Friday, December 18, 2015

Understanding Undertale

Warning: Given the subject of this essay, expect spoilers throughout.
It's tough to call something a “masterpiece.” When you assign that label, the subject instantly becomes singled out and scrutinized in a vacuum. A masterpiece challenges convention and begs to be looked at alongside its more conventional contemporaries. Context is always important. Take Chuck Jones's “What's Opera, Doc?” for example. It was voted the best cartoon of all time by 1,000 animators in the business for the way it elevated the art form to a new level. If you try to explain a Bugs Bunny cartoon to someone who has never seen one before and use “What's Opera, Doc?” as your example, you'll be left with a person who is probably confused and maybe even upset. Why would someone watch cartoons if they're so sad? What's with the singing? Why does that bald guy have an oversized suit of armor? By looking at this single example, you miss the convention of the Bugs/Elmer Fudd relationship. You lose the context of the methods the hunter has used for years to best the rabbit, and the way Bugs has outsmarted him at every turn. You miss out on how “What's Opera, Doc?” took that formula and flipped it around completely in order to surprise the audience and open them up to the larger picture of what animation can do. Undertale is, I believe, a masterpiece. And to explore how they did everything right, it's important to see what its contemporaries did wrong.

In 2013 a company called Eden Industries wanted to pick up the Mother series' mantle with their game, “Citizens of Earth.” CoE was an attempt to create an RPG with a “modern setting and (the) humorous tone of Earthbound,” according to the Kickstarter page. On paper, the idea was great. Fans of the Mother series were old enough now that they had jobs in the industry and wanted to take hints from their favorite game to forge a Western take on a JRPG that, in turn, was a JRPG take on Western culture. The trailer for CoE showed off the irreverent humor, an eclectic cast of characters, and familiar battle sequences that stirred up visions of Dragon Quest and Earthbound. We had a series that looked like it could deliver and fill the Mother-shaped holes in our hearts. A new group of developers could carry Itoi's torch. The stage was set, and the bar was high.

And, by all accounts, Citizens of Earth should have worked. The game opens with, in typical RPG trope fashion, the main character, the Vice President of Earth, being woken up by his mother. The game knew from the outset exactly how to skewer the beloved genre. It was as if Mel Brooks tried his hand at game design. The VP was funny, the battle mechanics were interesting and engaging, and the game knew its fanbase, sneaking sly nods to Earthbound in for those of us in the know. But the problems with CoE became apparent very early on. Load times grate on your nerves, especially when you're trying to get familiar with a new area. Directives can be vague, frustrating, or not exist at all. This is particularly frustrating when moving the plot forward requires a certain character and the game gives no information to do so. However, the real failings of CoE lie in the details. The characters, as varied as they are, have no real personality. They just spout their lines, and only exist as tools for you to use to battle wave after wave of the same few enemies, made doubly frustrating by the insane respawn rate. Items are unimaginative and useless. You'll be swimming in the same few HP-restoring coffees and donuts for the whole game. It also makes collecting chests more of a compulsion than an exciting experience, because an overwhelming majority of the time, they contain nothing but another coffee.

There's also an inherent problem with having an aloof main character like the VP who is impossible to identify with, and only bland support characters to back him up; The plot loses any momentum. And some of you may be saying “Well, Ness or Crono never even speak, and those are two of the best JRPGs ever.” And to you, I say that Ness and Crono are silent protagonists, and the player projects themselves and their intentions onto them. Those protagonists are also surrounded by a myriad of characters who DO have a stake in the game. They become your moral compass. Jeff and Apple Kid and Lucca and Frog become rallying support for the cause. CoE's very talkative protagonist who thinks only of himself is surrounded by characters who have almost no personality at all. So at no time does the player feel compelled to move forward, because none of the characters seem invested. Nobody in the game seems to care or understand what they're doing, so why should the player? The game also makes the mistake of thinking that ramping up the insanity of the plot is the same as raising the stakes. You find yourself on an alien spaceship eventually and for the life of me, I can't remember why. It's as if it happens simply because Earthbound has aliens. Like it's expected. And that's the biggest sin that this game could have made; it did what was expected of it. It didn't rise above its peers, but instead, it sold itself on the promise of being a Mother successor and only succeeded in being a serviceable, run-of-the-mill RPG experience, albeit with a sense of humor. Again, when the great Mel Brooks makes a parody, it's because he loves and understands the source material. He know how to make homage and also how to get you to identify with his characters. There's a heart in his films that comes across, hand-in-hand with the insanity. Citizens of Earth takes a half measure in heart and the experience suffers for it. It got the wackiness right, but Eden Industries making a parody more along the lines of “Epic Movie” than “Blazing Saddles.”

From the moment you begin Undertale, the game greets you with visual cues, all before you even enter your first battle. The pixel art is simplistic and made up of a few colors. It looks as if it could fit in with the likes of the SNES brethren that inspired it. Like in every Mother game, Undertale's protagonist wears a striped, two-tone t-shirt. Like in those traditional JRPGs, Undertale's protagonist is mute. And the bed of flowers the protagonist wakes up on looks very familiar to a recurring flower in Mother 3. You may not even notice that your brain is taking all of this in, but from this moment on, Undertale has you exactly where it wants you. And it doesn't let go.

