Friday, November 13, 2015

Analysis: Undertale

A few people asked me what I thought of Undertale, and Undertale is definitely a game that is relevant to my area of expertise, so, here's some comments about Undertale.


1. Undertale Is At Least Giving You A Choice

The core concept of Undertale is that it's a regular JRPG, except for the fact that killing enemies is taken into account by the game's story. Unlike, say, Spec Ops The Line, there is a non-lethal solution to every encounter - and unlike Metal Gear Solid, that solution is slightly more involved than "use a different gun". It's also not tricking you with its premise - from the very first encounter, you're told that it's better to be nice and to SPARE enemies. It's unambiguous about the cause-and-effect at play.

So the core concept of Undertale is that it's a story where your actions matter, which is great. That's what games should be - interactive. That's what makes games different from movies. With regards to its core concept, I think Undertale is great.

2. Undertale Is Kind Of A Mess, Tonally

So the thing about Undertale, right, is that it's Earthbound, but not. It's a wacky world that occasionally lapses into legitimate danger for its child protagonist, just like Earthbound. And the problem with that here is that we're told some very specific things about the underground that make sense for the gameplay, theoretically, but don't work out in practice.

The underground is supposed to be dangerous. And it is. But its danger doesn't usually come from enemies who actively want to murder you. Rather, the enemies seem to be going about their regular lives, and it's purely incidental that you are hurt by their attacks. There is at least one enemy (Vulkin) who is explicitly described as not even knowing it's hurting people. By contrast, there are only a few characters (mostly in the late game) who are explicitly described as combatants, and who clearly want to kill the player.

The "Spare" actions are funny, sure, but do they really match up with the idea that you're in a hostile world? Obviously they're based on the negotiation in Shin Megami Tensei games (particularly Persona 2), but those games didn't really try to humanize the demons at all. In SMT games, the demons are capricious and random, and don't really care whether they live or die. As such, the "non-lethal" options are based on appealing to their strange nature.

In Undertale, however, the monsters are depicted in a much more "human" way. They have families, they have lives, they get upset when they lose loved ones. They have motivations and fears. Yes, there's reasons for the monsters to want to kill the human, but they don't really express those reasons at all. This undercuts the message that Undertale is ostensibly trying to convey: "Don't kill and be killed." Undertale isn't about turning the other cheek, or about using an appropriate amount of force. Undertale is about building empathy, but in a weird, "abstract comedy" sort of way.

I'll compare Undertale to SWAT 4, which seems weird, but bear with me. Both games are about dangerous situations where killing is an OPTION, but it's heavily discouraged. Both games, naturally, feature "enemies" who will surrender in the proper circumstances. Both games allow for killing, but ultimately want the player to take the moral high ground and deal with situations non-lethally.

The difference is that SWAT 4 is dealing with actual combatants - robbers, gang members, terrorists - who happen to display human psychology. It's humanizing a group of people who are usually displayed as unthinking, unyielding killing machines, and showing that the right way to deal with these people is to take the moral high ground, instead of being needlessly brutal. If you kill an enemy, it has to be in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons - and even then, it's inferior to taking them down non-lethally. There's rules. There's a sense of moral value at play.

Undertale, on the other hand, is too comedic to really get that lesson across. Sure, it's nice to spare people, but you don't get that same feeling of intensity to it. You're not convincing your enemies that you're nice and not a threat, you're just doing sort of random things and making them not want to kill you anymore. There's no real rules underpinning it. There's a few aversions (Undyne being one of the biggest) but for the most part it just seems random. And being nice isn't much harder than killing people, which undermines the moral calculus involved.

3. Undertale's Best Commentary Is Hidden In Its Worst Run

So this is the part where the real spoilers come in. There's one part about Undertale that I really like, and that's Flowey.

Flowey is a monster transplanted into a soulless plant body. "Soulless" in Undertale means that the individual is unable to truly connect, empathically, to other people. Flowey also used to possess the ability to "save" and "load", but the presence of the player took that away, and the player uses it instead.

In the "Genocide" run (i.e. "kill literally everything"), Flowey describes how he initially tried to be nice, and he originally affected time to make people happy and fix people's problems. But over time, people became too predictable - he was replaying the same time period over and over, and people's actions weren't differing enough to stay interesting. He didn't feel any real empathy towards the people around him, so he started messing with them, and then he started hurting them. Now he just wants to destroy everything, because he's tired of being here.

