Friday, January 6, 2017

Choosing Through Gameplay In Undertale, Part 1

In many RPGs, the overworld holds the story while the battle system holds the gameplay. The result is choices are made outside of the game's primary game mechanics, through something like a dialogue system or choice-based menu.  Undertale approaches its choices a little differently, and I'd like to discuss the successes and failures of that approach in this piece.

It's been over a year since Undertale was released. Its story, characters and music have made a permanent mark on the Internet and pop culture. A year ago, I joined in on the conversation and wrote a piece about Undertale's design and narrative. I argued that, based on Undertale's design, Toby Fox had intended the player to kill Toriel on their initial playthrough.

Looking back on the article now, I discussed how the game's mechanics were explained, but I spent very little time on the actual mechanics themselves - and how they reflect on the game's choice based narrative. I'd like to shed some light on that particular facet of Undertale now.

The fact of the matter is really quite simple: Undertale's choices are almost exclusively presented through its battle system. Each monster you encounter can be approached in several ways - by simply fighting them until they die, by convincing them to spare you and surprise attacking them, by befriending them and sparing them or simply by running away. All of these possibilities are presented through the game's battle system, with its four-option menu of FIGHT, ACT, ITEM and MERCY.

Such a system should be commended for the way it allows players to make their choice organically. But where does that leave the overworld and all the scenes that occur outside battles?

Like many RPGs of its kind, Undertale has a lot of text to read. There are hundreds of dialogues and descriptions, some of which change based on the player's prior choices. For an impatient player, it could quickly become cumbersome to have to read so much uninterrupted text. This is why Undertale smartly breaks up many of its conversations with choices as well.

But these choices ultimately don't influence the gameplay. All you'll get for your choice is a unique few lines of dialogue, with perhaps a wink back to your earlier decision later down the line. But a choice made during dialogue never influences the game's overarching story or the game's ending.

Is that a negative? I feel that it is, but it'll ultimately depend on the person playing the game. I would've liked it if your choices had a greater impact on the flow of the story, or even just the dialogue, since most dialogues return to a set path shortly after a unique choice has been made. To take it one step further, I feel like there could've been more nuance; characters are simply spared or not spared, and befriended or not befriended. What if the sum of your behaviour could form a unique type of friendship or relationship with the characters? However, I realize that this hypothetical demands a lot, and perhaps isn't fair. After all, we must not forget that the game was developed by a single person. Regardless, I would've liked to see just a bit more consequence in the choices made during dialogues or in the overworld.

Perceptive readers may have two complaints about my assessment so far;
1. I commended the battle system for allowing organic choices.
2. I stated only most of the choices in the overworld do not affect the story.

To address the first point: that is true. And I wouldn't have anything more to say about choices in the overworld if Undertale was a bog standard JRPG where the overworld served only as a pathway to new battles - however, Undertale's overworld itself also holds gameplay in the form of various puzzles (like Papyrus') and even mini-games (like Mettaton's). Not to mention, the dialogue in the overworld is almost consistently important to understand the characters' history and motivations, and for this reason, it regularly interrupts the gameplay. For those reasons, I really would've liked it if the player's choices in the dialogue and overworld had more of an impact.

About point 2: I hinted at this before, but there are a few choices in the overworld that do make a difference, specifically by influencing the ending. The choices concerning Undyne are particularly interesting in this regard. 

To summarize what we've discussed so far, Undertale allows for the player to make organic choices in its battle system, but the choices in the overworld lack impact, even though a significant chunk of the game's story and mechanics do take place outside of battle. Please join me in part 2 as we delve deeper into Undertale's significant overworld choices and how they reflect on the game in general.

Feedback is appreciated! 

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