For me, Clerks is the quintessential 90s slacker movie. Dante gets called in to work the convenience store on his day off, and he and his buddy Randall do everything from yak about pop culture to screw with customers to play rooftop hockey. But underlying the references and quippy dialogue is Dante’s mantra: “I was not even supposed to be here today.” Every time something goes wrong—and a lot goes wrong—Dante repeats this refrain. Yet he also pushes through all obstacles to keep the store open. And the truth is, he could have walked away at any time; one could even argue any reasonable person would have. Still, I think that’s why Dante’s situation speaks to people. We’ve all been him at various points in our lives. We get stuck—stuck on what we’re supposed to do, stuck on who we see ourselves as, stuck on the only solutions we know—not able to take that leap and break away.
Gloom and Doom, an original English language visual novel from Neo Tegoel Games with an “insane dosage of 90s western pop culture” has a lot of parallels to Clerks. It has the pop culture references, the debates, and the grungy 90s set pieces. But it also explores that idea of being stuck, albeit from a different angle. Deciding who we really want to be is difficult and scary, but maybe it’s also worth trying, even if there are no guarantees. It’s a timeless coming of age message, and Gloom and Doom says things with a raw authenticity that resonates.
A Match Made in Heaven?
The premise of Gloom and Doom is that Gloom, a fallen angel who has spent the last few centuries killing demons to try to earn his way back to heaven meets “Doom”, a teenage girl named Wynona who believes she’s the antichrist and wants to die to prevent the apocalypse. Gloom is good at killing things and she’s ready to go, so it should be easy right? The problem is, Wynona seems to be unkillable. Gloom has some unusual friends though, and the pair set out to see if they can achieve both their goals in one shot.
The setting hits you right off the bat with those 90s vibes. A short prologue is filled with callbacks to slasher films. Gloom plays Sega Genesis in his dingy lair. Wynona introduces herself by talking about her favorite bands, and like Randal from Clerks, works at a video store and has opinions about movies of the era. You can see the CRT monitor in her room and hear the sounds of the dialup modem. The characters dress like ones you’d see in a Kevin Smith film. The story itself is set in 2000, and even before the characters start debating the relative merits of Britney and Christina, you know when you are.
Poor Unfortunate Souls
The relationship between Gloom and Wynona is the heart of the story. They initially break the ice over pop culture. Both love movies and games, but not the same ones and are down to talk some smack over their tastes. But as they get closer, it becomes more about how their dismal self-assessments contrast with their views of each other. For Wynona, Gloom is one of the only people in her life who treats her with care and listens, even if he is ultimately supposed to kill her. And to Gloom, Wynona is a goodhearted teenage girl in a rough situation with no one to offer her guidance.
Gloom and Doom is at its strongest in its quiet, intimate moments. It’s the kind of story where wisdom might be found at a deserted rooftop skate park under the moon. When Gloom and Wynona get to talking about themselves, it feels personal and real. Wynona’s jumbled, uncertain, and sometimes impulsive thoughts are those of your average teenager who just happens to be the antichrist. Gloom may have had centuries to think about things, but that doesn’t mean he actually has any answers. When he tries to play the wizened elder, he’s full of crap and he knows it.
Occasionally the desire to shoehorn in pop culture references gets in the way of these moments though. I found it much more authentic when Wynona and Gloom struggled to sloppily express themselves than when they made quippy comparisons to cultural touchstones. I don’t think Gloom and Doom needs so many references to feel 90s either. Everything, from the art and set pieces to the ways the characters speak and behave feeds into the 90s identity. Take out half the references and the sense of era would be plenty strong.
Heaven and Hell
Gloom and Doom has a lot of choices for you to make throughout. They start out small, for example letting you reflect on a character’s mood, but over time become increasingly consequential. One of the dangers of having lots of choices is that it can make characters inconsistent, but Gloom and Doom navigates this expertly. Both Gloom and Wynona are conflicted individuals, and the different options represent different sides of those internal conflicts. I never felt like Gloom and Doom’s choices existed just to give me buttons to press.
As the story progresses, the cast expands, and Gloom and Doom raises the stakes. The character designs are awesome, so it’s always a visual treat to meet new ones, and this helps add weight to the choices Gloom and Wynona will eventually have to make. It never quite had the magic of those introspective moments though. The story sometimes focuses so much on the what and how that the why and the feelings behind everything, for me the element of Gloom and Doom that resonated the most, get pushed aside.
Depending on your choices, the story can conclude in different ways. The endings are quite varied, and I think it reflects the story’s message that things don’t have to be predestined. We have to decide at some point who we want to be. The writing throughout also shows that Gloom and Wynona are complicated individuals, and most of the endings feel like plausible ways for things to play out. My one complaint is that the canonical ending was too neat for my taste. Part of the paralysis that comes with being stuck, as Dante was, is that when you finally reach for what you want, it might mean hurting someone else, or maybe finding out that the idea you had in your head for so long isn’t quite how things actually turn out. I’m certainly not one to demand a messy ending because neat endings can’t be “mature”, but in this case I think it would have been a powerful way to build on Gloom and Doom’s themes around choice and identity.
Where most visual novels, even non-Japanese ones, go for anime style art, Gloom and Doom draws from western comics, with heavy use of shading and lines. The art consistently pops, and the character designs are some of the most distinctive and stylish I’ve seen in visual novels. Really, the art is just as much a part of that 90s feel as its subjects. It’s so fitting that after playing Gloom and Doom, I can’t even imagine it anime-style. I also like that it’s not afraid to be dirty and grungy at times. Even the most composed or sympathetic characters have their ugly and messy sides, and the art reflects that when appropriate.
The music has a bit of a synthwave feel. Technically that’s 80s, but it’s also associated with retro games more generally. 80s sci-fi like Aliens and RoboCop where you can hear this music pop up in the references too. I think it still feeds into Gloom and Doom’s identity, and more importantly, it sets the mood without getting in the way. It’d be much harder to achieve that with soundtrack full or post-grunge and boy bands, even if those would perhaps be more 90s.
Gloom and Doom doesn’t have anything in the way of extras. It’s a compact indie game, so it’s not a huge failing. It would have been nice to have a CG gallery though, since these are standard in visual novels. A record of which endings you’ve found would also be useful, as Gloom and Doom has a large number of endings for its length.
If you enjoy the 90s aesthetic that can be found in places like Kevin Smith movies, there’s a good chance you’ll fall in love with Gloom and Doom, and I strongly recommend it. Even if that’s not your scene, Gloom and Doom offers a relatable story with authentic characters and serves it all up with distinctive flair. Whether you usually stick to anime-style visual novels and want something different or you like a good story with well-written characters, Gloom and Doom is worth your time.
Find Gloom and Doom on: Steam
Thanks to Neo Tegoel Games for providing a review copy of Gloom and Doom