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tboiab

I’ve been watching old videos of the original The Binding of Isaac, and it’s strange looking back. As many huge improvements as Rebirth, the remake that came out a couple of years after, made to the base game, still it feels like something was lost in translation. Several things, actually…

Maybe it would be best to start with talking about all the reasons people generally regard Rebirth as categorically superior to the original. The first game had notorious framerate issues, many items didn’t work properly with each other, and it was built using technology that made it impossible to expand – many people say it reached the limits of Flash, Adobe’s multimedia tool, but Isaac was actually not just built in Flash, but built using Actionscript 2, the version of Flash’s scripting language that was deprecated in 2007. Since I’m building my own game in Flash (technically AIR, the standalone equivalent), this is a narrative that I feel compelled to correct whenever it comes up. Rebirth could have easily been built in Flash. But I digress: The point being, Rebirth fixes all these issues, so when viewed entirely within the scope of the shortcomings of the original it definitely seems like a superior game.

Looking back though, something seems off with what we have now – and it’s interesting to examine why that is. There are aspects of the design, art, and music that just fail to click in quite the same way.

The least contentious of these is the music. Nearly everyone preferred the music from the original game, composed by Danny Baranowsky, to that in Rebirth, composed by Ridiculon (Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans). The new soundtrack actually does some cool stuff, with music layers that fade in and out based on what’s currently happening in the gameplay – but this actually undermines part of what made Danny B’s score so amazing. With parts fading in and out, it becomes necessary to create a consistent base track for these to play on top of, which makes it impossible to construct an overall narrative flow to the music. Consequentially, Ridiculon’s music is background music in the truest sense, just providing accompaniment to the experience of the game, whereas Danny B’s score actually defines the tone of the game and creates its own narrative high and low points which interplay with the gameplay highs and lows to create a more complex experience. Combined with a generally more melancholy and creepy tone, it makes the overall musical experience of playing Rebirth rather lacking comparatively.

Aesthetically, I have a bone to pick with the game similar to that regarding the defamation of Flash. When they announced that Rebirth was going to have a “16-bit” art style, I thought that was a peculiar choice, but was willing to see what they came up with. What they came up with was, unfortunately, kind of a pathetic excuse – which seems harsh, but I promise I have a reason for saying that.

First, let’s talk about the art in the original. Isaac used vector art, a specialty of Flash: Vector art is a style of rendering that stores images and a set of drawing instructions, a list of lines and colors. This is a powerful tool because these instructions can be easily rotated, scaled, color-shifted, and so forth with no loss of quality, but it pays for this in making detailed art very processor intensive. Rebirth, conversely, uses raster images for its assets: Raster images are what we’re generally used to working with in photoshop and other editors, just a grid of colors which can look realistic at its native resolution but looks notably blocky at lower resolutions. 16-bit games used raster images at a set low resolution to create a crunchy but vibrant look that is still beloved today. However, the entire design of Isaac was based around arbitrarily scaling and coloring assets which, as mentioned, works a lot better with vector images than raster images. However, for whatever reason the Rebirth team didn’t want to work with vector images, so to conceal the shortcomings of scaled, rotated, or otherwise processed raster images they used super low-resolution raster images and called the resulting look “16-bit”.

This is kind of insulting. There’s no coherence to the resolution – even when the pixels align along the grid the objects that own the pixels move with subpixel accuracy, creating a smoothness that’s impossible in a true 16-bit environment, and as game objects scale up or down in accordance with the mechanics they turn into grotesque pixellated bullshit. Also, because they use such low-res assets, there’s no room for detail in any of the enemies: The original enemy designs, though crude, have an expressiveness to their lines that makes them creepier and more compelling. While pixel art has a great deal of expressiveness in its own right, within the context of Rebirth that expressiveness is curtailed by being constantly squashed and stretched, one of the ugliest things you can do to pixel art.

globin-comparison

The design issues with the game snuck up on me. In general, the gameplay choices made in Rebirth are very smart, limiting boring and overpowered tactics in favor of more interesting and aggressive ones, expanding the possibility space for encounters by adding lots of new items and enemies and rooms, and generally spicing thing up by adding new interactions. However, something weird started to happen as more and more items were added. I first noticed it with the item “Gimpy”, which is… exactly what it sounds like.

gimpy_plain

…And this comes to a fairly fine point about what Isaac is and is not. The Binding of Isaac has a lot of kind of gross and shocking content, but all of it is contextualized by the understanding that this is a child’s conception of the world, and all the weird gross things in it are exactly the sorts of weird gross things that kids tend to develop obsessions with – bodily functions, deformities, and so forth. Up until Rebirth, Isaac items tended to fit one of three themes: Everyday objects granted extraordinary significance, religious symbols, or video game references. These make total sense from the perspective of a weird shut-in kid who only knows his toys, the random things he finds, and the creepy religious stories his family tells him. But once you add S&M gear to the mix, it no longer becomes about expressing Isaac’s character, about life in the mind of an isolated and possibly abused child, but just about being weird and gross for the sake of weird and gross. By itself Gimpy is just one item, but it indicates an overall trend away from being expressive and meaningful and towards adding stuff to the game just for the sake of having it there.

