Deconstructing Fallout 3: Tenpenny Tower

2014-03-fallout-games-wallpaper

When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


TP Tower

You know what? “Tenpenny Tower” is a good quest. It’s well structured, it’s got some great roleplaying options to expand your character, and it has three major endings, each of which has a noticeable impact on a prominent trading hub. Unfortunately, the entire quest falls apart after it has been completed.

 

Gameplay:

Whether you like it or not, the Fallout franchise is now deeply entrenched in combat mechanics. Every story mission requires either combat skills or no skills at all. “Tenpenny Tower” finds a comfortable position between the new gun-based gameplay of Fallout 3 and the old character-based gameplay of Fallout 2.

The quest has a nice start. You meet ghoul leader Roy Phillips at Tenpenny Tower’s gate, but surprisingly he’s not the quest giver. Instead, the quest begins by asking you to exterminate the ghouls. If you’re playing an evil character and are nuking Megaton, this is likely your second ghoul encounter. Taking Gustavo’s quest to kill the ghouls, regardless of who they are, probably fits into your character. Good bit of synchronized story telling there.

Warrington_Revolution

After exploring the metro tunnels and killing a few dozen feral ghouls you can either kill all the sane ghouls or convince Roy Phillips you can get him into Tenpenny Tower peacefully. This is where the quest gets interesting as Tenpenny himself will allow the ghouls in so long as a handful of VIPs agree. Already this feels like a Fallout 2 quest.

You can convince the VIPs in a number of ways. You need to convince an ex-slaver, a rich couple, and both shopkeepers to allow the ghouls entry. You could just kill these anti-ghoul protestors, but because Tenpenny Tower is entirely indoors and swarming with guards, you’d need to be stealthy or use Mister Sandman.

Aside from speech options, the shopkeepers are unique in that they have a stealth based trigger. If you steal from their stores, they will leave Tenpenny Tower citing a lack of safety. Although it’s a nice variety of gameplay, the narrative doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Two wealthy business owners were willing to drop everything, exile themselves to the wasteland (where the ghouls are) and hike all the way to Megaton (without any weapons) because someone stole their stuff?
Do you, the player, really believe that?

Boutique_Le_Chic

The Wellington couple also has an interesting option. Ex-slaver Susan Lancaster sleeps with every man in Tenpenny Tower (and the gameplay reflects this. She actually sleeps in a different man’s bed every night). Mrs. Wellington is worried Susan is sleeping with her husband as well. If you engage in a little stealthy investigation, you’ll find Mr. Wellington wrote Susan a love letter. Like stealing from the shopkeepers, this breaks away from the standard “combat skills, lockpick, hack, speech.” It’s refreshing to see so much player choice and character building in the quest. If the entire game had been like this, Fallout 3 would have been right up there with Fallout 2.

In a nice bit of world building, Susan Lancaster is wanted for the “Strictly Business” quest, allowing the player to knock out two birds with one stone. Lancaster could have been a generic Tenpenny Tower NPC, but someone had the great foresight to include her in both quests. Additionally, Susan Lancaster will move to Mr. Burke’s apartment if the ghouls are allowed in. Not that it matters since she and the rest of Tenpenny Tower’s original tenants will inevitably be murdered.

 

KarmaF3Moral Choice:

Let’s make one thing clear:
The ghoul bigotry was justified.
Wait. That’s not strong enough.
The ghoul bigotry was completely justified.
Hold on. I think this point needs a little more emphasis.
The ghoul bigotry was completely 100% justified.

Fallout 3 tries to shoehorn themes of ghoul racism into several quests, but it never quite works. It never works because on the whole Fallout 3 treats mutants as enemies instead of characters. The problem is twofold:

First, every Fallout 3 ghoul who uses the word “bigot” is universally violent and dangerous. Roy Phillips and Mister Crowley both claim they just want to stick it to some “bigots”, but they really just want an excuse to kill smoothskins. Roy Phillips (who has good karma) takes it about 100 steps further. He has no issue with nuking Megaton so long as the blast kills a lot of smoothskins.
Second, the issue of integrating ghouls doesn’t work as racial commentary in a world where feral ghouls are more prevalent than civilized ghouls and humans combined. Fallout 1 had crazed ghouls, but they were non-aggressive and under control of Set, the leader of Necropolis. In Fallout 3, almost every dungeon has feral ghouls. There are hundreds of ghouls. The entire Capital Wasteland is saturated with them. Tenpenny residents fearful of ghouls turning feral were absolutely justified. There’s no indication as to when or how a ghoul turns feral.

