Thursday, July 14, 2016

MeGaLoMania: Undertale on Humans and Monsters

(This essay spoils most of Undertale. If you haven't played the game yet I highly recommend doing so.)

There's a piece on the Undertale soundtrack called Song that might play when you fight Sans. It's a cute little track. It borrows from Sans's goofy signature tune and from Papyrus's theme "Bonetrousle." It's placed near the end of the Bandcamp OST, a little before "ASGORE" and right after "Undertale." This is when you meet Sans in the actual game, when he reveals the truth behind EXP and LOVE.

"Song that might play when you fight Sans" never plays in the game. You don't fight Sans in the judgement hall -- not usually.

The only time the player fights Sans is in the climax of Undertale's “evil” route. This path is for players who go out of their way to exterminate every single monster in the underground. It makes up a pretty significant chunk of content. The game implores you not to play it.

Few players stumble upon Undertale’s evil route on a first playthrough. Most will only try it after playing the rest of the game, likely all the way through to the true ending. On these other paths, Undertale puts a lot of work into making you empathize with its characters. By the end of the story, most players will treasure them. In the evil route, slaughtering these characters is the only path forward.

There are reasons to do so. It shows us a side of the characters that we don’t see on other paths. We see Undyne at her most heroic, and Sans at his most desperate. We watch Flowey beg for his life. We know that Papyrus’s heart is full of love for even the most repulsive creatures, and that Asgore stays a coward even under dire circumstances.

We get to meet Chara, the fallen human. We realize they’ve accompanied us silently on all our past journeys. We see how terrifying they are face-to-face.

The characters are the heart of Undertale. Getting to know them a little better is a compelling reason to play through the evil route. The path also entails leveling up, finding powerful weapons that aren’t present elsewhere, and fighting devious and challenging super-bosses -- all typical post-game fare in other RPGs.

However, as valid as these reasons are, they exist outside the story of Undertale. Frisk doesn’t actually have a reason to murder every monster he comes across, at least not one that we’re privy too. These acts of violence are wholly senseless, even after we learn the truth during the ending.

In the conclusion, it’s revealed that Frisk’s actions at the start of the game awakened the spirit of Chara, who guides Frisk during their journey. Frisk’s increasingly malevolent actions are the result of Chara gaining more control over them. In the end, Chara resurrects completely. Then, whether you want them to or not, they destroy the world.

This sounds a lot like a “would you kindly” twist, but it’s not really. BioShock encourages the player to identify with Jack and the feeling of being manipulated by a malicious outside force. In Undertale, the player is the outside force, and the game takes great pains to establish the separation between its protagonist and the player.

After all, it doesn’t say “Frisk” on the battle screen, because you are not Frisk. You are just a tiny invisible spirit living in Frisk’s mind, guiding them towards making certain choices. You whisper in Frisk’s ear whether they should fight Toriel, or buy thirty hot-dogs from Sans, or tell Undyne that anime is real.

Your control is limited, because Frisk has their own personality and will that develop throughout the game. You can choose whether Frisk hugs Asriel, but you can’t force them to pull a knife and stab him. Even though that’s precisely what they do in the evil route! The Frisk that made friends with all the underground monsters and saved Asriel’s soul is incapable of that betrayal.

It’s not accurate to say that the player is Chara, or that Chara is the character the player is most encouraged to identify with. It’s more that Chara is a reflection of the player’s impact on Undertale’s world as channeled through their limited (but significant) control of Frisk’s actions.

The player/Chara accompanies Frisk on every path the game has to offer. It’s why their name shows up on the battle screen. On the neutral and pacifist routes, the player/Chara’s influence feels silent. Frisk’s actions, even the violent ones, make sense for a little lost kid that got stuck underground. On the evil route, Frisk’s homicidal actions feel purposeless, because they’re rooted in the player/Chara’s desire to tear the world apart just because they can. Hence, Chara’s presence in the story is brought to the forefront.

