The Under Presents is a wild, one of a kind experience, with a solid storyline that grounds your curiosity and the desire to explore all corners of space and time.
Having watched all the trailers and recently played and reviewed their earlier game – Virtual Virtual Reality (V-VR) – The Under Presents, by developers Tender Claws, is another game that I knew I was going to not only struggle with but also be amazed by. Prepared to face the weird, the wonderful and the unexpected, I donned my headset and entered into The Under…
The game starts off in a dark and sinister-looking world, with waves of black goop around your feet, thunderstorms rumbling around you, and a single lonely looking rock formation sitting in front of you that’s just urging you to approach it. Before you are able to move you bring your hands up to your face to notice they are also covered in the same black goop. Without knowing what else to do here, you try pressing the trigger buttons on the controllers, and by doing so your hands click their fingers together, which sends bits of goop flying off them to reveal your hands. A pair of glowing yellow rings soon from around your wrists and a similar yellow glowing mask appears on the distant rock formation in front of you.
It is here that you begin to sample the game’s traversing controls. This level of movement is so very well suited for getting around the weird and wonderful world of The Under Presents. This method of controlling movement hard to describe, but easy to understand once experienced. The sense it gives you is something like grabbing the world in front of you and pulling it towards you. Letting go then teleports you into position in the world you previously grabbed. It feels just as intuitive as putting on the virtual goggles in V-VR was. It has been well thought out and executed, so well, that I hope other developers take note of this great achievement in movement in a virtual world.
Once at the rock, you are beckoned to put on the golden mask, and in doing so you are teleported to a barren desolate world with just a single rectangular building and a car parked outside. Band flyers litter a nearby telephone pole outside the building and written on the side of the building in neon lights is ‘The Under’. As you get near to the building you hear music going on inside, sparking interest and a desire to get inside – but everything is locked. Poking around the building you uncover a smartly dressed creature branding a similar golden mask, who soon lets you into The Under.
Navigating the corridors and rooms backstage of The Under soon teaches you the various ways to interact with objects, lift shutters, hold down buttons, pull handles and levers, all whilst your new friend speaks to you in his smooth, relaxed tone of voice; as if you’ve known him for many years.
Now and then this guy leaves you alone to explore the building and it is here you’ll run into other characters that are similarly dressed as you. You soon realise that these masked wearing characters are other players that are also experiencing the same world. Each of them are all trying to work out why they are here and what it is that you have to do in order to progress forward in the experience.
At times you will have to join forces and interact with other players to complete puzzles. The only form of communication between you and them, however, is done by clicking your fingers to invoke their attention as well as making hand gestures. It reminds me of a similar experience between online players in the indie game Journey. As frustrating as this mute interaction may sound, it does work very well though – just as long as you have someone nearby to help you out, who understands what you are trying to do, and is willing to follow along with you.
Situated in the depths of The Under is a performance stage where a few dozen previously recorded and live real-world performance artists perform various cabaret acts, from singing music to a poetry recitation. The live performance aspect is quite a unique concept for a videogame, yet being in the game at the right time to experience one can be a rare event, especially when live performances will only carry out up until March 2020.
This stage area is also a place that’s shared with other online players who are all trying to work out what they have to do here, and live performance actors may also appear to educate as well as entertaining you all. Through sheer curiosity you soon begin to further explore in and round The Under, entering alternative worlds either on purpose or by curiosity and explore the world and its objects that are around you. With some trial and error, you soon find your way, and it’s here that you begin to uncover the game’s main story.
Located around the ‘lobby’ areas of The Under are small photobooths in which you can insert your mask and dive into the game’s main story mode. The story of ‘Time Boat!’ takes place onboard The Aickman, a seafaring vessel that’s located inside a giant glass bottle. You experience a story through a particular timeline of the vessel and its crew. This storyline can be manually navigated by manipulating time to get to experience key events which spans across three acts and a final epilogue.
Each character that’s onboard the ship goes about their business during each act in the story, and you take the form of an eavesdropping ghost that can see, but not be seen. As you explore the ship and its crew, the main story unfolds for the many characters onboard the ship as well as sub-stories that go on within the characters themselves. Whilst wearing your mask you get to explore the ship in first-person and eavesdrop on the many sequences of interactions between the crew members and the situations they find themselves in.
Taking the mask off swiftly removes you from being present on the ship to facing The Aickman from a kind of third-person view. From here you can see all the various crew members go about their business. By doing a clockwise and anticlockwise finger motion into your palm, that’s carrying the mask, you can go forward and back along the timeline. Looking to your right you’ll see an Exit door, which slowly creeps up towards the ship as you progress through the timeline, which represents the end of the act timeline you are in. So you have to explore each crew member’s story before the act ends.
The overall story follows a ship and its crew in crisis, along with the many sub-stories that occur between its crew members. Undiscovered or experienced scenes that take place along the timeline show visually as broken fragments of each character on the ship. By manipulating time to observe these fragmented characters, placing yourself back in the scene, and then with a click of your fingers you can bring these fragmented characters back to normal and then watch and listen to what each character has to say in order to help progress the story.
Just like in V-VR, watching out for visual clues or listening to what is being said is crucial to helping you progress along with the storyline and across all three acts and on to the final epilogue. It is this type of gameplay that will both punish and reward players at the same time. For anyone going into the game thinking they will be hand-held through a linear story, they will be truly disappointed. However, if you know what you are going to experience beforehand, then The Under Presents certainly delivers in spades, it feels almost experimental and it breaks new ground and even genres. It is a highly interesting and one of a kind experience, with a solid storyline that grounds your curiosity and desire to explore all corners of space as well as time.