Category Archives: Editorials

Is Undertale Worth It?

So, even though I finished Undertale back in February, I had originally decided that I wouldn’t do an actual review.  I mean, what else could I say about this game that the internet hadn’t already?  But with Undertale preparing to release on Playstation 4, as well as physical copies for PC, it occurred to me that there may actually be people who haven’t played it yet.  I mean, it’s been out for two years, & I only just recently played it.  Maybe there are people who only have consoles, & are now left wondering if the game is worth all the hype.

I had a bit of a laugh at the Wikipedia page for Undertale claiming it was a cult video game.  This designation usually refers to games that receive universal praise by those who play it, but aren’t commercial successes.  Think titles like Psychonauts or Okami.  But I find it hard to believe Undertale was not a commercial success.  It has its own merchandise & is getting a physical release on a major console even two years later, for godsake!  The creator, Toby Fox, even commented if he never made another game again he’d be happy.  But, I don’t know.  The games press ate it up, but that doesn’t always translate into what gamers want.  And I could see some people overlooking it due to its presentation.  Not to mention there always tends to be backlash when something becomes unexpectedly popular.  Some people just can’t let others enjoy things (strangely, none of the “backlash” to Undertale says it’s not a good game).

Because of this, I decided to take it upon myself to pose the question that others might be asking after the hullabaloo surrounding the pre-order announcement: Is Undertale worth the hype?

To answer the question briefly: Yes.

Talking about Undertale in any capacity is difficult because discussing what truly makes it good might involve spoiling it, & Undertale makes the most impact when the player goes in blind.  It’s the same problem one encounters when discussing why The Cabin in the Woods is a good movie.  The things that make it so good are the very things you don’t want to ruin for others.

To that end, here is an abbreviated, spoiler-free review:

Undertale is as charming retro RPG that will both elate & devastate players who explore its many secrets.  It easily ranks among one of my favorite games, & serves as an example of why gaming is so good.  I place it among my games that everyone, gamer & non-gamer alike, should play.

Beyond this point, I will avoid story-related spoilers as much as possible.  But I will endeavor to explain my experiences with Undertale that made me love it so much.  Caveat lector.  Let the reader beware.

I first learn about Undertale before it even came out, having up-voted the trailer on Steam Greenlight.  I was intrigued by an RPG that blatantly tells you that you can get through the entire game without killing a single foe.  Saying that you can find a peaceful way through isn’t a spoiler, as it’s part of how the game was advertised.  Lots of games offer non-lethal alternatives, such as by letting you sneak around confrontations, smooth-talk your way out of fights, or put people to sleep.  Generally, these are the routes I prefer to take when offered a choice, because I find them more of a challenge.  Not that I have anything against the catharsis of violence in video games.  It probably doesn’t say good things about my person that I’d rather manipulate people to get what I want as opposed to just punching them.  Then again, I’ve long known I’m passive-aggressive.

Somehow, I managed to avoid spoiling the game for me for a whole two years.  Thankfully, most people are in agreement that revealing too much to the uninitiated would ruin the experience for new players.  All I knew going in was what the trailer showed & that everyone kept saying it was a great game.

I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, because it blatantly announces this fact, but for those who haven’t played yet, regardless of everything in between, I recommend playing a full Pacifist route before a full Genocide route for the best experience.  I imagine that most players’ pattern involved a Neutral run first, kinda doing what comes natural, sparing some enemies but killing others, before trying a full Pacifist then Genocide.

Undertale does a really good job of presenting this moral dichotomy within the structure of its gameplay.  It is very much a “mechanics as story” thing.  It starts all nice & sweet, & then suddenly, “Oh my God this thing is trying to kill me without provocation!”  But then you’re saved & guided through the first stage by this character you really come to like, & they straight out tell you how to do a Pacifist run.  In their motherly fashion, they encourage you to talk to the monsters that attack you, to befriend them & let them live.  They’re just confused.  They don’t know better.  The first area does a stellar job of teaching you everything you need to know about the mechanics of this world, including the moral choices.  During this hand-holding session, you don’t have to listen.  You can still beat monsters up.  But even when I later did a Genocide run, I didn’t let them see that.  I played along so they… wouldn’t be disappointed?  Considering I knew I’d kill them later, what was the point?  To catch them off guard?  To hide my wickedness?

Undertale does a good job of bringing out the best & worst in the player, as we’ll soon see.

