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!