Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016's Almost Over! - A Brief Reflection

It's been a while, hasn't it? Just now, I finally wrote a new article after a six month hiatus. The truth of the matter is that this blog hasn't been particularly active ever since I graduated in June. I'd like to give you a brief update on the why and how.

After the safety net of school disappeared, my time suddenly became a whole lot more valuable. That didn't stop me from wasting a lot of it on silly videos and drama, but it did make it a lot harder to invest genuine effort in non-paying work. And in time, a lot of the drafts I had lying around aged badly; I had a Phoenix Wright article planned, for instance, which will need serious revision after the release of the sixth game in the series, Spirit of Justice. A lot of other ideas, I've just lost interest in. Lastly, it's been pretty hard coming up with new ideas! Maybe a part of that is that I still haven't found a specific focus, but I don't want to limit myself to any specific perspective on art and the industry. If you have any particular suggestions of what you'd like me to write about, please go ahead and post a comment or send me a message. 

That isn't to say the situation is particularly grim, however. I do have work, and I have been able to do the occasional art stream on Twitch. I've noticed that the active pressure and immediate nature of livestreaming is a good motivator for me, which is why I've been able to do it even though it doesn't pay. Maybe it's an idea to write blogs while streaming, as well- it's unusual, but I'm sure I could find an audience for it. Something to consider for 2017!

Anyways, with the explanation and update out of the way, let's briefly reflect on this year.

About half of my posts mostly involved narrative; the most popular examples being the one on Undertale and the one on Life is Strange's ending. The other half discussed more general game design, like the one on Darkest Dungeon's mechanics and the one on big numbers in RPGs. I've barely really discussed visual design, even though I'm an artist by trade, so that's something I'd like to cover more in 2017.

In terms of views, my Darkest Dungeon article was the most popular article this year! I had expected Undertale to easily take number one, but the Undertale articles have taken 2nd and 3rd place from what I can see in the analytics. I'm really grateful so many people took the time to read my work and offer their own thoughts! In spite of my lack of consistency, people still regularly read my articles, and I can't tell you how happy that makes me.

As for the business side of things, my blog isn't exactly a source of income. It's not a huge issue because I do like to write, but investing time and effort into something gets a lot scarier when you're dependant on your time and effort to make a living. I'm wondering if I should set up a Patreon for my articles. I'm not sure, however, if my readership is consistent enough to make that work. So, I'd love to hear your thoughts! Would Patreon be a good idea? 


Right, that's enough rambling. In spite of my inactivity, it's been a rather good year for this blog. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read my articles, and do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. It's always appreciated!

The Objective Review

People often define the quality of reviews based on how objective they are. But to what degree does this - and should it - apply to artistic media like videogames? 

For anything that can be bought and sold, there's bound to be reviewers. It makes perfect sense - very few of us have money to burn, and before you spend your money you'll want to know exactly what you're getting into. There's no debate on the value of reviews when it comes to a simple product of which the value is defined by, say, durability or weight.

On the other hand, something that is entirely artistic is hard to review. A painting can be criticized on its composition or use of colour, and maybe the authenticity of its content, but it's very easy to simply accept deviations from the norm as a unique style. When something is a work of art and only serves that purpose - to be self expression - you enter some pretty murky territory when it comes to critique. This is why reviews and detailed critiques of "pure" art aren't very common or popular.

But what if the reviewers are discussing artistic media, which falls somewhere in the middle? To be sure, you can still stick to the basic facts - how many episodes are there of this series? How long is the movie and which actors star in it? Does this game run at a specific resolution or framerate? Facts like these can influence a purchase, but they're usually not the most important factors.

With that in mind, many reviewers give their reviews a unique spin. They'll focus on something they or their audience might find important, and in doing so, offer a different perspective than a dull list of objective specifications might. This means there are many unique and interesting reviews that appeal to a variety of audiences. For this reason, a lot of critics and their audiences have voiced their frustration that people seem to put objectivity on a pedestal. But the question is, is objectivity really what people are after? Is that the whole story?

A critic such as John 'TotalBiscuit' Bain might express a personal dislike for platformers, for instance, but because he wears this bias on his sleeve and doesn't make it out to be an objective problem, people don't particularly mind it. Contrast this with say, a critic who detracts from a game's score for a similarly taste related reason. This would almost certainly result in irritated reactions from the audience. A similar problem arises when critics berate a game, or even dock its numerical score (which is an issue of itself) for social, political or religious reasons.

But does that mean that subjective elements, be they the critic's taste in game mechanics or religious views, cannot and should not be involved? Not at all. It is simply that the audience should be made aware of these biases and how they influenced the final review. A hypothetical Christian reviewer might believe one or some elements in GTA V to be amoral, for example. But if he or she were to state that in their review verbatim, they would be doing the game and their audience a disservice. It would be better to say that 'I find this to be amoral based on my religious beliefs,' for instance. Rather than pretend that your beliefs and perspectives are objective fact, be objective about your subjective lens. In that respect, what I think people are after isn't necessarily just objectivity; it's honesty.

To close off with an interesting example, 'Christ Centered Gamer' is a Christian game reviewer. It considers morality in its reviews, but gives it a separate score. I haven't seen another website combine their beliefs with a more generalized form of reviewing, and made with work with numerical scores, so my hat's off to them.

Objectivity, while important, isn't the only thing people want from their reviews of artistic media. In truth, what people want is a proper balance between the objective and subjective, and some good honest transparency about the latter.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Many Layers of Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike turn-based RPG, developed by Red Hook Studios. It came out of early access and was officially released on the 16th of January 2016. Over its time in Early Access and after its release, it amassed a huge following thanks to its gorgeous artstyle, incredible atmospheric soundtrack and Wayne June's excellent narration. In this piece, I'd like to highlight some of the game's qualities and why I personally appreciate it. 

The Role in 'Role-Playing Game'

Right off the bat, Darkest Dungeon distinguishes itself from other RPGs and roguelikes with its introduction. If you haven't seen it, please, do give it a look:

It's a very cool intro that establishes the story and atmosphere, but what I'd like to highlight is the way the player is addressed. Now, RPGs have some conventions, depending on the region they're from. Japanese RPGs generally let the player play as an established character or a set of established characters (think of games like Final Fantasy), while western RPGs generally let the player play as a heroic version of themselves (think of games like Mass Effect and the Elder Scrolls series). In either case, the player is right in the thick of it, playing the 'role' of a hero. Darkest Dungeon immediately sets itself apart from such conventions by instead putting the player in the role of a leader who watches his group of heroes fight from a distance- not unlike how many real-time strategy games establish the player's role if they establish one at all.

