Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Undertale: Two Anomalous Bosses and an Arbitrary Blockade

Let's kick off with Undertale, a turn-based RPG by Toby Fox that has - since its release on September 15 - gained a huge and passionate fanbase. This isn't going to be a general analysis of Undertale, but rather, a look at a few specific things that stuck out to me about the requirements for getting a certain ending.

Be warned that I'm going to spoil a lot of things about the story and mechanics of Undertale. Read only if you've played it, or don't care about spoilers. I'm going to explain some things about the game, just to establish them, but in general I'll be assuming the reader knows the game. 

One of Undertale's greatest virtues is in how many ways it can be played. Enemy encounters can be handled in two distinct ways; you can either attack the enemy until it dies, or Act to convince them not to fight you and Spare them. This is the first RPG I've seen that has an actual 'Mercy' button in its battle system interface.

Now, due to this option, you can play the game without harming a single creature. This is referred to as a Pacifist playthrough by most people. Completing a Pacifist playthrough is the only way to get the true ending. Now that's established, let's get straight to the point.

You cannot get the True Ending without first getting a Neutral Ending, which is a simple ending consisting of a phone call briefly discussing or demonstrating the consequences of your choices; even if your first playthrough is 100 % Pacifist, you'll still be pushed into the neutral ending. The reasons why, and what this means for the design, are what I'd like to examine.

The in-game reason why you're prevented from getting the True Ending is simple. To get it, you need to befriend three major characters: Papyrus, Undyne and Alphys. You have to befriend them in order; you cannot befriend Undyne before Papyrus, and you cannot befriend Alphys before Undyne. However, you're arbitrarily prevented from ever befriending Alphys until you see the Neutral ending. To complete her sidequest, you must deliver a letter from Undyne, which she simply won't give you until after having completed a 'neutral run.'

From a narrative perspective, it makes little sense for Undyne to only give you this letter until after you've seen an ending. After all, when you get the letter from her, as far as she's concerned, the "ending" never happened since you returned to a prior save. Regardless, this wouldn't be much of a problem in and of itself, as Undertale plays around with the idea of memories from previous timelines or "save points" carrying over into new ones.

The problem is simply this: Alphys doesn't cause the crucial difference between the Pacifist and Neutral endings. The penultimate boss of the Neutral Run is Asgore Dreemurr, the King of Monsters. On a successful pacifist playthrough, the battle will start, but Asgore will then be knocked offscreen by none other than Toriel

Toriel is the second character you meet, and the first major boss. She disappears from the story fairly early on. So, how come it's her that makes the difference? Why does she only interrupt Asgore after you've discovered Alphys' backstory? This all doesn't make a great deal of sense, until you realize this:
You're supposed, or at the least expected, to kill Toriel on your first playthrough. 

Maybe that's a hasty conclusion to draw, but think about how much sense it makes considering the 'flow' of the narrative. She's the defining difference between the ending of a Pacifist and Neutral playthrough. But if you're not convinced, allow me to delve into the mechanics of her battle.

Toriel's battle sticks out compared to other battles. In Undertale, as a pacifist, every battle is solved in one of two ways: You either solve a puzzle using the Act menu, or outlast the enemy until you can show Mercy. In Toriel's battle, however, you have to specifically choose Mercy and then Spare many times in a row before she'll finally give up on fighting you - and it takes several Spares before Toriel will actually start to show any signs of being affected. Compare this with, say, Papyrus, who you only need to Spare at the very start and end of the battle. He also literally spells it out in red text.

So, consider the design here: In terms of explaining how to Spare bosses, Papyrus might as well be the first boss because his battle's design is perfect for it. The reasons for this are simple:

The battle won't even really start until you either Fight or Spare.
The battle shows clear progress, with Papyrus saying something new each turn and constantly hyping up his 'special attack.'
Papyrus literally tells you when Mercy becomes an option. 

Most bosses after Papyrus work similarly, with only minor differences between them. But Toriel, in spite of her role as the game's tutorial, has no such structure or clues in her battle. Attempting to talk to Toriel eventually leads to the game stating outright that "talking isn't the solution." As it takes several Spares to show visible progress, it's not unnatural for a player to assume that Fighting is the only option. 

I think it's important to sidetrack for just a minute here. You might have your doubts about that last statement, because actually, a lot of people do seem to successfully Spare Toriel on their first playthrough. This boils down to a related but seperate issue that I'd like to address in the future: Undertale's design assumes you're playing the game 100 % blind. The moment you hear the word 'Pacifist', or see that trailer proclaiming that 'no one has to die' in Undertale, the jig is up. One could say there's a conflict between the game's design and its marketing. It's important to realize this to understand where my "problems" with the design are coming from. In the future, I hope to look at Undertale's marketing in more detail.

So, now that we've established that, let's get right back to the heart of it. Comparing the design of Toriel's battle with Papyrus', it seems clear that either the game is explaining itself in the wrong order, or that you're expected to kill Toriel. And Undertale's design in general is too complete and well thought out for me to assume the former. 

Toriel's battle isn't the only evidence supporting this theory, however. The fact that you cannot get the True Ending when completing the game for the first time also supports it- being unable to acquire Undyne's letter seems little more than a mechanical failsafe to ensure that. However, I'd like to present one more compelling piece of evidence:

I briefly mentioned him before, but now we're going in depth: Asgore Dreemurr, Toriel's ex-husband and the second-to-last boss of any Undertale neutral playthrough. Like Toriel's, Asgore's battle is completely different from any other you encounter on a Neutral or Pacifist run. When the battle starts, Asgore destroys the Mercy button from your interface. This implies that there is no way he'll accept Mercy from you. But surely, if you're a Pacifist, there is some clever way to talk yourself out of it, right? Like with Toriel, there is some hidden way to convince him not to fight, right? The unfortunate answer is no. Even if you didn't touch the Fight button a single time, on your first run it's inevitable: you have to Fight him. 

Not only does this seem out of place in the narrative, the battle also represents a major difficulty spike for Pacifists who aren't properly equipped. To compensate, a Pacifist is allowed to speak to Asgore to decrease his Attack and Defense, but that seems like a band-aid for the underlying issue; logically, the battle shouldn't even happen for a Pacifist who managed to spare Toriel. Fortunately, Asgore can be Spared once his HP reaches a certain point, but that doesn't change that you had to Fight him to get to that point.

With all of that said, it seems pretty clear that on your first run, a neutral playthrough wherein you kill Toriel is expected, which leads to the inconsistencies I've pointed out. 

With all of that said, it makes a lot of sense for Toby to want you to see the Neutral Ending first; after all, at the end of it, Flowey will reveal how to get a better ending if you Spared him. 

This ties in with Flowey's role in the story, and the critical part he plays in acquiring the True Pacifist ending. After all, it's Flowey who gets Papyrus to call everyone together to interrupt the battle with Asgore - again, except for Toriel. 

So, that's the gist of it; both the narrative and game design of Undertale expect you to kill Toriel on your first run, which seems to have lead to some small inconsistencies. I'd like to stress, though, that Undertale's design and story are amazing in general. That's really the only reason why these details stuck out to me. Also, nothing I've concluded here is factual. In fact, I hope to write a follow-up piece based on responses and feedback, so please do respond in any way you can!

Thank you for your time! Hopefully, we can discuss design again soon. 

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