We Got Undertold

Following close on the heels of Steven UniverseToby Fox’s Undertale snared the part of my brain given to fannish obsession. Not surprisingly, bloggable thoughts followed! While I don’t intend to discuss any of the game’s specific plot points, I will talk about its themes and structures in some depth. So if you’re a deep purist for experiencing media “blind,” I suggest you go play the game first!

Undertale comments on video game violence via a focus on the player’s decisions to kill or spare the characters they face in fight scenes. The game only ends in an unmitigated success for the protagonist if they refrained from killing anyone for the duration. What’s more, the ending obtained by killing everything in sight has repercussions that sour even future playthroughs, no-kill or otherwise. The more violent the protagonist, the clearer it becomes that they are the villain, not the hero, of the piece; the other characters react with believable shock, grief, and anger to the deaths the main character causes. In other words, though the NPCs are “monsters,” Undertale declares that they are people, and holds unflinchingly to that assertion.

After playing through the game once, I read through a lengthy discussion thread about it, and noted with interest the criticisms of those who didn’t share in its nearly universal praise. Setting aside dislikes of a merely aesthetic nature, some of the more thought-provoking objections included (deeply paraphrased):

  • The game is too emotionally manipulative, trying to force the player to feel a certain way
  • If its goal was to demonstrate it’s possible to make a nonviolent video game RPG, it shouldn’t have included violent options at all
  • The implication that there’s something messed up about RPGs that reward you for massive killing is an insult to those games and the people who enjoy them1
  • The ethos depicted is too black-and-white; they should have included more situations where it was justified to fight back or kill

Others in the thread pointed out how most of these complaints miss the point of the game. If it’d been made in such a way as to satisfy those critiques, it would lack most of its uniqueness and artistic worth. What interests me, though, is the common ground upon which all those criticisms rest: people are deeply averse to being confronted with the idea that their choices of entertainment, or their choices within that entertainment, might bear an ugly moral character.

On its face, why shouldn’t people resist that? The implication that violent video gaming is something perverse sounds like the cultural warfare of Tipper Gore and Jack Thompson. From a justice- or consequence-based moral framework, choosing to “kill” a video game character is a morally neutral act: some non-sapient bits and bytes get reconfigured from one basically indistinguishable state to another.

But sometimes, the interesting part isn’t the moral calculus of the act itself. Rather, the decision raises the question, “What does this say about me?” What kind of person does this sort of thing?

Undertale employs every possible device to try to get us to ask that question of ourselves, playing to our empathy with means nothing short of brilliant. Our tendency to anthropomorphize unthinking, unfeeling entities like video game characters is a curious side effect of human compassion, but it provides a safe barometer for someone’s habits of mind (virtues, if you will) in consideration for others. The range of Undertale characters’ visible emotions, the depth of their characterization, and the complexity of their reactions to events in their world make it very easy to think of them as people rather than blocks of code.

I’m no psychologist, but knowing what I do about habit formation, aren’t all these things practice of sorts for the real world? As children, we ascribe thoughts and feelings and motivations to our cherished toys. When they’re lost or damaged, the ensuing heartache is a mix of “poor me, I have lost a thing I liked” and “poor Teddy, how he must suffer!” As our minds mature, those attitudes move outward from the the playroom microcosm to the broader circles of our family, friends, and the world. Our degree of success in that transition translates into adult life as a compassionate person or a detached and uncaring one, and everything in between.

So if we accept the phenomenon with an open heart, carefully avoiding any violence against the emotive blobs of pixels in front of us, that says something about our character. Likewise, if we pack those warm feelings away, maintaining emotional distance and the conviction that these digital entities aren’t real, so that we can freely indulge in their wholesale slaughter–that says something, too. And Undertale makes sure we know as much: it periodically breaks the fourth wall to address the player with exactly that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who plays the genocidal-maniac route in Undertale is a sociopath.2 Nor am I saying that doing so, or playing a bunch of other games featuring similar mass murder, makes someone into a sociopath. Heck, I don’t even think Fox would venture one of those theses. The game richly rewards you with exclusive gameplay, writing, and music on the murder path even as it deconstructs your actions, which would be a strange design decision if utter disapproval were the point. What the game does do, however, is force us to take a hard look at our emotional skill set. Those synaptic paths that help us shut down our empathy for digital characters also enable us to do the same for real people. “It’s just a game” and “I want to see all the content,” in another context, become “I don’t care what they think” and “It’s cold, but this is best for both of us.” That’s an important skill to have, but how readily do we reach for it, when a response with more heart might still be possible and praiseworthy?