The horror of the “would you kindly?” twist in BioShock is that the player thinks they are capable of fully exerting their will upon the story, then the game reveals otherwise. This is true of all games, really -- your influence on any story is always limited. It’s constrained either by absolutes (Samus refuses to kill the baby metroid, Crono always goes through the gate after Marle) or by the choices presented (Frisk may or may not hug Asriel, but they still would never stab him). BioShock’s twist builds on the player’s fear that things might not be all about them.

The horror of Undertale’s twist is that the player gets exactly what they want. They get to level up, fight the super-bosses, see all the content, and 100% the game.

That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Ultimately, it’s just a videogame, a collection of 1’s and 0’s. Toriel isn’t real. Killing her is not an immoral act. Neither is killing any other monster in Undertale, or in any videogame. We figured all this out a long time ago, when we realized DOOM wasn’t causing school shootings.

So what evil is the game trying to highlight? Why does it judge the player so harshly? Why is the dialogue so damn cruel? It’d be pretty awful if none of that hand-wringing and drama about killing monsters actually meant anything.

Because that’s what Undertale is about: the relationship between humans and monsters.

So here’s an important question: what are monsters?

Let’s concoct a somewhat arbitrary definition to make a rhetorical point. A monster is a being that exists in total ideological opposition to a protagonist, so much so that their extermination is a wholly justified act. They lead one-dimensional existences, defined by their hostility towards the player’s avatar. This kind of monster is ubiquitous in videogames: the goomba, the slime, the cacodemon, etc.

“Ideological” is the important word there, because the choice to include a monster in a work of fiction always has political underpinnings. The story of defending against an endless horde of Space Invaders is different from the story of infiltrating the Bydo’s mother base and destroying the core. And while Missile Command involves defensive play much like Space Invaders, the choice to exchange alien monsters for human warheads changes the work’s meaning entirely.

Monsters are a narrative device. They don’t actually exist. An angry mother bear isn’t a monster, it’s just worried about its children. A rabid dog isn’t a monster, it’s just sick. Evil human beings aren’t monsters either; there are always reasons behind human evil, even if they're petty or horrible.

But monsters allow for simple conflicts, which means they’re well-suited to videogames as a medium. When you’re using code to draw information on a screen, it’s easy to make an on-screen sprite vanish. Hence, the most basic interaction you can code between any two objects in a game is for one to erase the other. Mario landing on a Goomba. The lone bullet colliding with a Space Invader. The ease of programming these interactions has shaped the medium’s vocabulary.

This part of the vocabulary is most effective when it’s used to express subversive themes. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a story about struggling under systemic capitalist oppression, and dramatizes that struggle through taxing conflicts with monsters. The Space Pirates in Metroid Prime are missile fodder at first glance, but on reflection they exemplify the thoughtless environmental destruction humans are often guilty of.

Monsters are most harmful as a stand-in for those that stray from the status quo. This is the worst fantasy of monsters: the fantasy of Us versus Them, We versus The Other.

It doesn’t feel too insidious in something like Dragon Quest, with its colorful Toriyama illustrations and lighthearted tone. But it’s there. These are games about idyllic worlds in distress because of foreign interlopers. Once you destroy the evil wizard or the wicked witch, things go back to being perfect. Dragon Quest is beautiful in many ways. But this is an ugly and conservative fantasy.

The ugliness is more obvious in something like Modern Warfare or The Division, where real-life marginalized people are monster-ized thoughtlessly. These stories express evil prejudices. Yet in many ways they represent the norm for storytelling in large-scale projects.

There’s obviously a spectrum to all this, but it’s uncanny how often we fall back on monsters as a narrative tool in videogames. You can see storytellers struggling with this throughout the history of the medium. You win Ultima IV by being a moral and just Avatar, and also killing monsters. You finish Mother by singing a lullaby to a frightened child, and also killing monsters. You beat Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter by triumphing over cruel capitalist overlords, and also killing monsters. No matter how clever and subversive their themes might be, it’s a bit frightening how many games rely on casts of one-dimensional uncharacterized foes for the player to tear through.

What does Undertale have to say about all this? It’s pretty overt about it actually. Its thesis on the subject is its final boss fight (of sorts) with Sans.