This actually fits the tone of the game rather well; while your heroes are not quite as expendable as any given unit in an RTS, they're a lot more expendable than your usual RPG heroes. It represents lost time and money if one dies, but you can always get more willing heroes from the stage coach. This really helps establish the grim, hopeless atmosphere, but also makes room for an interesting twist on the roguelite genre; the game does use permadeath, but you - the player - are not the dying heroes. What the heroes have brought back to you, what they have achieved - that is all permanent. This allows Darkest Dungeon to incorporate all the risk and tension of roguelites, with the lengthy campaign and story of a full blown RPG.

So, the player is not in fact a hero facing the dangers of the dungeons - they play as the unnamed Heir to the Ancestor. After receiving the Ancestor's last letter, they travel to the Hamlet in hopes of cleansing it of corruption and eventually defeating the Darkest Dungeon itself, and thus clearing their family name. To this end, they'll recruit heroes, send them to fight and use whatever they bring back to restore the Hamlet to its former glory.

Madness, our Old Friend

One of the most interesting mechanics of Darkest Dungeon is the stress mechanic. Depending on a lot of factors, like a fear of certain areas or creatures, heroes will be inflicted with Stress from certain events and enemy attacks. If a hero's stress reaches 100, their resolve will be tested and they'll gain an affliction. An affliction is a debilitating state of mind that can cause serious problems for the whole party. A hero may, for example, become Paranoid and refuse healing even when they desperately need it.

And should the hero's stress reach 200, they'll get a Heart Attack which will immediately put them on the brink of death. On rare occasions, a hero may bounce back from the stress instead and gain a virtue. Unlike afflictions, virtues will benefit the party greatly.

What I appreciate about the stress mechanic - and so many of Darkest Dungeon's inner workings - is that it is interesting on both a narrative and design level. In a game with a dark, Lovecraftian atmosphere, it makes perfect sense that the heroes could mentally break under the weight of what they must face. But for an RPG, it's also really interesting to have to consider a completely seperate kind of "damage" being done to your heroes, which seems harmless enough until your heroes snap and their insanity begins to interact with and affect all the other mechanics. And to me, that's one of the greatest strengths of the game- there is a lot to consider. Which heroes you take, what order your position them in, which attacks you give them, which Trinkets you equip them with, what their camping skills are, which quirks they have... and all of these things represent percentage chances. Just because a character's a kleptomaniac, that doesn't mean they'll steal every time. A character who's afraid of beasts might do fine in a given battle against beasts. But you have to pay close attention and plan for every possibility, or your lack of preparation could betray you at the worst moment.

A Moment of Clarity in the Eye of the Storm

The Hamlet is where you prepare for the horrors to come. It is a calm place- the safest, most stable area in an altogether unpredictable world. In the dungeons, you are a general leading soldiers, very possibly to their death. In the Hamlet, you are merely the owner of the estate, choosing who to let in, attending to those who need stress relief, and investing money and heirlooms into improving the facilities. The organized, peaceful overview of the Hamlet stands in stark contrast with the dungeons.

In an earlier version of this post, I had planned to offer at least one point of criticism - namely that the Hamlet becomes a bit too dull and predictable after you've upgraded most of the buildings. But then Red Hook Studios added the Town Events update to the game, which causes special events to occur in the Hamlet depending on a few factors, effectively eliminating that "problem." Apparently, they were way ahead of me!

Death Waits for the Slightest Lapse in Concentration

As mentioned, it's the dungeons where things get challenging. I've briefly touched upon the Stress mechanic, but that is just one of the many mechanics that interact with one another in Darkest Dungeon.

Each Hero has a class. Each class has a set of eight possible attacks, of which you can equip 4 at a time. Most attacks can only hit a limited amount of spots in the enemy formation and can only be used from specific spots of your party's formation. Additionally heroes have positive quirks, negative quirks, and if it comes to that, diseases - and all of these things act as modifiers on top of their natural stats, based on their class. Similar to the embedded quirks, the Afflictions and Virtues born from stress add additional modifiers to your heroes' actions and how they are affected. How light or dark it is, based on your usage of torches and certain special attacks, also influences the game. The darker it is, the more damage and stress enemies cause, but the more loot you'll able to find. In fact, a lot of modifiers in the game work this way; from which Heroes you pick, to which Trinkets you equip them with, there's often a catch to everything.

Indeed, Darkest Dungeon is absolutely full of  risk/reward considerations. Consider, for example, choosing whether to take a Vestal or an Occultist as a dedicated healer. A fully upgraded Vestal can heal an ally for 7-9 health. A fully upgraded Occultist can heal an ally for 0-20 health. In other words, the Vestal is very reliable, but the Occultist has the potential for far greater heals - although his heal has a chance to cause Bleed, as well. Similarly, the Abomination is immensely powerful and versatile, but religious classes like the Vestal, Crusader and Leper will not enter the dungeon with him, and his Transformation will cause the rest of the party Stress. Some characters like the Jester do low damage, but have attacks with a very high crit rate, while others, like the Leper, hit like a truck but have poor accuracy. There are many more examples, but the end result is this: Every combination of heroes, with any combination of quirks and trinkets, against any given set up of enemies in any location, can all lead to uniquely effective... or uniquely terrible results. You can plan for just about any situation, but you can't be prepared for every situation.

This level of complexity is what I love so much about Darkest Dungeon. In the past, I've written about RPGs that use a lot of big numbers to imply progression or simply for the sake of spectacle. Not only is Darkest Dungeon actually quite modest with its numbers - the largest bosses won't have much more than 300 HP - but the player is offered a clear perspective on most of the numbers and how they interact. There are exceptions to this transparency - the exact modifiers of Afflictions aren't shown - but that makes perfect sense: It highlights the unpredictability of a broken psyche.

In Closing

So, what does all of this amount to?

Darkest Dungeon cleverly plays with the player's role to combine the detailed worlds and stories of RPGs with the tense, permanent nature of roguelikes. Its battles involve hundreds of interacting variables and modifiers that demand you think and prepare for what lies ahead, which may become especially tense if your heroes' minds break and their behaviour becomes completely erratic. In many situations, you're asked to think about the risks you want to take. Reliable solutions are often weaker solutions.