That kind of introspection can make a body squirm, and I suspect that discomfort drives some of the missing-the-point critiques aforementioned. It’s the same well of resistance that powers backlash against cultural commentary like Feminist Frequency, and that leads white people to think being called “racist” is somehow worse than racism itself. But self-examination is not an enemy. The best works of art get us to take a hard look at ourselves, to think about whether our habits of thought and action express the kind of person we want to be. Undertale reaches that level of incisive meaning, making it a rare gem among computer games.


1 From what sense I can make of the word soup in his news post, this is basically Jerry Holkins’ gripe over on Penny Arcade, if you’ve seen or heard of their comic strip about it. If you haven’t, never mind. Not going to link, because fuck those guys.

2 That would be silly of me, considering I’m playing a “No Mercy” run myself as of this writing.

Modrim

In my last post, I mentioned The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game is from 2011, so readers may be amused that it’s my current obsession, here in 2015. Especially with the much newer and shinier Fallout 4 by the same creators devouring people’s attention across the world even now! But I’ve always been one to delve into games several years after their release. Part of it’s a matter of cost; $60 for a game, then more on top of that as expansions come out, is too steep for me. If I wait a few years, I can usually get the game plus all its downloadable add-ons for half the price that the base game was at launch. But not only is it less expensive, it’s more valuable to me as a well-aged game, because of mods.

I first became involved with game modding in college with Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, a sprawling Dungeons & Dragons-based role-playing game that attracted a vibrant community of fans to hack and tweak it. You could get bug fixes above and beyond those the game’s original developers had time to take care of, put more characters on the roster, rebalance abilities, and add new dialogue including, hey, sexy romantic interludes between the main character and their love interests. The same applies to today’s open-world RPGs by Bethesda. Such tinkering appeals to my perfectionism as well as my interests in programming and game design, and enriches my appreciation of the game itself… when I stop downloading and applying mods and get down to actually playing, anyway!

Mods start to come out as soon as the game itself does, but the best fan work takes time like anything else, and waiting lets the modder community zeitgeist come to consensus on the top-quality stuff. For your amusement and edification, here’s a list of what I’m now putting to use in my Skyrim game!

The Skyrim Total Enhancement Project (STEP), version 2.2.9.2. This comprehensive guide walks you through the setup of dozens of individual mods, specifically geared toward beautifying, bugfixing, and improving the usability of Skyrim without making huge changes to the gameplay as originally designed. If you’re willing to take the several hours needed to go through it, this will get you a much prettier, thoroughly fan-patched game, and equip you with all the tools you need for any further mods you’d like to add. I use almost everything from their “extended” mod list, except for:

  • Complete Crafting Overhaul. It conflicts, in design if not on a technical level, with something I add later.
  • Burn/Freeze/Shock animations. Reputed to be unstable.
  • Skyrim Enhanced Camera. It’s supposed to be immersive, keeping you in first-person camera whenever possible, but a lot of the animations are disorienting and suffer from camera clipping that way.
  • Lock Overhaul. It adds skill level restrictions on what locks you can open with the minigame, and I dislike “you must be this tall to enter” restrictions on accessing areas.
  • Not So Fast Main Quest. I get that the main plot line can feel hurried if you rush through it, but I like knowing what the next step is at any given point. No need for extra delays.

