Rarely does a game leave such a contradictory impression upon me as Under What? did. The art of this interactive comic is simply breathtaking, a masterclass in soft gradients and colour theory. Background music is reminiscent of the style Moby creates, a chill reflective tune that almost creates a sensation of floating. The dialogue, on the other hand, is full of childish memes and forced randomness, completely ruining the atmosphere. Created by solo developer Dan Gartman, Under What? shows great promise with its visual prowess, but the writing needs more work to match the quality of the game’s other aspects. Full spoilers are ahead, so if you’re interested in playing the game first, it can be downloaded from Steam here.
The game begins with an old fisherman being pulled underwater by his fishing rod, falling into the lake with a great splash. He awakens in an underwater kingdom, greeted by a fish who seems to recognise him. The fish allows the fisherman to ask him three questions, but all the fish’s answers lead to jokes or snide responses. Once they are done with chitchat, the fish leads him to an enormous lure in the ground. Pulling on it will cause the fisherman to fall from the pier once again, trapping him in a loop. Upon realising he is trapped, the fisherman promptly turns into a shark and is subsequently eaten.
Written out in broad strokes, the plot does not seem that bad. The story could be an absurdist take on the fable The Fisherman and His Wife, wherein a magical prince-turned-fish grants a fisherman wishes, but takes them all back when he gets too greedy and asks to be more powerful than god. The story could be about a search for identity, with the fish refuting each claim the fisherman makes about who he is, or perhaps a confrontation on the reality of being a fisherman in a universe where fish are sentient, snarky creatures. Instead, Under What? uses its brief 10 minute run time to make jokes. Poor ones. The dialogue quotes Spice Girl lyrics, makes ‘ligma’ jokes, and even throws in some transphobia with an ‘I identify as an octopus’ remark. I am not sure if something was lost in the translation from the original Russian, which has created some occasional clunky wording, but the general tone of the writing is so completely different from the artwork it leaves me baffled. If the writing was omitted entirely and the game was presented simply as a wordless comic, it would be a much more effective tale.
The mechanics of the game are well-implemented, if simple. The player clicks to advance the comic, which creates some nice visual effects with the fisherman sinking lower and lower with each press of the button. Dialogue choices can be made, but the same ending occurs regardless of which words are chosen, making the choices as pointless as the fish’s opinion that his family would taste better with tartare sauce. A good amount of thought has gone into the accessibility of the title too, with adjustable text speed and three languages to choose from: English, Russian, and Spanish. A custom font would be a nice addition, since Times New Roman looks a little bland next to the detailed panels.
That Under What? is so poorly written is disappointing, because I absolutely love its art style. The sharp lines and soft gradients, deep shadows with fish faces peering out, the careful framing of each comic panel—each screen is really visually appealing. Perhaps for future projects the developer could partner with a writer, so that gorgeous art can be complemented with more sophisticated dialogue.
As it is, Under What? is a beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying experience. Some will be able to look past the game’s immaturity and enjoy it as a silly tale, but for me the story is just too under-cooked.
Next week, we will take a look at Comet Crasher, a falling platformer in the style of Downwell. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. You can get in touch with your thoughts via Facebook, Twitter, or through our community Discord server, or you can email me here.