Roy_Philips

Racial commentary doesn’t work in this instance because in Fallout 3, ghouls are dangerous. Sure, there’s a handful of sane pre-war ghouls, but the vast vast majority of ghouls in Fallout 3 are feral. Remember Travis the chimpanzee? He was an animal actor who mysteriously snapped and lacerated a woman’s face. Those are the stakes of the “Tenpenny Tower” quest. The gameplay (dungeons full of feral ghouls) doesn’t match the narrative (ghouls are just people with a skin condition).

Broken_Hills_mine

The moral issue of mutant racism worked in Fallout 2’s Broken Hills because super mutants are just big green (usually dumb) humans. Other than lingering racial tensions from the Master’s war, there’s no imminent danger of living next to a super mutant. New Vegas revisited this idea as well. The writers of Fallout 3 completely misunderstood the point.

Tenpenny Tower residents were terrified of being murdered by ghouls. Those fears were completely justified since all three methods of ghoul integration end in the massacre of every single human resident of Tenpenny Tower, even those who were pro-ghoul from the start. Turns out Roy Phillips, the violent psychopath who advocated violence throughout the entire quest, was…surprise a violent psychopath. Too bad there’s no option to kill Roy Phillips but still allow ghouls or otherwise reveal his plan to kill the smoothskins.
If you (justifiably) murder Roy Phillips and his ghouls, you get bad karma and Three Dog vilifies you on the radio. It’s as if the quest writer and the Tenpenny Tower hub designer never spoke to each other.

Feral_ghoul_attacking

Questions:

At the end of the day, there are three unanswered questions behind this quest:

Why did the ghouls want to live in Tenpenny Tower? Why would you force yourself into an exclusive club that doesn’t want you and is actively afraid of you? Just to prove a point? Proving a point or setting a precedent only works in a world upheld by law and government. It doesn’t work so well in a violent world populated by isolated tribes.

Where did all these rich ghouls come from? Tenpenny Tower is supposed to be for rich wastelanders. Herbert “Daring” Dashwood made his fortune from years of exploring. Susan Lancaster made her career in the slave trade. Where did an entire hotel of ghouls get their fortune? Where did they come from? We don’t find out, most of them are generic NPCs. Roy Phillips says he has the caps to get into Tenpenny Tower, but that’s either a lie or a developer oversight.

Why didn’t the ghouls just refurbish Warrington Station? Roy Phillips uses Warrington Station as a base, but the place is a dump. Why not turn Warrington Station into a haven for wasteland ghouls and have ferals as guards? In this manner, Gustavo and Tenpenny would hire the Lone Wanderer for fear the ghouls were building an army, rather than because the ghouls were annoying. Instead of trying to integrate, the quest could have been solved by establishing a trade agreement. This would also explain where all the ghouls were coming from.
Side note: To put into persepctive how much Gustavo wanted the ghouls dead, he was willing to pay 500 caps, the same as Mr. Burke’s compensation for detonating Megaton. In Tenpenny Tower, killing three ghouls has the same value as procuring a one-of-a-kind fusion pulse charge and blowing up an entire town.

 

TenpennyCorpses.jpg

“If you bigots don’t let us in, we’ll kill you all! We’ll also kill you all if you do let us in! You PRIVILEGED SMOOTHSKIN BIGOTS!”

Like so many other quests in Fallout 3, “Tenpenny Tower” is a story of missed potential and unanswered questions. It’s not a bad quest by any means. The gameplay offers a lot of non-combat options and even breaks the mold of “combat, lockpick, hack, speech” that defines the main questline. Unfortunately, the moral choice was poorly conceived and the ending ruins the entire quest. You either kill the ghouls and are labeled a racist or you let the ghouls slaughter every human in Tenpenny Tower, even those who were pro-ghoul from the beginning.

Such is life in the wasteland.

Smegma Crazies, Gayboys, and The Golden Youth

Wez_Scream

On the surface, The Road Warrior is a fine action movie that defined the post-apocalyptic genre and put everyone involved on the map. If we put aside the action and go a little deeper, we start to see some interesting clues about the Humungus tribe. As we already saw with Lord Humungus and especially Fury Road, George Miller loves adding cryptic details into his films. Perhaps the most discussed and yet mysterious of these details revolves around the Humungus tribe’s not-so-subtle homoeroticism.