Onto that, I added the Immersive Survival pack, which adds some beautiful weather effects and requires that you feed, shelter, and rest your character to keep them in fighting shape. I love that, for instance, Realistic Needs and Diseases makes food and drink items relevant (normally they’re weaker versions of potions, no upside) without making hunger management a Roguelike-esque slog. After playing for a little while, I removed the following mods from the list:

  • Frostfall. It’s a great mod, don’t get me wrong; it makes a lot of sense to have cold-weather survival as a gameplay theme in a frozen land like Skyrim. While I used it, I had some intense situations where I got wet and nearly froze to death before I stumbled into the warmth of the inn. But I found that it slowed down the pace of things too much. I’d venture into a snowy new territory, and oops, I’m getting too cold, so I have to stop, build a fire, upgrade it, and stand there for a minute while my warmth meter refills. And if the fire is badly positioned, the wind takes the heat away, so you need to try somewhere else. Too much of a drag. That said, I kept the Campfire mod that’s a prerequisite for Frostfall; it’s still super fun to be able to throw down a tent wherever you need to sleep or build up a fire to cook things on the road.
  • Hunterborn. Skinning and butchering animals instead of “looting” them is clever and well implemented, but again, it was more of a brake on gameplay than something I found engaging in its own right. Each animal you harvest from eats up several hours of your character’s day, and until they get their skills trained up, what they get out of the process is of lower quality than what you’d have playing vanilla.
  • Harvest Overhaul. The main effect of this is to give you more alchemy ingredients, which I didn’t find to be scarce to begin with.
  • The Huntsman. It’s thematic, sure, but I didn’t see any need to add a random special weapon to an otherwise broadly-scoped set of mods.

To the above, I added Perkus Maximus, a top-to-bottom rebalancing of spells and skill perks by one of the mod community’s biggest names. It’s in fact the guy’s second major effort in the same sphere, putting to work all the lessons learned from his prior popular perk overhaul mod and the feedback it received. I’m super impressed by it: looking at the skill perks available, I have an “ooh, that’s cool” reaction to almost every option, rather than the “meh” that loads of vanilla perks produce. To tune the experience, I’ve added several mods suggested in PerMa’s discussion forums: extended perk descriptions, missing weapons, rebalanced shouts, tweaks to artifact items, and a mod that makes arrows shoot bullet-straight (what can I say, I like feeling like a badass sniper, not a fumbling putz).

Having restarted the game a few times due to modding and unmodding, Live Another Life is a breath of fresh air. No more sitting through that long, stuttery carriage ride to Helgen–start somewhere else on the map, with a character backstory to suit. The alternative starter areas can be a little more dangerous than Helgen and Riverrun, but that’s fun too!

The last major mod I added was ASIS (Automatic Spells, Increased Spawns), using the improved INI files here with the settings they recommend. I initially picked this up for the “automatic spells” part, to let the game’s NPCs use the various spells introduced in Perkus Maximus. But I gave the “increased spawns” the old college try too, and found it a quite enjoyable change. It makes miscellaneous fights a lot more challenging, in that instead of facing e.g. two or three bandits at a time, you might have to deal with five or a dozen! Despite not liking difficulty-boosters in general, I’ve been able to adapt my play style to this one, with a lot more attention to terrain, hit-and-run tactics, and target selection. It makes for some epic, memorable battles, where it really feels like you’ve assaulted a fortified enemy stronghold.

And last but not least, I tossed in Khajiit Speak. Because I almost always play cat-people when I can, and it makes the player character’s dialogue much more authentic to the way you hear other Khajiit talk in game!

Blood Isn’t Good to the Last Drop

I respect feminist games criticism because it shows us how much better we could do with our designs. Many of the tropes dissected aren’t behind the times only in social awareness, but in the state of the art in gameplay. Where you find a lazy portrayal of gender, race, or violence, lazy design choices often follow, and we can improve both by amending or eliminating our use of trite patterns.

This excerpt from Phil Owen’s WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? and this tongue-in-cheek list of in-game activities that would count as war crimes in real life primed me to think about these topics in my current gaming. (Both articles have their problems, but I can appreciate and recommend them for getting those thoughts rolling.) In particular, Cracked‘s critique of “giving no quarter” resonates with gameplay irritations I’ve run into in both video games and tabletop RPGs. Why is it still so often necessary to kill every opponent on a map before concluding a mission?

