the moment.

"The bugs," the poor man whispered to nobody in particular. "They're... they're crawling everywhere..."

"On your skin?"

For a moment, his eyes registered something. My voice? His head turned almost imperceptibly, the edge of his eyeball making the slightest sliver of contact. In the tone of one who has looked deep into the abyss, his throat croaked one word.


OK, who made the Very Hungry Caterpillar the New King of Space?

And he was right, of course. For Vangers is a game of alternate worlds, organic as human and living entities in ways most science fiction steers clear of. They're valleys of rolling hills split by the likes of green splatters and trepidatious sinkholes, and crawling with insects whose unseen mandibles and hairy limbs make the skin quiver to imagine the touch of. Insects you can run over, because you're in a car.

Yes, a car. Well, a "mechos" anyway. I think that may be the cruelest of Vanger's mercies. It implies a level of understanding that may be quickly acquired, only to immediately turn around and make you seriously start asking how many beebs you might get for a gluek for conducting tabutasks in the current—

Stop! Oh, gentle listener, stop. Science has proven that the human brain can tolerate but a few made-up bullshit words in short succession, including French. No good can possibly come from knowing one's leepuringa from their podish or how all this affects the phlegma. This is how the madness sets in. It is said that in its ultimate form, people drink so deeply of the nonsense that they lose all conception of just how much has seeped into their brain through osmosis, with the final stage being such core memories as childhood and the softness of a kitten's paw being usurped and replaced by some bollocks about alien shitworms. Vangers. It's Russian for "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."

It's a wonder the entire world doesn't constantly scream in agony.

As the "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred imprinted madness unto the Necronomicon, I see it as a duty to at least—in part, for I confess that Vangers is a cup of knowledge that I have but barely sipped at, finding it more bitter and nigh-unpalatable than a pint of Coke in Wetherspoons—explain some of the basics. The foundation, if you will, lest it crumble into pixie dust and some kind of sparkling magenta. So, here we go. The complete codex of confirmed Vangers knowledge, that can be passed on with no fear of mistake or misunderstanding, reprinted here in its entirety.

You are a mercenary. You have a car.

I think. Either that, or you're the dream of a sperm whale called Gerald. One of the two.

That concludes the codex of confirmed Vangers knowledge. It is a game whose own advert proudly offers "epic hardcore gameplay and no help whatsoever", then immediately begins talking about "scum of the Creature Soup." I believe it to taste something like cream of mushroom. But I digress.

Much of the quest in Vangers is to simply figure out what Vangers is, though over time—and with regular brain bleachings to keep the madness in check—a few elements do slowly seep from insanity into coalesced confusion. It's a fusion of role-playing and racing game, which already puts it in a field of... well, there was Auto Assault. But effectively one, since nobody at all played that. 

Dropped in the middle of it with little help but an alien blind peeping tom apparently, your first objective is to make it to the town of Incubator, where answers are promised in much the same way as the Wizard of Oz offered Dorothy a flight back to Kansas with in-flight entertainment. Merely making the trek can be trying, as you are not the only Vanger on what turns out to be roads, and most of them are a) tougher and b) arseholes. Given the organic art style of this game, they may be actual, literal arseholes. But such forbidden knowledge is best saved for another day, ideally when the universe is already melting.

If the future looks like this, expect suicide rates to go as high as the number of buildings to jump off will allow.

At this point, certain options present themselves. You have the Bioses, who are races, and the Bunches, who are a lovely couple from Maine and also the collective name of a city's inhabitants. In RPG tradition, everyone has something they require doing, though even in that genre of gloriously silly words it is rare to see a walkthrough declare such dire warnings as "IMPORTANT--- WHEN YOU GET TO NECROSS DO NOT ENTER ZEEPA!!!" or "Don't get caught without Rubbox."

In fact, here is an actual piece of advice. "Advice", anyway.

Now Return to Xplo, You will get told to take one passenger from each escave and transplant them to the four worlds. This means you would have to take two Eleepods, three Beeboorats and two Zeexen and take them all to the four worlds so that each of the four receive at least one inhabitant. The order and the number of settlers on each world doesn't matter. (Remember that you have to fulfill a tabutask in an escave in order for a passenger to appear in that escape).

Stop! Stop absorbing those words with your eyes! Are you still sensate?

Phew. Professional insanologists such as I do not merely carry these goggles for fun, you know. They are valuable protection, much as the official groinal cup shields against furious demoiselles made aware of the X-Ray mode. Here, they allow almost unlimited witness to sentences like "Conlarvers only fit into the truck (Not the Last Moggy)". At least, that is the claim. In retrospect, the splitting pain in my cerebellum suggests it was a bad idea to have picked up a cheap one pair eBay. A plastic pair, at that.

Ah, reality. You had a good run.

As one progresses into the Vangers universe, nine more worlds open up for transit and questing, the ultimate goal being to OH LOOK A KITTEN. It is perhaps sufficient demonstration of the complexity that while walkthroughs do exist, the YouTube of video, YouTube, appears distinctly lacking in videos of the 'ending' variety. Or indeed many more advanced than "Vangers. What the shit is this?"

But. At least a few, a blessed few elements do slowly begin to make more sense than a flortle flibbula. Racing for instance, where the roads permit Vangers of skill and courage to test themselves against the roads and each other, and more importantly, each others' guns. The portal-running by which the universe opens up as an organic puzzle that demands to be dived deep into and taken on its own terms. And you cannot argue that the voxel technology that permits all this, with all its bumping and bouncing and explosive combat and genuinely intricate worlds, does not make for a good host. 

In 1998, there had never truly been anything like it. As the Harbinger of Madness has yet to manifest in the night sky to blow its horn from the depths of sanity's charnel house, we must assume there never has been again.

The young initiate said unto the artist, "Where did you get your inspiration?" And the artist replied, "Poop."

The man in the bed slumped, despite the bindings on each of his limbs.

The triple bindings, that he might not hurt himself, and that games of tickling may be played after hours.

"Water," he whispered, a glimmer of humanity returning to his face, even as his voice remained cracked from hour after hour of screaming "WHAT THE FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!" at a screen that will never hear, never mind answer. Because, y'know. It's a screen.

I nodded to the nurse. He passed a glass of water, because the twist is that he was a man all along and it was only your preconceptions that thought otherwise. The poor man sipped, gingerly at first, then with tongue lapping into the glass until it was licked cleaner than when it came out of the broken dishwasher. For a moment, silence reigned.

"How long was I out?"

"Four days," said the nurse. "Less than usual for a Vangers breakdown."

He breathed out. "I don't regret it, you know. I had less fun than I would've had banging a nail into my eyeball, but at least it was different. And in this era of cloned games, isn't different enough of a thing to be worthy of respect and attention?"

"Yes," I considered. "I suppose so. But how are you feeling? Do you think you're ready to be unbound?"

The man stared up at the ceiling, thinking about it.

"I am," he decided. "Besides, I really want to finish my playthrough of the Myst games."

Silence resumed.

I paused. Exchanged a glance with the nurse. He caught it.

"I'll go get the electroshock gear."

I nodded, picking up my tape recorder, putting a lid on my pen.

"Yes," I said, striding away. "Yes, I think that would be best."