5 November 2015

SAVEs, Resets, and LOVE

A short essay on deconstruction and entitlement in Toby Fox's Undertale

Warning: This discussion piece is intended for players who have completed Undertale, and will therefore contain major spoilers. For those who have not finished the game but are nonetheless curious hyperlinks to relevant information are embedded throughout the article.

Undertale has been tugging heartstrings and making waves this past month for many reasons, its unique battle system, engaging story, and impressively small development team being only some of them, but post-completion discussion has focused primarily on just one: its theme of pacifism versus violence, of exposing how we over time have developed a lackadaisical attitude towards brutality in role-playing games. As a result the game's subtler subversions have been mostly ignored despite their plentiful number; they range from those taking centre stage, as the SAVE function does, to those that make only a moment's appearance, like a rock in a switch puzzle moving and speaking of its own accord. Such overthrows of seemingly minor gaming conventions have nothing to do with Undertale's main overarching theme and therefore didn't necessarily need to be included, but Fox put them in anyway. As to why, much like the silent postmodern artist who leaves his arbitrary shapes entirely up to the observer's interpretation, he refuses to comment beyond that he simply 'desire[s] to subvert concepts that go unquestioned in many games.'

Some may see these subversions as a subtextual commentary on the current state of the gaming industry, others as mere eccentricity particular to the developer; I see it as both a criticism of the hastiness and emotional distance with which we consume interactive media today, and pure deconstructionist argument. In a fantasy world where monsters and magic exist why shouldn't a rock possess personality and autonomy? Nowhere in the game is it explicitly stated that the rock is just a rock as we know it - who or what is to say that this 'rock' isn't actually another variant of monster? After its primary message of questioning the act of violence itself the secondary message of Undertale is, I believe, about addressing the thoughtlessness and entitlement that consequently lead to violence, and it does this through the use of deconstruction.

Deconstruction(ism) is a theory of literary criticism that struggles to be definitively characterised but explained in its simplest form is a method of questioning that which the reader naturally assumes of a text. In Undertale deconstruction is implemented by way of surprising the player with unforeseen consequences for their actions. Such choices and repercussions fall on a scale of momentary to lasting, from ignoring the 'take one' sign next to a bowl of free monster candy to erasing your SAVE file and starting the game anew after slaughtering all the characters in it. When you choose to keep taking candy just to see what happens the bowl eventually breaks, and when you sell your character's soul for a chance to reset you are forever barred from achieving the normal pacifist ending: I would argue that such scenarios are deconstructionist criticisms of players who think of Undertale as 'just another game' and feel entitled to satisfy their curiosity without challenge or obstruction, for these are likely the same players who would explore such options in the first place.

Undertale isn't the first to tackle this subject; we've seen the theme of player entitlement crop up in games before, notably in Davey Wren's 2011 mod-turned-standalone-title The Stanley Parable. But whereas The Stanley Parable addresses the issue by making the player feel as though they are deprived of choice Undertale does it by emphasising the player's opportunity to choose. I disagree with Joel Couture when he says that the game 'doesn't judge' homicidal behaviour. Yes, on a first playthrough you may not realise that it is your actions that have directly brought about Snowdin Town's eerie music and lack of inhabitants, but the nature of Sans' various thinly veiled warnings about your personality and decisions prior to your arrival is difficult to misinterpret, not to mention that of Toriel's and Flowey's ominous speeches long before. However this is easily more impactful than not knowing that you are being judged: from early on the player understands their wrongdoing and therefore has ample time and a conscious choice whether to abandon or continue their genocide of the monsters.

While 'entitlement' may seem too strong or too inaccurate a word, I fully believe that only it captures the essence of this idea. By 'entitlement' I mean a certain, quiet culture fostered by a specific kind of readily accessible and fast consumption that only we in the modern, developed world possess. Year by year all different kinds of games are released and we consumers, like fire in a corn field, burn through them so many of them, but how many do we really take the time to connect with? How many manage to emotionally challenge, captivate, and leave a long-lasting impression on their audience as Undertale has? How many were created with the vision of doing so?

Of course this is all merely speculation, but if I am right about this secondary message in Undertale then I would also hazard a guess that it serves this two-fold purpose: firstly, to make us gamers think more broadly about what games can offer us, to ask us to consider whether or not we have become emotionally desensitised towards a number of tropes that we commonly observe in RPGs; and secondly, to encourage developers to make games that surprise us, enthral us, have us thinking hard about our choices, and make us fall in LOVE with the works they create.