Saturday, November 4, 2017

Doki Doki Literature Club - Narrative Empowered By Its Genre

In my last article, I shared my summary and thoughts on Doki Doki Literature Club. In this article,  I'll examine in-depth how Doki Doki Literature Club's approach to a 'meta narrative' is something only a visual novel could do.

This article was written with the assumption that the reader knows and understands Doki Doki Literature Club. There will be many spoilers past this point, so please consider playing the game for free on Steam before reading this. There are also spoilers for EarthBound, Undertale and OneShot.

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Allow me to get straight to the point: Doki Doki Literature Club is a dating sim wherein one of the characters, who is not a romantic option to the player, becomes aware she's in a game and that her role is simply that of a supporting character. This realization frustrates her to the point of manipulating and eventually deleting the other characters from the game's folder, just so she can have an "ending" with the player. Her manipulation of the characters leads to many glitches, disturbing situations and horrific imagery, such as Sayori and Yuri ending their own lives. To me, this represents the best 'meta narrative' I've seen in a game as of yet. To explain why, please allow me to discuss a few other examples.

Games acknowledging the fact that they are indeed games, being played by a player, have existed for some time.

The Onett police force offers some quality advice.

Many games over the years have made a point of breaking the fourth wall, generally for the sake of comedy, but sometimes as a part of their story as well. EarthBound is a good example of a game that does both, and its finale includes a special moment where the player is acknowledged as separate from the game. Please be aware that this is a spoiler, but you can view this particular moment here. EarthBound was extraordinary in how it reached out to the player, but it was limited by its technology. It had to ask for the player's real name at some point in the story, even if it did so in a subtle way and never mentioned it again until the end.

As technology marched on, so too did games find new ways to reach out to the player, or to acknowledge and make use of the medium they were part of. To name two good examples, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.

Eternal Darkness is a horror game, and one of - if not the - first game to employ a sanity mechanic. Eternal Darkness had the usual tricks we associate with a sanity mechanic up its sleeve, such as whispers and distorting visuals, but it also messed with the player directly by pretending to lower the volume, unplugging the controller or switching the channel.

Unfortunately, this hasn't aged very well.

Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes is a stealth game starring Solid Snake. There are a lot of strange characters in the game, but Psycho Mantis is one a lot of people will remember, mostly because he activates the rumble on your controller and tells you about the contents of your memory card. He does this on top of also pretending to change the channel and requiring you to move your controller to a different port to defeat him.

Psycho Mantis is judgmental about your taste in games.

The Metal Gear Solid example is particularly strong because the game uses the controller and memory card to its advantage, just to mess with the player. There have been other examples of games using the technology at their disposal to acknowledge or mess with the player, but these have usually been less explicit.

In recent years, we've also seen more and more indie games find creative ways to use the medium and its technology. A particularly popular example was 2015's Undertale, which parodied and questioned the conventions of RPGs and remembered certain player decisions, even if they hadn't been saved explicitly.

Flowey will know if you took a life, whether you saved or not.

Undertale's is a world where it actually means something to SAVE and LOAD. These aren't merely game functions, separate from the story, but a very real power that the player - not the main character - has as a part of the story.

Lesser known but even more appropriate to mention is OneShot. Much more explicitly than in most other games, the player and protagonist are acknowledged as separate entities. You, the player, are considered God, and Niko, the protagonist, is seen as your chosen Messiah. Niko will even talk to the player and ask him or her questions. OneShot sometimes communicates to you through error messages, and to solve some of its puzzles, you will need to actually look for files on your PC or do something with the game window. That's just scratching the surface of what OneShot has to offer, as it included some of the most inventive puzzles I've ever seen.

OneShot isn't afraid to poke fun at you if you try to solve puzzles without thinking them through.

So, what does all of this have to do with Doki Doki Literature Club? To explain that, I'll go over my examples one more time. EarthBound and Undertale reached out to the player to enhance their narrative. Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid used the technology at their disposal to startle or poke fun at the player. Lastly, OneShot spoke to the player and used technology because both its story and puzzles were entirely centered around this concept of the game being a game running on the player's computer.