In the end, Rebirth’s flaws are covered up by the simple expedient of repetition. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t care that the music lacks narrative flare, you don’t even hear it any more. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t notice that everything is in a different resolution – the game just looks the way the game looks, why would it look any different? Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t see a gimp mask, you see a way to restore health in difficult situations. You see the frame rate stable at 60 frames per second, you see the hundreds of weird and interesting item interactions. It may have made total sense to prioritize the things they did in developing the game: In so doing they’ve made a game that people who love Isaac can play for thousands of hours and still enjoy.

However, they’ve also made it so the chill I felt when I first played the game, the genuine sense of visceral discomfort and confusion and striving understanding, are now obscured behind a layer of generic video game.

sunlesssea

I’ve been taking the opportunity of finally getting kind of burned out on Dark Souls to go back through my massive Steam backlog and try out some of those games acquired over the last decade but never actually installed or played. Currently I’m exploring Sunless Sea, a spinoff of the browser-game Fallen London, in which London for no apparent reason sank underground and is now part of a hellish surreal underworld (more so). In Sunless Sea, you play a captain exploring the underground ocean London now rests in, finding your way from island to island and scraping together the resources to keep your voyage going by doing favors for the powers that be.

In practice, it’s largely a simple naval combat game strapped to an anthology of choose-your-own-adventure short stories. Perhaps a reductive description, but it gives an idea as to the experience. I could dig into a critique here, but I’m not going to because I’d like to talk about something more specific.

I’d like to talk about Pigmote Isle.

Sometimes you find something that just doesn’t seem to fit. Most games nowadays are group efforts, and Sunless Sea employs many illustrators and writers who seem to have been largely left to their own devices, given the smattering of diverse art and prose styles. However, Pigmote Isle’s story just didn’t seem to be on the same page as the rest of the game. To start with, the prose style shifted so abruptly, into a past-tense chronicle style with chapter headings and everything, that for a while I believed I was supposed to be reading someone elses journal rather than experiencing the events for myself. I encountered two envoys, one of a group of talking guinea pigs and the other a group of talking rats, on the eve of a war they were about to have. They each gave me some back story about why the conflict was happening, and then demanded I pick sides. I sided with the rats since they seemed rather downtrodden, and with my help they won the war, though I convinced them to show mercy to their fallen foe.

Bringing a report of this back to the admiralty, the reaction seemed to be that I was bringing them some outlandish nonsense. This would make sense if this game wasn’t set in an insane dreamscape where the existence of talking rats was already well-established, amongst many other far stranger creatures. Why they should pick this particular strange event to balk at, when I was regularly transporting crates of souls and sentient clay men across an underground ocean full of malicious icebergs, I couldn’t say.

From this point on, I was in the position of making crucial choices about the future of this colony. Here’s where it lost me. Every story we tell holds a belief system about cause-and-effect: That this situation would cause a character with this background to act in such-and-such way, would lead to this chain of events, would create this story. Each story contains a world-view, and though this aspect isn’t very important or noticeable when you’re dealing with a tale of a few individuals, when you expand it out to an entire society, posit that this event would create this outcome, the burden of plausibility becomes greater. When you slot that into a choose-your-own-adventure scenario, and make the map between cause and outcome so clear and close to the surface, you really have to show your work – if you don’t, it becomes a tale of how you believe the ideal society should be run rather than that of a struggling colony making hard choices.

I got a chance to make two choices before the colony was destroyed.

In the first, there were rumors of a monster in the forest preying upon the rats, rumors which had them hiding in their homes instead of doing productive work. I had the choice to either burn the forest or conduct a hunt. The hunt had a chance of failure: If the hunt failed, I envisioned severe morale issues – and there was no guarantee the creature even existed. I chose to burn down the forest, on the premise that it would DEFINITELY solve the problem, the existence of the creature would be proven or disproven, and we could move on.

There’s a few odd parts to this scenario. One, again, monsters are extremely commonplace in this world. Am I supposed to interpret this as superstition when the most likely explanation for the rumors of a monster in the forest are, in fact, a monster in the forest? Especially when, two, these are rats, so how monstrous does a monster have to actually be here? A cougar? A wolf? A fair number of forests are full of animals that could gobble up a rat without a trace just by default, even in a world without ‘monsters’.

Anyway. The result of burning down the forest was that the rats became stronger militarily but became less civilized – in fact, rather uncivilized. I’m not sure whether that was because of the ecological setback or because we gave credence to ‘wild rumors’.

