It’s taken me too long to get here, I know.
The Under Presents, Tender Claws’ latest VR extravaganza, has been available for six whole months and much like Virtual Virtual Reality before it, I’ve been sleeping on it. Not because I didn’t want to dive in — I’m a huge fan of the team’s work both in and out of VR — but because I knew once I did, I’d be down a peculiar type of rabbit hole, one that isn’t easy to dig your way out of. But, with the SteamVR version out, live performances nearing their end and, well, a lot of reasons to stay inside right now, I finally decided to right that wrong.
And down I tumbled.
From the outside looking in, it’s hard to quantify what The Under Presents actually is. A glance at the Steam/Oculus store page will tell you that it’s some sort of multiplayer/single-player/live theater/narrative-driven… thing, and trying to decipher these many threads can distract you from deciding if, y’know, you actually want to buy it. So let’s lay it out straight.
In its simplest form, The Under Presents is an experience of two halves, neither of which is terribly well communicated in its opening 20 minutes (something that seems to be a pretty intentional choice). You enter The Under, an otherworldly club that can only be described as Lynchian in nature. It is a strange and wonderful place; you’ll discover a stylish cabaret room with a rotating variety show that suddenly sprawls out into an expansive, mystic dune, the horizon populated with misplaced landmarks. Crabs spring up from beneath the sand to pinch items away from you and the stage itself is housed neatly inside the remains of an enormous behemoth of a ship, left upturned and dried out. If you weren’t already getting Lost island vibes, wait until you discover the hatch in the sand.
This is The Under Presents’ multiplayer and live segment and where it’s at its most fascinating, clearly influenced by the silent social discovery of games like Journey. When you boot up the game, you’ll be loaded into this area with other players (you can go offline, too). There’s no mic support; every player is totally mute save for the ability to click your fingers to help draw attention. From there you’re free to watch shows, which include elaborate dance numbers and comedy routines, or you can venture out into the wastes to explore.
If The Under Presents were Sesame Street, it would be sponsored by the word ‘curiosity’. Though barren on the surface, the hub is filled with countless discoveries to make, rewarding teamwork and investigation with new areas to explore and recipes for casting novel spells.
These are mostly fun extras, like the ability to shoot fireworks or enlarge items you’re holding, but recipes become a precious sort of currency in the game world. Players might appear from over a hilltop and hand you one as a means of making friends. Better yet, they’ll gather a group around them and cast the spell themselves so others can memorize it. It’s an optimistic sort of social VR — though the internet never fails in circumventing that positivity at times — one that channels the nostalgic thrills of obsessing over gaming secrets and easter eggs as a kid.
Plus, if you’re lucky, you may encounter The Under Presents’ most exciting and groundbreaking feature: live NPCs. Popping up seemingly at random throughout the day, a series of actors embodying a cast as eccentric as your surroundings take you on mini-adventures or host games. You might be challenged to not press a button live on stage with a game show host, or a heroic cat may plot to take you on a grand quest. These instances can be dynamic, unpredictable and, above all, completely individual to you.
The other side to The Under Presents’ story is, simply put, a story. At various points across The Under you can access its main show, Timeboat. This single-player narrative unfolds almost identically to Tequila Works’ seminal VR ‘theater’ production, The Invisible Hours.
Acting as a fly on the wall, you follow a cast of characters that embark on a research trip out to sea, exploring the ship and interactions between its crew over the course of three acts and an epilogue. There are chances to change the outcome of the story throughout, and you can reverse and speed up time to keep up with everything that’s going on around you. It’s entertaining if a little bloated (there’s a lot of characters to keep up with), and feels like it could have stood as its own release instead of competing with the app’s more interesting experiments. Then again, it does help ensure there are reasons to visit The Under once the live performances have wrapped up.
But, while Timeboat is an appreciated addition and not subject to the same time restraints as the rest of the game, it’s the social element that really makes The Under Presents, which is why you should try it now and not a moment later. Live performances are set to run through to the end of May, at which point Tender Claws will integrate more pre-recorded elements into the experience. You’ll still be able to play in multiplayer, but you’ll be missing out on something we don’t often get in VR – moments that are genuinely unique to you alone. For that reason, a trip to The Under is worth the price of entry.