Monday, January 11, 2016

Distrusting Undertale

To cut the Gordian Knot immediately, my feelings are that Undertale's much-discussed combat mechanic – what folks refer to as the "bullet hell" or "shmup" or "WarioWare" segments, in which you dodge attacks in a 2D space – is good design, poorly executed. The hitbox on your SOUL (the little floating heart) feels, if not terrible, then at least bad. The requirements that are placed on its visual design by the work being done by the game's aesthetic means that it has a hard upper limit on the possibility of difficulty, past which the combination of dexterity and pattern recognition feels like pointless apophenia. The most relevant, though, in terms including what follows, what makes it good, and what makes it poor, is how – even as someone who very much enjoys (being completely terrible at) shmups – it remained completely unengaging throughout my entire time with the game.

The good design element of this seems potentially obvious; the degree to which Undertale incentivizes a 'pacifist' run is hard to overstate, but is also almost entirely done through things like dialogue and information written directly to the player's computer. The incentives for the "no mercy" run are more oblique; it relies on knowledge and expectations built of genre, intuitive mechanical prompts, and a desire to, in Michael Lutz' words, "investigate[] the metaphysics of it all." One might go so far as to argue that Undertale is a direct dramatization of Ludonarrative Dissonance (LND); pressing buttons and strategizing on how better to press those buttons suggests one route, while the words read suggest the opposite. But rather than resulting in a potential incoherence, both of these suggestions are folded into the broader text as complimentary aspects. The longer I sit with Undertale, however, the more I find this kind of reading to be suspect.

* * * * *

I would consider the Michael Lutz essay quoted above, "20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique," nearly as much of a source text as Undertale itself for this post. His post makes a strong argument; I will quote his 5th paragraph here in full, because I think it is the best encapsulation of the thrust of the argument:
Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.
Some unpacking of this, before we get back to Undertale itself; Lutz' critique, in my reading, boils down to an intentional reading of the game as a coherent, more-or-less self-contained text, and the problems that reading it in that way poses for the apparent arguments that it makes at the player. He supports this, crucially, by reading the metafictional elements as binding in this way, which seems to me a very strong reading; the way that Undertale carries decisions across apparently-discrete plays, or refuses to allow the player to undo certain things, and then also reintroduces those refusals into the narrative makes that reading seem nearly inevitable.

Lutz also cites Jake Muncy's "Undertale's Not As Peaceful As It Pretends," which is largely concerned with the way that Undertale communicates its own arguments. For Muncy, the communication breakdown is largely mechanical; Muncy asserts that she is the sort of player who "tr[ies] to play games the way they seem to want to be played," and that Undertale's mechanical obfuscations are such that Muncy is be able to understand the game's desire but be unable to act upon it. Muncy cites Aevee Bee's "The Tyranny of Choice," which, at least in my reading, is completely incongruous with Muncy's broader argument. I feel that I should say, before continuing, that I consider Muncy's article very good, regardless of this.

In "The Tyranny of Choice," Bee argues that systems as such are monological, no matter how much (or little) they produce or represent dialogue. In her words:
I believe systems are statements. Not always restrictive or exploitative of hateful, but always statements. Statements about what choices are allowed. Statements about the limits of freedom. Statements about what categories exist, and what it means to belong to them.
Bee intentionally conflates two uses of the word "systems" throughout the latter half of her article. Both refer to an abstraction that might be called rules: on one hand are the "systems" of videogames, which (I interpret as) a sort of fractal version of the jargon "mechanics," meaning either an individual action allowed to the player or a collection of the same (at any level), and on the other are the "systems" of social being, or the particular ways in which living in the world are organized according to the logics and requirements of the (to shift to my own interpretive frame, which I cannot claim she shares) mode of production. The conflation serves to allow Bee to explore a common quality to both: what might be called their capacity to enunciate, or, in her words, their status as statements.