My second and last decision: A rat was caught stealing bread, which he claimed was to feed his family. A classic. I had three choices: Advocate mercy, execute him, or brutally and spectacularly execute him. I advocated mercy. This apparently meant letting him off completely scot free, not doing anything about the underlying problem, and continuing to allow other rats to steal without getting punished indefinitely, leading to the collapse of civilization on Pigmote Isle.

Reading the wiki now, I see that having him publicly drawn and quartered would have increased the civilization of Pigmote Isle. Perhaps the issue is that the game and I are operating on very different definitions of civilization – though, I must admit, their definition seems to enjoy a great deal of popularity, historically.

So, now. The game is forwarding a hypothesis about what allows the world to work, about how society functions and the role of justice within that society. If I disagree with the game, civilization collapses. The future of Pigmote Isle depends on my ability to interpret the cultural values of the game’s writer, and to moreover submit myself to agreeing with them.

But I don’t agree. I don’t agree that punishing those trying to survive by giving them death is necessary for society. I don’t agree that mercy erodes order. If this was a game premised on these kinds of societal decisions, I would expect to have to buy into assumptions like these, but instead it’s been put inside of a very different kind of game.

It’s not so much a matter of suspension of disbelief as it is of suspension of disagreement. Every game has things that we feel to be incorrect, either for reasons of abstraction or of fun or just of different viewpoints – the way stat systems work doesn’t often map very well to real-life aptitudes, for instance, or the economic systems are grossly oversimplified. We go in expecting to make certain allowances for things that seem wrong to us – however, an abrupt genre switch takes us outside of those boundaries, into a territory where maybe we’re not so on-board with those premises.

The worst part for me, though, is that the thing I did buy into with Sunless Sea was that I would be emotionally open to this world and its characters. Even if I disagree with nearly everything about its creation, I still feel protective of Pigmote Isle.

And I still think my way should have worked.

smbpit

I don’t know where the bottomless pit began. Maybe it’s always been there. How can something with no end have a beginning? But I think most of us first encountered the bottomless pit playing Super Mario Brothers, falling off the bottom of the screen, hearing the sad little jingle to notify us of our demise.

I remember now how strange it seemed to me the first time I encountered it. A convention almost as unintuitive as the inability to ever go back – and how curious it is that one of those died with that game while the other is still alive. We still have no end of endless voids awaiting our carelessness, four thousand holes leading nowhere.

But just like any other living language, the language of games shifts over time. Pits stopped being bottomless, and began to lead to new places, the mines that belonged to the mineshafts, the aquifers under the wells. The bottomless pits never went away, still dominating the many run-right platformers that followed in Mario’s footsteps, but along with them came Metroid and other games like it, now rather clumsily dubbed ‘Metroidvanias’.

Personally I prefer it when pits have a bottom. I like it when, if I fall, I fall into somewhere new. It’s a different way to look at the world: One way sees an obstacle, a fall, a chance to fail, where the other sees two diverging paths, one down and one forward. Even if you didn’t mean to fall in the pit, even if down there is definitely a place you don’t want to be, there’s at least something there – and, sometimes, maybe, something worthwhile. There are many dead ends, but you don’t know what will be what until you get there.

This philosophy permeates this style of game. Not all obstacles are deadly, not all side paths are dead ends, and paths which dead-end now might open up later. Playing a Metroidvania feels more real, more mappable to my general experience of existing in the world, than a simple dexterity challenge. Obstacles are never just obstacles, dead ends are never just dead ends, revisiting problems that stymied us before can yield new ways forward, and things that at first appear to be worthless can, in the end, change everything.

It’s a completely different way of relating to an environment; some games create a space for you to conquer, but Metroidvanias create a space for you to live in, to understand, to become a part of. The world is not your enemy, but a character for you to empathize with and interact with, an ongoing conversation. And, later on, we can play with that familiarity, can change areas based on your actions, can warp the world to create something new. The impact of finding the upside-down castle in Symphony of the Night would not have been nearly as impressive if we hadn’t just spent hours becoming painstakingly familiar with the normally-oriented original version.

This may, ultimately, be why Dark Souls 3 leaves me the least excited of the trilogy. Dark Souls truly lives up to this ideal, creates an intricately networked world that can be navigated in many ways. Dark Souls 2 fails to live up to this promise rather spectacularly, segmenting each area harshly and connecting them haphazardly, but encourages you to spend a lot of time in each area, to return to it for its unique covenants and merchants, encouraging real familiarity with and affection for every aspect of every area. Dark Souls 3, however, just gives you a series of levels to overcome: They are beautiful levels, detailed levels, and many advantages can be gained by being thorough in your approach to them, but in the end once you overcome them there is no reason to return. The NPCs all follow you home, the covenants are there as you need them, and the area sits, conquered, never to be rediscovered until a potential future play-through.

Here is where the meat meets the metal, the gear meets the bone; a video game is both an activity to engage in and a space to exist in. Some games embrace the former and some the latter, and there’s a distinct difference in the philosophical view of each, of what it means to interact with a world, of how problems can and should be approached. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with the obstacle model, the view of the game as primarily an activity, a skill to be polished, a challenge to be conquered.

