Take the alien aesthetic of Independence Day and set it to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and you’ll have something in the neighborhood of a roguelike RPG being developed by a small German studio called UnDungeon.
Currently undergoing a Kickstarter campaign that recently hit its threshold to get funded, Laughing Machine’s freshman project seems easy enough to quantify. With permadeath and beautiful pixel graphics with a color palette somewhere between Miami Vice and Mad Max, UnDungeon feels safely within the spectrum of a number of other recent nostalgia filled indie releases. But for as much as the game appears to be chasing Hyper Light Drifter on its surface, the influences and underlying creative vision owe more to computer RPGs of the late 90s like Planescape: Torment and the first Fallout.
Vlad Muntean, the game’s creator, told me it was the long and somewhat archaic dialogue from these games, as well as their felxible role-playing system, that he wanted UnDungeon to emulate. “The ability to complete the game several times with a new character, quest, key events, and ending are much more important than endless columns of characteristics and statistics,” Muntean said.
UnDungeon depicts a multiverse where the barriers between parallel worlds have broken down in a cataclysmic event referred to as the Shift. You play as one of seven heralds who have mysteriously appeared to bring tidings of the apocalypse and also scour the world for powerful artifacts.
When the game starts you select who to play as and from there journey out into the world meeting characters and discovering new areas with little direction. Each map for every new run is procedurally generated from a number of discrete building blocks, and according to Muntean the obstacles your herald encounters and how best to solve them will change from run to run.
Imagine on one attempt you run into a Shaman who asks you to go looking for some of his lost tribesmen. In doing so you might run into a monster and have to decide whether to kill it, drive it away, or find it another source of food, or assist it in killing the nomads who sent you on this quest in the first place. In another playthrough you’re unlikely to run into this scenario at all, or, if you do, you might witness how the situation would have evolved in your absence.
“UnDungeon consists of such small stories and occasions,” said Muntean.
“It’s a slice of life that illustrates each of the seven worlds. The Herald is like a blank piece of paper or a newborn. He comes into the world with zero knowledge of what’s happening around him. Besides, he lacks moral principles and character traits. These details are formed by the player who makes certain decisions during the run.”
But some progress will carry over from run to run. Mutants released from a facility in one attempt will have consequences going forward the next time you play. In this way, the world isn’t fully erased with each subsequent playthrough, but rather augmented and warped until something starts to take shape as a result of the player’s agency acting out within the confines of the game’s procedural generation.
“Our team wants to unleash all the potential of both consciousness and subconsciousness to enrich this universe,” said Muntean. you won’t find that vague yet particularly ominous promise on the list of UnDungeon’s stretch goals, but it speaks to the general sense of fragmentation and pastiche that pervades the game’s presentation. UnDungeon at times seems to have as much in common with the alien noir of X-Files as it does the colorful roguelike mechanics of Enter the Gungeon, making it perfect Rorschach test for whatever psychic energy the player is willing to bring to it.