Though they almost couldn't be more different, in my mind OneShot and Doki Doki Literature Club are closest together when it comes to their use of a 'meta narrative.' Both games feature an entity within the game that becomes aware and begins to interfere with the player and other characters. Both games end on a sour note but can then be replayed with a radically different story. In both games, glitches occur as part of the story. Both games feature a pivotal moment where the player must interact with the characters' files on their computer. Now, these are shallow parallels, but those are simply the reasons why I associate the games in my mind.

So why did I state that I find Doki Doki Literature Club to have the best implementation of a meta narrative? It's finally time to bring up the topic of genre. Breaking the fourth wall or calling the player by name is great, but any game can be self aware or self referential. What I was personally looking for in games that used some kind of meta narrative was:

1. The meta narrative plays a critical part in the story or makes up the entirety.
2. The meta narrative interacts with the gameplay in a meaningful way.

OneShot met these standards, but I felt like there was something missing. OneShot's moment to moment gameplay very much feels like a canvas for its meta narrative. The actual game has little gameplay beyond top down exploration. This, of course, is perfectly fine, but it also means that the game has no genre or genre conventions to play with. The complexity and novelty of its meta elements surpassed Undertale's, but the way said elements tied into the story and particularly the gameplay did not.

confused cat noises


This is where Doki Doki Literature Club picks up the slack. The game is very explicitly a dating sim, a fact it smartly uses to set expectations in the first act which it then proceeds to break later. In fact, you're probably not even aware that Doki Doki Literature Club has any kind of meta narrative until you reach the end of act 1 and witness Sayori's suicide and subsequent deletion.  

In other words, the meta narrative plays a critical part in the story, but the game only reveals this once you're in deep. 

For this reason, tt's a treat to replay the first act of Doki Doki Literature Club. Many of the things you see pushed to their extremes in Act 2 are hinted at in Act 1. Sayori and Monika's poems are particularly good examples, with the former demonstrating her depression and the latter showing her awareness that she's part of a game.

Of course, defying expectations is one thing, but it's the content of the narrative itself that truly elevates Doki Doki Literature Club. Many of the aforementioned meta narratives or puzzles could feasibly be tacked onto other games without too many changes, but DDLC's narrative cannot. Monika's frustration is a direct result of the fact that she's a supporting character in a dating sim, without a route for the player to pursue her. It is for this reason that she ends up changing the other characters to make the player dislike them and even taking away the player's options. At the very end, she even hijacks the poem creation mechanic so you can write a poem all about her.

In other words, the meta narrative interacts with the gameplay in a meaningful way that could only work with this specific genre. 

In conclusion, a lot of games have had a lot of great ideas about having their story or gameplay reach outside the boundaries of their software, but none did it in a way that had its genre cleverly tie into the meta part of its narrative and gameplay. None, that is, until Dan Salvato created Doki Doki Literature Club, where all the fourth wall breaking events are a consequence of an in-game character's frustration with the game and its genre conventions. Because the game establishes the formula of its gameplay and story in the first act, the changes in act 2 are all the more frightening and interesting. 

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Thanks for taking the time to read my personal thoughts on the meta narrative of Doki Doki Literature Club and various other games. Did I articulate my point well? Or wasn't I making much sense? Please feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments.


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MONIKA:
"You know..."
"This is just some kind of tacky romance game, right?"
"I kinda have to ask..."
"...What made you consider even playing in the first place?"
"Were you that lonely?"
"I feel a little bad for you..."
"But I guess everything worked out perfectly in the end, for both of us."
"I got to meet you, and you're not lonely anymore..."
"I can't help but feel like this was fate."
"Don't you feel that way too?"
"I'm so happy we have this ending together."

(source)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Some Thoughts on 'Doki Doki Literature Club!'

I generally use this blog to write longer articles analyzing certain details I like about games, but I'd like to change it up a bit and just offer my general thoughts on this remarkable visual novel. I may follow up with a more in-depth article in the future. I strongly recommend that you play it before reading this or any other material, since it is completely free:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/698780/Doki_Doki_Literature_Club/

Even if you don't mind the spoilers, we will be discussing a few disturbing topics. 

With that out of way, let's get started!

