John Alexander Espinosa
ENGL 255-B Videogames as/and Literature
Professor Carolyn Jong
It is a fairly safe assumption to say that the human race has always been obsessed with the act of storytelling. One can see all throughout human history from ancient cave painting to renaissance poetry, that the desire to tell stories has been part of the human condition for a long time. Thus, it is easy to see how storytelling has continued to be so abundant in modern day society in so many ways. Nowadays, society has books, movies, and theater, which are all story telling mediums designed to help us convey our own stories to the world. It is easy to see why humans would want a say in the stories they experience in order to put their own spin on these tales and connect more with them. This desire is where video games are commonly associated given their ability to give control to the audience thereby resulting in a more interactive storytelling experience compared to other art forms (Thue, 2007). However, video games seem to fall short of a completely interactive story due to the limited amount of options the player has that affect the game’s narrative. This is commonly due to rising development costs or the limitations of game systems. Video games tend to be stuck within tightly constructed parameters that ultimately place limitations on what a player can do. A truly interactive game allows the player to do whatever they want at any point in the narrative and continues to change within the story, while accommodating for those actions. Even games like Undertale; a game heralded for its ability to make players actions matter to the story, is still trapped behind the parameters of the medium of video games and is ultimately incapable of giving players a truly interactive experience (Neeves).
If we pay attention to the shortcoming of video games as an interactive medium in relation to a truly interactive experience, we must first try and imagine the logical extent of a truly interactive story where the player can affect all elements that happen within the narrative spectrum, instead of just those that the developers have accounted for. To the current knowledge of those writing this piece, there is no game that exist which truly allows one to affect all the elements of a story. The only game commonly mentioned for its ability to do so is the fantasy role-playing board game Dungeons and Dragons or D&D for short (Montfort, 2003, Porpentine,2012). In comparison to this game, one can see just how far video game narratives must go to be considered interactive. In D&D, any scenario can happen at almost any time during a game, so long as the player has enough ingenuity, thus changing the whole nature of the story around them. For example, the dungeon master (for those that do not know the dungeon master is the player who orchestrates the story, think of them like the system of the video game) wants the other players to fight a demon. Here, the players have the ability to choose to fight said demon or any number of other things. Another example can be if one player decides they want to create an in-game religion based off a popular 80’s tv show character, they are capable of doing so instead of fighting the demon. This may seem odd, but it is a theoretical possibility in a truly interactive world. One must be able to completely ignore the actual story and make it their own no matter how strange it may be. In this case, the dungeon master must now adapt and change the story around the player’s choices, creating a new task for the players that either aligns with their actions or tries to get them back on the original narrative path. In D&D, at every point in the story, players can always choose to do something that will change the nature of what is going on based off of their choices (Cook, Tweet, and Williams. 2003). As we see in Undertale, there are some elements of interactivity in the way you solve a problem or interact with a character. You can do so by either choosing the aggressive or pacifist paths, but it is always limited to the structure of the game itself. It is true that one can choose to kill almost any non-player character in the game during the aggressive playthrough, but only though the combat where the game allows you to do so (Fox, 2015). If the player, for whatever reason, just wants to burn down the main in-game village, the game does not allow you to do so because it was not planned for such an action. This puts it in direct contrast to the D&D world, where the dungeon master must accept whatever lunacy the player comes up with and hence shifts the story at any point to accommodate it. To refer to video games a truly interactive medium is ultimately a false one given said limitation.
When playing an independent game such as Undertale, it is important to take into consideration the technical limitations that come with it. Because of its low budget, Undertale was not blessed with an outstanding crew and development company behind it’s creation, hence the reason it is so simple to purchase and play. While strolling through the game, there is a sense of nostalgia. The game is in 8-bit form, which is reminiscent of all the childhood Nintendo games, reminding us of our youth. Unlike those classic Nintendo games, Undertale does not require the player to jump from one platform to another, or to kill evil mushrooms and jump over barrels; it forces you to make moral decisions and completely reconstructing each player’s storyline in doing so.
When developing a new game, creators believe that the more money the developer has, the better, and the more successful the game will become. Although, this is not true in all cases. Independent games have found their own group of fans that support them and in some cases like Undertale, grow to be a part of mainstream gaming. Technological limitations might play a role in the overall aesthetics of the game; the developer creates a technique to attract the player into the simple low-budget game. Undertale’s moral choices are what attracts the player to this game. Undertale allows the player to connect to the characters on a personal level. Take for instance Papyrus; a character who seems evil but after this interacting with him we learn that he is harmless.
The player grows to like Papyrus, albeit seeing past his obnoxious personality, and spares his life in battle. The same can be said for Toriel; the goat woman who gives the player initial shelter. With each character met, the player must make the careful decision of either sparing their life through verbal interactions or killing them, which sets the story up for the player in the process. As mentioned before, it is possible to play the game choosing two routes: the aggressive one and the pacifist one. Naturally the first option is quicker, since it requires one to kill every character met with, but as the game progresses the interactions get more difficult and negative. It is also important to know that whilst the aggressive path might be easier to accomplish first hand, the characters present in the game seem to have a memory of the actions you took into course. For example, if you decide to kill Papyrus, his brother Sans will be very angry at you and decide to call you “Brother killer” for the rest of the game. As seen in the image below.
Furthermore, when one chooses the pacifist route, it means they choose to spare all the characters they encounter, even those who seem evil, but this makes the game more complex and longer to end. Choosing a pacifist route puts the player’s morality and ability of persuasion to the test; something that is often lacking in games nowadays.