Then comes the first boss fight.  And like any good boss fight, it tests what you’ve learned up to that point.  Not just about the fighting mechanics, but of your understanding of this world.  It tests your resolve, whichever way it might lean.  They make it clear they don’t really want to fight you, & are doing this in a misguided effort to protect you.  They haven’t really done anything wrong.  What will you do?  You’ll either need a cold heart to Fight through the opposition regardless of who they might be, or you’ll need to hold strong to your desire to Spare even when the enemy hurts you without justification.  Whatever you choose, the first area culminates beautifully (or horrifically), & sets you on your path.

Knowing it was an option in the beginning, I wanted to do a Pacifist run the first time, but I struggled at this first boss.  I knew not to fight back, but I didn’t know how to convince them to stand down.  Before that point, there were things you could say, Acts to perform, to make enemies lose the will to Fight, but not with the boss.  So I foolishly struck back, thinking I could wear them down until they’d relent.  Then I felt guilty.  Then I Reset.

Then the game remembered.

When characters started saying I seemed familiar to them, that they already knew my responses, I knew I was dealing with a game that was going to mess with me.  I haven’t tested it as fully as others might have, but I doubt there’s much you can do in the game that it won’t remember & call you out on.

From that point on, I endeavored to Spare every enemy, even though it becomes a far harder task as the game progresses.  I’ve heard some people levy that as a criticism against Undertale; that they feel the message is a bit, if not wishy-washy, simplistic & naive.  That not everyone in the world will be nice to you if you’re nice to them.  But… isn’t that the point?  Yeah, it many cases the player would be justified in fighting back.  I’m just trying to get through this level unmolested, yet monsters keep trying to murder me.  But in our own world, don’t acts of selfless kindness and compassion make us take notice?  The world can be a cruel, uncaring place.  But when people see someone being kind to them when they know they don’t deserve it, it gives them pause.  Our human nature is inherently selfish, so rising above that takes a great act of will.  That’s why it stands out to us so much when we see it.  The exact same is true in Undertale.  The monsters view humans as the enemy, as creatures without compassion, and behave according to their prejudice.  It is through the player’s Acts of Mercy that they come to realize their mistakes.

That is what Mercy is — giving someone something they don’t deserve.  Showing kindness when the person has done nothing to deserve it.  Withholding a punishment someone justly deserves.  The more I thought about it, the more I was impressed with the message (even if Toby Fox wasn’t intending it to go that far).  It’s not a message we hear often nowadays, where it seems like any action, no matter how deplorable, can be justified.  It’s one of the things humans are best at, finding an excuse to salve our consciences.  No one’s to blame for anything.  We’re all just victims of something: our genetics, our environment, our situation… Too few people stop to say, “No, you can do better than this.”  In fact, the game outright says that several times to the player if they take the easy way out.  You can do better, even if you don’t think so.

Through Mercy, through failing to respond in the way the monsters expect, the player helps bring out the best in everyone.  Everyone gets the chance to have what they’d always dreamed of…

And then I True Reset.  Despite the game blatantly asking, “Are you sure you want to do that?”  Dude, this is the best ending you can get.  Whatever you do past this point will only be worse.  And if you just want to get the same best ending, are you really willing to take away their happy ending, making them go through all that over again, just for the selfish joy of playing savior again?

But, I mean, it’s just a game.

Right?

When all is said & done, it only made matters worse that I took away everyone’s happy ending just to turn around & kill them all.

I’ve played a lot of games that revel in carnage.  Sometimes you’re the good guy, & sometimes not.  I won’t deny there’s a sort of glee that comes from being an a-hole in games, especially when they don’t want you to be.  I enjoy my Dooms & Saints Rows.  I’ve even taken the evil route in RPGs like Jade Empire & KOTOR.  But I don’t think I’ve ever had a game made me feel as bad as Undertale.

It started off innocently enough… well, as innocently as a Genocide run can be.  There’s a joy in taking out enemies in a single hit.  In becoming this god of destruction.  And I’ll freely admit I felt some satisfaction in taking the motherly first boss by surprise.  But then, I killed the second boss.  And oh my God, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a piece of crap in my entire life.  Maybe it’s because I got to know the characters through my Pacifist run (hence why I recommended playing it first), but I felt so bad after the second boss fight.  Rip out my soul, Toby Fox.