Feeling the itch for some turn-based squad tactics (perhaps in anticipation of XCOM 2?), I’ve recently restarted playing the WWII skirmish game Silent Storm, originally published in the early 2000s. It does one thing well with respect to the No Quarter trope: mission objectives almost always require that you obtain information, not kill everyone. Your goal on a given map is to procure documents, film reels, prototype technologies, etc., or to subdue and capture personnel with crucial intelligence. I find that quite refreshing! Real-world military objectives–at least for forces we see as admirable or heroic–rarely focus on annihilation, and it’s great to see that in a game.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design undercuts that commendable concept. Level layouts, enemy AI, and the fact that you can’t leave the mission zone with visible enemies even if you’ve accomplished all objectives, mean that most of the time you must wipe out all opposition to advance anyway. The intelligence targets you must capture don’t surrender; you have to fill them with lead to “knock them unconscious” and carry their limp bodies away. (There are a few nonlethal weapons in the game, but their game statistics are terrible, heavily disincentivizing their use.) Enemy units sometimes flee, but they can’t actually leave the level, so they reach the black expanse of nothingness at the map’s edge, then turn around to start shooting again.

We see this trope time and again, and invariably it makes for a worse game. I love the XCOM series, but especially in the earliest versions, hunting down the last alien on the board to complete a map was an exercise in tedium. It comes up in tabletop play, too. A common complaint against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was that battles took too long to complete, and often at least part of the problem came down to playing things out until every monster in the encounter was dead. We’ve got No Quarter burnt into our heads by long exposure, but it’s a bad pattern.

We have the technology to do these things differently. The XCOM games already have morale algorithms, where enemies panic in the face of impending defeat, dropping their weapons and fleeing–but for some reason, the games haven’t taken the logical next step: have said enemies surrender, removing the necessity of blasting them to end the level. (Yes, you can knock them out with nonlethal weaponry in XCOM, which is a nice touch, but it’s still a waste of time and verisimilitude that you’ve got to hunt down and shoot routed enemies at all.) I appreciate the design patterns in Dungeon World, in many ways a superior set of tabletop play tech than D&D, whose principles of fictional flow and “bring every monster to life” lead naturally to combatants fleeing, laying down arms, or otherwise changing the nature of the conflict before they’re all dead.

These are more humane, progressive, feminist, etc. approaches to violence and victory than the tired No Quarter trope, and they make for better games too!

Review: Rogue Legacy

Adulath II:

Gameplay: Rogue Legacy is an homage to two traditions of games at once: roguelikes, where levels are randomly generated and character death is permanent (no reloading saved games after a Game Over); and the brand of sidescrolling action-RPGs exemplified by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its successors. You jump, double-jump, dash, swing swords, and throw spells while exploring a procedurally generated castle full of traps and hostile critters, breaking furniture to find loot, and clinging to your meager reserve of health points as long as you can… for when you run out, you’re toast, and need to start the castle all over again.

It’s much more than a mashup, however. Rogue Legacy adopts the innovations of Roguelikes such as Shiren the Wanderer, where achievements managed on one run of the castle (such as unlocking new equipment or defeating a boss) carry through to your next attempt, even if the layout is reshuffled and the monsters respawned. The conceit is that each hero who dies assaulting the castle leaves behind successors, new generations of explorers sworn to take up the quest where others have failed.

As if that weren’t ingenious enough, the game keeps things fresh by letting you pick from three randomized children each generation, who sport character classes with strengths and weaknesses, as well as odd “traits” that may have aesthetic (like “nostalgic,” which turns the game sepia-toned) or game-mechanical (like “dextrocardia”, which switches the values of your health and magic pools) effects. Additional flourishes like an ever-growing hall of family portraits contribute to the feeling that you’re carrying on an actual, well, legacy, not rewinding time and trying again.

Aesthetics: The look and feel of Rogue Legacy are perhaps its least notable parts. It’s a pleasant 16-bit-like style, with pixely sprites, chiptune music, and palette-swapped enemies and equipment. “Retro” is a popular style right now, and RL follows the fad without any substantial missteps. Character classes are differentiated by minor but evocative embellishments: mages have beards (even the ladies, ha), spellswords’ blades don’t appear until they swing, and so forth. It does get rather samey after a while, though. I would particularly have liked to see some weapon other than a sword for my heroes at some point, for instance.