So, to put it bluntly: Flowey is a player. He doesn't treat the monsters as being "real people". He's nice when it suits him, but it's only for his own indulgence. He's stuck in the same loop of time and he messes with people to produce results that entertain him. He's not even sadistic - he's bored, and he views people as playthings. What makes him cruel and evil in-universe is a perfect descriptor of how most people play open world games.

People who cried over Toy Story 3 or Up or Wall-E are the same kind of people who talk about how killing is okay because "they're not real". A random pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto is just as "real" as the dog from that one episode of Futurama, which is to say, neither of them is real. They are both completely not real. The point of fiction is to make you forget that it isn't real, and to harvest visceral emotions from the made-up scenario that you're witnessing.


  1. Perhaps you can help me with a conundrum: what do you think Undertale is, ultimately, about?

    On the one hand it's outwardly manipulative and cynical to the very last moment, but on the other hand you do sincerely use the power of love save adorable rainbow goat boys.

    It bugs me because, as you say, it's all over the place tonally; and routinely indulges in the cliches it comments on... yet it's so self-aware I can't imagine the writer not being entirely sensitive to the audience's response.

    It seems to me almost like it is pre-emptively disavowing the very fandom it's engineered to produce which... hurts my head.

    Am I dumb?

    1. I think Toby Fox was writing whatever crossed his mind at the moment, and I think he knew that whatever gaps he left would be filled by the fanbase. "It's not bad writing, it's COMMENTARY", etc.

    2. "It seems to me almost like it is pre-emptively disavowing the very fandom it's engineered to produce which... hurts my head."

      Perhaps I can explain. Care to explain this a little more in detail?

    3. Well, for example, the Very Best ending; after taking the player on a path that goes through dating games, slice of life comedy and an Anime Space Wizard being redeemed; is bookended by Flowey telling the player 'of REAL life that wouldn't happen. Real baddies are just violent arseholes'. You can't even get to the Very Best ending without a bizarre detour into... the comic relief character was complicit in biological experimentation on living creatures.

      I can't reconcile the whole framing device of the game and the...ludicrously fan-baity cartoon sections in the middle.

      It seems almost inept.

  2. See undertale doesn't really work as an aesop as much as it does a commentary on rpg's and video games, something J shea pointed out in the blog. So I feel like Asriel's words at the end were more of a confirmation of the real world not being so kind as undertale, but still saying not to endanger other peoples lives. Don't kill, but also don't be killed.

    As for alphys and her work? Well she has worked to help the player and undo her mistakes even after trying to kill the player and the true lab shit. I guess monsters are just more forgiving than humans.

    But what I'm wondering is what you mean by "almost"?

  3. Mind giving your thoughts on shit like the Fallout series, or would the conclusion look too much like your Fury Road review?

    1. Fallout 1 was trying to actually build a post-apocalyptic world (it only took place 50 years after the bombs fell, and society was already rebuilding with farms, trade, and complex machinery). Also, like Mad Max, the "wasteland" landscape is justified by the location, not just "nukes fell".

      Fallout 2 was goofier but built on the concept, with the formation of the NCR and the advances that entailed.

      Fallout 3 & 4 are garbage. Absolutely no attempt to create a coherent world or accomplish anything besides "postapocalyptic explosion shit", and in doing so they're ruining a setting that was pretty decent beforehand. Washington DC is an arid wasteland 200 years after the bombs fell and people are still looting supermarkets and living in rust piles. It's the stupidest possible shit and it's only there for the sake of a "post-apocalyptic aesthetic".

      New Vegas was pretty good.

      Even the best Fallout games still fall prey to the usual tropes of "enemies who can't possibly be subdued or negotiated with", though.

  4. I have a friend who constantly brings up the fact that he loves - and has cried, explicitly, this is his core observation - Toy Story 3.

    I haven't seen it, and know nothing about it other than it's got a Potato man in it voiced by a Cheers guy.

    Anyway, I wonder if there is a larger significance to 20-something nerdy males bragging about their empathy and/or sympathy towards cartoon movies and how they emotionally affect them?

    I don't know what his thoughts on killing in games is, though.

    1. Well, I mean, to be fair, media is SUPPOSED to affect you. That's the whole point of getting invested in fake characters and stories. That's why we do it. The weird part is not that people do that, but that they do and then act like media doesn't affect them.