And I know that’s the point.  That’s sort of the point of no return.  It’s like, if you can kill this character,  who you don’t even have to Fight, then you are evil incarnate.  And the game past that point reflects it.  It doesn’t even play out the same if you’re just doing a Neutral run.  I like that there’s a distinction.  In a Neutral run, you might Spare some enemies, but you might kill others.  Maybe they’re too hard to Spare, or you’re in a hurry, or just tired of dealing with them.  And the game acknowledges that.  It will flat-out ask you, “Did you do all you could?”  But with the Genocide route, several characters flat-out tell you you’re going down a dangerous path.  I didn’t even realize this until I saw someone point it out, but in a Genocide run, you’re literally chasing monsters down to kill them.  It’s true.  To do a true Genocide run, you have to wander around the area before the next boss fight, killing everyone, the random encounters becoming fewer as you go, until you get a message that there’s no one left to fight.  You are literally cornering these monsters as they’re trying to evacuate.

I felt like crap after that second boss, & kept moving on thinking, “Please, someone kill me!  Give me a fight too strong that I can’t beat in a single hit!  Give me an excuse to stop playing!”  Thankfully, the game provided, & after wiping out the next area, the third boss annihilated me.  And rather than being angry, I was elated.  “Yes!  I don’t have to keep going!”  And I haven’t been able to pick up the game since, not even to reset.  I’m afraid of characters remembering.  And don’t think your conscience is safe by watching someone else play a Genocide run, because the game will call you on that, too.  I swear I was watching a Let’s Play, & a character commented something to the extent of, “Or maybe you’re too much of a coward & are watching someone else kill everyone, you sicko.”

And when all is said & done, that is what I appreciate most about Undertale.  It is a story that, at its core, could only be told through a video game.  Every mechanic has some justification for existing in the story.  It gets in your head.  Nearly every action we take for granted under the justification of “it’s just a game” is acknowledged.  I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that before.  It would be the equivalent of reading a book where a character in the story suddenly realizes that they aren’t actually in control of their actions, but that they’re being dictated by someone writing out the story for their own amusement.  Undertale knows it’s a game, & therefore knows its being played.  And it points its finger at the person behind the screen & says, “You, player, are the villain.”  There is no separation between player & proxy.  You are always in control, for good or ill.

– GamerDame

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A Meaner, More Calloused Digital World? Not According to Researchers

Anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time gaming has had to field criticism from outspoken people that gaming leads to real-world violence.  Like clockwork, any time someone commits a heinous act of violence, the media & politicians will inevitably find a game console in their house & start making leaps that Evel Knievel would be envious of.  In their misguided politicking & fear-mongering, they overlook several basic laws of statistics.  For example, roughly half the population of the United States (155 million according to 2015 statistic) play videogames in some capacity.  Four out of five households contain a gaming device of some description.  Yet these incidents, despite becoming disturbingly frequent, are rare in the broad scheme of things.  Certainly a lot rarer than would be statistically expected if there was a direct link between gaming and violence.  Think about it.  At that level, every other person you met would be a raving psychopath.

While I think most people would agree that young children shouldn’t be playing extremely violent games, the literature linking violent games with aggression has always been suspect.  In fact, in 2013 the Consortium of Scholars, a group of 230 researchers, wrote an open letter to the American Psychological Association asking them take a more rigorous, less bias look at the topic.

“Numerous scholars expressed concerns that the composition of the task force comprised individuals who had taken conflict-of-interest public positions on video games prior to being included on the task force, and that the resultant meta-analysis was methodologically unsound… Concerned that the APA’s task force nomination process was nontransparent and appeared to be ‘stacked’ with scholars who had taken anti-game positions publicly in the past, over 230 scholars wrote to the APA when the task force was originally convened requesting that they retire all of their policy statements on media violence.” – Ferguson & Colwell, 2016

Aside from methodological issues with the conclusions drawn in such research, which would be horribly boring to read about, one of the biggest issues in this line of research is the main assumption behind it.

“Media scholars have often postulated digital game effects consistent with ‘hypodermic needle’ approaches in that no consumers are ‘immune’ to the effects of violent digital games or that the effects should be similar to exposure to violence in one’s family or real life.  Advocates of this position suggest that aggression is due to cognitive scripts learned from watching others and that media violence does not differ from real-life violence in this respect. However, this assumption of equivalence between real-life and fictional violence is a significant assumption.” – Ferguson & Colwell, 2016

In plain language, past media scholars have designed their research under the assumption that we are passive consumers.  Just as a hypodermic needle injects its contents directly into our system without any control on our part, any media we consume bypasses conscious processing, morals & personality predispositions, & will have a direct impact on our behavior.  It’s essentially brainwashing, or perhaps subliminal messages (which, by the way, has been disproved as a real thing).

