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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Going Under’ gamifies toxic start-up culture and millennial work attitudes

(Team17 Digital)
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Satire about millennials and the tech start-up culture is well-worn territory for comedy in 2020. But there’s something about indie game “Going Under” that feels personal.

It takes special insight to dig a bit deeper into the anxieties and pretension of the work boss who boasts about having a “start-up” culture, all the while being funded by billion-dollar parent companies with questionable labor practices. For developer Aggro Crab Games, based in Seattle, it’s game recognize game.

And you’ll recognize this game too. It’s a rogue-like, in which the player makes repeat runs of randomly-generated dungeons with constant variation, high challenge and a small degree of gradual improvement. In “Going Under,” it turns the metaphorical race to the bottom into a literal one. You are Jacqueline, the new unpaid marketing intern for Fizzle Co., a soda company on the verge of algorithm-driven drink flavor technology.

Unfortunately, your direct supervisor Marv has received reports of monsters running amok in the basement floors of the company. Jackie, as she calls herself, is horrified at being asked to clean it up, but she begrudgingly agrees under the threat of losing her gig. Jackie’s assignment takes her to the old offices of Joblin, a parody site with a much better name. Of course, it’s filled with overcaffeinated, dangerous and work-obsessed start-up employees. Jackie just wants health insurance.

Eventually, the story plays out like “BioShock” from the mind of a millennial Mike Judge. The Fizzle Co. CEO is an attention-hogging, egomaniacal man with zero self awareness. The woman who leads the development team is punished for her success. No one listens to the woman heading finances who warns everyone of overspending. The Joblin manager is a real stickler for employees going on bathroom breaks, including dictating how the toilet seats should be angled. Marv even twists Silicon Valley’s famous and usually-encouraging philosophy about learning from failure to excuse away the company’s dumbest ideas.

It’s all supposed to be funny, and a lot of it is. Poking fun at start-up and app culture isn’t new. “Grand Theft Auto 5” had its famous sequence in the offices of its Facebook parody company Lifeinvader, and even the “Ratchet and Clank” series started as a sharp critique of capitalism.

So credit to Aggro Crab that “Going Under” still makes well-worn jokes feel somewhat sharp. It’s all helped by an excellent aesthetic that makes the entire game looks like it was designed by whoever made Duolingo. The user interface is clean, attractive and addictive — just like all the best smartphone apps. The game explodes in color, and every character is painted with personality and verve. You can tell that the team had a lot of fun reimagining office decor as a hellish capitalistic nightmare.

Fighting monsters as Jackie takes as much from its inspirations too. Jackie engages her enemies like Link in “The Ocarina of Time,” targeting and rolling around monsters and enemies. She levels up like the hero in “Dead Cells,” picking up or buying randomized boosts. Items can be bought by either hard cash or cryptocurrency, a funny knock on the multiple currencies of the modern video game market. Jackie can shop for lifesaving items like avocado toast, which the game describes as a “delicious alternative to homeownership.” It only gives you one and a half hearts.

Aggro Crab also ties video game achievements to daily work goals. Mentors within the company set Jackie’s internship goals, including setting 30 separate things on fire, or escaping three combat scenarios without taking a hit. Completing them levels up her “mentorship,” which gives her persistent abilities to make things easier for subsequent runs through the start-up dungeons.

One of Jackie’s unique traits is her ability to wield literally anything around the office as a weapon, like Kiryu from the “Yakuza” series. Staplers become long-distance automatic weapons. She can stab her enemies with pencils, bash their heads in with rainbow-colored keyboards, or run them over in a hybrid car. Jackie weaponizes the tools of the trade.

There’s a physicality to Jackie’s combat that you don’t often feel in other rogue-like games. The 3-D physics give real weight to each swing of Jackie’s weapons, as enemies and office furniture bounce and crash all over the rooms. This makes up for the simple “dodge, dodge, hit” rhythm of the brawler-based combat.

And it’s tough. The game comes with an assist mode with various levers to make it through, but at its base difficulty, even the first Joblin dungeon will lead to a few game-over screens. However, since Jackie is invincible as she dodges around, it’s all about learning telegraphed attacks to avoid taking too many hits. There’s some light strategy as you juggle between weapons that break after some use. Fortunately, Jackie is never out of office supplies.

“Going Under” releases during a strange time, it goes without saying. It’s to the game’s credit that as toxic as the work culture at Fizzle Co. is, I still ended the game missing any kind of interaction. The game also releases when another rogue-like title, “Hades,” is making similar improvements to storytelling within a genre that’s struggled with it. Even the seminal “Dead Cells” lacked any kind of player motivation.

Aggro Crab’s first game should be part of this conversation. While its game systems aren’t nearly as robust for long-term play, it’s a dynamic and colorful brawler in a year that’s full of colorful brawlers like “Battletoads” and “Streets of Rage 4.”

Moreover, the real valuation of “Going Under” lies in the questions it asks of us: When it’s all over, what kind of work do we want to return to?

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