On the mechanical side, all of this - and more - is what makes Darkest Dungeon such a great gothic RPG. The mechanics that portray this dangerous, hopeless world align so perfectly with the art, music and narration that do the same.

And that, in summary, is why I had such an amazing time playing Darkest Dungeon.


Thanks for taking the time to read my blog! I don't generally use my blog to articulate why I personally like something, so this post was a little bit experimental. Feel free to post any feedback! 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Power of Disempowerment #2 - A Fleeting Joy

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the way designers can both give the player power, and take it away from them, and how this reflects on certain games. I gave a general idea of the concept and its advantages, so I'd like to highlight a few of its pitfalls now.

The 'Taste of Power' trope I touched upon is just that; only a taste. But what happens if you give the player too much? What if you disappoint them?

To illustrate this point, let's talk about Alan Wake.

Alan Wake is a thriller videogame with third-person action mechanics. Without going into too much detail, for those of you who might like to play the game, the protagonist - Alan Wake - fights a seemingly unstoppable dark force for the majority of the game. The enemies - people called 'Taken', because they've been taken by the dark force - take time, focus and supplies to get rid of. You need to shine a light right on them until their protection wears off - which takes batteries - and then shoot them several times, which takes bullets. With enemies taking this level of time and effort to be defeated, tension builds constantly, and you'll simply have to run away if you get surrounded.

... Except, the game has brief moments of overbearing generosity. The designers wanted to encourage and reward exploring the area, by giving the players small caches of supplies or powerful weapons. The problem is that these supplies are too common, and some of them, too powerful; the flash bang grenades, for example, can immediately destroy a whole crowd of enemies. Having this happen once every few hours would make it a shining example of a 'taste of power', while preserving tension. But a player who properly explores will likely find themselves with pockets full of weapons, flares and flashbang grenades at certain points in the game. The game can often turn from a tense thriller to a typical third person action game, albeit a competent one.

Perhaps worse than this design 'problem' is the way the developers tried to solve it. To ensure that the player's power is kept in check, their weapons and tools are regularly removed at the end of episodes or certain sections. Sometimes a brief explanation is given - the protagonist may have been hospitalized or drugged - but other times your inventory just vanishes. If the designers hadn't done this, the game might've been a breeze for a subset of players, but as it stands many players will feel cheated that their hard earned items are taken from them arbitrarily. 

In my opinion, Alan Wake would've reaped the benefits from rewarding the player for exploration in a different way; either by only giving the player useful tools that don't trivialize most enemies - flares, for example, which only keep enemies at bay - or being very stingy with the weapons, only hiding rifles and shotguns at the most secretive and dangerous locations. 

In many ways, the game's sequel - Alan Wake's American Nightmare - took these possible design issues and "fixed" them by making the game work around them. The result is a game that lacks tension entirely, but is a surprisingly competent third person action game.

In American Nightmare, Alan Wake is stuck in a time loop - which in turn explains away why he keeps losing his items - but it doesn't really matter that you lose your items anymore. Strewn about American Nightmare's world are special boxes that you can open depending on how many of the collectible pages you've found. The player never loses these pages, which means they can always gain direct access to weapons they've unlocked again. The issue of the player arbitrarily losing their items is gone, but the result is that the player is almost permanently overpowered if they spend any time collecting the pages, mostly because the game is still much too generous. The player needs a grand total of just 3 pages to unlock a submachine gun, which will shred most common enemies in a heartbeat. The more varied selection of more powerful enemies only mitigates this problem a little.

In my opinion, to completely justify its shift in design philosophy, American Nightmare would've had to be less generous with its more powerful weapons - but I respect that it doesn't arbitrarily bar the player from them after they've been unlocked, unlike its predecessor. 

With that being said, it's understandable that Alan Wake's American Nightmare wanted to prevent the player from feeling cheated. Giving the player a taste of power, only to take it away, can be confusing or frustrating - especially if it changes the mechanics of the game. Alan Wake has the advantage of always being a third-person action game. Even if you don't get the powerful gun and the powerful light, you're still aiming with a weak revolver and a small flashlight. Similarly, Final Fantasy VII and X simply allow you to play with a more powerful character with more powerful versions of spells you already know. Games like Metroid Prime, where entire mechanics are introduced - and then disappear - take a big risk. In my earlier piece I argued that Metroid Prime uses this to great effect, but that won't stop certain players from feeling cheated or confused.

Lastly, I'd like to offer one more example. The previous examples all involved giving, and then removing, power from the player - but in each of these examples, similar or more power could then be acquired. This was not true, however, for a certain stage in Rayman 2. I'd like to close off this piece with one of my less positive childhood experiences with the 'taste of power' trope.

Rayman is an iconic hero, perhaps most well known for his detached limbs and his ability to use his hair to float over short distances.

As the game progresses, Rayman gains more and more powers through special Silver Lums. Every time such a power is acquired, it is permanent - until you reach Beneath the Sanctuary of Rock and Lava. In this stage, Rayman is finally given what seems to be the ultimate power - a Silver Lum that gives him the ability to fly freely. When used properly, you can fly indefinitely and in any direction, though it is quite hard to control. You're then asked to learn the new flying mechanics in a trial by fire; a challenging stage that demands control and precision.

This may seem like a natural step for any designer or regular player, but as a child, it blew my mind to be able to fly around at will - even though I was terrible at it. After dozens of tries, I finally completed the stage and was excited to see what new challenges I could overcome with the power of flight. And then the stage's boss sneaks up to you in a cutscene and punches you out, causing you to lose your new power permanently. 

It's easy to rationalize; it was just a special stage. Being able to fly would break most of the game, or it would have to be built entirely around flight and stop being a platformer. But due to the way the power was presented, and how well you were forced to learn its mechanics, I felt extremely cheated when the game just took them away without warning. I cite this example, because it combines the risk of changing the mechanics (like Metroid Prime) and the arbitrary removal of power (like Alan Wake). And even worse, you never get this power again. 

Now, like always, I want to stress that all of the aforementioned games are very good in their own right. I just take issue with minor and specific parts of their design.

To summarize: If the designer is too generous with moments or levels of power, this can either trivialize the game's challenges (Alan Wake's American Nightmare) - or force the designer to arbitrarily remove power from the player at certain points (Alan Wake, Rayman 2). The risk of confusion and disappointment is higher if the power involves new or different mechanics (Metroid Prime, Rayman 2).