Doki Doki Literature Club! appears, on the surface, to be a pretty normal dating sim. Your only clue that something isn't right - if no one spoiled it for you - is a content warning near the start. Once you pass it, nothing could make you believe you're playing anything but a sweet little dating sim. Of course, you'll remember that content warning and the rumors you've heard and won't trust the game at first. But Doki Doki has a lot of tricks up its sleave to catch you off guard, no matter how well prepared you believe yourself to be.

Doki Doki sets up its story like any dating sim might, starting with a schoolday that our featureless protagonist begins with his childhood friend. She coaxes him into joining the literature club, causing him to be surrounded by 4 girls, 3 of which are romantic options in the game. Sayori is the aforementioned childhood friend, Natsuki is a rude and passionate girl who secretly loves cute things and Yuri is a shy and polite girl who not-so-secretly loves horror and dark subject matter. Monika is the friendly but somewhat passive leader of the literature club. You may notice that these girls generally fit into common anime and manga tropes. Natsuki, for instance, is a very clear example of a tsundere and the game even acknowledges this fact. Pointing out these tropes is not intended as a condemnation, as tropes are merely tools and how they're used, not if they're used, is decisive.

From left to right: Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri.

The skeptical player may expect the tropes to quickly give way to a horror experience of some kind, but as the story progresses the characters are fleshed out properly with unique illustrations for each character's 'route.' The game even has a unique system whereby, at the end of an in-game day, the player has to "write" a poem by selecting 20 words or subjects. Each word or subject appeals to a different girl, so your word choice will affect which of the girls will be most impressed with your work. Having well established characters and a distinctive mechanic very effectively sells Doki Doki as the cute dating sim it always seemed to be.


Doki Doki Literature Club continues its harmless streak for a long time. Even for a fast reader who isn't skipping anything, it may still take about an hour to reach the game's 'turning point.' It would, however, be unfair to claim that it takes an hour for the game to give you any clues. The girls' poems say a lot upon reflection, and Sayori's poems in particular. Depending on how much you read into her words, her eventual suicide will be more or less expected.

So, what started out as a sweet dating sim about poetry ended up taking a very dark turn where a character who had been struggling with depression commits suicide. It's a powerful twist and quite thought provoking, but skeptical players probably weren't too surprised. The game's presentation and mechanics may have lulled them into a sense of security, but as soon as the topic of depression came up, one could guess what might happen next.

Except, while Sayori's suicide marks the turning point, it's only the beginning of what lurks beyond the surface of Doki Doki Literature Club. As the player sees Sayori's hanging body, the game shows visual glitches and even programming errors before abruptly announcing 'END' and kicking you back to the title screen. Not only have all the player's files now been deleted, Sayori's picture on the title screen has been replaced with a glitchy mess and the 'new game' button is similarly unreadable. It's very obvious now that a lot more is going on in this game than just a dating sim with a dark twist at the end.

Unsettling glitches.

If the player gathers his or her courage and starts a new game, they'll start the story again... but in this version, Sayori never existed and the player character is directly invited to the literature club by Monika. The story seems quite similar, but it would be a mistake to simply skip through the text. The new playthrough is riddled with strange visual glitches and some of the character dialogue has been replaced with "interesting" lines that exaggerate the character's quirks.

Yuri's dark perspective becomes a lot more explicit.

Yuri and Natsuki, who had a passionate but friendly rivalry in the initial playthrough, interact in a much more aggressive way. This is notably the first time the game actually begins to use foul language; on a first playthrough the game's language is squeaky clean.


The tonal shift from the entire first playthrough is shocking and very effective.

And it's not just the character's tone or dialogue - many expectations that were set with the initial playthrough are turned on their head. On top of visual glitches, there are unusual zooms, distortions and filters. The text box can get interrupted mid-line and the player even receives unsettling "tutorial" messages. This contrasts strongly with the more static, traditional presentation the game maintains during the initial playthrough.


But what does all that amount to? To put it one way, meta horror or horror that breaks the fourth wall. Doki Doki Literature Club breaks your expectation of a visual novel by adding a dark twist. But then it breaks your expectation of the twist by adding a meta layer to it where the dead character is now deleted from the game and it's up to you to discover why, how and by who.