At the beginning of the film, we see Wez, his companion, and a few mooks engaged in a fast-paced pursuit. When the scene slows down to give Wez his fist close up, the audience immediately notices Wez’s companion, a young man credited as The Golden Youth, wears a black leather bondage harness. What I’ve always found more interesting is the chain and padlock dangling from his neck.

Zoom

While Wez is removing the crossbow bolt from his arm, the camera is positioned such that both The Golden Youth and Wez share the frame. In fact, The Golden Youth remains shares the frame throughout the shot, even as the camera pans up to focus on Wez’s twisted expression. George Miller could have done a simple close up of Vernon Wells followed by a reverse reaction shot of Max, but it seems he wanted the viewer to take notice of The Golden Youth, especially since this is the opening scene and the audience’s first encounter with the Humungus tribe.

Early drafts of The Road Warrior suggest The Golden Boy was originally meant to be female, but the writers (Miller, Hayes, and Hannat) wanted to demonstrate that gender roles were meaningless in the post-societal world. This motif comes through with another character who is practically The Golden Youth’s opposite and was originally supposed to be male. The Warrior Woman has agency and character, while The Golden Youth remains silent and submissive until his sudden death.

bat

Would Wez arm a slave?

Some have suggested The Golden Youth was a sex slave, but I think there’s more to it than that, especially since he can be seen wielding a baseball bat. The Golden Youth’s death adds another layer to Wez’s character, who would otherwise be a mass murderer without motivation. Alarmed at his partner’s death, Wez erupts into a violent rage. The focus of the scene switches from Humungus’ speech to Wez’s outburst. Humungus knows something about the relationship between Wez and The Golden Youth as the bandit king calls Wez’ name while he kneels next the corpse.

The_Golden_Youth

When Wez screams for the murder of Papagallo’s entire tribe, Humungus tries to sooth him, saying “We all lost someone we love.” I believe Lord Humungus’ immediate concern for Wez combined with that additional line provides a little extra insight into the relationship between these characters, particularly since The Golden Youth’s death serves as the motivation for Wez’s unrestrained (and later physically restrained) hatred of Papagallo’s tribe.

The Golden Youth isn’t the only homoerotic aspect of Humungus’ tribe, but it is the most obvious. While Max is eating dog food and watching the warring tribes from the ridge, Humungus can be heard commanding “Smegma Crazies to the left. The gate! Gayboy Berserkers to the gate.”

Gayboys

Gayboy Berserker

These two lines, barely audible in the movie, provide a little extra context when set against costume design. The Road Warrior’s costume department divided Smegma Crazies and Gayboy Berserkers into two distinct styles. Smegma Crazies wear tan jumpsuits, hides, and masks. Gayboy Berserkers wear police outfits, like Max’s uniform. Other members of the Humungus tribe wear black leather bondage gear.  Additionally, while the main Humungus force drives muscle cars, Smegma Crazies drive carts and Gayboy Berserkers drive looted police cars.

Smegma_CraziesSmegma

What does this little detail add to the story? That depends on how you look at it. Some have theorized Smegma Crazies and Gayboy Berserkers are two separate tribes dominated by Lord Humungus. Others say they’re just ranks within the tribe. George Miller is a stickler for little details. The script could have had these characters listed as anything (Wallabeaters, Madboys, etc), but ultimately, we got Gayboys and Smegma Crazies. This tiny detail, combined with Wez’s relationship to The Golden Youth, raises the question as to whether the entire Humungus tribe is homosexual.

I tend to think that, following the post-societal deterioration of gender roles, the Humungus tribe will probably act on any sexual gratification they can get. For example, when Papagallo sends scouts into the wasteland, the couple are immediately captured and raped by the marauders. Similarly, although it may seem that Humungus’ tribe is made entirely of men there’s a handful of female marauders in the background of Humungus’ introduction.

Tent_Scene

If there was any doubt, there’s also the infamous “tent scene” where the presence of women in the Humungus Tribe is undeniable. These details might lend some credibility to the theory claiming Gayboys and Smegma Crazies were added to Humungus’ fold after the initial founding. Since gender roles only fell apart after the fall of society and since Gayboys and Smegma Crazies are based on military and police, it stands to reason those tribes would be exclusively male and (as their name implies) homosexual.

