Friday, February 12, 2016

Undertale and Completionism

I’m sure plenty of people are sick of Undertale, and even sicker of people saying that they can’t talk about Undertale. For what it’s worth, everyone is entitled to their opinion and the game won’t appeal to everyone. It does a lot of clever things that are better experienced yourself, so it reaches this weird middle area where many love it but can’t express why. It’s entirely possible that even without hype or spoilers you could play the game, not care, and wonder why everyone wouldn’t shut up about it. That being said, I’ve finally decided to say something related to this game I enjoyed so much, and am giving the proper warning:





...okay, are they gone?


I don’t believe you.


...okay, now I believe you.

Undertale does a lot of things right. It tries a lot of new things with how games and their fourth wall can function. This can lead to some interesting topics of conversation about games, but that’s often drowned out by the understandable love of the characters and humor, or by simplified morality rulings. The genocide route seems to judge you pretty harshly for killing characters at first, but this is misleading. I don’t think Toby Fox is sitting in front of his copy of Game Maker, riding a skyscraper-sized horse and barking down derisive judgements on the pitiful peasants of the gaming public. I don’t think the game is calling people who choose to murder (in-game) evil. I don’t think it’s even judging your choice to do so as wrong. All I think Undertale is doing is getting you to think.

Undertale wants you to think about completionism.

Video games are unlike any other medium before them, and this is one of the reasons why. Whether you’re reading books, watching movies or shows, enjoying art or listening to music, you typically have the complete work. There are some edge cases like side stories, prequels and the like. But even then, there isn’t optional content within the work itself, except perhaps in choose-your-own-adventure books. Video games, meanwhile, can have a ridiculous degree of optional content. The medium is slowly starting to take advantage of this unique position, and Undertale is at the forefront.

It’s also at the forefront of Number of Dogs to Pet in Battle, but that’s neither here nor there.

Undertale simply could not work as anything other than a video game. It could still be something good, certainly. But it wouldn’t be the same. Undertale is packed with optional content to a seemingly insane degree. Not optional content as we typically see it, like side quests or bonus missions. Rather, Undertale makes small adjustments. Little bits of dialogue will change depending on doing things in a different order, or reacting to a dialogue choice, or whether you killed someone, or when you come back and talk to the same person later, or if you’re in the same room when you call them, or if you said a varying combination of things to them earlier, or if you took a certain action in combat, and on and on and on and on.

This is absolutely to the games benefit. The writing of Undertale is strong on its own, but part of the reason people find these characters and this world so wonderful is because it’s reactive. Characters like Sans or Undyne start as fairly broad, simple personalities. Like all stories, they grow more complex and feel more like real people the more you get to know them. But unlike writing in any other medium, you’re not just following them along a single axis of story. When you take a different path through the narrative, you see a different side of the characters. Undyne’s speech before you fight her has about a dozen variants, not just for pacifist/neutral/genocide runs but also changes of varying sizes depending on the lives of other monsters.

There’s a huge change for Papyrus, and smaller ones for Shyren, Snowdrake, and all five dog guards both individually and as a group.

I could go on about cool side content longer than anyone would care to read. The point is that in addition to the many obvious choices the game acknowledges, Undertale is also a master of easter eggs and edge cases, both documented (WARNING: TV Tropes link) and otherwise. This does a great deal to make the world and characters of Undertale feel real. In most games, even story-based ones, it’s fairly easy to be reminded that’s what they are: games. The actions you can take are very limited, because it gets exponentially more difficult to cover every possible motivation the bigger a story becomes. Undertale isn’t a complete exception. In terms of gameplay it’s extremely limited. The path is very linear, there aren’t big optional areas to explore, and the game is fairly short. However, it does the best it can to fill those edge cases, to give you extra dialogue wherever it can, and to push those little incidental moments that make a place feel real at every turn. It’s short, but deep.

When you’re forced to work with people or do something you don’t want you feel a disconnect, even more if you aren’t allowed to voice strong objections. Video game stories are filled with moments like this, and Undertale mostly sidesteps it by being intentionally simple.

We know this is a good thing. Extra content is fun to explore, duh. But when you reach the end of the genocide run, suddenly Undertale is saying something different. It says something that’s rarely brought up, let alone explicitly in-game. Undertale suggests that more content can be bad. Unpleasant. Detrimental to your overall experience. In recent years, games media as a whole has been more receptive to this idea. The wealth of cheap or variably priced games on digital markets, along with so many short but sweet indie titles, has brought some to a realization. Sometimes, in our effort to get more bang for our buck, we drag down the quality of games with less enjoyable filler. What Undertale suggests now is a step further than that. Extra content in a game can make it worse even if it’s entirely optional.

