Back in 2000, a wave of major lawsuits closed out against the big tobacco companies, unleashing a brief landslide of funding. Flush with cash earmarked for one purpose, states launched a blitzkrieg of anti-smoking campaigns on television and in schools. My junior high health class was one such educational program meant to inoculate us against the evils of nicotine. We studied tobacco ads in magazines. They took us outside and cranked this little transparent cigarette-puffing machine so that we could see all the tar building up. We learned about heart disease and watched those nasty videos of clogged arteries getting squeezed out.
By the time I started smoking, cigarettes had been successfully pushed out of public spaces and largely erased from popular media. Give or take a few gritty antiheroes, few 21st century protagonists were smokers. Cigarettes sometimes showed up in video games that wanted to appear edgier or more mature, but they mostly presented as aesthetic props, a footnote in the design. Villains got a cigar, maybe the bar had some NPCs smoking outside, or occasionally there'd be a collectible item that gets dumped into the inventory alongside potions and sandwiches. Smoking was never an articulated verb.
Less representation and glamorization of a public health hazard is probably for the best, but this erasure came alongside a new moralization that looks down on those who smoke, identical to attitudes around criminalized drug use. I remember talking to my therapist about why I smoked, saying I appreciated the way it creates opportunities to interact and meet other people. She said the only people I'd meet on a smoke break at work would be the janitors. Some of the judgment towards smoking doesn't come from a concern for health, but because it's seen as lower-class.
The world of Sludge Life is an industrial village ruled by a nameless monolithic corporation. The air is toxic and the water has turned to black slime. The workers are on strike, the cops are psychopathic shills for the corporation, and the toilets are overflowing with shit. You play as a street artist searching for locations to tag, so you explore and meet the inhabitants of the world.
As you wander, you'll see half-empty packs of Ciggy-branded cigarettes laying around, which you can pick up to collect a few smokes. One of the buttons on the controller is dedicated to pulling out a cig and lighting up. You can puff it down all it once or take it slow. One of the items on your to-do list is to smoke 20 cigs, which happens to be the size of a full pack around the world.
For the first hour of my time with Sludge Life I forgot about the cigs - until I found myself waiting for an elevator. I had nothing to do for a whole 10 seconds, and then I remembered the button to smoke. Oh my god. This is exactly what it's like in real life. One of the classic triggers for a nicotine craving is when there's time to kill and nothing to do but wait.
Eventually I ran out of cigs and found myself doing the routine video game loot hounding, scanning each new room for collectibles. I immediately got a flashback to the last time I ran out of cigarettes at a party and started checking all the empty packs strewn around, hoping to get lucky. The only thing missing from this experience was losing my lighter.
Many of this world's characters can be found smoking. Each one embodies something slightly different about the act. There's the goth chick smoking in the bathroom, hoping for solitude. The chef puffing away matter-of-factly while he works the grill. The dude taking in the view from the roof, pondering life. The anxious guy at home, trying to calm his nerves. The cat: cool, aloof, observing.
Sludge Life is a beautiful game about a shitty world full of vivid characters coping with existence in the dumpster. It understands cigarettes not just as an aesthetic or a prop, but as a humanizing reflection of its characters' situations and personalities, an indispensable detail of life at the bottom rung of society. It's the sort of detail that stands out because it tells us something real about its authors, hinting at their personal experiences and fixations - perhaps even their addictions.