Difficulty FAQtor: I didn’t need any walkthroughs or YouTube trainers to finish the game in 22 hours, and that figure appears to be close to average based on the global Steam achievement stats: “play for 20 hours” is a slightly less common achievement than “beat the final boss”. The game is hard, but it’s one of the fairest difficult games I’ve played. Despite the randomness, it was extraordinarily rare for me to feel I died or took damage in a way that couldn’t have been avoided with better skill. And there’s an appreciable amount of strategy in how you spend the gold you amass each run, what equipment you use, and which classes and traits you select. Like Persona 3, it’s possible to grind your way to victory, but smart play makes grind less necessary and speeds up what grind you choose to do; unlike Persona 3, even if you do choose the grind route, the gameplay involved in doing so remains entertaining.

Ism Factor: Mixed. There’s actually quite a lot of interesting things to be said about RL, here, so I’m going to break it down a bit!

Gender and Orientation: RL does admirably on these. You almost always have the option of choosing either a male or a female character, and that choice in itself doesn’t have any gameplay effect. The female sprites have pretty traditional gender signifiers (a pink ribbon atop the helmet, and subtly rounded chest armor), but aren’t in any way sexualized or demeaned. And RL, unlike most games, at least acknowledges the existence of sexual orientations: “gay” is one of the random traits a character can have, and there’s no caricaturing or stereotyping involved in it.

Race: Here, however, RL falls utterly flat. Every single character is white. Heroes, NPCs, storyline characters in cutscenes, you name it. You could put forth the flimsy argument that, well, it’s a single family line we’re looking at, so of course they’ll have similar skin tones. But the history you build can easily last millennia: my own playthrough was 145 generations. Maintaining utter racial homogeneity for that length of time (or perhaps worse, disqualifying any dark-skinned child from taking up the quest) would take a ruthless white supremacy that’d make modern hate groups look integrationist by comparison.

Ableism: You could write a whole paper here. I’m not well-versed in this corner of intersectional feminism, so whatever I say is probably even more silly gum-flapping than usual; take that as you may. But… wow. First off, I have to give the game props for the fact that in it, not every hero is utterly able-bodied and neurotypical. Typically, a game hero is the designer’s Platonic ideal of an athlete, and almost every villain you see is “insane”. In RL, though, heroes typically quest while dealing with a handful of physical or mental afflictions, and the antagonists of the piece seem troubled, but not mentally ill or accused of being such. There’s something cool about playing a dyslexic hero, happening upon a page of a prior adventurer’s journal, and straining–both player and character–to understand the ensuing array of letter-jumbled words.

But there’s something uncomfortable about the way these disabilities are represented. My fiancee was unsettled when, looking over my shoulder, she saw I was playing a character with “Alzheimer’s.” She, rightly I think, dreads the day when she or someone she cares about starts to suffer from the disease; it’s a horrific way for a life to end, and it runs in both of our families. In game, it just makes your character unable to remember the castle layout, disabling your full-screen map. It’s a vast trivialization of the condition, and that doesn’t feel right. Conditions like dwarfism, in the real world, have an array of physical and social consequences to them, and people with those conditions bond over them to form support networks and entire subcultures. Is it right to appropriate that, with an inaccurate depiction no less, for our amusement at seeing a downscaled sprite leap around like a flea and squeeze into tiny passages? I don’t think so.

RL could have done this just a bit differently and been less problematic, I’d conjecture. “Forgetful” instead of “Alzheimer’s,” “Tiny” instead of “Dwarfism,” “Flatulent” instead of “IBS,” and so on. It would lose a tiny sliver of the humor factor (which is in any case a punching-down sort of humor, able folks chuckling at things they don’t have to deal with), for a substantial improvement in its Ism Factor.

Enjoyment Rating: 5/5. I played it, loved it, found it novel and entertaining at almost every moment. It took an effort of will to stop myself from playing and playing all the way to the finish of a New Game+. Highly recommended despite its handful of problematic elements!