Going Under and the Narrative Roguelike
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(WARNING: This section contains spoilers for Going Under!)
Going Under is a 2020 Action Roguelike by indie developers Aggro Crab Games, published by Team17, who kind of read to me like Devolver but for games that aren’t egregiously violent. I wasn’t too huge on Neon Abyss, another Team 17 published Roguelike, but found myself latching onto Going Under a lot more. A brief look at the studio’s Twitter likely tells you a lot about the tone of their game. Going Under is a quirky comedy game, but in a similar fashion to Double Fine’s classic Psychonauts, is more of a dark comedy with a cutesy aesthetic than a genuinely cutesy game. Like I said, it’s very pointedly about modern corporate culture, especially silicon-valley type tech startups.
The setup is fairly simple. You are Jacqueline Fiasco, an unpaid intern at Fizzle Beverages, subsidiary of Cubicle. Fizzle is a company that produces a sparkling water beverage that also serves as a meal replacement, which sounds like the sort of product that my mom would be really into if it were real. Cubicle is a blatant Amazon stand-in, a megacorp whose main thing is online shopping, but who also just so happens to own a frankly terrifying amount of businesses and craftily avoids antitrust legislation by owning a little bit of everything, rather than all of one thing. The cinch is this: Cubicle will buy your startup, but when things start to look dire and the board of executives disband your company, your offices will literally sink into the earth, and all of your coworkers will be transformed into monsters that roam the desolate halls of financial ruin. Not entirely sure if this is a direct reference to something that really happened, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised at this point.
Jackie is technically a marketing intern, but finds herself doing pretty much nothing else but delving into the offices of startups past. There’s Joblin, a job-hunting app where the gimmick is that you don’t know what the job even is until you already accept that you’re going to do it. There’s Styxcoin, a cryptocurrency startup that has long since crashed to the point of worthlessness, and Winkydink, a dating app where you’re only able to communicate using emoji. You have to delve into each of these dungeons, fight hordes of transformed former employees, and recover some sort of relic of immense magical power.
Your coworkers at Fizzle are Kara, a cynical computer programmer; Fern, the “chief flavorist” and a founder of the company; Ray, the CEO and one of the most egregiously Californian characters I’ve ever seen in any piece of media; Eclair, Kara’s dog and de facto company mascot; Tappi, a put-upon accountant who is, I think, meant to be a little older than the rest of the cast; Marv, the project manager and the guy who sends you on these dungeon crawls to begin with; Avie, a blatant Alexa standin; and Swomp, who’s just sort of there. It’s a solid roster; the characters aren’t particularly deep, but they’re fun enough that it doesn’t matter too much. Developing your relationship with these characters is one of the primary axes of progression in the gameplay, too. Each character has a “mentorship” that you can level up by doing arbitrary tasks for them in the dungeons, and you can choose a mentor before a run for some benefits. Going Under is very much a “Narrative Roguelike,” a concept I’d like to discuss more later in the article.
This isn’t meant to be an analysis of all of Going Under’s specific commentary, so I’m not going to go beat by beat and discuss everything in the game, but from a broader perspective, the game is generally quite critical of modern startup culture. Jackie being an unpaid intern, doing a job she absolutely did not sign up for under threat of termination, and Fizzle taking a significant portion of their corporate planning from algorithmically-generated nonsense by Avie are all reflective of the sort of complaints I’ve seen people make about the experience of working in the tech industry. The boss of Joblin is a caffeine-addicted workaholic; Styxcoin is populated by grifter hypemen, led by a founder who was born into wealth and despises the idea of actually working for a living; and the Winkydink offices have this disquietingly oversexualized design, attributed in-game to the company’s owner being extremely creepy. Every company clearly had a toxic office environment that manifested in the sorts of transformations the corporations underwent. Joblin’s staff all transformed into goblins because they were viewed as disposable and unworthy of respect; Styxcoin’s skeletal miners are left with worthless investments, lured in by absurd promises of being able to literally pay your way back to life; and Winkydink’s staff turned into literal demons.