After a whole route of effortlessly killing almost every monster, Sans is designed to be as difficult and discouraging as possible. Most of the route up to that point entails tedious grinding to raise your LOVE. Sans represents a different kind of tedium: the tedium of bashing your head against the same boss fight and unskippable cutscenes for hours until you finally win.

The fight’s dialogue is more didactic than anywhere else in the game. It cuts like a knife, if you’re invested in the story’s characters. Sans knows he’s fighting you at a disadvantage: you can save and reload, while he cannot. All he can hope is that you get bored and quit.

The song that plays when you fight Sans is called Megalovania. "Megalovania" doesn't reuse any motifs from the rest of the soundtrack -- because Fox didn't originally compose it to appear in Undertale. He wrote it in 2009, for his Halloween-themed Earthbound ROM hack.

In Fox’s Halloween Hack, the player’s avatar "Varik" chases Dr. Andonuts, a side character from the original Earthbound, into a dream world. In its climax, the player reaches Andonuts, transformed into a horrible monster. The player unloads their most powerful attacks on the monster. He doesn’t fight back. Then, on the brink of death, he changes into a recognizably human (and pissed off) Dr. Andonuts. He swears a lot. Megalovania plays. Varik kills him. The resolution is distinctly unsatisfying -- there’s a sense that the game resents the player for finishing it.

MeGaLoVania also plays in an animation in the multimedia webcomic Homestuck. Starting at 1:51, fan-favorite villain-protagonist Vriska realizes her powers as the Thief of Light, and uses them to murder her disabled friend Tavros. She later tries to explain this act, but all her rationalizing really amounts to is “I killed him because I could.” It’s a bullshit excuse, but that didn’t stop legions of readers from leaping to her defense and tearing down Tavros.

So we have three stories: the stories of Chara (the player), Varik (the player), and Vriska (the fan-favorite). All three are about people wielding great power thoughtlessly, people who kill not because of what they may gain, but because it’s gratifying.

Toby Fox cares a lot about the ugliness of wielding great power thoughtlessly. Because we all have power over someone. Power over our friends, our siblings, our partners, our children, ourselves. Think of how much a sincere cutting remark from someone you love and respect would hurt you. Or how much it’d pain you if they left your life unexpectedly.

Sometimes we have to hurt people -- breaking up the toxic relationship, or telling someone that their behavior is pushing people away. But the point is that we have that power, and we have to handle it delicately. We can’t be like Chara, Varik, or Vriska. We can’t wield our power without care or restraint. That’s how we destroy our lives and the lives of people we care about.

Finishing the evil route of Undertale has irreparable consequences. It’s nothing all that dramatic really. All it does is add a ten second cutscene after the True Ending, in every subsequent playthrough. The rest of the game is unchanged, and can be played through over and over. It still drives people nuts though, to the point that there are a ton of guides online for turning off the variable in RegEdit. People hate it when their actions aren’t above consequences.

In the end, we are like Chara, Varik, and Vriska. Because we like killing monsters. We like killing monsters, getting stronger, then killing monsters more efficiently. A violent display of power over virtual, conquerable enemies feels good. Mastering a system feels good. We enjoy holding a tiny electronic world in our hands and imposing our will upon it. This megalomaniacal facet of the id is real, it’s valid, and it isn’t going away. We’re never going to erase the ugliness because it’s a part of being human.

Undertale doesn’t want to erase anything. It just wants us to be aware of how we indulge our baser selves -- because that’s what we’re doing when we play games about killing monsters. And if we’re aware of it, we can steer some of those indulgent urges towards something more constructive.

We can make fewer games about LOVE, and more about love. We can make games about trauma, pain, and guilt. We can make games about friendship, empathy, and kindness. We can make games for every facet of the human experience.

Undertale is a game about humans and monsters. Monsters with hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions, friends, families, self-esteem issues, favorite cartoons, surprising talents, special attacks, and secret crushes. Monsters who aren’t actually different from humans at all, except that humans have more power. Its human protagonist can wield their power with grace and form lasting friendships. Or they can wield it like a sledgehammer and destroy lives.

We face these choices every day, because we all have power over people.

Let’s do our best to choose grace.