Humungus_Gang

Standard Humungus Marauders

So what about the bondage gear? While it might serve to subtly separate Humungus’ main force from the sub-tribes, it seems to be a product of the costume designer, rather than the writers. As the story goes, costume designer Norma Moriceau got her inspiration for the Humungus Tribe’s costumes by living next to an S&M shop. Because of that anecdote, whether these outfits say anything about the tribe or if they’re just an odd piece of inspiration seems a little ambiguous, especially since Papagallo’s mechanic also wears studded leather. However, because The Road Warrior defined a genre, it led to the rise of fetish clothing and homosexual marauders in the post-apocalyptic setting.

0000217517

As I’ve often said, The Road Warrior spawned a slew of b-movies trying a cash in on its success. We recently looked at Warriors of the Wasteland, where the antagonists were an explicitly homosexual tribe of nihilist men bent on ending all human life. This twist on Humungus’ tribe adds an abstract element of decay to idea of post-apocalyptic raiders.

By their nature, raiders only destroy. They are vultures, feeding off the old world without putting anything into it. Once the last can of dog food is gone, once the last settlers are tortured and killed, once the last can of guzzolene used up, they will have nothing left. This specific type of raider, first popularized by The Road Warrior, actively seeks to eliminate any chance of human reconstruction. If, as in the case of Warriors of the Wasteland, these raiders are also incapable of reproduction, they become symbolic of horsemen (or motorcyclists) of the apocalypse, looting and murdering until the entire planet is dead.

Do the Smegma Crazies and Gayboy Berserkers matter? Why include such a small detail? Tell us in the comments!

Police State

“Two weeks hard labor.”

That was the sentence given to me by “his honor” the Judge. Geeze. I can still see that fat sluggish tongue scraping the cheese dust from his bloated lips. Guy looks like a bullfrog with a mustache. And the smell… his whole courtroom smells like a plate of steaming hot puke with a glass of skunked beer.

After my “trial” (if you can call it that), I was shackled, beaten again, and hauled off to the blacksmiths. Saul Fore wouldn’t get me out of this one. For two weeks, he just glanced at me and shook his head. When I called out to him, he said that I was beyond helping. Those words hit a lot harder than the police batons, even if they didn’t leave me covered in purple splotches.

For the past two weeks I’ve been lighting forges, assembling weapons, and handloading fresh bullets. My fingers have turned grey, but it hasn’t been so bad. I’ve actually learned a lot about how guns work. Plus, all this gave me some time to clear my head and think about everything that’s happened in the past few weeks. Besides, hard labor is a lot better than getting thrown out in the wasteland…again.

You’re probably wondering: How did that idiot Joe Junkman get into this mess?

Well, I had just entered the BLVD with Saul Fore our food caravan. It had been a long, but uneventful journey from Abundance. Almost immediately, I spotted a crowd gathered round a band playing on a rusting pickup truck. Then the music hit me. All I could hear was the wonderful strumming of a finely tuned guitar. I ignored Saul Fore’s warning and followed the string of notes drifting through the air. I caught myself nodding my head and shaking my hips. I was in a trance, comfortably numb to the world around me.

That’s partially why I didn’t hear the curfew siren. The other reason is that I had no idea the BLVD had a curfew in the first place. At first, I didn’t even notice the “counselor’s” approached wearing their fancy suits and armed with nightsticks and hand crank sirens. The crowd quickly dispersed, but I had no idea what was happening. Nobody told me anything! Of course the Judge croaked out that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Seems pretty stupid to me.

It wasn’t long before I was the last person on the street. The counselors boxed me in. One shouted something at me through a megaphone, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I didn’t want any trouble, so I shot my hands up and slowly walked toward the suit with the megaphone. He didn’t like that.

Something slammed into the back of my head. I hit the ground hard. A padded knee rested on top of me as my arms were roughly placed behind my back. I tried to use the old Junkman charm, but that just got me a steel-toed kick to the guts. Bruises. Just what I needed. I’m sure someone will find that attractive.

After all that, I was hauled off to the courthouse to await my trial the following morning. Of course, I had to defend myself in court so it didn’t go well. But all this got me thinking. What if someone were to put an official list of the BLVD’s laws on paper? And what if they sold that list for a few tags? And what if that someone was me?

