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.

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Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Adulath Caracai II:

Yes, that’s “Unknown,” not “Within.” Back on my old LiveJournal, I titled my game review posts “Late to the Party”… maybe I should still do that!

Gameplay: It’s extra difficult for me to come at this from an on-its-own-merits perspective. X-Com: Terror from the Deep, sequel to the UFO Defense from which Enemy Unknown is inspired, ranks in my personal top five video games of all time! So by psychological necessity, this will be something of a comparison review.

That warning established, I feel Enemy Unknown takes almost the ideal approach to reimagining its predecessor. It starts with a number of baseline goals having to do with the original UFO Defense‘s greatest successes. It’s squad-level, turn-based tactical combat, interspersed with global strategic decisions involving interception of alien craft, research of their technologies, and production of new arms and equipment to outfit soldiers with; just like the original. A soldier, once killed, is dead for ever, just like in the original. Missions are thus the same tense search-and-destroy affair as in the original, with clenched teeth as you end your turn and await the enemy’s move, and curses when a sure shot goes wide or an alien takes down one of your veterans.

The numerous changes from the original simplify things in many appreciated ways, and add customization and depth to areas that didn’t have them before. No longer do you need to micromanage inventory down to how many clips of ammunition you have stored in your base. As soldiers earn promotions, they gain skills you can activate in tactical fashion, unlike the homogeneous shooters of the original. And combat actions have been condensed down to two per turn (typically movement and firing), rather than the original’s fine-grained and very wargamey “time units”, along with a more consciously deployable reaction-fire mechanic called “Overwatch.”

I did say “almost” ideal, though. Many of the tweaks and simplifications make Enemy Unknown a better game, but not a better experience. The original had an underlying mindset of simulation: events happen because of calculated factors and prior events often out of your sight. If aliens attack Moscow, a UFO flew there from an alien base, and you didn’t see it or catch it in time. In the reimagining, though, it’s just… because it’s time for a terror mission. Things are more scripted, less real. You only get one base, one troop transport, and can’t build any more (despite the obvious utility of such, with alien attacks happening simultaneously around the globe); why? You just can’t. You can’t sell manufactured items for cash, unless there’s a specific random request for them; why? Because one of the simplifications is that manufacturing most items takes only money, not time, so selling for profit would enable unlimited cash. It coheres as a design, but there’s a hollowness to it.

Aesthetics: We’ve come a long way from the blobby sprites and comic book monster pinups of the original, that’s for certain! The aliens are monstrous and creepy and intimidating, just like they ought to be. Action camera angles (optional) highlight kills and dramatic discoveries. It’s X-Com brought into the 21st century, abandoning the 90s radar dishes and flat-top haircuts for orbital recon satellites and slick space-marine armor.

There are some odd choices here, though. Soldiers’ weapons look more like Nerf or Lego toys than instruments of war. On a night mission with the enemy’s location undiscovered, is it really a good idea to cover yourself in red and green LEDs like a martial Christmas tree? And the animations, while serviceable, feel unpolished: snipers brace their rifles on their forearms even when there’s perfectly serviceable hard cover right in front of them; a soldier engaging in suppressive fire steps out into open space and stands there looking undefended. It caused me some confusion: how am I not getting reaction fire, which triggers on enemy movement, when they’re obviously waltzing out into the open to shoot?

Difficulty FAQtor: A few lookups, mostly to get a sense of the relative utility of different special abilities. Difficulty is highly customizable; I tried “Classic” difficulty at first and found it entirely too brutal, getting wiped out or at least decimated mission after mission. I settled on Normal difficulty but with the “Ironman” option enabled, which disallows any form of save-game rollback. (Mercifully, if you fail the very last mission, it does allow you do-overs there. I needed two.) When I get the chance to play the expansion set, I’ll likely attempt Classic again, knowing better what I’m doing!

Ism Factor: Exemplary. Your squad members are evenly split between men and women, and come from various countries around the globe, their names, complexions, and accents varying with their background. (The expansion will enable the option to have soldiers speak their native languages!) Female soldiers have a more slender profile than the men, but their costumes are otherwise identical, not in any way exploitative. They even have the same VA scripts, ensuring that no inequity slips in through choices in what the characters say! Support characters are at least modestly diverse: the Central Command guy is whitebread American, but the lead scientist is a European woman, and the head engineer is a middle-aged, even a bit overweight, gent of Chinese heritage. They could have been bolder with those choices–why not an African-American woman for a central command officer, a Pakistani scientist?–but that’s such a mild criticism that I’d say the game retains its top rating in this category.

Enjoyment Score: 4 out of 5 stars. I eagerly kept playing the game, often losing track of time while I was about it. However, I didn’t have any desire to play more once I’d won, at least until I get ahold of the expansion pack, and the replay urge is a crucial criterion for a game to earn 5 stars from me. Notably, I’ve played Enemy Unknown‘s predecessors several times, ha.

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!