Recently, games like Undertale and Oneshot have used the world outside the confines of the game to strengthen their story and gameplay. Many games have broken the fourth wall over the years, often in the name of comedy, and the cult hit Eternal Darkness even used the fourth wall as its canvas for horror. But Doki Doki Literature Club's 'meta narrative' could only work for a visual novel, and in fact, could only ever work for a dating sim specifically. 

CONCLUSION (kind of):

Doki Doki Literature Club subverts your expectations not once, not twice, but many times. Its initial fun and charm make way for a depressing twist, followed by a terrifying mystery as you replay the game with one fewer character and completely different rules for the writing, visuals and tone. Clean writing becomes rough, with much more swearing and lots of glitched text. Static visuals with only subtle animations are replaced with unsettling zooms, filters and little animations. Some parts fast forward and some rewind, completely outside your control. The way it sets its expectations and then subverts them could only ever happen in a visual novel, and its 'meta narrative' where characters are changed or even deleted ties into this.

In a follow up article, I'll explain just why Doki Doki's 'meta horror' and 'meta narrative' is so well designed and so perfectly suited to a visual novel. I hope you'll join me for that one, but until then... I hope you have a great day! 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Patreon!

Hey!

This month, I've finally gotten my blog on the rails again. It reminded me of how much I love to write! And then I realized that sooner or later, my schedule will push it right back out of my life again. Instead of letting that get me down, I've thought of a possible solution: Patreon.

I have a lot of doubts about this - I don't have a consistent readership outside of my friends, and I'm not sure if there is a great market for this sort of thing - but why not give it a shot? It'll help me support my writing efforts and build and involve a community. You can check it out right here:

https://www.patreon.com/user?u=560203

I won't ever put articles behind a paywall, but you can find funny background stories and anecdotes if you decide to pledge!

Right, that's it for this update. We'll get back to Color Splash very soon!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Paper Mario: Color Splash Critique #1 - Streamlined, Yet Cumbersome

I recently finally got a chance to try Paper Mario: Color Splash. I've been a fan of the series from the very beginning, so I was interested to see the changes and how informed they are (or aren't) by proper game design. I want to make it clear that Color Splash is a fun game with a beautiful presentation, and this critique isn't intended to condemn all the work that went into it. In this first article, I'll examine my main problem with the game, the battle system, and how it tries and fails to streamline the series' formula.

Paper Mario: Color Splash's battle system is, in a word, odd. Rather than allowing the character a set amount of moves to strategize with, the player instead relies on a finite set of cards acquired or bought in the overworld. In that sense this is very much an evolution of the battle system present in Paper Mario: Sticker Star.


There really is no in game justification for why Mario requires cards to use the jump and hammer he is naturally armed with, but the lack of an in-world explanation doesn't necessarily condemn the battle system - only the degree to which it meets its intended goal does.

So what is its intended goal? It seems to me that Intelligent Systems attempted to streamline and simplify battles. Your average battle in Paper Mario: Color Splash takes one or two turns at most, for a few reasons: All attacks do a lot of damage (and that includes the enemies') and Mario can perform many actions in a one go. To name an extreme example: If you were two play 2 'worn-out hammer x 5' cards, you would be doing 10 hammer attacks in a single turn. You wouldn't be interrupted by any menus, everything would simply come down to your timing until your cards have run out of paint.


I understand and respect the basic idea of this system. You could potentially face down a tough group of enemies, and by choosing just the right cards in just the right order, defeat them before they land a hit on you. You can pack the strategy of what prior games would do in multiple turns, in just one. To further support this, the game always takes special note if you get through a battle without taking any damage and rewards you for it with a 'perfect bonus.'


That doesn't sound so bad, does it? But that's just the concept. Let's talk about the execution.

To choose your cards in Paper Mario: Color Splash, you are required to look down at the Wii U Gamepad. From there, you can choose your cards from a list. Unfortunately, however, the UI for selecting cards was obviously not designed with the sheer number of cards in mind. You might find yourself awkwardly dragging past a dozen of the same kind of card before finally finding what you want, even if you use the game's 'organize' button. Next, you have to drag said card - and later, cards - up to its spot to confirm you want to use it. Sounds pretty cumbersome, right? But it only gets worse.