Gunman Taco Truck: Refreshing!

gmtt-4.jpgAfter the monotony of Wasteland Angel and the abject failure of The Underground Man, I was delighted to learn of Gunman Taco Truck from Romero Games. The ultimate surprise came when I looked at the game on Steam and found that it was designed by a 9-year-old boy. With that said, Gunman Taco Truck is an addictive arcade game with a great sense of humor and a steep difficulty curve.

20170131165810_1

The premise is simple. Scientists accidentally set off nuclear bombs, killing or mutating almost everything in the United States. One mysterious food truck driver must embark on a cross country trip from San-Diego to Winnipeg, Canada. Gasoline is expensive in the apocalypse. To make ends meet, our hero must slaughter mutants, harvest their meat, and sell delicious tacos.

The gameplay is a nice balance of resource management, lane defense, reflex based shooting, cooking games, and memory. It sounds like a mess of parts, but combined with a powerful premise, it all fits together quite nicely. In fact, I haven’t seen a game that flawlessly pulled together so many elements since Sunless Sea.

20170131170030_1

To get meat, you’ll find yourself in a lane based arcade shooter, where you simply have to kill enemies before they get to you. Along the way, you’ll also need to shoot road signs for scrap metal (to upgrade your vehicle) and un-mutated animals for specialty meats. To pay for gas, you need to sell tacos. Here’s the catch: You need extra ingredients (cheese, salsa, cilantro, mold, etc) to fulfill the orders. Each gas station has either a grocer or a mechanic. Prices of items vary at each location. You never really feel safe because no grocer sells every kind of topping. On the one hand, this ensures that you can’t grind tacos. On the other hand, if you run out of toppings, you’re going to have a bad time.

That leads me to the next area: difficulty. Though the game starts out simple, the difficulty curve pulls up so hard it’s almost at an overhang. If you fail to upgrade your vehicle (or can’t find enough scrap metal) you’ll be eaten alive by super-mutants and giant frogs. The farther you go, the more enemies you face. In other words, the late-game quickly becomes bullet hell.

Now I mentioned that nobody sells every kind of taco topping. That turns out to be a major downside in this game. Some ingredients (salsa especially) are included in almost every recipe. Unfortunately, I found that (because the game uses RNG) some ingredients are incredibly hard to find. I’ve had at least seven “Game Over” screens simply because no one was selling salsa.

20170131170202_1

Though difficult, the visuals make gameplay rewarding. There’s a huge number of mutants, meats, and weapons in the world. Sprites are fun, colorful, and cartoonish. Great feedback, colors, and “hurt” sprites help the player navigate harder levels. Close ups of customers are charming and invoke an art-style similar to Papers, Please.

It’s also worth noting that the game is honestly funny. After feeding hungry customers, you receive reviews. There’s a lot of flavor text and references that contributes to the tone and humor, without distracting the player. Finally, there’s the kid friendly “pinata mode”. Instead of exploding into a thousand bloody bits, enemies will explode into candy and stuffed animals. This is a great extra addition and highlights the care that went into this project.

I love games that you can jump into and play for 30 minute sessions; “Gunman Taco Truck” is no exception. From its fast gameplay to its charming premise, this is a welcome addition to your library of post-apocalyptic games. My one caveat would be price; Gunman Taco Truck sells for $11.99. Regardless, when compared to other post-apocalyptic indie games, this is a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in Gunman Taco Truck, you can get it here.

In the Belly of the Beast

Well, this isn’t so bad,

10f7365ae3a83129b412f4aeb2ba0b0d  There I was, trapped in a cage like a common animal. My captor was busy nursing a crackling fire. With the cave illuminated, I was able to orient myself to the exit portal. Looking around, I found a mattress, a chessboard resting on a table of stacked car rims, and even a carved china cabinet full of knick-knacks.

I was then distracted by an unpleasant pattering sound that scratched the back of my mind and caused my eyebrow to twitch and my neck muscles to tense. Turning away from the fire, I spotted a collection of drying pots and pans. Licking my cracked lips, I watched as precious water droplets rhythmically plopped into a tin dish. Though my head was still pounding from dehydration, I knew that my captor had must have a sustainable water source if he was willing to waste such a valuable commodity on washing dishes.

A monstrous humanoid shadow appeared on the wall in front of me, growing larger and larger as the sound of crunching sand grew louder and louder. Trembling, I turned around to formally meet my kidnapper. I don’t know what I was expecting.