But that's enough out of me! What are your favourite moments where you - as a player - were given a 'taste of power'? Which moments made you feel cheated or disappointed? Please post a comment below.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Power of Disempowerment #1 - The Designer Giveth and the Designer Taketh Away

You've heard the phrase 'player agency' thrown around, no doubt. Player agency is all about the control, the influence the player has over what happens in a game. In this series of blog posts, I'd like to discuss how enhancing and limiting the player's agency can contribute to an experience. 

Before I go in-depth, I'd like to illustrate the topic with an example. In a game where the player explores a hostile environment, the ways in which they can traverse and influence this environment would be an important part of their agency. A good example of a game like that would be Retro Studios' Metroid Prime.

Metroid Prime had a lot to live up to. The Metroid series had skipped a generation where its peers had jumped to 3D, and the fans were anxious to see how a game from this franchise could work with an additional dimension. To ensure a smooth start, Metroid Prime lets the player control a very well equipped Samus in the first section of the game. Most of the power ups you'd usually be looking for in the early game are already available to you. This allows the player to experiment, traversing the environment in a flexible way - the player is given a lot of agency to begin with. This allows the player to learn the game's mechanics in a fun way.

But just as soon as the player has gotten their bearings, defeating a few enemies and even a boss, the designer kicks the crutch right out from under them. The ship that serves as the introductory area begins to explode, and although Samus escapes safely, her power suit takes a massive hit from the explosion and loses most of its functions.Suddenly, the player's left with only some basic functions.

And it doesn't end there - the player is then let go on an enormous planet that they only have few ways to traverse. Suddenly, their agency is quite limited. After having been given a preview of what abilities they could have, they are now asked to build their arsenal back up from zero. But here's the thing: the game doesn't end when you're back up to where you started. In fact, by the end of the game, you're much more powerful than you were at the start. This is true for most games where the player increases statistics or acquires abilities and items, but the initial loss of your abilities makes reaching that point much more satisfying.

I cited Metroid Prime because I personally like the way you build your arsenal through exploration, which then allows you to explore better to then improve your arsenal further. But this is actually a pretty common trope in videogames; especially RPGs. TV Tropes calls it 'A Taste of Power,' which is apt. An entertaining fact: Often when I begin to write about something, the Tropers will have noticed it before I did.

But there's more than one way to disempower the player by "empowering" them. You can offer them a brief taste of power to show them what they will - at one point - be able to do... but you can also instill a sense of foreboding.

A series I've seen pull this off properly is Final Fantasy. Take Final Fantasy VII, for example.

Though this might be a bit of a spoiler, Final Fantasy VII is old enough that I feel comfortable to share at least a few details. At some point in the game, the player is given control of Sephiroth in a flashback. This is significant, because Sephiroth is actually the game's main antagonist. Cloud, the protagonist who also plays a role in this flashback, is incredibly weak by comparison. So, for just a short section, the player has a powerhouse of a character at their disposal; the catch is, they'll have to face him sooner or later.

One of its successors, Final Fantasy X, tries something similar.

After facing a challenging boss, Seymour - a character who laters turns out to be a major antagonist - joins your party for the rematch. Using his powerful magic, you can crush the formerly challenging boss into the ground with no effort. But again, at this point in the story, you likely already have your doubts about Seymour; again, while you're empowered now, you know you'll have to fight against him in the future.

It really is quite interesting to see the different ways Metroid Prime and Final Fantasy use these brief moments of empowerment to motivate and foreshadow in their own ways.

Some designers give the player a glimpse of what's to come to motivate them; to make the achievement of reaching and surpassing that point all the sweeter. Other designers use it to warn the player, to add tension and atmosphere. These are just some of the ways that the designer can mess with the player's agency to empower and disempower them. I'll be writing more about this topic in the future!

I'm interested - what moments of "empowerment" and "disempowerment" in videogames did you love? Which did you hate? Your responses and feedback are welcome.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Life is Strange's Ending: A Meeting With Fate & Contrivance #2 (SPOILERS)

A little while ago, I wrote a blog post about Life is Strange's ending and why I believed it to be contrived.

I have received a fair amount of feedback in the meantime, some good and some bad. A lot of people feel that, between the recurring visions of the tornado and the obvious damage done to nature, the way the ending is resolved is actually quite natural. I still disagree, as I already covered that topic in my first post, but I understand that this isn't set in stone.

With that said, I'm still going to offer my suggestion for how I would've handled the ending. Apparently, it's fairly common for people to describe ways to 'fix the ending,' but I'd still like to get my own thoughts in on the topic.

Let me start with my premise. The final choice should not have been between Chloe and Arcadia Bay, but between Chloe and Max. 

Let's examine a few facts that might support this idea. While it is true that Max's powers seem to have adverse effects on nature, another negative effect is much more apparent - namely, the effect it has on Max herself. Trying to go further back than a short amount literally causes Max to exclaim that trying 'hurts too much,' and her power regularly results in her getting nosebleeds and headaches throughout the game. Indeed, while the effects on nature seem inconsistent and hardly more than background events, the damage to Max is a constant, obvious threat.

And on top of the aforementioned implications, let's not forget how the narrative of the game flows. Many of the choices you make are actually choices between Max or Chloe's well-being. For example, the very first major choice involving Chloe is either taking the blame for the pot in her room, or making her take the blame herself. Chloe will also regularly force Max to choose between her and her other friends - discouraging her from answering Kate on the phone, for example.

You might argue that, consequently, the ending makes some sense: Chloe regularly asks you to make sacrifices for her, and then, you have to choose between her or making the ultimate sacrifice. And while I understand the idea of sacrificing Arcadia Bay, this choice seems out of place when compared to all the others. Note that almost all the other choices are directly related to Max's personal situation; choosing between Chloe and Kate, or Chloe and David, or Chloe and Warren. All of these choices are essentially overwritten, thrown out the window, by this one final choice. It seems like little more than a way to force what was a complex branching story into two arbitrary branches, which is why I still hold that the choice and its consequences were contrived.

