Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Undertale - (pacifict) RUN!

Undertale just got voted the BEST GAME EVER on gamefaqs, so I thought it would be a good time to post this little piece. Music. Curtains.


In videogames we want to do battle if we can, and often we don't even need a justification for our doing battle. But there are exceptions. In some games, the choice that makes the most thematic/cathartic sense and has the strongest impression on us is the one that doesn't involve violence at all. One such game is Undertale, a japanese-styled RPG where we can choose "mercy" in every encounter (having first figured out how we can make our encountree less antagonstic, realize how they in fact never were to begin with, or just decide that the conflict isn't worth investing time into and thus choosing the "flee" option instead of the "spare" option, both of which are reached through the mercy button in our encounter interface). But there is the one battle where suddenly sparing nor fleeing isn't an option anymore, where in fact the whole interface we've grown accustomed to include the option of mercy is changed so that it no longer is. Our enemy simply takes hir trident and destroys the part of our interface where the mercy button is located. And one might think that it is so because the encountered creature is simply antagonistic, yet it's not that simple. It is through the lens of this one poignant and sublime moment that I want to explore some themes in Undertale.

One way to make things less simple, to complicate and add depth to the situation at hand is to ask ourselves how this move of our opponent to literally destroy the MERCY button at the start of the encounter might be construed as defensive (I mean from the view of the opponent, their every action is not an aggressive but a defensive one). My answer involves a pattern oft repeated in Undertale and is at the heart of why Undertale works so well, as well as what it's about. It's a pattern which involves subversion and the oscillation between simple, predictable, shallow, cute, funny or nostalgic, and difficult, unpredictable, deep, frightening, sad and mature. This oscillation is what the general tension and release structures in Undertale relies on, whether it comes to the setup and delivery of jokes, the setup of encounters and the dismantling of their raison d'ĂȘtre and the "enemies" therein, the setup of horrors that turn into humane creatures, the setup of childish characters and their establishment of them as multilayered and adult creatures, the setup of and breaking down of general rpg conventions – and the subversions of all of these and other setups. The game establishes this pattern right from the start, with the omnious-sounding title screen with the big text UNDERTALE and a little red heart situated in the R, followed by the cute tune in the title screen. From there it just goes downhill. And uphill. And then downhill again. You get the point.

Enter Asgore Dreemur, killer of mercy... buttons. We finally arrive at hir evil castle and get to see the fruits of hir evil... gardening hobby? Hir head hangs in shame, and zie asks us if we want tea and tells us it was nice knowing us – before hiding hir face behind a helmet, drawing hir weapon and getting down the "Final Boss look" to a tee. And the funny thing is that I do get scared. I'm thinking ok I can't flee from this battle now, this is some serious shit, it's the final showdown for sure! Hell, Asgore has perhaps been buttering me up just so I'll be weak for this fight all along! Beyond just the initial reaction of "shitshitshit we're gonna die, Asgore DID kill all those humans that came before us!", I realize that this is yet another oscillation – I've been duped into thinking that this person whose last name is an anagram of "Murderer" is a nice guy and thus I thought that zie in fact is a bad guy, but now it turns out that zie was nice all along, but, hm, perhaps both good and bad? Asgore is both a family man and a man who has the potential for murder. For a brief moment, I think hir a monster even after having been offered tea and condolensces, before I start thinking that is. Perhaps zie is one of those good guys that need to do evil for some reason, because zie has a dreem. Declare war on humans in order to return hope to hir kingdom of banished monsters and to get see hir dead child again, and so on. But then it hits me – in what sense might we construe hir actions as defensive? And the answer is that it isn't a question of whether zie is a "monster" or not, but in what ways zie might make hirself one in order for hir to do what zie feels need to be done, or perhaps what zie feels needs to be done against hir.