Grabbing the iron lattice, the mutant revealed himself in all his horrific glory. My captor stood nearly seven feet tall. His flesh was a sickly yellowish green that had the consistency of fresh mucus. His whole body unnaturally oozed and festered, yet not a single drop of slime fell from his body. An odd explosive glow churned in his bloated belly. He wore little more than leather boots, tattered cargo shorts, and a pouch bandolier that seemed fused to his chest.

My captor introduced himself as Urmit, apparently of a race called the hulking horrors. My teeth chattering, I silently nodded my head. Suddenly, the mutant’s body made a grotesque crunching sound, similar to splitting wood. His muscular left arm atrophied until it was little more than a five fingered stump, while his right arm turned into a tentacle, slithering into the cage to meet me with a handshake.

Retracting his right arm and re-growing his left, the horror noted that I was extremely dehydrated. He picked up the tin dish full of drippings and slid it into my cage. As I emptied the curved plate, Urmit asked what I was doing out in the desert without any gear. I plainly told him that I was looking for a water source to help the people of Abundance. It was the truth after all, mostly.

“You mean like dat?” the mutant asked, pointing behind me.

I turned around once again to find a reflective pool that stretched as far back into the cave as I could see.

Now I just need to play my card right and get out of here.

-Joe Junkman

Deja Vu

I’m really not cut out for this.

I woke up to a sharp pressure just below my eyebrows. I was being dragged uphill. My whole body was sore. My arms were all ripped up after being dragged through the rocks. My legs would have been worse if I had been wearing shorts. I had no idea where I was going. That seemed to be happening a lot lately.

Trying to keep my cool, as I had in the spider’s web, I remained perfectly still. The pressure on my skull was such that, I felt whatever was dragging me could blind me or smash my head in at any moment. I did not want to startle my captor. Although I couldn’t look up to see the creature’s whole body, I could tell that it was humanoid as it angrily mumbled to itself. Its fingers were moist and sticky.

Before long, the moonlight and stars over my head were replaced by impenetrable blackness.  I was being dragged into a cave and a fairly nice one at that. My hands drifted through soft sand. It reminded me of the beaches of Brazil. Once all natural light disappeared, I was assaulted by the unsettling creak of rusty iron before being thrown into a cage. This was exactly like my last trip to Brazil.

I heard distinctive click of a padlock followed by the mumblings of a raspy congested voice. Aside from insane gibberings, I could make out “boil da water, add da meat, cook up some’fing real neat.”

Moments later, I could make out a series of sharp clicks coming from my right. The first spark revealed a monstrous silhouette, like that of a body builder. The second spark ignited the kindling, gradually revealing the creature in its entirety. The monster cracked his knuckles and turned to me.

This would be a really good time for Gray to show up.

-Joe Junkman

The Underground Man: Smoke and Mirrors

header

I’ve played a lot of AAA games and I’ve played a lot of indie games, but I’ve never played a game quite like The Underground Man. The game is tagged as a “story rich RPG.” Although the character creation screen is reminiscent of old pen and paper sheets, this is most certainly not an RPG. The Underground Man relies on an old school vibe, similar to Kung Fury or Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Don’t be fooled, this game is a far cry from those it tries to imitate.

The best way to explain my frustration with The Underground Man is to describe my experience. The game’s store description reads:
Moscow: Sometime in the near future. The city and perhaps the Earth’s surface has turned into a radioactive ash. Those who decided that they could not exist in such conditions began to live under the ground.
The unusual wording of this description should have been an early warning, but I initially assumed that since the developers are independent and from Russia, that the game might have some other merit.

As the game boots up, you see the logo “Mehsoft.” That turned out to be a fairly appropriate name.  The music is an oddly good throwback to early SNES games and reminiscent of Kung Fury.

Moving on to character creation, the player is treated to a whopping 36 skills including “sexuality”, “sence of humor”, “mental complexity”, and “kindness.”  The player is given an enormous number of points to distribute, but all this is an exercise in futility.  None of these skills do anything, they have no effect on the game. Finally, the player cannot proceed until they write a character bio at least 140 characters long.

the-udnerground-man1

Don’t be fooled. This character creation screen is a waste of time.

If you manage to make it past the character creation screen, you are treated to a picture of an atomic explosion that has been distorted to look authentically 80s. Without any further introduction, you are then dropped into an underground cave opposite a robed figure. Now begins a lengthy unskippable dialogue establishing your goal.