I’d just rather stay in a hotel than run a gauntlet, myself, personally.

Undead_Settlement

I liked playing through Dark Souls 3, but something seemed off about the experience to me. Immediately after starting the game, in the menu, the silence of the Dark Souls menu and the spooky music of the menu in Dark Souls 2 is replaced by a GRAND ORCHESTRAL SCORE – of the sort that these games have typically reserved for boss battles. Indeed, in-game the music is as infrequent and reserved as ever but, still… there’s been a shift in attitude, a change in approach.

This change brings to mind the optional downloadable area in the first Dark Souls: I like to describe the contrast between this section, the lost kingdom of Oolacile, and the rest of the game as being that between a tragedy being enacted and one being retold. The world of Dark Souls shows signs of decay and disease, but most of these have already, for the most part, run their course; the dead are everywhere and hollows, those who are dead but don’t realize it yet, empty bodies that keep fighting out of habit, are all that is left. However, when we visit Oolacile, traveling back in time to the moment of its fall, something is very wrong in a way we can feel right away; hissing and screaming echoes through the streets we walk above, and the darkness of the abyss is oozing up through cracks in the ground.

Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 are stories of long ago, of resolving a crack in the world that keeps spreading, of being the last flickering light of life within a dying world. However, the third game isn’t really about that – or, at least, it doesn’t feel that way. Dark Souls 3’s world is full of inquisitors and monstrous deities, jailers and soldiers pursuing their duties. It is a world that belongs to humans, or human-like creatures with human-like hungers, and that which you fight against is human in nature. It feels different not only in being a tragedy in action rather than one unearthed, but also a petty tragedy of greed and hunger rather than the grand tragedy of time and death. Dark Souls 3 is the murder to Dark Souls 1 and 2’s cold cases, the blood still warm, the motivations still burning.

So often we hear a game’s world described as feeling alive, a living world that breathes and moves without you, and we think about that as a good thing: It’s more like the world we live in, after all. But the fact is, we’ll never be able to create a world that truly lives, that truly carries on apart from its players; and, even if we could, would we want to be part of another such world? Dark Souls 1 and 2 embraced the limitations of games; games excel at emptiness, at hollow and meaningless violence, at walking through the uncanny valleys of death, and Dark Souls took these sad, withered lemons and it made sad, withered lemonade.

When I fight in Dark Souls 3, I feel that I am fighting against humans, humans grown too big and strong to be entirely of this world any more but still motivated by the same pathetic lusts that animate us. I feel anger, maliciousness, greed, rather than regret and nostalgia.

It is a smaller battle. And maybe that’s the tragedy that Dark Souls 3 is trying to convey; as the world is passed from the divine to the merely human, the grand struggles of darkness and fire, humanity and divinity, get segmented into petty struggles, wars for grudges, games of thrones. Maybe the story is of how each time history repeats itself, it grows smaller, emptier, pettier, further and further from the heart, divorced by degrees from that which is worth fighting for.

ds3

I think it’s interesting that, even as I consider myself someone who enjoys thinking about art, I find myself growing increasingly distrustful and annoyed by art debates. Even civil debates are often incredibly tedious, since the nature of a debate is that it has sides and each side is advocating a position. Consider: What makes art interesting and meaningful is that every decision is a trade-off, a subtle one with deep implications as to what the work is and means. With that understanding, I find myself consistently annoyed by any discussion format that attempts to argue for or against those decisions absent the context that defines that trade-off.

I’ve been feeling this disinterest growing for a while, but what really brought it to my attention a while ago was a debate that sprung up over whether Dark Souls games should have a difficulty setting. Even though I love Dark Souls and am constantly intrigued by the delicate balances of challenge and accessibility that go into art, I found myself immediately tuning out simply due to the way the question was framed. There are two positions that get advocated from that question: Either touting the importance of accessibility, or the importance of allowing artists to follow their own visions. Both these positions are, in the abstract, completely correct and, in the particular, completely irrelevant.

Obviously accessibility is important if you want an audience, but just as obvious you can’t make anything enjoyable for everybody. In some cases it will be physically difficult for someone to play a game, in some cases intellectually overwhelming, and in many simply impossible to appreciate for anyone who hasn’t learned the conventions of that particular genre. None of that is an argument against inclusion or accessibility, just an acknowledgment that you can’t often make a game more accessible without changing the core of the experience – which, itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes (often!) you can greatly improve a work by changing some core assumption about how it works to make it more enjoyable for more people. But, still, these concessions and adaptations are hardly something we should expect artists to make without careful consideration about how it will impact the final piece. Conversely, we have people arguing that we should respect the artist’s vision – an argument which, while agreeable in principle, would if taken to its logical extreme rule out all criticism of any sort.