Having failed to hate us, the protagonist, the only way for Asgore to make sure that zie goes through with it is for hir to literally destroy our ability to show mercy, but not so that we can't run away from the encounter, but because zie is the one who needs hiding. Zie is hiding hirself behind a helmet so as to be able to face us while battling, and in doing so also making it easier for us to face hir. Wait, what? Well, Asgore is a torn fellow and isn't sure that zie can go through with killing us, so that's not actually why zie makes it so that we can't flee or spare hir. It's for making it impossible for us to back out as we've before during the game (in this rather good, time-traveling playthrough – it's complicated). In realizing this, my heart sinks. It's been yanked around so many times by now, I start to question whether Asgore even killed any of those humans whose souls zie has and needs to break the barrier between the human and monster/under-world. I mean Asgore didn't ask us to finish our business with the residents of Underworld before our final confrontation just because the RPG conventions dictate so, but because zie actually wanted us to be as strong as possible before we engage with hir. It even goes beyond death – every time we die, a voice reaches out and asks us to stay determined, and that voice is Asgore's! Even if it was during our battle with Asgore that we died does zie tell us to stay determined...

And just as we're on the verge of defeating hir, zie begs us to take hir soul and get out of the underworld. We regain our mercy button and choose mercy. We have a heart-to-heart where Asgore tells us that zie and hir wife will take care of us from here on out – and then zie is killed, by FLOWEY/CHARA. But the tale is not yet over and there just might be twists also to the fright that is the true antagonist of the game...


In Undertale, beneath the shallow darkness of "oh look it's a scary monster" is the darkness of a banished kingdom without hope, scientists with questionable experiments and residents with tragic fates. But from these nightmares there is light. Switch – that light is used for dark means by those without the capacity for light. Switch – maybe they do have a capacity for light? Switch – of course they don't, what did you think? Switch – but there are people all around you who make up for that potential lack. Switch – but those people are kidnapped because of their ability to make up for lack! Switch – their love is greater than any cage! And so on. And it's not just subversion for subversions sake either.

Undertale thrives on both darkness and cuteness. Behind the cute there is darkness, and behind the darkness there is cuteness. But no matter how many reversals, it's humane all the way down, and deep deep down there is both light and dark. At the bottom is the frightening tale of humanity in monstrosity and monstrosity in humaniy, and that we just might be capable of both less and more than we think. About the lengths we might go to not to get hurt, or the ways in which we might make ourselves or others less human to hurt them. And in Asgore's case, how we even might make ourselves less human so that others can hurt us and stop our pain. Asgore forces us to fight hir and thus to take on the role of the King of the underworld and make real the promise of war, but zie also forces us to become Masters and confront our preconceptions about when mercy is possible. The interface is our being-in-the-world, and we don't have to take it at face value as it's part of our ideology and thus can become a blind spot through which our self-reflexivity is limited1. If our determination is strong enough, we can believe in a better world even when one doesn't seem rationality possible, when it seems childish and otherworldy and alien. The interface is what others allow us to believe, or what we think the Big Other allows us to believe. But we can allow ourselves not to believe what others say about us, or what others say about the Others, be they monsters, kings, or humans. We all have the same capacity to dream and imagine otherness. (Except for Flowey, perhaps. Nevermind Flowey, zie screws up my moment here!)

When we hold
the tension of not knowing whether we just might make it through all of the game without killing anyone or if Flowey was indeed right all along (that sometimes we simply just have to draw blood) in a state of superposition, we can hold on and believe in mercy until the very end of the ride. We've gone against our predispositions as videogamers before during our journey, fled from boss battles that we deemed impossible to resolve peacefully, encountered monsters that misunderstood our intentions due to their own preconceptions, and even weathered encounters where mercy didn't work before we put in the proper amount of necessary commitment. And although facing Asgore is the first time that our interface is changed around to make mercy impossible, this encounter is a repeat of much of what has happened earlier and the first encounter especially (in more than one ways), only more complex. It's a true test to see whether we've grown up or not. And even in this encounter the solution is what it has always been – compassion. Through harnessing our ability to withstand the lashing out of people in hurt or people afraid of us, we learn to approach them in a way that makes friendship and spaghetti possible.