Flowey: As time repeated, people proved themselves predictable.
Flowey: What would this person say if I gave them this?
Flowey: What would they do if I said this to them?
Flowey: Once you know the answer, that's it.
Flowey: That's all they are.

The same source that can deepen your connection with a game and its world can also weaken it. When you’re overexposed to a video game, especially if the content is lackluster or repetitive, you become jaded towards it. Instead of seeing it as a living world of well-rounded characters, you see it as a product. It becomes something manufactured, something less engaging. Familiarity can breed contempt, but it’s capable of something arguably worse: indifference.

Flowey: I've done everything this world has to offer.
Flowey: I've read every book. I've burned every book.
Flowey: I've won every game. I've lost every game.
Flowey: I've appeased everyone. I've killed everyone.
Flowey: Sets of numbers... Lines of dialogue... I've seen them all.

The end result of that indifference is treating what used to be an emotional story that touched you personally as a toy. A device to squeeze amusement out of, and then abandon.

Chara: There is nothing left for us here.
Chara: Let us erase this pointless world, and move on to the next.

Now we run into the exhausting domain of determining authorial intent. Did Toby Fox intend this message to be about completionism? Was he opening up a discussion, or was he simply using it as a vehicle to judge and shock people for their actions? As with many conversations on authorial intent, I don’t think it matters much. The conversation has been started whether it was intended to or not. All the same, I feel Undertale wanted you to think about your actions more than regret them. Sure, the game seems to judge you at times...

Flowey: “I don't like this,” I told myself.
Flowey: “I'm just doing this because I HAVE to know what happens.”
Flowey: Ha ha ha... What an excuse!
Flowey: You of all people must know how liberating it is to act this way.

But those lines aren’t from the author, they’re from a character. And that character is fairly biased on the matter to begin with. There’s another character who speaks on the topic, one who’s generally seen as a better role model:

sans: no matter what, you'll just keep going.
sans: not out of any desire for good or evil...
sans: but just because you think you can.
sans: and because you “can”...
sans: “have to.”

In spite of everything, Sans doesn’t think you’re an evil force. I don’t think Toby did either. Even if he did, I don’t. The detachment that comes with blind completionism can sour your experience, but that same completionism comes from a place of love. We’ve all played video games and experienced optional content that was quite pleasant. Undertale is packed with such moments, and it’s not unreasonable to want more.

This leads to an interesting question. Say there’s optional content in the game, and when a player goes through it, they ultimately find themselves less fulfilled than when it began. Perhaps it screwed with some established canon, perhaps it’s ruining the pacing of the story, or perhaps it’s simply the latest in a long avalanche of similar content that’s wearing down the player’s enjoyment of the game. Whatever the reason is, the experience of the consumer is lessened after completing this optional content. So here’s the question:

Whose fault is that?

Probably Jerry’s, but let’s pretend it isn’t for the purpose of this discussion.

Before we find the answer, let’s look at a couple of different examples of optional content. First we have Final Fantasy 6. The later sections of FF6 are entirely optional. However, they’re tied to both huge mechanical incentives (gathering party members) and narrative ones. A ton of time and effort clearly went into these optional objectives, including completely new areas of the world. Without them, the player could miss out on the conclusion of many main characters stories and character arcs. This is the type of optional content that makes gamers so eager to consume it. It’s actually so important the game feels off without it.

Now let’s look at the game Xenoblade Chronicles, which I’ve yet to finish due to it being so bloody long. This game has large open world segments where you can take on all sorts of optional side quests. However, a lot of these side quests are very MMO-esque. They’re repetitive tasks like killing certain numbers of monsters, and typically have little story behind them. These put a strain on the relationship between story and gameplay. You want to complete quests to get stronger, because even if it’s not necessary being strong can be fun. On the other hand, there’s so much of this content that it completely kills the momentum of the main story. It’s a good thing said story is relatively straightforward, because having half a dozen hours between every major plot point is not to its benefit.

We have to hurry! Our friend’s life is in immediate danger! But someone also asked us to kill some of these animals, so we’ll do that on the way. And we should also stop to gather those flowers the other villager wanted. Ooh, a rare monster, let’s see if it has any neat stuff!