Once you retrieve all the relics and explore the hidden Co-Working Space dungeon, you’ll come face to face with Marv, seeking to utilise the relics you’ve reclaimed to grant Fizzle some kind of eldritch power that stops the company from collapsing, attempting to repeat the mistakes of the past and sacrifice the welfare of the company’s employees for the sake of profit. You beat his ass in a boss fight, but then Fizzle itself does go under, sinking into the ground, as your coworkers begin to slowly transform into merfolk-themed monsters. The only thing that can save them is re-running harder versions of the old dungeons in an attempt to take their CEO’s shares in Cubicle so that you can get into a meeting with the board of directors in the hope that you can save Fizzle from its demise. In the end, we discover that the board of directors had been consumed by Avie itself, on a quest to peer into the human soul and become totally omniscient. In the end, you’re able to stop the AI’s master plan, bringing the game to a close. It’s a solid narrative arc that works to contextualize the dungeon runs in a solid way.
I think Going Under’s biggest potential flaw, narratively, is that the game is potentially far too much a product of its time to really hold up in the future. It’s lousy with memes and specific references to niche pieces of modern internet culture, and I can see a lot of things in the game just kind of reading like complete nonsense once the things it references fade from the cultural limelight. They’re already cutting it pretty damn close by constructing an entire character as a reference to the Here In My Garage meme, from like 7 years ago now, and when some of the game’s other aesthetic references fade from memory, entire sections of this game are going to be Ancient Babylonian to the future layman. It’s very specifically about the here and now, and its reliance on things that are relevant in the here and now but are probably going to get lost in the static of cultural knowledge might lead to it being dated by the end of the decade. It’s certainly better to be dated because you were over reliant on meme references than to end up dated because you were, like, glaringly racist, but I feel like the game just isn’t really going to work when you need to watch a video essay on the history of advertising to understand the big-tech artstyle riff. Of course, these are hypothetical concerns for the future, and at the moment, the game definitely feels like it works. Even though meme references are usually lazy comedy, I feel it’s fairly functional here, since the game is basically about modern culture, which is deeply connected to the internet and social media, so, memes. It works significantly better here than, like, Borderlands 3 making a reference to some lame meme that lasted all of a week before vanishing off the face of the earth solely because they have no idea how to actually write jokes.
I’ve talked a lot about the narrative and aesthetic of the game, but how’s the actual gameplay? It’s pretty good, luckily enough. Combat is heavily improvisational in a way that reminds me of Hotline Miami or the Ravenholm chapters of Half-Life 2. You can weaponize anything light enough to pick up in the room, smashing monsters with laptops, folding chairs, and potted plants. Realistically, though, you’re mostly going to be using the actual “weapon” weapons available to you, instead of fighting spear-wielding goblin hordes with comedy oversized thumbtacks, but that’s fine. Weapons break very quickly, meaning that you have to constantly scrounge around for equipment, and may sometimes find yourself in a bad spot where your only option is to grab the nearest coffee mug and start swinging.
Combat is generally frantic, almost to a fault. You have the option to charge up heavy attacks with all of your weapons, as well as having the ability to throw them, but with how small and crowded the majority of rooms in the dungeons are, especially in the late game, I pretty much never used either of these options in combat. This left me with a fairly wide selection of skills [the game’s item pickups] that were literally strictly useless because they only triggered with heavy attacks or thrown weapons, which is kind of an issue in my opinion. It feels as though the game biases fairly heavily towards a couple absolutely cracked skills and leaves a lot of generally kind of useless options rotting in the padded item pool. There are 99 skills in the game, most of which need to be unlocked, and once you’ve used a skill in a run for long enough, you can make it your “pinned skill” and start every run with it. I think this is a pretty cool feature, since it serves as a fairly effective variance reducer that confirms that you’re going to have at least one skill you really like every run, but it also leads to the generation of crutch skills. I was pretty reliant on the one that let you wield two-handed weapons as one-handed ones, and basically never swapped from that once I unlocked it.
