Cuphead, it seems, is doing rather well, and no wonder. The hand drawn, 30s animation style is lovely and our own Colm Ahern thinks it’s a very well put together package (hem hem). But I, as I often do, have fixated on one tiny and notionally mostly insignificant aspect, which is now driving me to distraction. I don’t care whether or not you think Cuphead is objectively difficult or not. What I need to know is: what is in Cuphead’s head?
Cuphead and his brother Mugman (their heads slightly different sizes accordingly) are sentient drink receptacles who lose a bet with the devil, and must collect other debtors’ souls in order to be in with a chance of getting their own back. I can already see people pointing out that whatever is in their heads doesn’t need thinking about because it’s one small part of a game that features an angry cigar and a pair of frogs that turn themselves into a slot machine as bosses. But Cuphead is painstakingly drawn and animated by hand by the devs Studio MDHR, which means that in this, perhaps even more than any other game, everything had to be definitely decided on before being implemented. So like it or not we’re going to get into this now, because once you start thinking about it, many questions are raised.
There’s definitely something in there, and it operates in some way separately from Cuphead and Mugman. I’d argue that the addition of the straw to our protagonists’ designs emphasises that they contain something, because it’s unusual (though not unheard of) to drink from a cup with a straw; the straw is a marker to say ‘This is a vessel that contains something.’ It’s white, so you initially think of something like milk, but at the same time you sort of assume it’s hot because that’s the whole reason cups and mugs have handles. But on the other hand we associate straws with cold drinks. As you can see we’re already a mess of different tropes right off the bat.
When you’re actually playing the game whatever’s in their heads sometimes splashes, but when they jump and spin in the air it remains in place. Now there are obviously scientific explanations for why a regular liquid like water wouldn’t fall out in this situation, but at least one person on Twitter is convinced that Cuphead and Mugman are filled with a non-Newtonian fluid, which is one of those ones that you can kind of pour and dip your fingers in, but if you punch it it goes kind of solid, because the particles are larger than other fluids so if you do something to them quickly they don’t have time to move out of the way (a similar process can be observed when someone with a big wheeled suitcase moves freely with the flow of commuters until they have to go down some stairs, and then stops everyone in their tracks). The one everyone has played with at some point is custard, or cornflour dissolved in water. This would explain why Cuphead and Mugman can withstand the rigours of platforming boss battles without losing any of their contents.
Would that it were so simple, though. In a still from the E3 2015 trailer we see Cuphead filling himself with what is implied to be moonshine, so unless it’s alcoholic custard the non-Newtonian fluid theory seems less likely. It also raises many more questions about how they interact with whatever they’re carrying. In the opening cinematic stills of the game, for example, we can see the liquid splashing quite wildly when they’re running home from Satan’s casino, so is there some kind of telepathic or subconscious emotional element to its behaviour?
Is this vore?
That their heads are apparently hollow vessels containing liquid suggests some odd things about Cuphead and Mugman’s biology. A redditor has suggested that they contain cerebrospinal fluid, which does kind of make sense. This is the fluid that cushions your brain and spinal cord, and is what Dr. House was testing all those times they did a lumbar puncture on the show, and would partially explain why Cuphead and Mugman get tanked by pouring moonshine directly into themselves rather than drinking it through the mouths that they have, like how all your friends saw Kevin & Perry Go Large and said that getting drunk faster by doing shots through your eyes was definitely a real thing.
This gets kind of weird when you notice that Mugman’s animation at the opening of a fight is to pull his straw down and drink from himself, so a) they can drink things, and b) what the fuck, Mugman? I want to emphasise again that this was all done by hand, so probably took many hours to animate. Probably days to get all the cells together, even. This prompted writer and academic Hazel Monforton to ask ‘Is this vore?’ which is, terrifyingly, a potentially valid question (‘vore’ being short for ‘vorarephilia’, a fetish to do with swallowing people or being swallowed; I’ve not heard of self-vore being a thing but even without looking it up I’m already 100% sure it is). Even if it’s not in the context of being a fetish, Mugman doing this is at the very least self-cannibalisation if we assume that he and his brother contain something like cerebrospinal fluid, so we’re back once again to what they contain being the pivotal question, here. I’m surprised more people aren’t asking it.
I refuse to let this be a throwaway joke because everything in this game is very carefully designed, as well as being the hellish stuff of very specific nightmares. Every boss in this game could become the monster under the bed of at least one child in the world, like how when you were little you became very personally terrified of the cracked china-faced doll your grandmother had. The entire population of the Inkwell Isles are impossible and terrible creatures, and if you’re going ‘Well Christ, why aren’t you writing an article about the implications of the giant onion that can cry, then?’ it’s because I obviously 100% would do that, I would do it for every single monstrosity in this game, but the onion isn’t the main character, is it?
To strive for answers to unknowable questions is part of the human condition; it is what made our ancestors look up at the stars and wonder if they controlled our lives, and makes us today try to reach them.
So I must know.
What is in Cuphead’s cup head?