So yeah, we should respect the artist’s vision, we should make the game accessible; on their own these aren’t interesting statements or significant arguments. And yet people will spend hours ‘debating’ them, debating which takes primacy, accessibility or artistic intent, without acknowledging that these things depend on context, that these are decisions to be made carefully with constant attention as to their impact one way or the other; that these directives aren’t just moral, but also aesthetic, that the artist must be free to change their work or not, and that the result should be evaluated on its own merits rather than how it measures up to some ethereal ideal.

I’m allergic to all forms of prescriptivism, so spare me your impassioned debates about what games (or any other art form) should look like. I’m sorry, but in all honesty people arguing about how other people should create art, rather than discussing the benefits and trade-offs of different approaches, shows a childish understanding of what art is and can be. If these questions could be answered by debates we wouldn’t need artists in the first place. These aren’t questions that have just one answer, but are resplendent with a spectrum of answers, each shifting meaning, showing different faces, like gems in a flickering light.

undertale

In this post I take a more in-depth look at the design of Undertale. If you haven’t played the game yet I’d strongly recommend doing so before reading, since I pretty much spoil the entire story, and also just generally recommend playing the game because it’s fantastic and also important. If you’re still on the fence, perhaps you might want to check out Austin Walker’s excellent review of the game. I also get into kind of spoilery territory with The Beginner’s Guide, which I also think is very good and worth playing. I also spoil Chrono Trigger: If you want to play Chrono Trigger you really should have gotten to it by now. It’s been 20 years. It is also a very good game.

Two weeks ago, discussing Undertale, I said the game wasn’t really about violence: At the same time, I dedicated the better part of a small essay on how its treatment of violence affected me. This might seem a bit hypocritical, so I’d like to expand a bit about why the discourse around a game that I say isn’t about violence tends to center so much around violence. Ironically this means I’ll have dedicated even more writing to this aspect that I say the game isn’t really about. So it goes.

In the immediate aftermath of playing the game, and in light of my brief and traumatic experiments with a no-mercy-kill-everything playthrough, I was powerfully reminded both of my experience playing Hotline Miami for the first time and, more recently, playing The Beginner’s Guide. These may, perhaps, seem like strange and tenuous connections: these three games are, to put it mildly, somewhat different from each other. However, what makes them similar in my mind, and gives them a similar emotional tenor in retrospect, is that all three have a kind of reflective quality, a style that holds a mirror up to the player and makes them question themselves.

Now: This is not the same thing as interrogating the player directly, which has recently become a somewhat trendy way of adding a sort of facile depth to game narrative. While it was genuinely a breath of fresh air when Braid and Spec Ops: The Line started directly questioning the narratives we build game genres on, and our relationship as players to those narratives, it’s quickly become trite and co-opted, a way to have a cake and eat it too, a way to pretend to be above the crowd while still being firmly part of it, superficially questioning the morality of the player’s actions while still locking their actions into place and encouraging the player to take them, rewarding them for doing so. Hotline Miami doesn’t ever say the things you do in the game are wrong or that you’re bad for enjoying them, though this is for some reason a popular interpretation: It merely takes pains to make it clear to you, the player, that you have just killed a shitload of virtual people, and leaves it to you to decide how you feel about it, while occasionally pointing out that you must be getting something out of it since you keep doing it. This mere act of acknowledgement, though, is surprisingly ground-breaking in video games. Just taking a moment to look back on what you did, and think about it and about its consequences, without telling you what that means… that’s unusual! Still!

Do you like hurting people (yes)

That’s what I mean when I say a reflective quality. There’s something to the game that makes you look inwards, to examine your own motivations, rather than merely questioning the narrative conceits of the game itself. Another word for what Undertale does might be ‘responsive’. It anticipates a large range of player input and responds to that robustly, creating the feeling of a directly interacting with a world, if perhaps within rather tightly constrained terms. The consistency and levelness of this responsiveness, combined with a lack of overt value judgment on the results, creates the reflective effect: Leaving the player to say, “Oh, this is the effect that my choices have had. How do I feel about that?” Now that I’ve said all this, it should become clear to those of you who are familiar with The Beginner’s Guide why I would be reminded of it, a game largely, at least in its latter half, dedicated to introspection and the questioning of motivations. Though there’s no guarantee that the player of The Beginner’s Guide would be the sort of person who tries to write interesting critical thoughts on games, who tries to curate and present interesting new content to their friends and followers, who is jealous of other artists for their creative ability and self-sabotages their own creativity in consequence, it’s a pretty safe bet that the player has had some impulses like that, and then by their resemblance to Davey is led to look within.