Had Muncy's article continued with the analysis suggested by its opening line – "It was about an hour into Undertale when I lost my ability to trust it" – the use of Bee's "The Tyranny of Choice" would have made, to me at least, significantly more sense. If we assume that the "systems" Bee is discussing sit at the broadest level – an assumption made (perhaps too) easy by the conflation with societal systems – then the inability to trust Undertale should be a fundamental aspect of it as a statement, rather than a grievance to be aired. And this is a reading that I can see the merit of: Undertale is a game that does not trust its players, after all, that deems it necessary to regularly remind the player that it is skulking behind their back, and that constantly "subverts expectations," requiring the player to continually re-examine what they trust they know. This is largely viewed as a good thing, an argument for its freshness and importance and joy.

Undertale's lack of trust, or its untrustworthiness, is an aspect of its statement. This is why, or reflected in, how the bounding box in the battle defense sequence will occasionally mutate or bring new affordances. It is reflected in the ultimate ending, in the emergence of "chara" who Lutz calls the "real villain" and "radically evil" in a world where both of those things are constantly denied.

This is, I think, where I differ from Lutz' argument; his claim that "games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay" is meant to underscore how he approaches "the project as a whole," but this seems to me to be an approach to the (to return to Bee's terminology) statement as a whole. That is, Bee sees the system itself as monological, but affords space for the act of play (and interpretation and so on) as dialogical. As I read it, Lutz, much like Muncy, takes issue with the system as dialogue. I tend more toward how I read Bee's essay: a game itself, for purposes of interpretation at least, can be polyvocal, but it can never be anything but a monologue. And I would go even further: as a monologue, a game cannot contradict itself, at least insofar as a contradiction is conceived of as an endpoint; it can only modulate itself in ways that reveal or obscure its character.

* * * * *

The argument that posits Undertale as an expression of LND – an argument that, I should be clear, I have not encountered (to the best of my knowledge) but that I was at one point inclined to make – brings up a host of issues, all of which I find it difficult to address. The main one, though, is linked to the question of trust; if Undertale is fundamentally claiming its own untrustworthiness, then what would LND even look like?

Clint Hocking originally formulated LND in terms of two contracts: the "ludic contract" and the "narrative contract," and used it to critique not just how Bioshock (could) read differently than it played, but how its ultimate twist glossed over that difference in a way he found insulting of the player's trust in the game. In his words:
[Bioshock] openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it.

The feeling is reminiscent of the Ikea commercial where we are mocked for feeling sorry for the lamp. But instead of being tricked by a quirky 60 second ad, we are mocked after a 20 hour commitment for having sympathy for the limitations of a medium. The ‘twist’ in the plot is a dues ex machina built upon the very weaknesses of game stories that we – as players – agree to accept in order to have some sort of narrative framework to flavor our fiddling about with mechanics. To mock us for accepting the weaknesses of the medium not only insults the player, but it’s really kind of ‘out of bounds’ (except as comedy or as a meta element – of which it appears to be neither).
His parenthetical feels almost prescient; what could be dissonant in Undertale is charming, rather than 'out of bounds,' largely because it is metafictional and/or comedic. The language of contracts – and "willingly" and "tricked" and "agree" and "accept" – is revealing. Even LND, that headiest of jargon, a concept that I think primarily concerns craft rather than interpretation, is predicated on trust and dialogue.

To make, quickly, a Derridean aside: in positing a binary, LND as a concept is fundamentally concerned with unity. It makes no sense without the trace of holism, without the presupposition that not only is the text itself singular, but that each of its constituents elements are as well, and that they can be extricated and examined in their relation to the core unity. This is why I think of it in terms of craft: it is an aspect that can be workshopped, rather than one that speaks to the world, the reader, the mode of production, and so on. "Systems as statements," on the other hand, in explicitly excluding the possibility of reading a system itself as dialogical, seems to me to suggest the very possibility of that kind of speaking.

I find the LND reading of Undertale suspect because I agree with Lutz' reading of its metafiction, and because I find Muncy's problems with the game absolutely accurate. This is why I can claim the shmup segments of Undertale are well designed, while still refusing the argument that they are somehow morally righteous (or even engaged) or that they can be defended by claiming one need only 'get good.' They work because they are a breach of trust, because Undertale itself neither trusts you nor wishes to be trusted, no matter how much it wishes to convey its message of friendship. Were the game fundamentally a dramatization of LND, it would be not only a game described in terms of craft, trust would be a simple prerequisite, and nothing more.

9/16; minor changes