Thursday, December 3, 2015

Undertale: A Study In Curiosity and Trangression

I'm used to being scolded by games when I play them.

It's rude to read a diary that isn't yours!

This isn't your bed!  You can't sleep there!

Hey!  That's private!

But what can I say?  Doing those things is a part of who I am.  Given the opportunity, as an in-game player I like doing everything that seems like it might be possible.  I go through people's diaries and sometimes their garbage.  I sleep in other people's beds.  I walk through doors that are meant to keep me out.  And what I've found is that while games often play at encouraging curiosity, they often limit it purposefully - most often as a way to keep you glued to the narrative or to a particular persona.  You can talk to everybody in town, but you can't read that diary - at least not yet.  You can go everywhere you want, except not there, to the place where the plot isn't ready to take you.

And then I played Undertale.

It's Goat Mom!

Half an hour into the game, I found myself facing all sorts of choices that tested my curiosity and precisely how transgressive I wanted to be.  Like Hey, that nice goat lady told me to stay here.  But I'm supposed to go outside, I think.  ...maybe.  I want to go outside.  Even though she said I shouldn't.  Or this frog seems nice...should I kill it?  What happens if I don't?  Does it matter if I do? And then later, frantically: Oh shit, I killed goat mom and she was so nice and I don't think I meant to and I don't know if I want to even if I should and...I can go back, right?  It's not like the game will remember if I just reload from the last save, right?

Believe me when I say that there are plenty of reasons to love this game, most of which I'm sure have been covered elsewhere: unique and quirky characters with tons of heart, a sense of tender creativity inherent in everything, challenging battles, a killer soundtrack.  But what I want to talk about in this particular review is how Undertale prioritizes a spirit of curiosity, and how the game is unafraid to let that curiosity have free reign - even if, and when, the consequences are regrettable.

Meet Muffet.  She's the head of all the spider bake sales.  Seriously, save that doughnut.
 The first and most immediate joy of the game, after all, is the small-scale sense of curiosity that the player character can satisfy at will with any number of myriad random encounters and events.  Want to go on a date with a skeleton?  You can.  Want to take a piece of a snowman with you to see the world, or buy a doughnut at a spider bake sale just to see what happens?  Go right ahead.   Some of these choices have consequences later in the game (keep that spider doughnut to save yourself a world of pain, bro), but others are simply fun.  Undertale uses these curiosities to build a strange, sympathetic, and beautiful world where monsters somehow manage to live on in hope and happiness despite never seeing "the surface."

Hoi!  ...this is Temmie.
This simple, small-joys curiosity extends to the battles, too.  Don't feel like fighting?  Choose the Act menu and see what works for you today.  You often have a number of actions available to you, and while they might not end the fight, they'll make something happen.  Pet a dog so that he'll keep getting longer...and longer...  Bring a flirting couple together.  Flee the battle and poke around.  And hey, send Temmie to college!  As a gamer, I enjoy those moments: the ones where I feel free to just see what ifUndertale is full of those; it wants you to be invested in the world it has to offer.  While the game's plot is fairly straightforward in terms of progression, you'll always benefit if you wander off the beaten path or talk to every character you can find.  Even the minor characters change and grow.  Early on in the game I stumbled onto a comedian owl-monster who was not all that funny, and who lamented that his wife and son had disappeared.  I chucked away the conversation I had with him only to be startled at game's end to see him pop up again - and to realize that both his wife and son had returned, and that they played a small role in a major plot point. This careful weaving-together of threads is a big plus of the game in general.

I cherish this murder flower.  His name is Flowey. Don't you judge me.
However, Undertale also chooses to interrogate the nature of curiosity beyond those small let's-see opportunities.  Because curiosity is not always only innocent.  If you've ever been around small kids, you understand this: the same inquisitive nature that leads a little one to, say, pick a bunch of flowers and throw them up in the air can also lead them to yank the tail of a living creature. Curiosity can be both innocent and malicious, and sometimes both at the same time; as a mode of learning about the world (or asking "what if?") it can cause as much harm as good.  And Undertale understands this.  It wants the player to understand this, too.