Undertale is reflective in many ways – though, unlike my other examples, it allows you a range of choices with which to express your intent before it shows the results of those actions back to you in a way that makes you think about why you performed those actions. In this context, and the context of violence still being a largely uncontested necessity of game design, one which we’ve all been trained to participate in in so many ways, it’s no surprise that the strongest and most overt response that people have to the game is how it reflects their acts of violence within it. Undertale doesn’t make violence seem bad by saying that violence is bad, but rather than echoing the commonplace narratives of just war that we use to create and maintain our structures of violence it shows realistic, if not explicit, consequences of violence. In a context where the hypocritical justification of violence is made so mainstream as to be invisible, the mere act of depicting it as an action with consequences becomes radical. Given that, I kind of wish the game had included more tacit interrogations of the sort of pacifism it encourages engagement in: being kind to people so they’ll do what you want, being the good guy to get the ‘best’ ending. There are moments, Flowey mocking you for trying over and over to create a happy ending, Papyrus lecturing you on privacy when you try to snoop around his shed, or Undyne questioning your motivations for showing mercy after earlier being willing to kill opponents, but for the most part this path goes unwalked – perhaps a good theme to expand upon in future games.

When nearly every character in the game starts out as an at least nominal enemy, it’s only natural that a violent path leads to a painfully lonely experience. In this context, every boss battle becomes an important turning point, central to the game not just for being challenging but because the decisions you make here will affect how the entire remainder of the game plays out. The background music for these fights is the same as the character themes that play when the character is doing something fun or goofy, though changed a bit, given heavier percussion, made to feel more consequential to reflect the weight of the situation. Listening to the soundtrack, you hear the history of the game through its characters: The characters, and the music which expresses them, form the core of the plot, rather than just decorating it like leaves and branches. It’s incredible just how deep this thread of musical narrative runs in the game: One can listen to the soundtrack a hundred times and, if not listening carefully and expertly, not notice the subtle references character themes have to other character and location themes, all together laying out the story of the game like a musical tapestry.

In most other RPGs, these characters would be party members, recruited to travel with you on your journey: However, in Undertale your journey is ultimately a lonely one, though companionship may lie at the end. The player’s relationship with other characters is evocative of the character Magus from Chrono Trigger. Like most of Undertale’s characters, he is initially presented as an antagonist, and though you do later find that his goals were noble the fact remains that he committed many crimes to achieve those goals. In the end, you choose whether to forgive him for these crimes and have him accompany you or to defeat him once and for all after his plans collapse. There’s power in this idea, that someone could as easily be enemy as ally: It forces the character to be complex, to be both ultimately relatable and morally suspect, to be both believably befriended or justifiably struck down. It’s not a coincidence that Undertale’s design premise, that you can befriend or destroy your enemies, lead to some of the most charming and endearingly written characters in the medium.

Undertale is designed to be played through multiple times, but not to be played to ‘completion’. It makes a mockery of anyone who wants to see everything there is to see, but it also conceals parts of itself behind layers that can only be seen by revisiting the game. What at first seems like a plot hole turns out to have its explanation in part of a completely different story path, and though this creates the impulse to try to see everything, inevitably if you try to see it all you’ll end up more dissatisfied, if perhaps better informed, because each thread comes to a logical conclusion, and pushing past that end-point leads to pointed and unpleasant questions about why you, the player, are doing this.

Most first-time playthroughs result in a muddy and troubling ending, where the player character escapes but nothing really changes in the underworld, and the actions the player took inevitably lead to some sort of political turmoil with far-reaching consequences. There are, however, two ‘true’ endings that fully resolve the plot: The true pacifist ending, found through not hurting anyone and going out of your way to ensure the major conflicts are all resolved, and the genocide ending, achieved by killing everyone in your path, and then picking fights with monsters until there are none left, thoroughly cleansing the underworld of life. If all you want is to make peace and friends, the true pacifist ending gives you that, letting you escape the underworld and resolve the tangled mess of Flowey’s warring consciousness. If you want to conquer, to become powerful, to prove you’re the best, then the genocide ending brings that to its logical conclusion with you destroying the game itself and moving on to conquer new worlds (eat your heart out Alexander the Great). At the end of both paths, you find a character who lives by the philosophy you have followed: Asriel, gentle and understanding, unwilling to fight back even as an angry mob fatally wounded him, or Chara, angry and bloodthirsty, eager to grab power by any means necessary.

These endings could both be regarded as ‘good’ endings, provided that in each case you actually believe in the ethos you were playing with. If you want both? You can’t have that. The victories you earn along one path or the other become hollow: If you try to make peace after you murder everything in a quest for power, the peace you find will be a lie. If you go back to destroy the world after saving it, you’re forced to confront how shallow your first quest was, how self-serving the peace you created. The very first puzzle in the game says it all:

