Cult Optics: The visuals of Midnight Ultra

Robed heathens, kris blades deflecting the candlelight, and rusty rooms filled with crimson pagan scribbles. From Silent Hill to Devotion. From Happy Happyism in Earthbound, a sect based on a certain real-world Japanese doomsday cult, to a video game “allegedly” made by that same Japanese doomsday cult. Video games have had a long tradition of depicting extreme religious fanatism in their virtual worlds. As a culture, we’ve stayed fascinated over cults even after the public interest in them plateaued in the 90s, and our media reflects that. Continuing in that tradition, here prowls an indie game that attempts to show cults in a new way, heavily relying on its use of color for this purpose. 

Midnight Ultra is a boomer shooter about a death cult with an affinity for BDSM. It is all underpinned by a lo-fi aesthetic as you portal hop through different scorching US states in a hunt for the cult leader. All while a colossal moon stalks you through the night sky. Look, if this article was about the story, then we could stop right here because this game barely has one. Oh no, this essay is about its visual language, being that it skillfully illuminates power dynamics and made-up realities in cults through pure character design and color theory.

Welcome to the hell of lo-fi pentagrams! If Midnight Ultra is visually concerned with anything, it’s with showing the reality the cult operates under: from its most fantastical side to its most destructive. Something’s off though, the world has been drenched in magenta.

MU is a monochromatic game. The hue they went with was magenta, a non-spectral color, meaning that it is not part of the visible spectrum, yet our brain makes it up. A farce, fictitious. The level design engages the player in a similarly deceitful way: walls pop in and out of existence, corridors extend to ridiculous lengths, all while the ordinary world progressively decays into the fantastical. This reality is every bit as deceptive and fraudulent as the hue it is coated in. This is the world these leather-loving cultists believe in and call home.

And they never walk in their home alone. Regardless of how unnatural we know it to be, magenta has a very mysterious and bewitching side to it. Cultists work as a group and never get too far from each other, even when confronted with death. Looking in from the outside gives the impression that cultists have a strong sense of comradeship and community. As learning to cope with loneliness becomes of high importance, especially in COVID times, cults turn into the shelter of those craving deeper human connection in their life. This shelter, however, doesn’t take long to turn exploitative.

This is where the BDSM aesthetic turns symbolic. Much like the black leather the cultists wear, which is worn very tightly and restrictively, the cult envelops all facets of an individual until the individual is no more. It isolates them from the outside and any previously familiar touch gets numbed under the thick goatskin. What’s left is a gimp, featureless and submissive in its encasing.

What fills the void that the murdered identity left? Dogma. Dogma, dogma, dogma. One such example is the common branding of nonbelievers as non-people, evil; license to kill. Needless to say, the fanatics go all kill-on-sight on you upon encounter. A parasitic Us vs Them mentality has made them its permanent host. This distrust of the outside world only leads to severe isolation.

Worse of all is that not only does their relationship with reality get neutered, but the erosion of their identity leads to an inability to form earnest or trustworthy relationships among themselves. Sincere intimacy is deemed a deviation, or even a threat, to the bond with the leader or the group. As Alexandra Stein put it: “[…] Followers face a triple isolation: from the outside world, from each other within the closed system, and from their own internal dialogue.”

As previously mentioned, an interesting quirk of Midnight Ultra is that the enemies are all dressed in BDSM gear. Lots of leather, sometimes full-on gimp suits. What is the significance of this? At the core of BDSM stand the D/s dynamic: the one who has the power and the one who gives up power. If it is not apparent yet, the aesthetics of BDSM are being used to make a comparison between the power dynamics found among leather-lovers and the ones found in cults.

Enter white, the clear dominant color in the composition. Why is white so important? For one it is the color of the enormous moon in the sky, inarguably the focal element in a visual sense due to its colossal size and high contrast with the magenta background. That, coupled with the fact that the cult leader wears full white armor—which juxtaposes nicely with the black leather of the cultists—gives us the full picture: white is symbolic of dominance and power, represented through the cult leader.

It wouldn’t be rare for the visual and narrative focal elements to coincide. If this magenta world is the cult’s reality then it comes with no surprise that the moon is so fucking huge. In cults, the leader is of utmost importance and the relationship with them becomes the center of a devotee’s life. This reality paints them as pure, perfect, and good (common symbolic meanings of white). The honorable knight with a strong moral conviction trying to make the world better, one noble deed at a time.

All this, of course, being a ploy for making the manipulation from the narcissistic egomaniac at the top easier. Whenever the moon shines down upon one of its fanatics, they get painted into a flat featureless white. The moon, from far away, coating and molding the lesser ones to its whim. You could almost bask in its glory and size, if not for the toxic magenta pool around it.

This is the cult’s reality, as depressing as it may be. For the foreseeable future, crazed fanatic representation in games won’t be stopping, as our fascination with pagan rituals and bloody pentagrams seems undying, but Midnight Ultra has managed to do something special here.

Utilizing composition, lighting, and especially color, the game shines a spotlight on cult isolation and power dynamics in ways its lackluster story and gameplay don’t even get close. Nuance like this is a welcomed change of pace for one of the medium’s oldest punching bags. But this doesn’t stop at cults. Symbolic visual language this strong on some random itch.io game speaks wonders of the health of the current indie scene. Gets me excited for what the future of independent games holds 🙂

Published by colelegante

Video game junkie! Deep love for stories in video games.

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