I am not lost…

February 29, 2016

Alternate Storytelling: Video Games

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw me retweet this excellent blog post from Chuck Wendig looking at the game Firewatch and how it tells a story, and what we can learn from its methods. I’ve seen a lot of mixed reviews on Firewatch, and I can see the truth in both sides. This got me thinking, though. I’ve talked about non-traditional storytelling before, and also that I love the methods of storytelling I’ve seen in video games. So how could I pass up the opportunity to talk about one of the video games I’ve played lately that I think has changed the way games tell stories completely?

Let’s talk UNDERTALE. (There may be spoilers below, but I’ll point them out before I say anything, in case you haven’t played the game yet. …And you should. Go play. Right now.)

So Undertale. If you’re unfortunate enough to be around me in person lately, you’ve probably heard me talk about this – a lot. It’s been on my mind so much, and it’s because of one of the core tricks the game has up its sleeve. One of my favorite things that a video game can do is allow the player’s choices to affect the outcome of the game. Most games will give you a choice, and it may change some pieces, but not actually alter how the game ends dramatically. (Firewatch, for instance.) Until Dawn takes it step further, as does Heavy Rain, where if a character dies under your control, the game continues on without them–which can change the fate of other characters. The game can actually end with all your characters dead.

Undertale goes one step further. One wrong move in the RUINS, and you ruin the ending irreparably.

There are three major endings to Undertale: the true pacifist, the neutral, and the no mercy/genocide route. There are versions of the neutral route, but they all indicate one thing: you killed at least some of the monsters, boss or otherwise. Yes–any monster you come across counts. The tag line of “the RPG where you don’t have to kill anyone” is absolutely serious. There are ways out of pretty much every fight. As someone who struggles to beat boss battles in pretty much any video game, this appeals to me. Don’t have to fight? Just have to trick them into not fighting you? Awesome. This is my kind of game.

And then I got into the game, and the characters captured me so well, there was no way I could have killed them in the first place.

I’ve always said that character is one of the most important things in story to me, and Undertale knows how to do this in spades. From the very first moment, they catch you in the heartstrings with Toriel (the first character you meet, and a clever play on “tutorial”) and never let you go. Sans, the comic skeleton who speaks in exactly the font you’d expect; his over-the-top brother Papyrus; the leader of the Royal Guard, Undyne; the royal scientist, Alphys…the list keeps going on. The true pacifist route (which I found out can only be reached after completing a neutral run) is a journey of feelings and emotions, and it’s left more than one player in tears by the end. It’s touching and engaging and adorable.

And then you come across the no mercy route. (PROBABLE SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE NO MERCY/GENOCIDE ROUTE) (NO SERIOUSLY, GET OUT IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS) (THE CREATOR HIMSELF SAID YOU SHOULD EXPERIENCE THIS YOURSELF, GO AWAY) (OKAY, LAST CHANCE)

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Okay, everyone gone? Cool.

The basic story of the pacifist route is that long ago, a human named Chara (or whatever you name your character, though Chara is the “canon” name) fell into the underground and was found by the prince, Asriel. They became good friends, until Chara got sick and died. Asriel, in trying to complete Chara’s last wish, goes up to the surface, is attacked by the humans, and comes back to the underground to die. The kingdom is devastated, the queen leaves, and Asriel becomes a flower. (I’m still a little fuzzy on how that happens, but I know Alphys is involved.) When you–the player–fall in, everyone believes you are Chara (again, or whatever you named yourself) until the end with Asriel reveals that you can’t possibly be Chara, and asks you your real name. You are Frisk. (You have no say in this matter, as the player.) All ends happily, and Frisk and company return to the surface. Hooray!

When you begin the genocide route, you become Chara. (Or rather, Chara becomes you.) The spirit of the dead child has found Frisk, and is using their SOUL/determination to reincarnate–and kill everything. EVERYTHING. It is heartbreaking to watch the destruction of these characters you’ve grown to love–and even worse in that you get no closure with them. There are little to no final monologues, no passing wisdom. Just dust, death, and silence. You are truly dead inside by the time you reach the final boss…who’s been watching you this whole time.

Sans.

He’s described as being the easiest foe in the game. 1 ATK, 1 DEF. Only deals 1 damage. He should be a cinch. …He’s not. Not at all. Sans will devastate you time and time again–and you learn that Sans is also one of the two characters in the game besides you who recognize that the timeline jumps around. You have a save point to return to, and Sans knows it. He keeps track of how many times he’s killed you. He remembers that you’ve been here before as a friend, and tries to reach out to the Frisk he remembers. And he is royally pissed off that you killed all his friends.

His final words, when you at last manage to beat him, are some of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve ever seen. I will never forget them.

After that, the final moments with the actual Chara are simply empty. Nothing you do can reach you. Chara suggests you destroy the entire world, and no matter what you pick, it is destroyed. In order to return to the game, you have to wait 10 minutes in a vast emptiness and then exchange your SOUL to make the underground reappear. And if you ever try to go back to your happy pacifist ending, Chara makes it very clear that you will never be the same, and your happy ending is truly gone for good.

It’s terrifying. And I love it.

This is what good storytelling is. This is what character should do. This is what we should all be striving for–and it came out of a predominantly one-man show, who made a video game through Kickstarter, and just wanted to have some fun with a game he could beat. Toby Fox, you truly are a genius, and if I can ever come close to creating a world as real as Undertale, I’ll be thrilled.

Stories can be told in so many ways. It’s nice to see the world reaching out to embrace every opportunity we can get.

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