Once you have selected your cards and confirmed your selection as a separate action, the game then requires you to paint in the cards. Even if all cards you selected were pre-filled, which they thankfully can be, the game still shows this screen and requires you to confirm that you are done painting the cards. If they weren't, you are expected to hold down on each card for a while to paint it. It's slow and feels extremely unnecessary. Why have a step deciding the strength of your cards when the cards themselves already do this? You have worn-out hammers, ordinary hammers and even big and giant hammers; and you can find and buy them at will. Other cards, like the jump, are much the same. Was the extra variable and the extra time it costs to fill in the cards really necessary or useful? Most of the time, you'll want to fill the entire card, since you're unlikely to ever run out of paint anyway. On top of that, Mario's attacks don't do a clear number of damage, so it's impossible to use an "informed" amount of paint.

So after making you find, select, drag, confirm, color and confirm your cards again, the game decides to waste your time just once more by forcing you to drag the cards up. After that, you're finally in business, and can perform Mario's attacks with their Action Commands as you would in any other Paper Mario.*

The underlying thought of the dragging is cute - you're sliding the cards from your Wii U screen up to your television - but the sheer amount of dragging and selecting actions the game asks you to take every turn makes me think they never tested it for extended periods of time.

Compare this to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, where it'll never take more than three button presses to start an attack - and it lets you actually select the enemy you want to attack, whereas Color Splash simply attacks the enemies in order, with the first card attacking the first enemy, and so on. Regardless of how many cards are at your disposal, it ends up limiting the player's choices in the end. In the end, the vast majority of them are simple variations of the hammer and jump attack.



In conclusion, Paper Mario: Color Splash had a good idea to streamline battles into intricately planned out turns, but the poor implementation of the Wii U Screen, cards and paint make it so cumbersome that each battle ends up taking an unnecessary amount of effort. The system absolutely does not lend itself for the amount of battles and how repetitive they are. Paper Mario: Color Splash, like its predecessor, tries and fails to streamline the perfectly convenient battle system of Paper Mario 1 and 2.

In the next article, 'Overworld Joys and Overworld Woes,' I'll discuss the overworld you navigate in Color Splash outside of battles. Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to your feedback.

* Update: On Reddit, I received a reaction about something I glossed over because I was too focused on the interface itself. In Paper Mario Color Splash, the Action Commands are almost exclusively timed button presses. In the first and second game, the Hammer Action Command worked by tilting the control stick, and there were a variation of Action Commands and stylish moves on top of that. This is another simplification that ends up making the battle system more tedious and monotonous than it could have been. Thanks for pointing this out, /u/rendumguy!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Breath of the Wild Discussion: A Post-Apocalypse Without Murder?

This article will contain spoilers from various games in the series, including Breath of the Wild, so read at your own discretion!

Back in March, Nintendo surprised the industry with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a huge open-world game and a complete change in direction for the series. The game has many merits, but today I'd like to discuss a strange rule the game seems to stick with: Link isn't allowed to kill anything that is - or looks - human. 

Breath of the Wild's world is populated with many monsters such as Bokoblins, Moblins, Lizalfos, Chuchus and Lynels. But seasoned fans of the series will notice a few fan favorites are missing: Poes, Gibdos, ReDeads, Stalfos and Stalchildren, for example.


ReDead from Ocarina of Time 3D. Source: http://zelda.gamepedia.com/ReDead

What do these enemies have in common? They are all undead people. (Though Nintendo has admittedly tried to retcon the ReDead into being a magical, non human creature.) Indeed, though Breath of the Wild has tension and atmosphere, it very rarely engages with the dark locations and enemy designs that Majora's Mask, Twilight Princess or even Ocarina of Time dealt with.

At this point, you may question the premise, pointing out that the absense of the aforementioned enemies simply resulted from Nintendo's choice to steer away from disturbing locations and enemies, and not actually a problem with killing humanoid enemies specifically. However, considering which enemies are in the game, the problem with this argument becomes clear: most common enemies have a 'Stal', or skeletal, equivalent.