At the heart of this game exists a question both interesting and painful: what is it that you want to do?  Your consistent in-game answer to this question determines the nature and, to some degree, the very tone of the game.  You can keep it sweet and tender and hopeful if that's what you prefer: you can choose to use your curiosity about this world and the monsters in it as a means to noble ends.  Fundamentally, in that scenario, your curiosity fuels the determination that eventually changes everything, both for you and for the monsters longing to see the surface.  But if you choose to indulge a darker curiosity - if you're the sort of player who wants to pull on a cat's tail - matters can quickly become very, very dark.

If you're not careful with your choices, you might have a bad time.

What's interesting to me, though, is that Undertale is often interested in functioning beyond this a simple binary.  At times in the game, even on the best possible run, a transgressive curiosity is necessary.  And inhabiting that transgressive curiosity can be an uncomfortable experience.  I ran into this at the very beginning of the game, when Toriel (Goat Mom!) implores me to stay put in my room for my own good.  I waited around briefly, then thought, "Maybe I'm supposed to leave."  So leave I did, against her orders, and when my disobedience led to a fight against her my joy at having progressed was tempered by a slew of questions (since I refused to play with a walkthrough): Was it really okay to leave?  Was there a way to avoid the fight?  Should I have?  And now that I was in a fight with a character I very much liked, what should I do?

At one point early on, before I realized the fundamental nature of the game and the nature of the choices I needed to make, I opted to kill an important character.  I liked this particular character a lot, but wanted to see just what would happen if I killed him. Would he really die?  Would I feel bad about it? As it turned out, his death scene was so sad that I reloaded my original save, refusing to allow it to happen again.  Even doing so, I couldn't play from then on with a clean conscience - I couldn't forget that I was a player who had done that.  And the unsettling brilliance of Undertale is that the game won't forget, either.  In every situation, you have the chance to employ (and sometimes need to employ) your inquisitive nature - and yet while the consequences are sometimes good, for the player without a walkthrough they can be unpredictable, and sometimes painful, too.

The reason Undertale succeeds at this is because it demands your emotional investment even as it cultivates and demands a sense of curiosity from you.  In Snowdin and Hotland you meet monsters who are sweet and kind and sometimes bizarre, but all struggling with the day-to-day business of life.  You learn that they fear humans (and that humans can be monsters, too).  You learn that Papyrus the skeleton is a big dork who wants to make friends with everyone, and that the Royal Guard Undyne has a crush on the weeaboo scientist Alphys.  You learn that it's fun to go eat hamburgers with Papyrus' brother Sans, who loves puns.  You can engage in a pose-off television show with the fiercest robot to ever grace a video game, and you can cheer on a crying ghost.  And at the end of the game, on the "best" ending, you come to understand that great evil and hatred can sprout from a heart of unspeakable gentleness and care.

One way or another, this game intends to break your heart.

And that's as it should be.  It's impossible to experience these things in-game and not be moved - and in a world where curiosity reigns, it's impossible to predict every result, and sometimes even to get a happy ending for everyone.  As a result, it's impossible to fulfill your curiosity without, at times, having one hand over your eyes.  Undertale has the ability to bring players to a place where they fear what will result from their choices, but still want to step forward and test the unknown.  It's a heady feeling.

 At the beginning of the game, the not-so-innocent flower Flowey presents you with a question: kill or be killed?  Soon enough in the game, more  difficult questions follow.  Will your desire to get through the damn game already turn you into a killing machine?  Will you spare lives even when you're forced to face a relentless murderer?  Will you only spare the lives you like?  What happens if you spare everyone - or if you don't?  And what will you do when sparing someone isn't an option?

The beauty of Undertale is that it moves those questions from the realm of abstract theorizing into a colorful, undeniable reality.  Your actions in-game have consequences, and as a player you begin to sense that how you are playing, or pretending to play, or how you really want to play, is telling you a lot about yourself and the sort of curiosity you have.  Sometimes, to be a kind player in-game your curiosity forces you to transgress, to disobey others or to make your own way.  At other times, you have the chance to explore how much cruelty is too much for you to bear.

Because curiosity isn't always innocent.  It isn't always harmful, either.  In recognizing this, Undertale - a game full of so much heart it almost hurts - opens the door to a world of possibilities both dark and light.

What is it that you want to do?

Until you play, you'll never really know.


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