UT01

One of the most overwhelming sensations I get playing Undertale is a sense of it pushing at its own boundaries. This is a game that uses all the tools at its disposal to tell its story: Where traditional JRPGs would tell a story through the text in a box, Undertale tells its story through the text in the box, the color of the text, the sounds the text makes as it appears, the speed the text appears at, the typeface used… Where other games play character themes for that character’s scenes, Undertale speeds up and slows down the playback of those themes to express the character’s current mental state, cuts them off and interrupts them with other characters’ themes. Where other games might occasionally save secondary data to enable certain secrets or to subtly improve the user experience, Undertale has characters aware of the player, aware they’re in some kind of contained reality, and working against or with the player using explicit knowledge of the game’s systems, or some in-world equivalent. At every corner, this game bursts at the seams, so eager to express itself that it breaks down every boundary we expect a game to have from years of playing games. Consistency in art style? Broken. Consistency in input style? Broken. Yet it pushes past these boundaries judiciously enough that every time you see it happen it seems special – and, while these tricks might seem wearing or pretentious if they were presented as clever, when these things happen they happen utterly earnestly, without pretense, so completely audaciously comfortable with how ridiculous they are, that it seems at once completely natural and completely absurd – natural because it’s so unabashedly absurd.

This style of blurring the boundaries between the art and reality is something that has become more common recently, but is still striking and effective when used well. House of Leaves, the novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, uses a tangled layered narrative combined with a truly labyrinthine layout to make its story of a house that’s slowly getting larger and becoming a gateway to somewhere else feel simultaneously closer to the reader and more distant, taking on some style of unsubstantiated rumor rather than just fiction; even as we know it’s all a story, it bypasses our defenses and accesses parts of our brain that are still scared of the dark.

At around the same time as this novel became popular, in the early 2000’s, the practice of creepypasta started to become popular. Creepypasta – a portmanteau of ‘copypasta’, a goofy slang for copy/paste, and ‘creepy’ – is basically the same thing as a scary story told around the campfire as applied to anonymous image boards. What it loses in atmosphere it gains in a sort of vague credibility. You can be pretty sure your troop leader isn’t actually a hook-handed murderer, since you can see both his hands, but when a story is posted anonymously to an image board it could be anyone from anywhere, could be a confession masquerading as a story, could be the last testament of someone being hunted, could be written by a sapient artificial intelligence, could be anything. Several games have come out of the creepypasta tradition, most notably a few explosively popular games based on the well-known ‘Slenderman’ mythos, but Undertale is one of the first to incorporate the stylistic approach of creepypasta into a more traditional game design. In so doing, it harnesses the strong points of both, using the traditional gameplay and narrative hooks to grab the player’s attention and invest them in a world while using creepypasta techniques to blur the boundary of that world. Blurring the lines like this is a powerful technique for a static narrative work like House of Leaves, but when the player is responsible for making choices life and death choices within that world the complete effect can be downright uncanny, almost too effective for comfort.

Flowey

Another interesting trait of Undertale’s design is the ways it harnesses abstraction in its storytelling. Though all games are abstracted to varying degrees, and game designers have learned to leverage this abstraction to achieve some remarkable narrative and experiential results, Undertale goes above and beyond here as well – both in obvious ways, such as its use of low detail pixel graphics and a combat system rooted in metaphors, and in less obvious ways such as its wordless but symbolically loaded protagonist and its clever use of double entendre. Let’s look at each of those in turn:

Though pixel graphics are often derided as a cheap nostalgic appeal, there’s a lot of storytelling power to them that isn’t apparent at first. By representing characters and objects in a low-resolution way, you can omit defining detail that would otherwise change the interpretation of a scene, such as a character in disguise who would be recognizable to the audience, or you can make dissimilar objects look alike, such as a pile of autumn leaves and a campfire flame. By having something written on a sign and having the character read it back to you through a text box, you can create an unreliable narrator, where what appears in the text box isn’t necessarily what’s actually written on the sign. By abandoning a claim to be a pure representation of the reality of the game, you have created a situation where the reality of the game is being interpreted by the player based on available evidence, and what was once a passive experience is now an active one. These techniques aren’t unique to pixel graphics – you could achieve similar results with any style that isn’t purely representational – but by couching them in pixel graphics, a style that pretty much anyone who plays games is used to by now, means that you can do them so stealthily that they become effectively invisible while still subtly shaping the player’s experience.

The combat system is abstracted out into something resembling a bullet-hell style shooter game, where after each turn you must defend yourself from your opponent’s attacks by steering a little heart, representing your soul, away from their attacks. This allows the game to express the emotional state of your character, through the behavior of the heart, and the personality and emotional state of your opponent through their attacks. When they’re full of righteous fury, their attacks will be rapid and direct. while if they are questioning themselves or distracted, their attacks hesitate or drift off course. One could express something like this in a more conventional and purely representational battle system, but it would be very difficult to do so in a way that the player would actually pick up on, rather than crediting strange hesitations to AI problems or balance issues. Admittedly, part of the reason why it would be difficult to convey characterization solely through a representative battle is that it isn’t done, which creates a kind of chicken-and-egg scenario, so perhaps abstraction isn’t the only way to achieve these effects. Nevertheless, it is an elegant one – and creating this degree of expression within a traditional JRPG combat system would be impossible, regardless.