Link fights a Stalnox. Source: Robinotta on YouTube

In other words, Nintendo had no problem involving undead skeletal enemies... so long as they weren't human or Hylian. On top of Stalnoxes, Breath of the Wild includes Stalkoblins, Stalmoblins and Stalizalfos, but the classic Stalfos and Stalchild - humanoid skeletons - are missing.

However, Breath of the Wild actually does have humanoid enemies. It's time to address the elephant in the room: The Yiga Clan.

Link is ambushed by a Yiga Clan assassin. Source: DivDee on YouTube

The Yiga Clan, though masked, are confirmed to be Sheikah defectors and thus part of the same race of people, and Link is able to fight them. However, the way these fights end proves the original premise furter: unlike monster enemies, which visibly die and drop guts and teeth, people of the Yiga Clan teleport away from Link when defeated, dropping only Mighty Bananas and money. They are completely unique in this regard.

The one exception is Master Kohga, who does seem to die after you defeat him.

Master Kohga in all his splendor. Source: Zelda Gamepedia


But rather than having Link strike him down, in the cutscene after his battle, Kohga brings about his own demise by summoning a large metal sphere which ends up pushing him into a chasm. Words don't do it justice; You can view the clip here.

And even Ganon himself, whose human form Ganondorf met a grisly end in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, has no such form in this game. Instead, his first form is a monstrosity with a vaguely human head.

Calamity Ganon. Source: Boss Fight Database on YouTube

Interestingly, though thousands must've died in the events leading up to Breath of the Wild, Link isn't allowed to seriously harm any human being, alive or undead. Human enemies are kept to a minimum, with even their skeletons replaced by those of standard enemies, and human enemies that do appear aren't killed. That's why I think Nintendo consciously decided that Link wasn't allowed to kill any human in Breath of the Wild. 

That's my conclusion from these design choices, but I could be completely wrong. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on why Nintendo made these choices, and whether or not you feel there is any meaning to them at all. Depending on responses, I may write a follow up to address the best arguments and theories. 


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Choosing Through Gameplay in Undertale, Part 2

In part 1, we discussed the implementation of player choice in Undertale. I argued that the battle system was a great vehicle for organic choices, but that the impact of choices in the overworld left something to be desired. At the end, I conceded that there are certain choices in the overworld that do have a major impact. In this article, I'd like to have a closer look at those choices, how exactly they do affect the game and what I think about them. 

Let's get right into it. The most important choices in the overworld concern three story-critical characters.

First up, there's Papyrus. None of the dialogue choices with Papyrus matter at any point. All that matters is that, after Sparing him in battle, the player visits him at his home and agrees to have a "date." This date consists of more dialogue and choices without consequence, though it is a very charming scene. It is a shame, though, because the 'date' switches to a perspective and style similar to the game's battles; it would've been great to forge a more specific relationship with Papyrus through it.


Once the player has "dated" Papyrus, he is seen as befriended, a fact that will contribute to getting the 'true pacifist' ending. This will also allow the player to later befriend Undyne, but let's start at the beginning with her.

The first meaningful choice concerning Undyne starts with Monster Kid, who follows the player around Waterfall for some time. Near the end of the area, Monster Kid trips and hangs from a ledge, pleading for the player to save them. The player can choose to walk away, approach Undyne, simply stand and watch or save the Monster Kid - a real choice using the overworld's mechanics. If the player does not approach and interact with Monster Kid, they will fall and Undyne will jump after them to save them. This doesn't have any effect on the ending, but it does change some of Undyne and Monster Kid's dialogue. The really interesting part, though, is that it decreases Undyne's health if she had to jump down. The dialogue in the scene actually hints at this fact.


The effect of this choice is minor but I really respect its inclusion. The fact that such a clever and natural way for a choice in the overworld to affect the subsequent battle is included really makes me wonder why it isn't more common in the game.

But the interesting choices and interactions with the overworld involving Undyne don't stop there. If the player follows the Pacifist route, the only way to Spare Undyne is to run away from her and run away to the next area. This area, aptly named Hotland, causes Undyne's armor to heat up, after which she collapses. A convenient water cooler is the only thing in sight, clearly instructing the player what should be done.