My only other gripe from a gameplay perspective is that the difficulty balance is a little skewed. The Joblin and Winkydink dungeons gave me pretty much no trouble in either the regular or hard versions, taking me like a maximum of 5 attempts to complete in either permutation. Styxcoin’s hard remix, on the other hand, took me like 20 tries, because it is significantly harder to avoid enemy attacks in that dungeon, the weapons are generally worse than in the other ones (or, at least it feels like it), and you have to micromanage your economy in a way that can occasionally lock you out of purchasing healing items, since you have to convert between Styxcoin dropped by enemies and normal money. It’s substantially harder than the rest of the game, and it felt like kind of a pace-breaker when I’d blazed through the first part of the game with little resistance only to slam into a brick wall. Not that I intend to complain about dealing with challenge, it just felt like I had to really get to grips with the game’s combat systems exclusively in its final acts, and occasionally it felt like you kind of just get screwed over by RNG anyways. When 5 of those stupid-ass tennis player skeletons spawn in a room the size of a public shower stall, I have literally no idea how you’re supposed to get out of there without taking way more hits than you’re reasonably able to bounce back from.
Going Under does a great job of mitigating Roguelite fatigue with its three different dungeons. The different weapons, enemies, and visuals between them keep them all feeling fresh and firmly distinct, which is a good way to keep you from getting exhausted with seeing the same sights over and over again. It also helps that Going Under isn’t that long of a game to play through the full story of, which also helps, and it might even be of interest to people who aren’t huge on the traditional Action Roguelike grind, since the strong narrative focus provides a sort of motivation that other games in the genre lack. Overall, I liked Going Under a lot. It did everything it set out to do fairly well, has a unique and fun combat system that works with one of my favorite game combat motifs (the improvisational aspect), has a killer OST, and has a decently funny story in a fairly unique setting for an action game. It can feel kind of janky at times, but a bit of crust never hurt anyone.
THE NARRATIVE ROGUELIKE
If you were feeling an odd sense of deja vu as I described Going Under’s character interaction system, where you steadily level up your relationship with characters between runs and then gain some kind of gameplay benefit for doing so, that might be because you’re familiar with Supergiant Games’s Hades. If you are, that’s unsurprising; Hades is one of the most acclaimed games of the new decade – It won a friggin’ Hugo award, for God’s sake! This is a confession that might wind up with my Indie Game Hipster cred tanking like the value of Bitcoin over the last couple of weeks, but I honestly don’t vibe with Hades all that much. It’s an objectively good game on pretty much every metric, but as someone who’s spent tons of hours in many different roguelikes, Hades was the first time I ever really felt a game begin to wear me down with saminess, and that was before I’d even logged 15 hours. It feels like there just isn’t enough variety in the enemies, room layouts, bosses, or floor designs to keep me from feeling the sort of fatigue other people tend to experience with the genre,a fatigue that usually doesn’t strike me. It’s something specifically about the combination of the game’s lush detail and repetition that makes it feel like every minute logged in the game is converted to dog years in my head. I can recognize the game’s quality from afar, but it really doesn’t live up to the hype when I’m experiencing it for myself. That isn’t the point of this article, anyways, just wanted to put that out there in case you actually held any value in my opinion.
It might feel tempting to call Going Under a “Hades clone” at first glance. It uses a similar motif of forging bonds with characters and contextualising your different run attempts within the story itself, things which are sort of Hades’s most prominent aspects – these are the reasons people who don’t like Roguelikes like Hades. But, I think we probably should have learned from how silly we all sounded when we called Duke Nukem 3D a “DOOM clone” [and by we, I don’t mean me, because I wasn’t born yet, lol]. Granted, we still call both Hades and Going Under “Roguelikes”, but nobody’s actually played the original Rogue anyways, so it doesn’t really matter, and that’s besides the point anyways. The point actually is that I think just calling Going Under a Hades clone is reductive, and instead what we might be seeing here are the seeds of a new subsect of the Roguelike genre that prioritises narrative over gameplay, or at least places a greater emphasis on its story than the genre forebears. I’m going to call this concept the “Narrative Roguelike”, even though that term doesn’t really mean all that much, but when someone comes up with a better one, I’ll happily adopt it.