And as mentioned before, there are more facts backing this up than something as floaty or unsubstantial as the "flow of the narrative." The effects of Max's powers, and how they reflect much more clearly on her own health than on the environment, are an important argument here. In fact, the damage to nature - as mentioned - happened regardless of how much or little you use your time rewinding powers. In fact, even in the "alternate timeline" you create in Episode 3 where Chloe's dad never died and Max never experienced the event that made her discover her powers, there are still beached whales and similar signs of a damaged natural world. So, to summarize, because this conflict develops outside of your control, forcing you to make a choice based on it is a contrivance. What have you been shaping throughout the entire story? Max and Chloe. Compared to that, Arcadia Bay is just a backdrop. As a result, I come back to my premise: Between the implied damage to Max, the elusive and uncontrollable nature of the "fated hurricane" and how many choices and scenes are about Max and Chloe, a more fitting final choice would have had you choosing between the two of them. 

Either way, that's my two cents. I took way too long about finishing this fairly brief critique, but I hope I've offered some insight. I'm well aware that there might be things I have missed, and that there is room for other perspectives, so please feel free to respond to this blog with your criticism.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dimentio, Charming Magician (Super Paper Mario SPOILERS)

Nintendo's beloved Mario franchise is appreciated for its complete focus on gameplay, perhaps at the cost of having a compelling narrative. But the Mario RPG series is an exception to this rule; after all, with slower strategic gameplay, a greater focus on narrative was a welcome change of pace as well.

Both the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series have a great focus on their characters - it is a role playing game, after all - but their villains are still generally pretty cut-and-dried. Bowser, Grodus, Cackletta, Antasma; they're all your basic villains who want to kidnap the princess or take over the world. So imagine my surprise when a more action-oriented Paper Mario spin-off offered us the best villains a Mario game had yet seen.

Yes indeed, meet the somewhat controversial 'Super Paper Mario,' a project with a troubled development cycle on the GameCube that eventually found its way onto the Nintendo Wii in 2007.

Something that's truly unique about Super Paper Mario's cast of baddies is their distinct personalities, and the fact that none of them are truly evil. Count Bleck, their leader, seems to be the most clichéd of the bunch; in a variation of the usual world domination plan, Count Bleck plans to destroy the world instead. But throughout the story, you realize more and more that he is a victim of circumstances.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's talk about Count Bleck's minions for a moment. I'll keep each character's description brief, but you could really write a piece about each of them:

First off, there's Nastasia. She's a no-nonsense secretary with mind control powers. She's organized and intelligent, but doesn't perform too well under duress and is likely to blame herself for failures of the team.
Then, there's O'Chunks; comes across as your average dumb muscle, but is actually an ex-army commander who lost a war. He and acts foolish and blindly loyal to the Count out of a desire to forget and out of gratitude for the Count giving him a new purpose.
Next is Mimi, a shapeshifter with a sense of humour. She's a trickster by nature, but lives off the approval of the Count. But when he isn't around, she isn't afraid to ignore his prior orders. She even goes so far as to say she's "meaner" than the Count, which could be a clue the Count isn't all he seems to be.
There's also the 'Mysterious Mr. L,' who is Luigi.
And last, and now we're getting to the heart of it, there's Dimentio.

On the surface, Dimentio is easily the most unique and charming of the bunch. He's quite verbose and loves to speak in nonsensical similes. Because he also literally has the appearance of a jester, it's not hard to imagine that players will start out by seeing him as the comic relief.

But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear he's a lot more intelligent than the other minions. Moreso than opposing the heroes or helping the villains, he seems to be leveling the playing field. Early in the game, he reunites Mario and Princess Peach to improve their chances, and the times he challenges the heroes seem to be little more than tests to see how strong they are. He also likes to question the Count to test his resolve, and he manipulates his fellow minions to ignore the Count's orders. So, why is Dimentio working against his boss? Well, there are many reasons, but for starters: Because he feels the Count has betrayed him.

Count Bleck's plan, he claims, is to destroy the universe and replace it with a new, perfect world bereft of suffering. But he actually intends to destroy everything, including his own world and himself - for reasons I'll explore in a future post, most likely. Dimentio has caught onto this, and has thus decided to put his own plan in motion. 

So, he's a minion with an agenda; an interesting trope, certainly, but what makes it truly special? Well, a big part of it is that you really have no idea what to make of him. He's clearly not on Count Bleck's side or yours, so what does he want out of all this? By the end of Chapter 6, most people will probably believe he's on their side - after all, he's been a big help to the heroes and a big hindrance to the villains. He never seemed serious about the world-destroying agenda to begin with. But then a scene occurs that casts a shadow of doubt on his fun-loving personality. When the opportunity arises, he traps and kills "Mr. L," with some pretty creepy dialogue for good measure. Granted, he ends up in a cartoony underworld that you can get him back from, but there's still quite a weight to this scene.

This scene is especially poignant because, while it is still to the benefit of the heroes, Dimentio's methods and attitude aren't remotely like what you'd expect from a Mario character. But extreme methods or not, it's all to the heroes' benefit in the end. But it gets "better" - Dimentio then goes so far as to kill the heroes as well. They need to go to the underworld to acquire one of the game's MacGuffins, so it's necessary for them to go there, but again Dimentio demonstrates his extreme methods and bizarre attitude.

So, between his extreme methods and almost psychopathic attitude, what's he really after? Well, when you finally face him in Castle Bleck, in the second-to-last episode of the chapter, he reveals his hand. 

Dimentio reveals to the heroes that he's been their guardian angel and guide for much of the adventure, and asks you to help him destroy the Count. So, is that all there is then? Dimentio was actually on your side all along? Something about the entire situation seems off, especially when keeping Dimentio's attitude in mind. Further, you're not out to destroy the Count; you just want to stop him from destroying the world, no more and no less. So, a wise player will refuse his offer, to which he responds quite bluntly, dropping all of his similes and humour.

For the record, if the player does accept Dimentio's offer, he will brainwash Mario & Luigi to fight for him, leading to an alternate game over that is as amusingly written as it is disturbing; Dimentio was never really on the side of the heroes; he simply needed them as tools to overthrow the - from his perspective - treacherous Count. 

What follows is a battle between Luigi and Dimentio, ending with Dimentio seemingly killing both himself and Luigi after he realizes he cannot win the battle. But of course, that, too is another scheme. When Mario and friends finally arrive at Count Bleck and defeat him, to stop the world from being destroyed, Dimentio quickly swoops in - more crazed than before - and he's now determined to destroy the world and replace it with his own vision of a perfect world. You end up fighting a monstrous combination of him, Luigi and the Chaos Heart (the evil artifact used to destroy the world) as the final boss. Of course, Mario and friends end up defeating him, but Dimentio was a truly smart, well prepared and unpredictable villain.

