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.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Batman, The Bad Man

Sometimes you find an argument so dumb that you really just have to respond to it.

This is one of those times.

Listen, let's just get this out of the way: superheroes are bad. At best they're objectivist fantasies of the "empowered individual" who keeps society in line by the power of their own moral values; at worst they're fascist celebrations of systemic violence against real-life marginalized groups. People claim that superheroes don't affect them and then say that Rorschach and the Punisher have the right idea. We've been over this.

So, point by point, here is a refutation of all the stupid shit Dean Trippe said.

First off, Batman fights those would would endanger others.

So why doesn't he fight himself? Anyways, he's spent a bunch of time chasing after bank robbers, so even within the fictional confines of crime-ridden Gotham City, Batman (like all superheroes) has intentionally worsened tense situations. Bank robbery is a crime that does not involve the average person. It's entirely between the police, the banks, and the robbers. Escalating those situations into violence is the only way that regular people will ever be in danger in a bank robbery unless the robbers are also total psychopaths. Even the famous North Hollywood shootout (directly inspired by the fictional bank robbery in "Heat") only hurt civilians once the police got involved (also like the movie "Heat").

On top of that, dude is all the time giving criminals second chances.

And yet it never seems to work. What's the lesson we're supposed to draw from that? Weird that a good-intentioned but non-functional incarceration system would convince so many comic book fans that murdering criminals is a good idea.

Yeah, he’s such a Republican. Dude helps fund the police crime lab, manages outreach programs and scholarships, donates to every freaking charity in the city, and STILL spends all his time and money saving your hatin’ ass, because THAT’S WHO HE IS.

"Fictional man with infinite money capable of doing everything still chooses to run around in bat suit getting in fights". That's the argument you're going with, and that's supposed to make him look noble. Like, you never even stopped to consider an alternative form of law enforcement beyond "Bruce Wayne puts on a bat suit and punches people". Hey, here's an idea: if crime is so bad that the police can't handle it even with a billionaire genius helping them out, THERE'S SOMETHING ELSE GOING WRONG IN THIS SITUATION.

Please tell me Bruce Wayne isn’t for higher taxes for after school programs, public housing, and healthcare, all of which reduce crime

Okay, I will: Bruce Wayne isn't for that shit because there has never been "reduced crime" in Gotham. If there was, the regular police would be able to handle crime, and Bruce Wayne wouldn't need to be dealing with it personally. This seems super obvious, guy.

Batman poured his bleeding heart out on the floor before congress to get federal assistance when Gotham needed it.

Ah, nothing says "bleeding heart" like a rich man asking congress for taxpayer funds.

Batman FREQUENTLY adopts orphans whose parents he couldn’t save or who generally just need his help. (Robinhood is like the Big Brother program, but replace Big with Bat.)

This is the one that made me write this article. This dude earnestly believes that putting children in harm's way is good and noble because "Robinhood is like the Big Brother program". You know, I've worked in a mentorship program with children, and I can assure you that if I'd ever encouraged a child to go out and fight criminals, I would probably have ended up in jail. Most cultures frown on child soldiers.

Batman is hardcore BFFs with the biggest liberal softy in the DCU, Superman, whom he respects, both for his work as a superhero AND a member of the fourth estate.

Cartoon man with infinite power respects different cartoon man with different infinite power. Wow, so noble. Certainly Superman can't possibly have any flaws, right? I mean, it's not like there have been multiple stories dealing with the possibility of a man with infinite power being even slightly corrupted or dogmatic. No, obviously Batman's association with Superman means he's a leftist. This is obvious.

Batman fights rich criminals all the damn time, son. And you know what? If you hench for a homicidal maniac, sometimes you get batarang’d and them’s the breaks. You don’t get to hurt people and get away with it in Gotham City. Not anymore.

Okay, you don't even know what you're saying anymore.

Batman doesn’t kill. Batman doesn’t use guns. Batman wants the mentally ill to get help, not be sent to prison. Is it working out great? NOT REALLY, BECAUSE WE ALL WANT MORE ROGUES GALLERY STORIES. Blame the fans for the failure of Arkham, not Batman. Dude’s doing his level best, and it’s a damn sight better than any of you are doing.

And this is the other reason I wrote this article: because this dude seamlessly shifts from "justifying Batman's decisions in-universe" to "blaming the fans for making the universe like that in the first place". This is an admission of defeat. Batman doesn't make sense, so you blame the fans and creators for making him not make sense - as though Batman is a real person who's been trapped in a ridiculous fictional world. I mean, look at that. It's a fundamental failure to understand the way fiction works.

Gotham is bad. Gotham is relentlessly bad. Why is it bad? Because it needs to be that way to justify Batman. This dude is happy to use that fact to defend Batman's existence, but then when he can't justify it anymore, he criticizes Gotham's existence for his own failures. Hey buddy, spoiler alert: if Gotham wasn't like that, Batman would have zero reasons to exist. He'd be so stupid and pointless that there'd be no way to justify him. By attacking Gotham's fictional situation you're essentially saying "yes he's bad, but it's bad because we like watching a man in a bat suit punch people", which would be a true statement.

Fiction is shaped the way it's shaped for a reason. You want a story about a strong individual rich man fighting the lower classes, and Gotham gave it to you. You can't bite the hand that feeds you, dude. Gotham is your fantasy. Gotham is what you wanted. You want to be the rich, powerful man who everyone looks up to and everyone needs. And the only way you can get that is through perpetual conflict.

This is the problem with people who think "fiction doesn't affect reality". Escapism isn't some abstract soup, where you're just randomly given things. You, the reader, are pursuing an ideal. Batman exists because its readers want to vicariously be powerful and strong and capable, and Gotham is a city where that can happen. It's fundamentally the same as a middle schooler hoping terrorists attack his school so that he can show off his sweet karate moves. Trying to pretend there's no real values involved is so obviously ridiculous that the only way you could do it is if you've been told all your life that fiction doesn't count. And guess what? Nerds have been told that. Over and over and over and over and over.

Batman is a story for children. These children are taught that crime exists in a certain way, and should be dealt with in a certain way. These children grow up to be adults who believe rape culture isn't real ("because we all know thugs in alleys are bad") and that crime-fighting is simple and easy.

You know, there's superheroes in real life. And generally, they don't work out. There's a bunch of reasons for it, but the core one is that an INDIVIDUAL COMBATANT, with NO ACCOUNTABILITY, is not the best way to fight crime. The idea of criminals being super-obvious and easily spotted is a myth that was necessary for this mindset. In reality, people like that are going to make mistakes just as often as they get it right - and unless they're held accountable for those mistakes, they're just going to make things worse.

Superheroes are a story that our society propagates because the idea of a strong, violent individual is at the core of masculine fantasies. It has never been about "results". It has always been about celebrating "individual badassness". And it's really hard for people to argue that fiction doesn't affect them when they're making genuine arguments about how vigilantes are a good idea.