When it comes to the lack of interactivity in a video game, we could look at how a game is financed. We first have to know if the game is being made within the industry or outside of it. Based on how much money is put into the project, you either get a pixelated side scroller or a Triple A game. According to Kotaku, “many in the industry don’t even know the budget of games. It is not unusual for a developer working on a big-budget game to have no idea of the games budget”. The writers of Kotaku also compiled a list of video games and how much it would cost to make them, of which were estimated to be in the millions. All the games mentioned are developed from big gaming companies including the game Destiny; a first-person shooter which tried to be an MMORPG and cost $140 million dollars to make. This game was created by the game company Bungie, which also developed the critically acclaimed series Halo; a first person shooter that first came out on the XBOX.
Big name games like these have teams of people that can span across multiple continents just to work on different aspects of the game; from the visuals to the audio and how the game works to everything that makes the game ready before it’s launch date. Devolver publishes games from independent game developers and helps those developers release their games to a larger audience. What makes them different from the bigger names in game development, is that they are outside of the mainstream of developing and distributing games. These companies don’t need millions of dollars to do so. Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale, crowdfunded his game using Kickstarter. Unlike his competition, he steered clear of a gaming company to help create his game, or an indie game distributor to help publish his game. As a result, he was able to surmount more than $50,000 for the game. Toby Fox used this money to finalize and create Undertale without any outside help. He designed everything from the code of the game, to the development of the interfaces, as well as the FUN system. This randomly generates events to happen in the game every time a player replays it. With Fox as the sole designer of the game and only about $50,000 to develop and finalize it, it is easy to see how limitations can arise. Given a wider budget, Undertale could have been a “bigger” game. It would have followed the same sort of moves that a triple A title in the gaming industry would have. If Undertale was developed by a big name like Bungie it would have included 3D graphics instead of pixels , the characters would be voice acted, it would most likely be a third person RPG with a multiplayer aspect to it, and would it consist of more interaction.
Montford suggests: “In the future, interactive fiction may provide even more appealing possibilities for the interactor. It may allow for a more co-authorial role, or it may provide, by serving as a riddle in the richest literary sense, a more profound and responsive type of systematic world” (Montford 2003). Can Undertale be considered as evidence that this evolution is happening? Undertale is arguably reminiscent of Interactive Fiction. You are controlling the main character in their quest to escape the underground. Throughout the game, you must find your way through the infrastructure of the underground. You can interact with other characters, search for things and pick them up as you like. These options are also offered in the older Interactive Fictions such as Zork (1980). Although, in Zork, everything is mediated through text. In Undertale, the events are visually presented on the screen. One might question whether or not Undertale is a step back in terms of player freedom in comparison Zork; it so happens that this is not the case.
Interactive fictions offers the player a blank slate where you have the freedom to write what you feel. The game however, only responds to certain commands. The parse of the game does not understand everything. A players urge to burn down the whole place might not be possible since the parse will not recognize this command. Since the player of Undertale is not simply offered the option to write what he/she wishes to do, the player is not as frequently faced with option limitation. Montford points out that the parse is even sensible to spelling errors. These obstacles are eliminated in Undertale as you perform the actions by using the keyboard arrows instead of writing down the actions.
Undertale does however contribute to the development of the limits of Interactive Fiction by letting the actions of the player throughout the story determining the ending. This demonstrates that Interactive Fiction in this regard has seen a development. Considering the relationship between fabula and sjuzet in regular literature and in a game like Undertale, it becomes clear that Undertale has shown a new way of letting the reader and/or player influence not only sjuzet, but in some way, fabula as well. In the general understanding, the fabula is the story as it truly happened, whereas sjuzet is how it is presented in the given work of art. In Undertale however, fabula is influenced by the actions of the player. The ending of the story differs depending of the players actions towards the monsters in the underworld, thereby offering multiple stories for the player to experience.
Despite how interactive video games have become they still ultimately fall short compared to other interactive media, given their aforementioned technical and budgetary limitation of the artform. This is not to say that games like Undertale and other games are not interactive, but they are incapable of giving players the full experience. In order for a video game story to be truly interactive, there must not only be a consequence of every action, but also a planned outcome for every action. It must also include a concept so bafflingly complex that the game would likely resemble real life more than it would a video game as we see it today.
- Does the use of text adventure in Undertale create more mental challenges to overcome when playing the game or does it create more limitations?
The use of text adventure allows the gamer to think critically using mental strategies to overcome the challenges being presented within the game. Text adventure allows the player to fully immerse themselves within the story. The choices allow the player to be an active agent in their own story and choose who they want to be in this game. However, there are some limitations in terms of the number of choices given. Choices are not unlimited and the path of the game either leads the player to genocide or pacifist.
- In what ways does Undertale resemble our own reality?
In Undertale we must make choices, same as in life. Our choices impact our life path as well. In the game, actions are the foundation of how the game is played. When the gamer decides to kill someone and dies, once the gamer is brought back to life, the character is automatically aware that the gamer has tried to kill them in their previous session. Many of the characters have emotions and feelings which the gamer must discover in order to bypass them. We are also human beings with feelings and emotions that affect us. Much like the characters, we believe in and have a moral compass. The decisions we make in our own lives derive from our morals, as do the actions we take in the game.
- Should the player’s path be determined by how many lives have been killed or spared?
I think there should be a medium between genocide and pacifist path’s because some of the killings can derive from mere survival and not because the player is deciding to kill every character that comes into their pathway. The game is either black or white, which shouldn’t determine the player’s path. The player might have chosen to spare many lives, while killing others which should equate to a percentage of genocide and pacifist. It should not be determined as simply one or the other.
- What do you think the underground was before the monsters came and sealed it?
There might have been a battle, with a thousand spears flying overhead. The battle created a gaping hole which was claimed by the monsters who continued to inhabit there. Their race quickly became overthrown by the humans and their numbers rapidly decreased. Or there could have been an undiscovered black hole, later discovered and inhabited
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