I particularly dislike the automated dialogue in this game. When taking on quests, characters often chime in with responses based on their affection statistic. Not only are these lines very bland, but they spout the same sentences over and over quest after quest. Something to the effect of “I think we should do this quest!” “If [person] thinks we should do it, than so do I!” This is another case where a story is actually made worse by more dialogue. It’s very game-y and unlike real speech, and it’s all you’ll hear out of the characters for hours at a time. Writing like this should be improved and varied a ton or thrown out entirely.

For a final example, we have Bravely Default. This is a game I’m quite enjoying, and will no doubt give its own post in time. However, the late game is absolutely plagued with filler. The main story is building up to a climax and then takes the wind from its sails with a forlorn fart, puttering about on redundant nonsense until it’s actually ready to end. To be fair to the game, a large portion of this filler is optional. On the other hand, the optional filler offers some interesting new bits of narrative, but only about a tenth of the time. This is the worst of both worlds, at least for players like me. I feel obligated to play all the optional content in case there’s something worthwhile inside, but most of it fails to deliver.

Trying to ignore these exclamation marks must be what recovering drug addicts feel like.

Bringing it back to the original question, is it my fault for seeking that content out in the first place? Ultimately, I think the blame is split. Both players and game designers should be more aware of filler in games. If you’re playing something that you don’t enjoy, you should resist the urges that games of old have impressed upon you. If you seek out all content, even if you dislike it, you’re gonna have a bad time. The result is rarely worth it. But how much fault lies in the designer depends on many factors. Roughly summarized, I think they are as follows:

Effort to Complete: An obvious one. The longer and harder you have to struggle to complete optional content, the higher quality it needs to be.

Gameplay Quality: If playing Dragon Suplex XII is more fun than a bouncy castle filled with candy and illegal narcotics, you may play to your hearts content in spite of the fact that the story lies abandoned in the gutter.

Story Quality: Likewise, we have the opposite. It may be that Impenetrably Dense Warfare Simulator 3 evokes all the tedium of optimizing spreadsheets with none of the strategy. But if there’s an engrossing, complex narrative weaved into its thousand optional conflicts, it could be worth it to chew through regardless.

Relevance to Story: How self-contained is this optional content? If it reveals new information about characters, the setting, or the overall plot then its existence becomes more justified. Less so if some nameless, faceless NPC wants you to gather flowers because they’re pretty.

Importance of Story: This is a big one. Some games simply don’t care about story. I’ve enjoyed a ton of repetitive side missions in games like Just Cause 2 because the base gameplay is so fun. But on top of that, it isn’t interfering with any story, because it clearly doesn’t matter. Meanwhile RPGs like my earlier examples suffer greatly from gameplay/story segregation. The more important the central story is to a game, the more drastic the consequences if it’s overshadowed by optional content.

Linearity of Story: How much influence does the player have on the story? Open-world games have become increasingly popular in recent years, but we still haven’t gotten a good grasp on how to balance them with in-game stories. Most games settle for merely plopping a linear story in the middle of a ton of optional content, which doesn’t work particularly well. Games with high Importance of Story as well as high Linearity of Story are ill-suited to optional content. Optional content, importance and linearity are going to be in a constant tug-of-war with each other, and if the designer fails to balance them properly the game will be worse off for it.


Obviously this isn’t an exact science, but somewhere in those principles can be found a sort of formula for optional content in games. Funnily enough, Undertale does fairly well in the above criteria. The genocide run in the game takes extra effort, is dull in the gameplay department but for two fights, and has a story less dense with options and easter eggs. However, it’s still interesting and engaging to experience, even if you’re watching rather than playing. It may not always be fun, but in spite of its oft-quoted catchphrase, it’s definitely not bad, especially when it can provoke so much thought and discussion.

I guess “You’re gonna have a boring time punctuated by brief moments of meaningful regret and a general unpleasant air to the proceedings apart from two points of excitement followed by frustration and also there will be some introspective thoughtful bits near the end” wasn’t as catchy.

The less these principles are satisfied, the more a designer has failed at his job. As we learn more about how games and stories interact, we should expect designers to do the same. We shouldn’t give developers a free pass on content outside what’s required, as it can not only fail to entertain itself but cheapen the experience as a whole. That being said, not all blame can be put at the feet of the creators. If they make quality content and we simply don’t want to experience it, we as consumers should learn to resist the compulsion that it’s something we have to do. We don’t.

At the end of the day, you play video games for only one person: yourself. Remember that.


...well, unless you count multiplayer.


Or if like, you’re doing a charity event or something.


There are probably some other circumstances I’m not thinking of...


Okay I’m just gonna stop.

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