So! There you have it. Intelligent, charming, scheming and completely psychopathic - that's why Dimentio is one of the greatest villains in the Mario franchise. I've only really scratched the surface here, as there are many theories about Dimentio; for example, background information reveals he might have planned even further ahead than the events of the game; it's implied he is the writer of the Dark Prognosticus, the book Count Bleck uses to summon the Chaos Heart. Though Paper Mario games have since abandoned darker villains and storylines, many fans are still hoping for a return of Dimentio, or at the least more information about this enigmatic psychopathic jester. 

Either way, I'm rambling at this point.

Who are your favorite villains and why? Post a comment if you want! 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Life is Strange's Ending: A Meeting With Fate & Contrivance #1 (SPOILERS)

I recently took some time to complete Life is Strange, a narrative game not unlike those developed by TellTale. I was generally quite impressed with the game, but the ending left me a little disappointed. In this piece, I'll explain my problems with the finale to Dontnod's successful narrative project.

To establish the most important details, in Life is Strange the player takes on the role of Max Caulfield, a photography student who somehow gains the power to reverse time. This power manifests itself when Max witnesses an old friend get shot, and she uses it to save her from this fate.

From this point onwards, Max uses her power almost constantly in the story. Personally, I rather liked the concept; being a student in photography, her passion was always capturing the moment in a way she envisioned, and limited time reversal added to that in an interesting way. To me, it didn't matter so much that the game never properly explained where this power came from; but it also made it very hard to swallow how the game decided to resolve the ending.

Throughout the story, Max and her friend Chloe - the person she saved - are on the trail of a missing student called Rachel Amber. Her disappearance is suspicious, to say the least, and ties in with repeated hints that there is a darkness, a storm brooding within Arcadia Bay, and the Blackwell Academy where Max studies. A conspiracy between certain students, teachers and influential families. This concept is further supported by repeated visions Max has of a huge tornado seemingly consuming Arcadia Bay. 

All of this reaches its peak when all the player's preconceptions are overturned, and the identity of the darkness lurking in Arcadia Bay is revealed as Mr. Jefferson, a teacher at Blackwell. As it turns out, he's been kidnapping students, involving them in bizarre photoshoots and then murdering them. So consider my surprise when Mr. Jefferson was caught very early in Episode 5, and an actual real tornado then shows up to wreak havoc on Arcadia Bay. So, all of the dialogue about the Prescott family, the students that went missing, the 'lurking darkness,' the brooding storm - it all boils down to an actual tornado just appearing out of nowhere. And not just that, but according to the game, it's Max's fault. 

Even though Max had her first vision of the storm and tornado before she even discovered her power, in the final minutes of Episode 5 you're told that averting Chloe's fate is the cause of all this. Because Max saved her, the powers-that-be decided that Arcadia Bay should be destroyed by a tornado.

To be fair, the game takes several moments to demonstrate that Max's powers may have an adverse effect on the world. Starting with out of season snow and dead birds, moving on to dead whales and a double moon, it can't be said that the eventual tornado came out of nowhere. But with that said, several characters in the story can live or die - Kate and Frank, for example. But regardless of whether they live or not, nature still gets messed up. Why is it that rescuing Chloe was seemingly all it took to completely unbalance nature? It's completely contrived, and for one specific reason: the final choice.

You either go back to the moment Max saved Chloe, and let her die to prevent the tornado from happening, or watch the tornado tear Arcadia Bay apart killing who-knows-how-many people. Outside its context, the choice is actually incredibly powerful; save the few you know, or the many you don't? But the fact that it all boils down to a tornado you supposedly caused using your unexplained power - that really took the emotion out of the choice for me. The game essentially used a Diabolus Ex Machina, and then said 'Look at this. This contrived conflict is your fault.' I sacrificed Arcadia Bay in favor of Chloe because I felt that choice best reflected my defiance of this supposed "responsibility."

So, to summarize; the game hints at an underlying mystery or conflict you're solving - a conspiracy between unknown powers - along with strange occurences in the natural world. You wouldn't be foolish for thinking the two were related, but as soon as the story's major conflict - the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the masterminds behind it - is resolved, an actual tornado shows up to wreck the city for no real reason - just because you saved someone at the start of the game. Since your power is not properly explained, it can also not resolve this plot hole. 

In my next piece, I'm going to write what I initially expected the final choice to be and why I feel that would've suited the story better.

As always, nothing I've written here is fact or truth. Please feel free to respond if there's something I've overlooked. Feedback is always appreciated, even if it's harsh! See you in the next one!

Correction (23-01-16): It was pointed out that Life is Strange is not Dontnod's first project, so I changed the opening line a bit to reflect the facts. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Million Points of Damage, Part 1: RPGs, Math & RNG

While some games hide the variables under their hood to preserve immersion or avoid confusion, some like to show off their numbers. I'd like to look at how different games handle the way they present these numbers to the player and why, starting with a few older RPGs. 

Some games wear their numbers on their sleeves, and RPGs are a common example. After all, strategy is an important part of any RPG.

Take classic Square-Enix RPGs, for example.  The damage dealt, the damage received and various stats are visible to the player in battle. Have a look at Chrono Trigger:

It's quite common for turn-based RPGs like this to boast rather high numbers. Characters may hit other characters for hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands points of damage. But then there are RPGs that are incredibly modest with their variables - take Paper Mario, for example.

It's easy to dismiss this difference in design because Paper Mario was designed for a younger audience, as demonstrated by its visual style emulating a children's book. But I would argue there's a little bit more to it than that.

Consider one of turn-based RPGs common criticisms - repetition. Fighting the exact same enemy with the exact same moves using the exact same party; that gets old after a while. Of course, game designers have known this from the start, and this is how RPGs and RNG became bedfellows. Now, RNG simply stands for 'random number generator.' This may sound weird at first, but think about how often RPGs rely on a roll of the dice. From random encounters to critical hits, there's a lot of chance involved. To get back to the point, random numbers eliminate repetition to some degree. You're never quite sure which enemy or enemies you'll run into, never quite sure how much damage you'll deal or receive and so on.

So, why the big numbers? I believe one reason is because they allow for more flexible RNG. Note that the aforementioned Paper Mario, which uses tiny numbers, also employs no random numbers for the damage dealt and received. How could it? Were you to attack an enemy with 3 HP, using a base attack of 2, a random element would make a huge difference, because a single point of damage would. The game would rely far too much on luck. But allowing a few dozen points of variation against an enemy with thousands of HP adds a level of surprise that doesn't undermine strategy or skill, while still allowing you to just barely make or miss that last hit on the boss.

