Friday, October 16, 2015

Review: Undertale

Sometimes, I think video games are really goddamn stupid.

My feelings about most video games are similar to my feelings about bacon cheeseburgers. Yeah, I like them a ton, but I don't feel virtuous about eating them, and unless a person's expressed a similar passion for them, I'm not going to recommend burgers to them. Sure, I had a ton of fun with the Star Wars: Battlefront beta the past weekend, but if someone who doesn't play games asks me why I care so much about the medium, Battlefront is not the game I would point them to. Honestly, I am a little embarrassed that games like Battlefront, Call of Duty, Pac Man, and Mario are the public face of our medium. But my general angst about games can be saved for a separate essay.

The point is, because of the piles of adolescent masculine power fantasies I'm expected to pre-order for sixty bucks every damn year, I sometimes forget why I give a shit about video games. But, once every year or so, I play something that reminds me that games, occasionally, can be truly worthwhile.

This year, that worthwhile game was Undertale.

Undertale is a role-playing game for PC and Mac that was almost entirely made by one person, Toby Fox. You play as a human child who's fallen down a hole into the underground world of monsters. What begins as a simple journey to return home, predictably, evolves into something more dire.  

Don't let the game's crude graphics fool you: the game's electronic soundtrack is amazing, the writing is superb, the humor is on-point, and the design is smart as hell. Player behavior shapes the story in a natural, immediate, and significant manner.

There are two things about Undertale, on a general level, that clearly differentiate it from other games of the genre. The first is that the game doesn't forget past decisions you've made when you  reload your save file after death or quitting,  nor  does it forget when you clear your data and start a new game. Many characters are aware of the protagonist's ability to save their progress, and one in particular retains his memory when a saved game is loaded. I can't say more without spoiling the game's endings, but what happens outside of, and between, playthroughs of Undertale is nearly as interesting as what happens within it. At the end, Undertale's metagame is used to great dramatic effect, creating one of the most memorable boss encounters I've ever experienced.

The second obvious differentiating feature of Undertale is its "combat" system, if it can be properly referred to as such. As in most RPGs, you will find yourself in violent turn-based encounters with monsters and the occasional boss. However, instead of fighting them, you are capable of interacting with them in various nonviolent ways, with the end result of reaching a mutual agreement to spare each other. For example, one volcanic monster in the game will spew magma at you, mistakenly thinking that it has healing powers. Instead of killing the monster, you can instead take a turn to criticize the monster, informing it that it isn't being helpful. The monster will then feel dejected and sulk in the corner, ceasing to attack you. The player can then hug or encourage the monster, ending the battle.

source: I didn't know that the website had an official screenshot of this encounter until after I wrote that paragraph. Very convenient!

Undertale markets itself as a game "where nobody has to die," and while a pacifistic run of the game is not an easy feat, it is highly encouraged by the game itself, which is refreshing. Undertale, at its core, is a game about compassion, which is so damn rare for our medium. Not only does it encourage compassionate interactions and emotions through its mechanics, but also through its story. There are, arguably, only two "evil" characters in Undertale - even your main adversaries are incredibly likable and decent characters, making violent confrontations with them especially heartbreaking. Violence in Undertale is tragic, rather than recreational.

Of course, your choice to spare the lives of your adversaries is meaningless without the choice to kill them. The game has an entire alternative narrative for the bloodthirsty player, but it is a tragic story, and the player pays dearly for pursuing it. Again, I can't say much, but a genocidal player will permanently suffer for their actions, even if they restart the game. This serves not only as interesting commentary on violence in games, but on the completionist impulses of players. Undertale may be a game packed with secrets, choices, and alternate endings, but unlike other games which boast these features, it is not a game that is meant to be experienced in its entirety - in fact, it punishes you for it.

Ultimately, what truly makes Undertale so special is its emotional breadth. Most games, focused primarily on conflict, make you feel frustration, fear, tension, and the respective releases from those three emotions. Undertale, because it is as much focused upon compassion as it is conflict, comedy as much as tragedy, is a game that makes you feel the usual video game emotions, but also more. For me, those emotions included affection, gratitude, sorrow, remorse, and defiance. More impressively, the game was able to evoke these emotions in a non-exploitative way. Rather than, for example, force you to watch a predetermined, scripted cutscene in which the villain kills your favorite character, most of the game's most emotional moments are largely the result of player choice.

Of course, Undertale is by no means a perfect game. You know how most stories have one climax, and how that generally works really well? Depending on your choices, you may find yourself experiencing two climaxes for the game, one right after the other. Not only does the game's second climax lose some impact just for existing, but it especially pales in comparison to the excellent climax preceding it. Furthermore, as is the case in many fantasy stories, most of the game's endings heavily depend on some fairly nonsensical deus ex machina, diminishing their impact. Thankfully, the game's writing leading up to its conclusion more than makes up for its flawed ending.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to discuss the game in more concrete terms without wandering too far into spoiler territory. Half of what makes Undertale so great is its overall structure and premises, but the other half consist entirely of the game's specific moments. I would happily deconstruct the mechanical and narrative brilliance of the game's first hour, but even describing the game's beginning would spoil too much. Even though the game uses many common tropes and storytelling conventions, it subverts expectations from the beginning, and it often moves in directions which are genuinely surprising. More so than usual, Undertale is a game you want to play blindly.

Undertale is a significant work for many reasons, the least of which are its quality of storytelling, its subversion of genre tropes, and its sheer roller coaster of emotions. But it also, in many ways, represents the result of a decade of experimentation in the indie scene. Whether or not game creator Toby Fox was directly influenced by the mechanics of Iji and imscared, the aesthetic and narrative style of OFF, or the crudeness, humor, and charm of Space Funeral and Armada, many game design trends unique to the indie scene, especially the freeware scene, have seemingly converged into this single point, and have resulted in something wonderful.

Undertale is the sort of game that can only be created by an individual. In a subculture that places disproportionate value on the production power of large studios, examples of individually created works with strong personality are vital. Part of my angst about games in general stems from the lack of personality in the majority of celebrated games - an inevitable byproduct of massive collaborations between hundreds of professionals. I have long insisted that individuals or small collaborations are much more capable of creating impressionable, personal, and soulful art. Undertale is a strong example of the potential for individual expression through games.

You can download Undertale for Windows and Mac. It only costs ten bucks. There's a free demo, but... the game only costs ten bucks. That's a little bit cheaper than a ticket to that disappointing blockbuster film that person you don't like wants you to see, and a hell of a lot cheaper than the DLC for Overproduced Military Shooter Game 4: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre.  Buy the damn thing.

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