My favorite game of the year is currently a role-playing game for PC and Mac made entirely by one person.
Outside of some art elements, the indie smash hit Undertale is the product of game developer, writer and musician Toby Fox. Funded through Kickstarter for about 50,000 dollars and the product of three years of work, Fox crafted the game completely under his own vision and it’s produced one of the most singularly brilliant games of the year so far.
More importantly, it shows the next step that gaming will have to take to become an art form.
First, let’s talk about the argument over gaming as art. You have the argument that the choice-based malleability and the ultimate goal of a fully commercial appeal for gaming means that it can never fully create an artistic statement, and, therefore, never function as art. Film critic Roger Ebert famously held this view, and was raked over the coals by the gaming community for it.
We also look at a certain reluctance of the gaming community to engage in the criticism that art requires, one that looks at the thematic and social aspects of gaming as well as the mechanics and the emotions that they inspire in us. It’s the kind of criticism we’ve come to expect in film, literature and music, but the lack of critical consideration from the community as a whole is going to hold the medium back for a few more years.
But all of this speaks to the infancy of gaming as a medium in general. It’s not that gaming is not capable of artistic statements, but that we have not quite yet figured out the tools of the craft. I feel it to be much like calling film “not artistic” before we had the abilities to string two shots together properly.
Gaming as an art form is still wrestling with the issues of the demands of being a game that needs to tell a story. Look at a game like the most recent Tomb Raider, which foregrounds Lara Croft’s emotional turmoil over killing somebody during its story segments and features a veritable Rambo-esque pile of bodies that the player racks up during the gameplay segments. There’s just a little too much dissonance in the game for a little too long.
To be able to make the statements that are required of art, gaming is absolutely going to need to figure out how to merge the storytelling requirements with the gameplay mechanic requirements to create a cohesive whole.
And that’s where Undertale comes in.
The premise of Undertale is simple. A human child has fallen underground into a world full of monsters. An early encounter with an evil sentient flower quickly lets the player know that this world is not quite the one we are used to. From there, the human child must journey through the underground, encountering a number of strange and personality-filled monsters that the player must deal with and battle.
But where the game decides to throw in a complication is in the options you have in battle. You can Attack or you can Act. When you Attack, it’s pretty standard and leads to killing the monster. But when you Act, you have options to interact with the enemy. A dog enemy can be pet until he feels too content to fight. You can pick on another enemy, satisfying a weird urge it has and making it satisfied enough to stop fighting.
Essentially, the game gives you two options: be violent or be a pacifist.
From there, it game alters itself based on your decisions. You move through the same basic path, yes. But characters interact with you differently and your characters act differently; the game alters the way it treats you.
Those who choose to kill continuously find their character full of dark thoughts, and the game seemingly turns on you. It’s a legitimately uncomfortable and hostile experience.
Those who constantly spare find themselves making friends with characters and experiencing the nuances and fullness of this world in a build to a positive and absolutely tearjerking ending.
Even those who make a mixture of choices will find different takes depending on where and when they choose to kill and to spare. And all of this feels enthralling and is something so easy to get attached to.
Now, much of this is thanks to that old media standby: writing. Fox wrote a wonderful script for this game, full of surreal wit and plenty of memorable and unique characters. Every monster and every moment has a story behind it. Feeling attached to the monsters that you can befriend becomes easy and gives the story its weight, equally as much as the decisions you make.
Undertale shows an important next step for gaming. Often the difference between decision making in games and storytelling is stark. In order to feel like you’re truly making a decision, the story must suffer. Or, to tell a single, coherent story, decision making must suffer and have little effect on the game.
Undertale understands that everything must work in tandem. Your decisions must influence the story and must be made through your use of the mechanics of gameplay itself, not simply by hitting a button to faintly influence the story. The player must feel that what they have done in the game has changed things, they must feel they have made a real difference. And most importantly, thanks to the writing of Undertale, they must care that they did it.
For gaming to move forward, every mechanic, every element of a game, must serve one grand purpose and one narrative. There can and should be no disconnect between what the game is telling you is happening and what you are doing in the game. And more importantly, the mechanics of the game must always serve a greater purpose than simply, “This is a game, and this is what must happen.”
Because when they all work together, we can make powerful statements about who we are and who we can be and what we can feel. And ultimately, that is what art is.