Though I appreciate having another meaningful choice in the overworld, this choice is notable because it's the only choice that can outright lock you out of acquiring the 'true pacifist' ending. If the player ignores Undyne, or worse, pours all of the water on the ground, Undyne will spend the rest of the game in her house because she's suffering from heatstroke. Thus, she is impossible to befriend, and as a result, the player cannot befriend Alpys either. This means the True Lab will not be discovered and the player's friends will not interfere with the battle against Asgore, making the true pacifist ending impossible to acquire on this run.

So, arguably, this moment is exactly what I was asking for in my previous article. However, the problem presents itself when we consider the following facts:

1. Unlike the "dates," this interaction can be missed permanently if the player moves on without giving Undyne the water.
2. It's the only choice of its kind, meaning an explorative or comedically inclined player may intentionally pour all the water out or ignore Undyne as a joke or to see what happens, without realizing what they missed, because prior choices in the overworld never had any permanent consequences - including calling Papyrus a 'loser' and answering negatively to each and every one of this questions in the "date." 
3. It's only barely a choice, due to how obvious the 'right solution' is.

A sensible counterargument to point 2 would be that the choice is also unique in the sense that someone is obviously in danger, which only ever happens with Monster Kid and Undyne. I agree that there is some precedent for the kind of choice it is, but not necessarily for the kind of consequences it implies. Monster Kid gets saved regardless, and Undyne doesn't even die, but you're still locked out of the true pacifist ending.

On point 3, it's easy to argue that the obviousness of the solution also invalidates my critique of its consequences - but in that case, why is it a choice at all?

It may sound like I'm contradicting myself on what I think about this choice, so I'll summarize how I would've preferred it to be. Either...
- The context of the choice is more serious and presented more like a choice, or
- The impact of the choice is diminished.
Essentially, I don't have a problem with this kind of choice, nor with that kind of consequence. I just find attaching such a particularly serious consequence to such a simple and almost funny choice to be a bit out of place, especially because it happens nowhere else at any point. But I'll be the first to admit that this is a nitpicky complaint; it is a choice with consequences and it is in the overworld, so I'm still glad that it exists.

Once Undyne is properly Spared and watered, she can be met and "dated" much like Papyrus. And exactly like in Papyrus' date, nothing you choose makes a difference. You can explicitly state you do not want to be her friend, but you will end up as her friend regardless.



It's still good that the player has to go out of their way to visit Undyne after reaching Hotland, making the "date" a very conscious choice, but I still would've liked some variation within the the date itself and the player's relationship with Undyne.

After Papyrus and Undyne have been dated, the player must first see the Neutral Ending before they can befriend Alphys. I've already overanalyzed this odd requirement to pieces in another article, which you can read by clicking here. If the player dates Undyne before seeing the Neutral Ending, she will call them upon their return from the Core, asking to visit her in Snowdin so she can hand over a letter to Alphys. If the player dates Undyne after seeing the Neutral Ending, she'll give the letter immediately after the date, provided the player has passed through Hotland already.

Giving the letter to Alphys will initiate the third and final date, which is once again filled with many entertaining choices but nothing that'll ultimately impact the ending or overworld.


After Papyrus, Undyne and Alphys have been befriended, the player will gain access to the 'True Lab,' where much of the game's backstory is revealed. Successfully completing the True Lab and facing Asgore at LV1 with 0 EXP will then lead the player to the true final battle and the true pacifist ending.

That about does it for the story critical decisions in the overworld. Before I move onto my conclusion, there's one tool for connecting the overworld and battles that I haven't yet covered and which is used to great effect: Items. The reason I haven't featured them prominently is because they are almost exclusively used in battle, but it would be a shame not to mention some of the clever hidden interactions:
- If the player saves the butterscotch-cinnamon pie they get from Toriel in the Ruins all the way until they reach the fight with Asgore and eat it then, it will decrease Asgore's attack and defense. 
- If the player saves an item purchased from the Spider Bakesale in the Ruins and eats in front of Muffet, she will Spare the player immediately. 



As cool as these easter eggs are, however, they don't influence the story or ending.