Of course, RNG is really just one facet of complex mathematics. I've claimed that RPGs are forthcoming with their numbers, but in reality, they only show you the end result of a few numbers that went through a dozen formulae. RPGs need to consider a character's attack power, the type of attack, the enemy's defense and many more things, and calculate a number based on that. Using only small numbers, those results would be robbed of all elegance; that 10 % buff a piece of armour gave, for example, will mean a lot more for a 1000 damage equip than a 1 damage equip, even if they have equal strengh within the context of their own game. As such, having big numbers behind the scenes has its advantages. A great example of an RPG franchise that is amazingly complex, yet pretends to be simple, is Pokémon. Take, for example, how the game calculates whether or not you catch a Pokémon.

source: Bulbapedia

But all of this only shows the advantage of using big numbers behind the scenes, not why some RPGs present these numbers to the player. That still boils down to a level of unpredictability, as I mentioned before.

However, is that all? Using numbers in the hundreds or thousands should provide plenty of variance if it was just about the RNG and maths. Why is it, then, that some turn-based RPGs use numbers that are much, much higher

To answer that question,we have to cover two things: Progression and spectacle. If you start the game dealing 1 damage, and you knock the final boss down with a 100 000 damage hit, you're going to feel incredibly empowered. You could've built from 1 to 10 damage, and if the game scaled at the same rate, it would've worked much the same as if the numbers would be higher. But it wouldn't feel the same, because the jump from 10 to 100 000 is so much greater than the jump from 1 to 10. Mechanically, it's completely arbitrary, but larger numbers allow for this greater sense of progress and have a way of looking spectacular. If your character spends a whole minute on a cutscene preparing the greatest attack you've ever seen, doesn't it feel like a dud if they deal 10 damage, even if that is a lot in the context of the game? Especially if there are spectators observing you playing, who have no way to contextualize the numbers, although that's a topic in and of itself.

So there you have it! The reason why turn-based RPGs have a fondness for large numbers is that they're flexible enough to use with RNG and complex mathematics, as well as the fact that they allow for a great sense of progress and spectacle.

That's my 2,458,948 cents, but it's entirely possible I'm wrong. Please feel free to respond! I'm planning to make 'A Million Points of Damage' into a series where I explore the transparency of variables in other genres and games as well, and your feedback is going to be an important part of how it develops. Have a great day, and I'll see you in the next one! 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Undertale Follow-Up: Where Design and Marketing Collide

Recently, I wrote a post about a few inconsistencies in Undertale's design and narrative.

In the middle of my analysis, I took a moment to make a rather bold statement:

"Undertale's design assumes you're playing the game 100 % blind. The moment you hear the word 'Pacifist', or see that trailer proclaiming that 'no one has to die' in Undertale, the jig is up. One could say there's a conflict between the game's design and its marketing."

Now, I covered what the aforementioned conflict is in detail, but I didn't explain where it came from. I'd like to go over that briefly. First, please take a look at Undertale's launch trailer:

Note that the trailer does indeed stress that enemies can be Spared, that they can be befriended and that 'nobody has to die.' So why is Undertale playing its trump card in its marketing?

Well, quite frankly, because it has to. Consider the PC gaming climate, especially on platforms like Steam. Now, before I go on I want to stress something: this is not criticism. I'll simply look at the circumstances in which Undertale was released, and why those might have influenced the marketing. Undertale has two qualities that could make potential buyers wary of it:

Firstly, the artstyle. Retro-styled videogames, especially those emulating a mostly 8-bit style, are very common. With popular revivals like Mega Man 9, and beloved indie titles like Cave Story, it was inevitable that many devs would follow suit. Just searching 'retro' on Steam, as of writing this article, yields 1021 results, and that's without checking other tags like 8-bit, 16-bit, classic or pixel art.

Unfortunately, pixel art is often perceived as lazy or unoriginal. Its low barrier of entry, as well as many low quality games using it, may have led to this reputation. This, in turn, could've caused problems for Undertale, making it necessary for the developer to distinguish it in a different way.

Second, the game's genre. While larger RPG franchises are rare outside of Square-Enix's, engines like RPG Maker have allowed a lot of fledgling game developers to create and release their own projects on platforms like Steam. Unfortunately, these projects don't usually get very high ratings. While the genre is still appreciated, it's practically never considered unique or original to develop a turn-based RPG. I realize that's a bold statement, but how many times since Earthbound have you seen a top down turn-based RPG be considered an innovator of some kind?

Searching for 'RPG Maker' games on Steam gives you 154 results, while 'turn based RPG' yields 477 results. It's certainly less saturated than 'retro games' in general, but still something for the consumer - and thus, the developer - to think about.

So, those are two reasons why Undertale needs to distinguish itself through its marketing to prevent it from being dismissed at a glance. In marketing, you see, there's a concept called a 'unique selling point' or 'unique selling proposition' (USP). You want your product to be noticed in the crowd, you're going to need at least one of these, and Undertale calling itself 'the friendly RPG where no one has to die' performs that duty admirably.

So, what this all boils down to is that Toby Fox developed an incredible game with a solid marketing campaign, but the former's design ended up clashing a bit with the latter's transparency. 

But a lot of this has been conjecture. What do you think? Am I right about Undertale's design and marketing? Please feel free to respond. I might just write another follow up based on feedback!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Undertale: Two Anomalous Bosses and an Arbitrary Blockade

Let's kick off with Undertale, a turn-based RPG by Toby Fox that has - since its release on September 15 - gained a huge and passionate fanbase. This isn't going to be a general analysis of Undertale, but rather, a look at a few specific things that stuck out to me about the requirements for getting a certain ending.

Be warned that I'm going to spoil a lot of things about the story and mechanics of Undertale. Read only if you've played it, or don't care about spoilers. I'm going to explain some things about the game, just to establish them, but in general I'll be assuming the reader knows the game. 

One of Undertale's greatest virtues is in how many ways it can be played. Enemy encounters can be handled in two distinct ways; you can either attack the enemy until it dies, or Act to convince them not to fight you and Spare them. This is the first RPG I've seen that has an actual 'Mercy' button in its battle system interface.

