Methods and Mediums

M&M – “Undertale”

Seeing as it was the game’s first-year anniversary this week, I feel like this is a timely.

If you play any video games or venture in the gaming side of social media, you’ve probably heard of the Undertale, the hit indie game that took off into a craze early last year. If you haven’t heard of it, I envy you, because it means you have the opportunity to try the game free of spoilers, and I assure you, the game is never so magical as when you don’t know how special it really is.

However, the reason I held off for so long on writing a post for a game I fell in love with years before its official release is so that I may talk about the game as a whole, spoilers and all, so if you have yet to play it, please do me a great favor and quit reading this M&M in favor of playing  the game.

(Also I know this week’s short story is late, but I actually invested every moment I could spare into the story around computer breakdowns, familial circumstances, and academic responsibilities, so I am granting myself leniency just this once!)

Actually, what’s the point in that, then? Let me write a quick review for you folks that don’t know anything about the game: The game was created by one Toby Fox, famous for his contributions to the Earthbound community as fangame maker and the Homestuck fandom as a composer. Though he had the artistic assistance of Temmie Chang and a number of others, and support from the Kickstarter community, Toby Fox managed all of the coding, story, and every note of music himself, lending the game an especially focused sense of vision and heart. As the game was written and composed by the same individual, the music of the game is entwined with the storytelling, resulting in a truly emotional journey that I found unforgettable. Undertale is no less than a labor of love.

Above all else, Undertale is a prime example of a game that could only have been a game. There are some people in the fandom who say that they want an animation or a movie, but I disagree. The beauty of Undertale lies in the gameplay, choices you make, and its subversion of common RPG tropes.

Spoilers Ahead.

I first played Undertale when it was but a demo. My friend Iramor had sent it to me, intrigued, and upon playing it I fell in deep, fascinated. In the words of Cecil Baldwin of Welcome to Night Vale fame, “I fell in love instantly,” and that instant came in the form of Flowey the Flower.

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Friendly little bugger, eh?

Now, if you played the game, you know that Flowey presents himself as the cutesy tutorial character in the beginning of the game. That was pretty standard. Whether or not you fell for that may differ, but what happened next was a genuine twist for many – he lied to you about the rules of the game, and he is going to kill you.

At that point in my life, I had been hard-pressed to find a game that could surprise me. I had played big-names like Portal, with clever dialogue but reliable storytelling/gameplay, and I had played small-scale indie games like Ib, which were charming but somewhat predictable in story.

From the get-go, even in its incomplete demo, Undertale caught me off guard, and I was charmed.

I don’t actually remember how much of the demo was the same as the final product – there was different dialogue, and made on a different program, the demo also had different textures and such. However, even in that initial stage, there was Toriel, kind and motherly, there was a world that had to be explored, and she was standing in the way. That first boss battle remains essentially unchanged.

Back then, I didn’t know how to proceed. I had died to Toriel three times, and talking with her was getting me nowhere. Trapped by RPG conventions and seeing no way forward, like so many others did, I killed Toriel in a heartbreaking sequence. And then Flowey mocked me for killing her so callously, implying that I had another way to go. Confused, I checked the instruction manual (something only in the demo) and noticed a startling addition to the tips:

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Flowey was messing with me. Undertale was messing with me, and god, did I love it. Young as I was, back then I never realized what a barrier the 4th wall could be in storytelling, and I had never wondered what would happen if it shattered. Undertale, with its strange division of protagonist and player, was a new experience for me, and its meta narrative seemed, to me, uncharted territory. I was fascinated. And even though this element did not make it into the final game, it is one example of how Undertale understands and takes advantage of its medium – it’s a video game, there is a player, and the player makes choices. It makes that a part of the storytelling. In any case, I figured out the answer, reloaded, and successfully spared Toriel. I was satisfied – I had done well!

And then Flowey mocked me for playing god.

If there is one video game moment I could forget about and relive again, I think it would be that moment when I realized that Undertale was self-aware, and that it followed the choices I made through my saves and resets. Even now, I feel a little thrill at the idea, a chill at the memory of Flowey’s dialogue – what a moment, what a concept!

It is clear to me, in retrospect, that Toby Fox had a clear vision for the kind of message Toby Fox wanted his game to present. Even in the demo, there was the option to massacre every monster in the Underground. Even in the demo, you could feel the weight of that decision. The demo alone was enough to hammer home one of the core messages of the final game: your choices matter.

Through just a half-hour of gameplay, Undertale the Demo accomplished something that even high-budget company games (looking at you, Telltale) had failed to do. Undertale the Demo made me care about the consequences of my curiosity. After all, exploring my options in the game completely changed the tone and direction of the game, and this was before we even saw the main story! I could only imagine the ripple effect that choice would have… but I had to wait for the full game.

My college roommate can testify to how deeply I fell into Undertale those first few months. I beat it in a day, beat it twice in a month, and dragged down no less than seven people with me. The full game had delivered everything the demo promised me and more.

However, I only just remembered that M&Ms aren’t supposed to be full-blown reviews – oops. I guess I’ll have to rein myself back in now and talk about how Undertale makes the most of its medium as a videogame. For that, I suppose we need to point out one of its many standout systems:

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The battle system.

Honestly, what a simple and effective innovation – it’s incredible that, with all the hundreds of game companies in the world right now, Toby Fox was the one to create the turn-based bullet-hell system. This is the core mechanic of Undertale, whether you choose to fight or show mercy, and its function is threefold.

1. It makes the game accessible. One of Undertale‘s greatest strengths is how easy it is for everyone to get into it, hardcore, casual, and non-gamers alike. The system is easy enough to explain or figure out – here are the arrow keys, move the heart, avoid the things flying at you. You don’t need hours to get used to the controls, and avoiding things flying at you is pretty intuitive. There are no complicated sequences to memorize. Simple, clean, and effective.

2. It makes the game engaging. The problem with turn-based games is that they often become about brute-force rather than anything particularly engaging. I know that I often end up mashing the select button to just get through the fights, and rather than a unique part of the gaming experience, fights become grinding, and grinding becomes a chore. Undertale circumvents this problem through use of its bullet hell system for enemy turns – where the player has to concentrate and is an active part of the dodging process – and, if the player chooses to fight, they also have to pay attention and time the gauge attack system, with the rhythm changing for every weapon in the game.

3. It tells a story. What is truly incredible about this turn-based bullet-hell system is how naturally it becomes a part of the storytelling. The bullet hell is symbolic of an actual battle, and so the attacks reflect the characters’ mental and emotional states in the time of the battle. Consider this moment in Toriel’s battle, the first boss battle of the game:

When the health falls to 2HP, Toriel starts to purposefully miss her attacks. It’s difficult to notice, when you’re so worried that she’s going to kill you and frantically heal after every injury, but when you do, the emotion comes naturally. Although she wants to stop you from leaving, she does not want to kill you. That is made visually obvious through the bullet hell gameplay. Characters speed up attacks in their desperation, or they slow down as you convince them to stand down. Sometimes their attacks are interrupted or blocked by outside forces. It’s just a good system, allowing for seamless storytelling.

I am actually super busy this week – obvious from the late posts, I’m sure – so I’ll wrap up this post later after my tests, actually. Stay tuned for more!

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