Friday, November 13, 2015

An Overview of Undertale

Warning: This is a review/discussion of several role playing games, expect spoilers to be used liberally.

You're generally in one of two camps when it comes to “Undertale.” Either you peruse Tumblr or Reddit or Twitter for new fan art and secrets on a daily basis, or you're already moving to close this tab because you're just sick of hearing about it. If you're in the second camp, I get it. I've been there. I was there with “Five Nights at Freddy's” and with “Steven Universe” and with “Adventure Time.” The fanbase gets so rabid and excited that they talk about nothing but the subject in question weeks after you first heard about it and shrugged it off.

But “Undertale” deserves most of that hype. It's that good. On its face, it's nothing revolutionary. It's riding the nostalgia wave that “Shovel Knight” and “Retro City Rampage” and now even “Mario Maker” have exploited. It presents itself in a familiar 16-ish-bit graphic style that hearkens back to a simpler time in video games. Maybe to when you were a kid, when everything was flat and brightly colored and chip-tuned. But that's how “Undertale” first subverts your expectations.

It's no secret that I love RPGs. “Undertale,” I believe, is a great entry in the RPG genre, a genre that has been stagnating for a long time. It's no surprise that people have been flocking to MMORPGs while the latest single-player Final Fantasy game feels like a bloated, pretentious mess. In order to understand what “Undertale” does so well, we first need to look at the RPGs that led us here, specifically those on the NES and Super NES.

An average battle in "Dragon Quest."

Most video game genres give you all the information you need at the outset; Mario must save the princess, Mega Man must beat the evil robots, and Simon Belmont must kill Dracula. That's all the plot you get, and that's what drives you to reach the end. The RPG genre did something a little different; it slowed things down. At the beginning of the story you have almost no information, and by moving forward, you gain not only knowledge, but the drive and the strength to reach the end. The game draws you in and gets you invested. Drape that idea in a medieval theme, and you've got nearly every RPG that surfaced on the NES and most of the Super NES. The Ur-example of these tropes is “Dragon Quest” (called “Dragon Warrior” on the NES). “Dragon Quest” introduced several RPG mainstays that exist even today: the romantic swords and sorcery setting, fire, ice, and lightning magic, killing slimes for money, and then using that money to buy better items, and winning experience points to gain levels. “Dragon Quest” was also dialogue-heavy, allowing the player to interact with Non-Player Characters (NPCs) for additional information and to give the player some illusion of agency in a scripted setting where all outcomes led to the same path. Giving what the game considered a “wrong” answer would loop the dialogue until the “correct” one was chosen. These are the basics of the console RPG. Dragons were slain, worlds were saved, and nobody ever questioned why a ninja would be walking around in a medieval feudal town.

Dragon Quest's dialogue "options."

Enter Shigesato Itoi, a Japanese essayist-turned-game designer. His first game, “Mother,” was released for the Famicom (Japan's NES equivalent) in 1989. Gameplay-wise, “Mother” is a pretty standard RPG. It features random encounters, a mechanic in which monster parties are encountered without warning on the world map, a party of warriors from different backgrounds, and towns with shops that sell the newest equipment to help battle the latest monsters. Where “Mother” differs is in its presentation. Magic is now psychokinesis, swords are baseball bats, bows and arrows are slingshots, slimes are rowdy neighborhood dogs, and medieval European-style castles are now American-style cities. While “Mother” played with genre norms, it remained local to Japan. Western audiences didn't experience it for decades after the NES became defunct. “Mother” was a fun distraction, but the norm marched on, through four more Final Fantasy games and two additional Dragon Quests.

By the time the Super NES rolled around, RPG mainstays were cemented into the genre and everyone basically knew what to expect from the newest Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. “Final Fantasy IV” pushed the genre by introducing dynamic playable characters who seemed to learn and change, all while adhering to the script. Advances in technology made the stories and characters better, but nothing really evolved beyond cosmetics. The fantasy RPG had been perfected and had become predictable, and with art of any form, the moment it becomes formulaic is the moment it becomes ripe for parody.