Now, due to this option, you can play the game without harming a single creature. This is referred to as a Pacifist playthrough by most people. Completing a Pacifist playthrough is the only way to get the true ending. Now that's established, let's get straight to the point.

You cannot get the True Ending without first getting a Neutral Ending, which is a simple ending consisting of a phone call briefly discussing or demonstrating the consequences of your choices; even if your first playthrough is 100 % Pacifist, you'll still be pushed into the neutral ending. The reasons why, and what this means for the design, are what I'd like to examine.

The in-game reason why you're prevented from getting the True Ending is simple. To get it, you need to befriend three major characters: Papyrus, Undyne and Alphys. You have to befriend them in order; you cannot befriend Undyne before Papyrus, and you cannot befriend Alphys before Undyne. However, you're arbitrarily prevented from ever befriending Alphys until you see the Neutral ending. To complete her sidequest, you must deliver a letter from Undyne, which she simply won't give you until after having completed a 'neutral run.'

From a narrative perspective, it makes little sense for Undyne to only give you this letter until after you've seen an ending. After all, when you get the letter from her, as far as she's concerned, the "ending" never happened since you returned to a prior save. Regardless, this wouldn't be much of a problem in and of itself, as Undertale plays around with the idea of memories from previous timelines or "save points" carrying over into new ones.

The problem is simply this: Alphys doesn't cause the crucial difference between the Pacifist and Neutral endings. The penultimate boss of the Neutral Run is Asgore Dreemurr, the King of Monsters. On a successful pacifist playthrough, the battle will start, but Asgore will then be knocked offscreen by none other than Toriel

Toriel is the second character you meet, and the first major boss. She disappears from the story fairly early on. So, how come it's her that makes the difference? Why does she only interrupt Asgore after you've discovered Alphys' backstory? This all doesn't make a great deal of sense, until you realize this:
You're supposed, or at the least expected, to kill Toriel on your first playthrough. 

Maybe that's a hasty conclusion to draw, but think about how much sense it makes considering the 'flow' of the narrative. She's the defining difference between the ending of a Pacifist and Neutral playthrough. But if you're not convinced, allow me to delve into the mechanics of her battle.

Toriel's battle sticks out compared to other battles. In Undertale, as a pacifist, every battle is solved in one of two ways: You either solve a puzzle using the Act menu, or outlast the enemy until you can show Mercy. In Toriel's battle, however, you have to specifically choose Mercy and then Spare many times in a row before she'll finally give up on fighting you - and it takes several Spares before Toriel will actually start to show any signs of being affected. Compare this with, say, Papyrus, who you only need to Spare at the very start and end of the battle. He also literally spells it out in red text.

So, consider the design here: In terms of explaining how to Spare bosses, Papyrus might as well be the first boss because his battle's design is perfect for it. The reasons for this are simple:

The battle won't even really start until you either Fight or Spare.
The battle shows clear progress, with Papyrus saying something new each turn and constantly hyping up his 'special attack.'
Papyrus literally tells you when Mercy becomes an option. 

Most bosses after Papyrus work similarly, with only minor differences between them. But Toriel, in spite of her role as the game's tutorial, has no such structure or clues in her battle. Attempting to talk to Toriel eventually leads to the game stating outright that "talking isn't the solution." As it takes several Spares to show visible progress, it's not unnatural for a player to assume that Fighting is the only option. 

I think it's important to sidetrack for just a minute here. You might have your doubts about that last statement, because actually, a lot of people do seem to successfully Spare Toriel on their first playthrough. This boils down to a related but seperate issue that I'd like to address in the future: Undertale's design assumes you're playing the game 100 % blind. The moment you hear the word 'Pacifist', or see that trailer proclaiming that 'no one has to die' in Undertale, the jig is up. One could say there's a conflict between the game's design and its marketing. It's important to realize this to understand where my "problems" with the design are coming from. In the future, I hope to look at Undertale's marketing in more detail.

So, now that we've established that, let's get right back to the heart of it. Comparing the design of Toriel's battle with Papyrus', it seems clear that either the game is explaining itself in the wrong order, or that you're expected to kill Toriel. And Undertale's design in general is too complete and well thought out for me to assume the former. 

Toriel's battle isn't the only evidence supporting this theory, however. The fact that you cannot get the True Ending when completing the game for the first time also supports it- being unable to acquire Undyne's letter seems little more than a mechanical failsafe to ensure that. However, I'd like to present one more compelling piece of evidence:

I briefly mentioned him before, but now we're going in depth: Asgore Dreemurr, Toriel's ex-husband and the second-to-last boss of any Undertale neutral playthrough. Like Toriel's, Asgore's battle is completely different from any other you encounter on a Neutral or Pacifist run. When the battle starts, Asgore destroys the Mercy button from your interface. This implies that there is no way he'll accept Mercy from you. But surely, if you're a Pacifist, there is some clever way to talk yourself out of it, right? Like with Toriel, there is some hidden way to convince him not to fight, right? The unfortunate answer is no. Even if you didn't touch the Fight button a single time, on your first run it's inevitable: you have to Fight him. 

Not only does this seem out of place in the narrative, the battle also represents a major difficulty spike for Pacifists who aren't properly equipped. To compensate, a Pacifist is allowed to speak to Asgore to decrease his Attack and Defense, but that seems like a band-aid for the underlying issue; logically, the battle shouldn't even happen for a Pacifist who managed to spare Toriel. Fortunately, Asgore can be Spared once his HP reaches a certain point, but that doesn't change that you had to Fight him to get to that point.

With all of that said, it seems pretty clear that on your first run, a neutral playthrough wherein you kill Toriel is expected, which leads to the inconsistencies I've pointed out. 

With all of that said, it makes a lot of sense for Toby to want you to see the Neutral Ending first; after all, at the end of it, Flowey will reveal how to get a better ending if you Spared him. 

This ties in with Flowey's role in the story, and the critical part he plays in acquiring the True Pacifist ending. After all, it's Flowey who gets Papyrus to call everyone together to interrupt the battle with Asgore - again, except for Toriel. 

So, that's the gist of it; both the narrative and game design of Undertale expect you to kill Toriel on your first run, which seems to have lead to some small inconsistencies. I'd like to stress, though, that Undertale's design and story are amazing in general. That's really the only reason why these details stuck out to me. Also, nothing I've concluded here is factual. In fact, I hope to write a follow-up piece based on responses and feedback, so please do respond in any way you can!

Thank you for your time! Hopefully, we can discuss design again soon.