Maturity is not just about darkness and being able to cope with things that would scare a child, but also how one might approach dark topics in a mature matter (while remaining cute! ^^). Undertale is childish in the sense that it's simple, and even if there is a lot of tragedy there, the solutions do seem easy and one-sided. Undertale is otherwordly in that the characters are much more than what they seem at first, but also in that they are far too understanding and forgiving than people of our human world, which is perhaps why it makes sense that they live in a world separate from the humans. It is quite fitting then that the true antagonist in the world of Undertale is someone from our world, and it's not the person who we thought we named at the beginning of our game (our protagonist, who actually has a name – Frisk), but someone who was already down in the underworld before us, tried to instigate a war, died, and now must be exorcised2. Finding the one who we understand ourselves to be according to RPG standards (the one we name at the beginning of the game) in Undertale is dangerous, and I'm not even sure that this radical evil is ever quite expunged3. It certainly lives on in our world when we shut off the game.

In many ways, the underworld is foreign to us, but it is consistent and through its own logic we do get to find our place of determination and mercy in it. I believe there is something to be gained from that childish dream as well. Furthering our imagination and learning to take the perspective of a world on its own terms doesn't hinder our ability to regain the realistic and grown-up holding of our world and its infected, long-lasting Israeli–Palestinian conflicts. I mean can you imagine Undertale against the backdrop of such a setting? The peace resulting from that encounter would lead to all of the world being inspired and determined to make peace with one-another! And that's not realistic, now is it? Undertale is quite naive in many ways if we try to understand it as a simulation of our world. Almost all of Undertale is the angry dragon with a toothache, or the furious wolf with a spike in the paw – both of which are really nice fellers when you realize where their antagonism comes from and remove the thing which hurts them. Both are staples in children's literature.

In the end, I think even grownups need their dose of cute dragons and wolves. We might need to see how easily Undyne forgives Alphys after having been lied to for such a long time. We are better off with seeing Undyne not only accepting Alphys' nerdy interest, but even encouraging them. Because these courtesies are not always extended to us in our human but not necessarily humane world. We just might need a world where mercy works as a clockwork and thus paradoxically becomes a childish power fantasty of sorts. And in my grownup world where magic must be searched for in all-new places, and treasured for its rarity, Undertale really hits the spot and has riches in abundance. In trying to reverse engineer the formula of Undertale, it would seem that one way to reach the sweet spot where magic can grow is through the mixture of an overload of cuteness that oscillates with an overload of heart-shattering misery. This sweet-and-sour spot is a tale of monsters and humans and of a lost child stumbling upon a frightening grownup world where even the adults have their inner children intact. I can relate to that. And all those utopian solutions of staying committed to non-violence and optimistic representations of forgiveness in relationships ? Hell I can live with those if they come in such a fluffy, dreamy package. I can even live for them.

An important example of how the interface in Undertale suggests ideology is how "fight" is the command which our actions are defaulted to every turn, thus making it much easier to commit atrocities if mindlessley playing the game. RPG conventions state that LV is short for Level, and EXP is short for Experience, but in Undertale it turns out it's Execution Points and Level of Violence. The numbers next to these don't seem as glamorous now, do they? In proper Undertale fashion, one might guess that HP doesn't stand for Hit Points but something else – hope, perhaps?
3There is definitely at least one occasion in which this radical evil cannot be exorcised. After a no-mercy run, even when resetting the game there is residue in the form of a ghost that makes it out of the underworld and into the human world. And though this evil has the form of a human (a child actually) one could argue that it takes a village and that it was the work of men in the overworld that created this evil child. But yeah the game suggests otherwise – radical evil exists in the form of a child, and not as some form of terrible innocence either, but as calculated sadism.

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