What all this amounts to is that there are 4 choices in the overworld, outside of battle, that influence the player's ability to get to the true pacifist ending. To summarize them once more:
Dating Papyrus, giving Undyne water, dating Undyne and dating Alphys. The inclusion of such choices is, in my opinion, a positive - but I would've liked there to be more choices, or for the choices to have more options than a single date per character that decides whether or not you were a 'good enough' friend. However, credit where credit is due: Undertale's overworld is not a place without consequence, and the overworld and battle system aren't always completely disconnected.

If I missed any important choices or if there's something I got wrong, please feel free to post your feedback!


Friday, January 6, 2017

Choosing Through Gameplay In Undertale, Part 1

In many RPGs, the overworld holds the story while the battle system holds the gameplay. The result is choices are made outside of the game's primary game mechanics, through something like a dialogue system or choice-based menu.  Undertale approaches its choices a little differently, and I'd like to discuss the successes and failures of that approach in this piece.

It's been over a year since Undertale was released. Its story, characters and music have made a permanent mark on the Internet and pop culture. A year ago, I joined in on the conversation and wrote a piece about Undertale's design and narrative. I argued that, based on Undertale's design, Toby Fox had intended the player to kill Toriel on their initial playthrough.

Looking back on the article now, I discussed how the game's mechanics were explained, but I spent very little time on the actual mechanics themselves - and how they reflect on the game's choice based narrative. I'd like to shed some light on that particular facet of Undertale now.

The fact of the matter is really quite simple: Undertale's choices are almost exclusively presented through its battle system. Each monster you encounter can be approached in several ways - by simply fighting them until they die, by convincing them to spare you and surprise attacking them, by befriending them and sparing them or simply by running away. All of these possibilities are presented through the game's battle system, with its four-option menu of FIGHT, ACT, ITEM and MERCY.


Such a system should be commended for the way it allows players to make their choice organically. But where does that leave the overworld and all the scenes that occur outside battles?

Like many RPGs of its kind, Undertale has a lot of text to read. There are hundreds of dialogues and descriptions, some of which change based on the player's prior choices. For an impatient player, it could quickly become cumbersome to have to read so much uninterrupted text. This is why Undertale smartly breaks up many of its conversations with choices as well.


But these choices ultimately don't influence the gameplay. All you'll get for your choice is a unique few lines of dialogue, with perhaps a wink back to your earlier decision later down the line. But a choice made during dialogue never influences the game's overarching story or the game's ending.

Is that a negative? I feel that it is, but it'll ultimately depend on the person playing the game. I would've liked it if your choices had a greater impact on the flow of the story, or even just the dialogue, since most dialogues return to a set path shortly after a unique choice has been made. To take it one step further, I feel like there could've been more nuance; characters are simply spared or not spared, and befriended or not befriended. What if the sum of your behaviour could form a unique type of friendship or relationship with the characters? However, I realize that this hypothetical demands a lot, and perhaps isn't fair. After all, we must not forget that the game was developed by a single person. Regardless, I would've liked to see just a bit more consequence in the choices made during dialogues or in the overworld.

Perceptive readers may have two complaints about my assessment so far;
1. I commended the battle system for allowing organic choices.
2. I stated only most of the choices in the overworld do not affect the story.

To address the first point: that is true. And I wouldn't have anything more to say about choices in the overworld if Undertale was a bog standard JRPG where the overworld served only as a pathway to new battles - however, Undertale's overworld itself also holds gameplay in the form of various puzzles (like Papyrus') and even mini-games (like Mettaton's). Not to mention, the dialogue in the overworld is almost consistently important to understand the characters' history and motivations, and for this reason, it regularly interrupts the gameplay. For those reasons, I really would've liked it if the player's choices in the dialogue and overworld had more of an impact.

About point 2: I hinted at this before, but there are a few choices in the overworld that do make a difference, specifically by influencing the ending. The choices concerning Undyne are particularly interesting in this regard. 

To summarize what we've discussed so far, Undertale allows for the player to make organic choices in its battle system, but the choices in the overworld lack impact, even though a significant chunk of the game's story and mechanics do take place outside of battle. Please join me in part 2 as we delve deeper into Undertale's significant overworld choices and how they reflect on the game in general.

Feedback is appreciated!