Though you name a character at the beginning of the game, which is implied to be the character you play as, the designer does something rather tricky here. The character you play as is actually named Frisk, and the character you named is the human who fell into the underworld long before the start of the game, catalyzing its events. However, Frisk and the named human, usually referred to as Chara, are related in some obscure way. Is Frisk a reincarnation of Chara, or just someone similar who becomes the vessel for an idea? To some extent it depends on how you play the game, but no matter what it’s always left sort of vague.There are other games with silent protagonists, which mostly use them as a blank slate through which the player can act, but Undertale goes several steps further, alternately writing the character’s blank-slate cipher status into the story, alluding to certain characters’ knowledge that there’s another person behind the character controlling them, and using the player’s actions to ‘bake’ a personality into the character from one of several options. This contributes to both the boundary-blurring effect mentioned earlier as well as world-building and characterization: Though it might seem tempting to replace Frisk with a more expressive and fully formed character, much of the game relies on the actor at the center being a conduit through which the rest of the story can flow.

Perhaps most fascinating is the game’s use of the abstractness of language. At certain points, the game uses double-entendre, not merely for jokes, but for key plot points. At each save point the game tells you you are filled with ‘determination’: Later, it explains that determination is the vital component of the human soul that allows it to fight off death even as the body housing it weakens. Yet ‘determination’ also comes to mean the ability to determine fate, to fight against destiny and choose the one hopeful thread in a sea of tragic possibilities – or, if you choose to play a genocide run, it becomes ‘determination’ as in ‘termination’, the will to eradicate everything you meet. Similarly, ‘save’ as in saving data, is conflated with ‘save’ as in rescue, leading up to a climax where the verb ‘save’, used so prosaically through the rest of the game, becomes what you must ultimately do to complete it. Word-play becomes word-business, and what would be a throwaway gag in another story forms the core of an emotional arc in Undertale.

The sheer number of ways that Undertale pushes against our understanding of what a game is or can be, how games work and why they work, is staggering. This is a game that both incorporates everything we have learned about how to make a good game and tell a story within it, and then builds upon that with innovations of its own, both realizing and expanding our group conception of how game design works. It’s a monumental achievement. This isn’t to say it’s a perfect game, but perfection is boring and disposable, just a version of something we already understood with fewer mistakes: Much better than perfect, this is a creative game, an expansive and loving game, a game that changes our understanding of what a game is and can be.

But-nobody-came

I played Undertale and I’m not sure if I’m going to actually be able to write about it. It’s a remarkable game, but I don’t know what to remark. I guess I’ll try, even though I’m sure people have written a gajillion essays and I’ve probably totally missed the boat.

After getting the ‘good’ ending, I started a new run through the game to see what was up with the, um, less good endings, and was disturbed enough by the process that I just aborted my run and looked up what happens, which revealed to me both that I hadn’t been nearly brutal enough to get the darkest ending and, moreover, confirmed to me that I wasn’t willing to be that brutal.

Despite containing no blood or explicit violence, this weird indie RPG gets closer to the truth of violence than any other game I’ve seen. The reality of violence is that someone who was there isn’t there any more, that the world becomes deader and quieter because you’ve fundamentally broken a part of it that worked before… Yet violence is also intrinsically appealing, because it’s a way to push against the world directly, a way to effect change regardless of whether it’s acceptable to others, a way to feel strong, a way to overcome concrete challenges. Simple solutions to complex problems, cutting knots, not actually easier but stronger, more decisive, more quantifiable.

A weapon is one way to change the world, it just usually does so by making it emptier.

Sometimes that’s the way it goes anyway. Sometimes violence is necessary. Sometimes there’s no time, or communications break down, or it really is you or me and it’s not gonna be me. Not often, not nearly as often as we like to pretend it is, but sometimes. That’s just how it goes. But it’s nice to at least acknowledge, for once, that our violence has effects beyond the immediate, that our world is impoverished by the absence of a living, breathing, thinking process that once inhabited it. Maybe that seems trite, but if it’s so trite then why do I so rarely actually see it in the stories we tell about violence?

Anyway.

It might be a parable about violence and its consequences, or it might be not about that at all. It’s not really a game about violence, just a game that responds to violence in an uncannily truthful way. It’s no more about violence than it is about cool skeletons or fish lesbians or fear of the unknown or the anger of the oppressed. You can make it about those things, I suppose, but that’s just as much what you take with you as what’s there.

And that’s just it. Undertale is expansive, it pushes against its boundaries in surprising and unexpected ways. It’s a short game, but packed so full of detail and possibility that it’s hard to pick any one thing to really talk about. No other experience has taken me on this ride from hilarious character-based comedy to deeply unsettling introspection to alternately intriguing and terrifying blurring of where the boundaries of the game lie. It’s…

Well. It’s really something. I guess that’s all I can say, though I’m sure it will come up in other specific contexts later.

It’s not an experience I’ll be forgetting any time soon, that’s for sure.