The player is told that the people of the underground have been harvesting potatoes for years, but that the crops are starting to go bad. Therefore, the titular Underground Man must go to the surface and find corndogs as they are “food wrapped in food” and therefore safe from radiation.  Should the Underground Man recover the corndogs, his people will scientifically analyze them to produce their own potato corndogs.
I actually don’t have a problem with this quirky and memetic dialogue. Not every post-apocalyptic setting has to be dark and gritty. Humor can serve as contrast to a setting’s gloom and despair.

rename

Notice that the first line spoken to the player is “Hello there, shithead.”

The dialogue system here is somewhat interesting. There are no dialogue options, you have to type out your answers. If you have no idea what to type, you’re allowed 3 hints that will show you the possible responses for the conversation. In the tutorial this amounts to “Yes”, “No” and “____”.

Over the next five minutes, the player is told that the last person sent to the surface went crazy from the radiation sickness and returned wearing women’s underwear. The tutorial NPC goes on to say that after trying to kiss another man, the previous explorer was beaten to death with shovel before the tribe urinated on his corpse. This is real. This is actually in the game.

ss_84f4f79ff1d4887202e0d1a86c407079e003c5be-600x338

After 10 minutes, the player is finally given a sense of control. They’re told to move to the right side of the room by holding “D”. If you fail to do this or if you press any button other than “D” the tutorial NPC will call you a failure and you’ll be sent back to the main menu.  There’s no save system (though you do periodically receive checkpoints if you pass the tutorial), so although you can ignore the useless skills, you still have to write 140 character bio before starting again. Once you start over, you’ll have to wait through another 10 minutes of scrolling text before you can reattempt the tutorial. If you manage to pass the movement challenge, you’ll be asked to jump. You’ll be asked to jump over a dozen times. If you just mash the spacebar, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.

Should you pass the movement section, you’ll be allowed to fight a radroach. If you lasted this long, you’ll realize that the game is merely a 2D beat ‘em up. Your health bar is represented by three hearts in the top left corner of the screen. After the fighting tutorial, you’ll learn how to pick up items. Again, if you don’t perform perfectly, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.

ss_1c8020b146f797d5a554fe3f591d280bdbd322bd-600x338

Empty screens just provide filler, rather than enhance the setting.

In the unlikely event that you pass the tutorial, you’ll find yourself walking across a few dozen empty wasteland screens before meeting the game’s only companion. Trap is the female(ish) sidekick whose dialogue consists almost entirely of rumors about what’s between her legs. So long as Trap accompanies the player, she will shoot at enemies with an energy weapon.2016-12-01_2324

The further you get into the “story”, the more reminiscent the gameplay is of NES shovelware. Everything that touches you removes one of your three hit points. Getting pooped on by a bird does the same damage as being punched by a zombie. Toward the end of the game, the player must engage in precision platforming across a lake of instant-killing green slime (filled with leaping piranhas). Additionally, there’s a short 2.5D driving section in a hovercraft (with holographic legs).

Despite its large number of locations, The Underground Man is horrifically padded. Much of the game is simply walking across multiple empty screen. Although this makes the wasteland feel big and empty, it doesn’t accomplish anything. The original Fallout didn’t make you walk across a dozen screens of wasteland, but it still gave players a sense of scale. The Underground Man could have relied on in-game cutscenes to transition between zones. Instead, they made the game longer. This is especially horrendous near the previously mentioned platforming section which requires the player not only to get across the acid lake, but then travel back in a single attempt. As it stands, the game is about 5 hours long (mistakes included). If you could skip the tutorial, fast forward through dialogue, and never made a mistake the game would probably be about an hour long.

ss_59c27149f7c369f6e957e7dfedf3c81049b0c923-600x338

There’s nothing wrong with a joke game (even one that relies on memetic humor), so long as it has some redeeming quality. Even silly nonsensical games can be fun. Adult Swim’s Jazzpunk is an incredibly simple game, but it knows how to entertain. Steam reviews suggest that this game was made for the purpose of trolling and that an understanding of Russian humor is required to understand the dialogue.
I just don’t understand why The Underground Man was made, especially since most players will immediately request a refund. I’m reminded of Penn and Teller’s: Smoke and Mirrors (you may know it as the infamous Desert Bus), a fake game that only exists to frustrate. The difference is that Smoke and Mirrors was a multiplayer game meant to annoy and confuse your friends. The Underground Man is a punchline without a joke.

If you’re still interested in The Underground Man, you can get it here.