The most clear-cut example of subversion of expectation is in Undertale's battle system. Similarly to Citizens of Earth, the enemies are presented in full view, just like in Dragon Quest or Mother games of old. You're given a couple options from the menu, as in an old Final Fantasy game, and you're led to believe that those commands are the same as always. For those new to the genre, Flowey, the unassuming first enemy of the game, instructs the player on the unique “bullet hell” minigame that occurs on every enemy turn. A red heart, a stand-in for the player, is confined to a small box where projectiles move around and try to make contact with you. Flowey instructs the player to gather up the “friendliness pellets” in order to proceed, and with that, Undertale has introduced its central mechanic by lying to the player. If you figured it out and dodged Flowey's attack, you feel smarter than the game. If not, you're rescued by another NPC who will teach you how to “really” play the game. Either way, you're playing by the game's rules, even if you don't know it. If you suspect Undertale is just going against convention and you play along as if it's some kind of anti-RPG, Undertale knows that, too. The game knows what you know, and it knows how you can plan to overcome the obstacles it throws at you-sometimes literally. If you've caught on, be assured that the game knows this and it already several steps ahead of you. After you've met the friendly NPC Toriel, you settle in and begin to learn how to play from someone you trust. Then the game goads you into accidentally killing her.

Undertale is layer upon layer of tropes, reversals of tropes, self-referential humor, fourth-wall shattering dialogue and characters, and surprise after surprise after surprise. Even if, in a panic, you reset the game because you've accidentally killed your new friend, the game knows. It knows if you've played the game before. It knows if you've closed the game in the middle of important dialogue. The game of Undertale extends beyond the act of playing it. It's not just a timeline of events from the intro to the final boss. Undertale is an interplay of experimentation and branching paths of human choice and itself. The game invites you to try new approaches, then calls you out on it. The world of Undertale is a post-postmodern look at not only RPGs, but video games, morality, and gaming culture in general. Every time you think you've figured out the game, the rules change. Undertale is the world's best Poker player and you think you can take them on because you've mastered Go Fish.

By the time you reach the game's first “real” boss fight, one half of the comedic skeleton brother duo, Papyrus. The rules change, and the bullet hell becomes something of a Mario-style platformer where your heart must leap over giant bones to avoid damage. The end of the battle showcases the action box expand ever-upward as your heart leaps over all obstacles. It's hilarious, unexpected, and just a hint of the surprises to come. Each boss has a different take on battle, and with each one, conventions fall away. And yet, the game still manages to surprise you when the final boss (on one of the paths) shows itself to be a photorealistic monstrosity of eyeballs and thorns that is as shocking to see revealed as it is disturbing to look at. “But of course,” you think. “This isn't REALLY a SNES game. It's been a computer game the whole time. It doesn't have to adhere to any rules.” Undertale has tricked you again.

You can play Undertale like a traditional JRPG, but doing so demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to play video games. Inventory management gets skewered when you try to pick up some mystical object, only to be told that your inventory is full. You drop the item, and that dropped item runs off with the mystical object in question. Even the “But thou must” options become irrelevant in regular dialogue, because the real choices aren't even delivered in that format, opting for an “actions speak louder than words” scenario. In battles, you can kill every frog or depressed ghost you come across to gain EXP and cash, but the game openly challenges you on it. By the time you reach the end, Sans, the second of the skeleton brothers, reveals that the traditional EXP and LV, present in so many JRPGs, aren't exactly what you might have believed. Altering something so integral to the role-playing experience puts everything into perspective. Undertale holds you personally responsible for your actions. After all, that blank slate of a character was you. It wasn't Ness or Cecil or the Vice President of Earth. The purposefully nondescript protagonist is a proxy for you, and Sans makes sure that you know that there is no separation, in his eyes, between you.

There's a heart in Undertale that makes it stand out. It plays to the fans of the genre by including ineffectual minibosses in the tradition of Final Fantasy V's Gilgamesh in Papyrus, it features an homage to Final Fantasy VI's famous opera sequence with the killbot, Mettaton. A village of cute, Mr. Saturn-esque creatures called Temmies, and a sequence in Dr. Alphys's lab that seems straight out of the Chimera Lab in Mother 3. It helps you grow to appreciate the characters by giving them dialogue that changes with your choices. One particularly touching scene, if you plan to kill everything in sight, has Sans beg the player not to continue, because he knows that deep down they just want to “finish” the game. On the other hand, going out of your way for a perfect ending, nets you a similar sequence begging you not to replay, because as things are, all the friends you've made are so happy. This, in itself, is a huge mixed signal, because the alternate approaches to the game and branching character directions and actions just beg for experimentation and replaying. But that's exactly what Sans warns against. This isn't just grinding on FF6's Veldt to learn new attacks, or mowing down wave after wave of FF4's Bombs to get a worthless-but rare!-secret summon. It's about the choice and the weight of every small step you've taken. And that's where games like Citizens of Earth got it wrong. Playing a Mother game isn't fulfilling simply because it's funny. The fandom hasn't grown and expanded because they laugh at the little things. Undertale shows that being laugh-out-loud funny is done best when there are high stakes, your characters are likable and full of personality, and you care about the characters you're interacting with.

Years ago, Roger Ebert asked if videogames can ever be considered art. The internet exploded and rallied against him with example after example of game design and art and emotion, but Undertale is the most concrete example yet. Undertale delivers an experience that can only be delivered in a video game medium. A film never changes due to your mood, but Undertale in particular shows that the game is a reflection of the player. It's a novel in the way you read into and experience characters and motivations. It's is an art exhibit, from the small things like character art and music to its lessons on morality and the consequences of your seemingly innocuous actions. It's an interactive puzzle in the way it invites the player to explore the very data files it's contained in to discover it's biggest mystery.

As, I mentioned, there is a bed of flowers that the player wakes up in at the beginning of Undertale. They look strikingly similar to the flowers that feature in Mother 3 as a symbol throughout most of the story. At first it bothered me because this game has no right to compare itself to Mother 3, let alone be so bold as to appropriate one of the most prominent and emotional symbols in the game. But it does. Toby Fox and Undertale have proven that they understand exactly what it means to make a video game in the modern day. Undertale stands on the shoulders of giants, and it looks down on them with fondness, appreciation, and determination.