Few videogames admit that dungeon crawling is actually terrible and inhuman, preferring to idealize the journey with brightish colors, interesting routes, and often short lengths. I’ve hiked through caves. When I did I wasn’t dweeb enough to compare them to a videogame, how times have changed… Anyway, real caves are long, mute, and repetitious. Being in the dark for that long is harrowing, sight stops being familiar, senses shift from regular to trusting what you can feel with your hands and feet. Thoroughly dreary and disorienting—of course that’s what makes it so entertaining. Coming out of a cave you’re not really sure what you’re supposed to do with your head or eyes anymore. It takes a bit to remember what living is like.
Not coincidentally, the old, pained, color absent, pure black role playing games like Rogue and Wizardry convey a draining darkness better than the inviting feel of, whatever, the levels in basically any normal rpg, or even the dungeons in notable modern crawlers like Etrian Odyssey or the Mystery Dungeon series. Those latter games get intense, stressful, overpowering, as is the nature of tension under pinch survival, but they’re not muted, their goal isn’t to subsume a captive player. They’re gorgeous, basically: despite aggressively disbarring entry, it’s a joy to exist in those games when mastery comes.
437 Underworld [EP] is certainly sarcastic, graphics cobbled together from ASCII, with goofy, joking flavor text narrating the game in real time. Usually these are cute signifiers, but Underworld contains a darkness as consuming as Rogue or Nethack. The frankenstein aesthetic, with ASCII letters and symbols coming in varying sizes and collages to suggest monsters and corridors, isn’t a callback to be recognizable and uniform in style, nor does it create a comfortable house of nostalgia (and who finds ASCII games warm and comforting?). It’s a distortion, a pieced together graveyard of dead videogame aesthetics, assisting darkness to trap a player.
ASCII graphics were used in the past because there wasn’t another viable option. They suggest a finality; text already being the least amount needed for a symbolic representation in a videogame. Text in these games is then sublimated, arranged in an orderly way to represent space, instead of the intended purpose of language and readability. 437 Underworld stretches this relationship further. If ASCII graphics repurpose and transform lettering—Underworld repurposes and transforms ASCII. This is an aesthetic that refers to videogames, an abstraction that deals exclusively with a formal history. I couldn’t help but interpret this snidely. A very dark, slow moving, place surrounded by aged forms, seeming to say, “videogames, these videogames, they were dark and sinister, they are dark and sinister.” Fill in the blanks with an onus of self-reflection.
The patchwork can feel like a prison, a condemnation of escapist nostalgia. It can feel like an inverse, a graveyard for unappreciated potential and abandoned aesthetics. Pointedly, regardless to what it potentially invokes, it feels genuinely mournful, containing a convincing darkness, locked in a small amount of space. Three quarters of the screen is visible at first. It reduces to about half, though always lit in a circle. Outside of visible space is darkness. Inside is fuzzy, discolored, unsure color solids, laying around an ever present black.
Otherwise 437 Underworld is in a pretty familiar container. Procedurally generated, top down shooting, perma-death; more like Binding of Isaac than Nuclear throne. Two economically contextless currencies are earned when defeating monsters, reminiscent of Sword of Fargoal, they’re given up as tributes, but only to power up the player character. They are, of course, experience and gold. There’s potential for build variety that I was too scared to experiment with. A freedom that seems at odds with the strict, singular, nothingness of the rest of the game. There is no real context for scouring the depths, besides to see if it can be done. Though, this is another way 437 Underworld resembles the bleak vision of Rogue. Empathetically without context, purpose, or goal, it becomes a receptacle for the player’s goals and feelings. A substantial darkness, if anything, comes purely and cleanly, shaped by the tensions of existing in it.
Convincing drama in a survival game comes from escalation (contrasting an ideal of inflation that many rpgs use). It’s standard for survival game ludics to escalate, to exponentially pressure a player’s means to succeed in the environment, and especially to demonstrate how hostile the environment and how vulnerable the player has become. Old survival games were archaic, limited, and all black; modern ones are gorgeous, often thematic, but arbitrary in having aesthetic developments not necessarily representative of the increased hostility. This means, old and new, systemic adjustments on how the game is played do much of the dramatic legwork of being a convincing survival game, especially when narrative framing is nonexistent.
Since 437 Underworld’s aesthetic shifts while maintaining a consistent presentation, the visuals mirror its dramatic ludic elements. Enemies—which are just letters—become larger, more resistant, increase in number, block attacks, and deal more damage. As mortal dangers increase, the visible space is lessened, the colors become more distorted, the dark ambient ruminates and sinks down further. An orderliness of the floors and walls becomes increasingly broken and disordered. In a way this leaves the game predictable and naked. I know how much, when, and why each floor will change, removing mystery, shock, and newness, which are useful to conduct anxiety. Still, presenting exponential turgity reinforces an urgency and unites literal danger with a convincing appearance of danger.
I bristle up against familiar styles of videogame, most of the time, because their ability to be sharp and prescient is often polished off. 437 Underworld [EP] feels very exact and polished, in a pretty typical container, but has specificity to its vision. Humorous but anxious, mournful. Having unique sensations not felt in anything else. That’s really all I want out of a videogame.
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