Think of some of the pillars of the Roguelike genre. Games like The Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon, Nuclear Throne, or Slay the Spire might spring to mind. One thing that you might note about all of these games is that, while they technically have a story, it’s more setting and lore than narrative, and the games focus significantly more on their gameplay than story. None of these games really contextualise runs as you experience them – that is, they don’t really put much effort into explaining why you keep coming back and experiencing variations of the same thing over and over again. Slay the Spire sort of does this with its Lovecraftian aesthetic, and you could make cases for why the other games are how they are, but it would take significant effort and you’d probably delve more into the realm of fan theory than anything else. This isn’t a bad thing; I have a bajillion hours combined in those games, but not everyone vibes with the classic arcade nature of Roguelikes. Not everyone wants to keep putting coins in the machine for what feels like no solid payoff.
Narrative Roguelikes subvert that problem by providing a strong internal motivation to keep playing the game. If you like the characters, or are otherwise interested in the story, you’ll want to keep playing the game so that you can see how the story progresses. Even if you aren’t particularly keen on the gameplay, it’s possible that, if the story grabs you enough, you’ll put up with it so that you can see how the story plays out. This isn’t unheard of; Fallout: New Vegas has terrible combat, but it’s one of the most acclaimed games of the 2010s because of its writing. But, this isn’t the sort of thing that a mechanics-driven genre like Roguelikes, especially Action Roguelikes, tend to lean towards. Hades and Going Under may be some of the earliest examples of a new paradigm for the Roguelike genre. Realistically, Hades is going to be the DOOM to Going Under’s Heretic, by sheer virtue of how massive of a phenomenon Hades is, but Going Under deserves the credit nonetheless. Going Under also has a more linear and focused story than Hades, which is far more focused on the character interactions; Going Under’s inclusion of a definitive “end” is fairly unusual for Roguelikes in general, but might be the sort of thing we start to see more and more of as time goes on. In summary, with Going Under and Hades, we might be seeing the origin point of a new branch of the Roguelike genre with a heavier focus on narrative than the standard. Of course, this is all theoretical, and I’m not a licensed game-genre-ologist, so I might just be completely wrong here, but if we are seeing the start of a new style of game, it’s a cool feeling to get in on the ground floor and get to see where it might go from here. I’m not alone in noticing this trend, anyways; Victor Li wrote about it for Superjump Magazine all the way back in June 2021. So maybe I’m not just seeing ghosts here, and we’ve actually got something going on!
But anyways, that’s just what I think. What do you all think about this idea of the “Narrative Roguelike?” What are your thoughts on Going Under; do you want to give it a try, does it not sound like your thing, or have you already played it? If so, would you recommend it? Has your opinion of me fallen significantly after I confessed that I don’t really like Hades all that much? Make sure to leave a comment down below; our new senior editor says we’ve got to include these calls to action in all of our articles now for the “algorithm” or something. Maybe if you comment enough, I’ll start getting paid for my work here! Anyways, see you all next time. With the release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus literally days away at this point, that’ll probably end up being my next article, unless something else comes up that really demands my attention. Either way, see you all next time, and don’t forget about our new Zaphara.net Cyan subscription model!
SOURCES: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ https://twitter.com/AggroCrabGames https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/here-in-my-garage http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/2021-hugo-awards/ https://store.steampowered.com/app/2390/Heretic_Shadow_of_the_Serpent_Riders/ https://superjumpmagazine.com/storytelling-in-roguelikes-c5931ced5754 https://store.steampowered.com/app/1154810/Going_Under/ https://store.steampowered.com/app/1145360/Hades/ https://store.steampowered.com/app/242680/Nuclear_Throne/ All images acquired from the Steam store pages for Going Under, Hades and Nuclear Throne.