The story of “Mother 2”, aka “Earthbound”, is an interesting one. Like its predecessor, it almost remained a Japanese exclusive, despite its very American influences. When the decision was made by Nintendo to publish it in America, they weren't even quite sure how to market it. They settled on the “weirdness” factor, saddling “Earthbound” with the unfortunate tagline “This game stinks!” and showcasing a sentient puddle of vomit, a minor character in the story, as the mascot for the ads. What's more, none of the Dragon Quests appeared on the Super NES, despite still being released in Japan. Only two of the system's Final Fantasy games were brought over, and Nintendo of America decided that RPGs just weren't really for American audiences. The high price-tag or “Earthbound,” due to the inclusion of some bonus items, like an air freshener and player's guide, didn't help much. “Earthbound” was dead on arrival, but despite that, it began to gather a dedicated fanbase.

"Earthbound's" New-Age Retro Hippie wants to fight. (Note the similarity to Dragon Quest's battles)

But why? Mechanically, “Earthbound” doesn't do anything that revolutionary. Battles still look like they did back in “Dragon Quest,” but coated with a layer of LSD-laced paint. You still fight bosses and buy weapons and save the world. But “Earthbound” thrives in the small stuff. The weight of an evil alien from the future destroying humanity is always there, but it never seems to loom over you. Common enemies are light and funny, including Mad Ducks, UFOs wearing hair ribbons, and, of course, the New-Age Retro Hippie. NPCs like Mr. Saturn and Dungeon Man make you laugh at their absurdity, and the exaggerated musical score, full of a cacophony of horns, gives every scene the same tension you'd get from Elmer Fudd recieving a wedgie. All of this is wrapped in a bittersweet layer of interpersonal relationships, from Ness and his worrysome mother to Dr. Andonuts and his awkwardness around his son, Jeff. The game is light-hearted, but the fun distractions never take away from the creepy zombies that haunt Threed, or the cultists in the ironically-named Happy-Happy Village. “Earthbound” takes what the game presents as a serious threat and has your semi-mute group of preteens trying to distract themselves with small laughs before they have to deal with it. It has equal parts goofiness and darkness, and that spoke to people. Those fans who played “Earthbound” before it was a phenomenon still clamor about it today, partially because of the fresh paint on a tired genre, and partially because of the way the humor vs. seriousness can hit home.

When “Earthbound's” sequel, “Mother 3”, was announced, expectations were high. Think back when “Toy Story 3” was announced. The initial reaction was that we didn't need it. The story was fine as it stood, and anything new would tarnish what the first movies worked so hard to accomplish. But then, “Toy Story 3” came out, and not only was it good, but it left the first two in the dust when it came to emotional roller-coasters and feeling connected to the characters. “Mother 3” is the video game equivalent of “Toy Story 3”.

There's a reason fans have begged Nintendo to release “Mother 3” in the west for almost 10 years now. Everything “Earthbound” did was improved by “Mother 3.” The characters feel more real, the threat feels more personal, the battles are more engaging. Add parables of loss, family, blind consumerism, greed, and mistreatment of the planet's resources for personal gain, and you've got a sequel that improves on its predecessors in every way. “Mother 3” not only knows how to tell a story, but how to make you feel something. One early scene in particular, Flint's discovery of his wife, Hinawa's, death, remains one of the most poignant scenes in gaming. It's book-ended by jokes, but still filled with raw emotion. It's also played out with almost no dialogue.

The Mother series is brilliant because it not only embraces weirdness, but uses that weirdness to elevate its story. You're fighting hippopotamuses-turned-rocket launchers and hammerhead sharks with kangaroo pouches, but when you find out the selfish antagonist from “Earthbound” is doing it because he's now immortal and is simply bored, it feels wrong. You feel guilty, because those animals didn't deserve it. They're victims, just like you are. There's a streak of Vonnegut in the Mother series. The games are about humanity and it's flaws. It's about the relationship we have with Mother Earth and the line between using her resources and abusing her. It blurs the lines between the hilarious and the grotesque. It's the joy of small personal victories meeting the sheer disappointment of what humanity can be at its worst. It was... odd. But you couldn't appreciate the heartache without laughing at the oddness first, and you couldn't find relief in the oddness without caring about the heartache.

The Mother series not only flipped the RPG genre on its head, but proved that the player can have a personal stake in the story. It showed that the player can feel pity for those small enemies they come across on the way to the bad guy that leads them. It showed that the people you meet have a stake in how you continue your journey. And it showed that humanity can be terrible, but there are always some who are willing to question if we have to be. And not just because that's what the story dictates.

So what does all this have to do with “Undertale”?