Most of us would not be surprised to find that modern research views humans as active consumers.  Yes, what we’re exposed to can influence us in a number of ways, but how much it affects us depends on a variety of factors, including our own personalities, how close the incident is to us, & how we process it.  Seeing my father beating my mother on a regular basis will have a greater impact on my behavior than seeing a random bar fight on my way home.

Furthermore, modern research has shown that, contrary to conventional opinion, children do actually have a strong sense of distinction between reality & fantasy, as well as reality & play.  It’s a common technique in research designed to study aggression in children to observe how a child plays with toys or other children after viewing violence.  You can look up the videos yourself by Googling any combination of Bandura & Bobo, but essentially what Bandura’s imitative learning experiments showed was that children who viewed adults playing with an inflatable Bobo the Clown doll violently would themselves play with the doll violently.  However, it’s a far stretch to suggest that the same child who punched an inflatable doll would turn around & punch another child, & an even greater stretch to say that repeated viewing would result in a child more prone to acting aggressively toward others.

Even among animals, there exists a strong concept of play.  If you watch puppies or kittens play fight, you’ll notice that despite how rough they might become, there’s always a limit & a keen sense of when that boundary is crossed.  All is takes is their playmate yelping, & the playing instantly stops.  So if animal children understand this, why would we not think that human children, an arguably more intelligent species, would have an even more developed sense of this?

In their article “A Meaner, More Callous Digital World for Youth?  The Relationship Between Violent Digital Games, Motivation, Bullying, and Civic Behavior Among Children,” Ferguson & Colwell achieved results that not only found no correlation between exposure to violent games & antisocial attitudes, they found no correlation between exposure to violent games & bullying, & no correlation between exposure to violent games & prosocial behavior.  In fact, they found no significant difference between the attitudes & behaviors of children who did play games versus those who didn’t.

Even more amazingly, their results actually showed a correlation between exposure to violent games & higher civic behavior.  Civic behavior is essentially being involved in their community in a positive way, like volunteering.  In other words, not only were children who played violent games not more aggressive (the only measure in their test that affected antisocial & bullying behavior was being older & being male), but they were more actively engaged.  The researchers suggest one reason for this results is that “gaming in general is a social activity & that may be particularly true for action-oriented games.”  Given that most “violent” games tend to be shooters, which have a strong multiplayer component, this reasoning makes sense.  While online gaming can certainly have a toxic element, it can also foster friendships, teamwork & camaraderie.

Another intriguing finding was that they found no relationship between the amount of parental involvement & the amount of exposure to violent games.  In other words, even parents who supervised or even played games with their children didn’t prevent their children from accessing violent games.  This might sound counter-intuitive for gamers like myself that grew up with our parents having no idea what videogames were about, but just consider that statement.  Gamers who grew up.  Many people who grew up gaming are now raising children of their own, & encouraging them to take up the hobby themselves.  I find this to be a heartening thought.  I never had anyone to play games with growing up.  I lived out in the country, none of my friends gamed, & my parents weren’t that into it either.  They never made me feel bad about my games, but they never shared in the experience either.  But now there are parents who want to engage with their children in this pastime.

They don’t go into in this research, but I have a strong suspicion that parents are a big mediating factor in how the content in games affects children.  When a parent takes a vested interest in their child’s hobbies or activities, it opens up a lot of room for discussion.  So even if they are playing games with questionable content, it offers parents the opportunity to talk with them about it.  Contrary to what most people seem to think, we aren’t born knowing how to problem solve, or think through things.  It’s a skill that has to be learned & trained over time.  Games can pose a lot of questions, even without meaning to.  And even if you’re not pondering the universe, it creates a channel between you.  Being engaged makes kids realize that you’re interested in them & what they have to say.  And that means they’re more likely to discuss things with you in the future.

Overall, I found this article very encouraging.  Gaming is here, & it’s growing bigger every year.  It’s good to know that, if we let it, it can be a positive influence as both a hobby & a way to bring people together.

Article cited: Ferguson, C.J., & Colwell, J. (2016, July 18). A Meaner, More Callous Digital World for Youth? The Relationships Between Violent Digital Games, Motivation, Bullying, and Civic Behavior Among Children. Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

–  GamerDame

 

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