Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Choosing Peace: The Strange Genre Subversion of Undertale

Undertale operates based on a simple premise, which is actually just a question: do you really have to kill every foe you encounter in a video game?

Violence in all media is generally an easy way to generate conflict, and therefore drama. But Undertale, created almost entirely by a single programmer/designer/composer named Toby Fox, seeks to challenge the basic assumption that violence is the only way to create meaningful conflict in a game. Within the familiar framework of a retro-styled RPG, it allows for peaceful resolution of every encounter you find yourself in. If you decide to kill your foes instead of convincing them not to fight, those choices are reflected in the game world, which becomes either more hostile or more welcoming depending on how wantonly murderous you decide to be. It’s a fascinating inversion of a familiar genre.

In Undertale, you play as a human child who falls through the earth into the world of monsters who were forced underground by a war with humankind. The first being you encounter is a flower named “Flowey” who, in the fashion of many similar characters in fantasy stories, offers to take you under its wing and teach you the ways of the underground world. Flowey is a liar, however, and attempts to kill you if you accept its help, shouting that down here, “it’s kill or be killed.” You’re saved from its attack by a peaceful caretaker named Toriel, who apologizes for Flowey’s behaviour and introduces you to the basic puzzle-solving mechanics of the game. With this first subversion, Flowey’s betrayal, Undertale establishes its pattern of upending the normal functionality of a role-playing game, perhaps best exemplified by its aforementioned core element: the fact that Flowey was a liar through and through, and when it told you that the game would operate on a “kill or be killed” basis – the norm for almost any game – it was lying through its teeth (or… petals, or whatever).

Pretty much every RPG in existence asks the player to slay a veritable menagerie of foes, large and small, humanoid or otherwise, as a method of gaining experience, levelling up to become more powerful, and progressing through the story. The general conceit is usually that of an ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary adventure, faced with a great evil they have no hope of defeating. The parade of lesser foes thrown at you, who become more and more powerful as you do, act as a way to illustrate character growth, and help you feel ready to face the Big Bad once you have fought your way to the top of its tower. Undertale looks at this game design approach – common in titles from thirty years ago to today – and asks, why? Why does killing a legion of enemies have to be the only way to progress?

When entering a battle phase, you’re given the normal options: FIGHT, ITEMS, and so on (all presented with the blocky text menus and pixelated graphics of yore, of course). Undertale adds a new option, however – ACT – which allows you to converse with your foe. Sometimes the animated vegetable you’re fighting just needs a kind word before it will leave you alone. Sometimes the blob of living acid that attacks you is just lonely, and would appreciate hearing a joke. Your options for communicating with your enemies will vary, but the tone is always the same: you can fight, but you don’t have to. Maybe it’s worthwhile to try talking it out? These actions have consequences, too: if you consistently spare your foes, then enemies further down the line will have heard of your benevolence and treat you with respect (and so too will they become instantly hostile, when you’ve killed all of their friends).

Fox, in creating the game, made a canny choice in including lots of humour in the text-based interactions of Undertale. There isn’t any way to present the idea without a tongue-in-cheek approach. I mean who cares, really, what a living vegetable has to say? It’s enough that the game asks that question, though, because it comes from a place of empathy. Maybe we don’t care what the animated flora in our games have to say because it’s never occurred to us to ask them. It’s a silly concept, but kind of a beautiful one, too – it challenges us to carefully consider the actions we’ve taken so many times before, accusing us of having taken them for granted for so long as a necessary, even welcome, part of the RPG experience. That, I think, is a valuable conversation to have.

So it’s good that the fundamental aspect of the game is so strong, because Undertale is not without its problems. For all its subversion of RPG tropes, it also reflects them – warts and all – with perfect accuracy: there are countless random encounters, long periods of grinding through fights for experience and gold, and a general sense of repetition that, despite its attempts to freshen up familiar elements, Undertale just can’t make into a fun experience. It attempts to inject some more action-oriented gameplay into the tired turn-based combat system by having you dodge incoming projectiles in a manner similar to Japanese shoot-em-up games like Galaga or R-Type, but this, too, gets old fast. The humour, while important in conveying the anarchistic tone of the game, can become cloying and even irritating – which is perhaps simply reflective of the game’s creator and his personal sense of humour, since he seems not to have collaborated with another writer.

Despite these shortcomings, Undertale was one of 2015’s critical darlings, and it’s not hard to see why. For a game created by only a handful of people to become so successful is unusual and praiseworthy enough, but Undertale earns extra points for its clear-eyed examination of player motivation and agency. Its resemblance to other boundary-pushing titles like Earthbound is no accident, and it both celebrates and deconstructs such classics of the genre in a way unlike anything we’ve seen. I don’t expect its ideas to affect any real change on the RPG genre anytime soon – I very much doubt that Final Fantasy XV is going to allow you to talk your foes out of fighting you – but I think Fox would be content simply to know that he will have made thousands of gamers pause for a moment, and consider what choosing ATTACK might mean.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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