Written by Stephen Patterson
Most players of video games have an idea of what steampunk and cyberpunk are, they are staples of modern gaming storytelling and world-building. Games such as Bioshock, Dishonored and Deus Ex fit quite nicely into those molds, prepared over decades by writers and artists alike for various works. ‘Dieselpunk‘ however is a sub-genre or setting which is seen much more rarely, only brought into the limelight by recent films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and little else. It combines a fascination with the technology of the mid-20th century, especially early aviation, with a take on retro-futurism which borders on the absurd (think nuclear reactor powered sedan cars and flying freight trains). Underrail, a role playing game from Stygian Software, seeks to recapture that aesthetic.
Dielselpunk in video games can be largely traced to the original two Fallout games, the second of which, released in 1998 by Black Isle Studios, captures the elements of Dieselpunk almost perfectly. In that game, an isometric RPG, the writers managed to combine the bleak desolation of a post-nuclear war America with the black humour and rugged survivability of humanity on the edge. Even with later instalments in the series, such as Fallout 3 and prominently in New Vegas, there exists a fascination with 1950s culture and futurism, including the miracle of nuclear energy. The constant fight for survival, typified by the search for the Water Chip in Fallout 1, is contrasted with outlandish and bizarre technology ripped right from the newspaper columns of the postwar period.
This aesthetic clearly and an influence on many games of the 21st century, including Bioshock, a fascinating blend of late 19th century steampunk and 20th century dieselpunk. Those games which do attempt to incorporate elements of diesel style in their art direction and concept however invariably continue the march onward for ever increasing graphical fidelity: they pay homage to the style but not the full aesthetic of 90s dieselpunk gaming, isometric perspective and low-fi graphics included. Stygian Software seek with Underrail seek to recapture that design.
From a gameplay perspective, Underrail is extremely reminiscent of 1990s role playing games. The main flow of the game involves text based conversations with NPCs dotted around the game world, in this case an abandoned subway system where the inhabitants of the world shelter from an earth ravaged overhead. The conceit of the game is that survivors of the calamity, unknown at the outset of the game, battle for control and the subway tunnels and installations a la Metro 2033, with factions fighting both each other and wild, mutated creatures. Combat itself is lifted almost entirely from the work of Black Isle: your stats in skills and abilities determine your action points, which in turn decide how many shots you can take or how far you can move each turn. The likelihood of success or failure of your actions is not obfuscated or hidden from view, each shot you take has a percentage to hit and a roll occurs behind the scenes, just like a pen & paper role playing game.
The real magic of Underrail is how it takes us as players back to the original experience of playing those games of the 1990s – the mechanics are very structured and wide, allowing distinct character builds. I could decide to play a submachine-gun toting badass with a leather trenchcoat (look – I thought that was cool a decade ago), or I could specialise in smooth talking and psionic abilities to bluff my way through problems. The inherent replayability of the experience, despite fixed quests and narrative hooks, lies in the character building, as any true role playing game should. In that way, even the simplest encounter with a group of Stalkers, raiders who hide in the depths of the subway tunnels, can play out completely differently.
There’s a lot that can be said about returning to such a format in terms of both aesthetic theme and gameplay design. Firstly, Underrail represents a desire to re-imagine the stories and ideas presented by the role playing games of the 1990s – an exercise in world-building which captures post-apocalyptic destruction but leaves enough to allow freedom in both the creation of unique characters and of personal stories. From a mechanical standpoint, the isometric RPG in Fallout, Icewind Dale and others could have been arguably ‘mastered’, creating a series of interactive vehicles that allow the conveyance of great stories without requiring their writers to also innovate. Not only this, but the dieselpunk setting is one in which there is still a lack of compelling content, not just in video games but across a broad spectrum of literature. It’s futurist take on technology can often come across as far-fetched and ridiculous, but Underrail does an excellent job in portraying machinery and weaponry as scavenged, jury-rigged and barely effective as befits the setting.
Where the experience could be criticised is the failure of the game to make more statements on how society (or what remains of it) has adapted in the setting presented. There is ample opportunity to tell tales of slipshod governance, anarchism or provide commentary on adapting communities to a new existence, but the game reduces many of it’s potentially meaningful characters interactions into quest-giving-and-receiving. Rather than simply telling the story of a group looking to expand its power through military goals (the game opens with the objective of claiming outposts for your ‘community’), it could do more to explore diplomacy and ethics in a land where there is no higher power to judge their efficacy.
What it does have to contribute however is a continuation of the peculiar videogame fascination with nuclear conflict and its aftermath. It is certainly a fascination which has rubbed off on me as a consumer, or dare I say it – critic – of both games and literature alike. As well as the aforementioned parallels to Fallout, we can see large amounts of the Metro universe in Underrail. The questions asked are approaching philosophical: what right does man have to such devastating power, how and where should it be used, and what remains in the aftermath? Are those who survive destined to make the same mistakes by exerting their power by force, as we do throughout Underrail? Unfortunately, as mentioned above, little more is said on the subject other than that outlined by the premise of the experience.
In reality, as a player of video games, this is not a necessary aspect of any game, and Underrail is no exception. The gameplay is both satisfying and challenging, the design and inherent probability aspect of which allows the formation of personal stories and experiences which are unique and can raises their own questions. Whether or not we should value the lives of fellow humans in a world when barely any have survived is fundamentally ours – I can decide to kill or steal through my own in-game actions. The repercussions those actions have may be inconsequential in the ultimate outcome of most the non-player characters, but we are still, ever so slightly, encouraged to consider those actions before we enact them – even if simply by prompts from the UI that you might be doing something ‘bad’.
Fundamentally, I believe Underrail presents an interesting throwback to a style of game which has since been largely lost. The isometric RPG format still has it’s holdouts on the modern era – we need look no further than the acclaimed Torment: Tides of Numenara, a spiritual successor to 1999’s Planescape Torment. The wonderful combination however of 1990s isometry with the gritty futurism of dieselpunk is woefully underrepresented – Underrail revives it well.