SPOILER Warning for GONE HOME and UNDERTALE
Complementary reading music
Shooter season seems to have come early this year. We’ve come to expect all the heavy hitters like Halo, Destiny and Fallout 4 to come in around the fall, right before everyone clears out of the jungle for the elephant that is Call of Duty. This year, however, we’ve seen at least five huge shooters all in the past three months; DOOM made its way back onto the scene, Quantum Break turned some heads, critics raved about Uncharted 4, players raged over The Division, and nobody can get enough of that Overwatch.
And all I want to do is finish Undertale.
Ok, being a little obnoxious; Toby Fox’s odd little RPG allegedly takes a meager 6-7 hours to beat, so the game is hardly consuming every minute of my free time. It’s also, by this culture’s standards, a very old game at eight months ancient. With so many of the aforementioned new games currently in circulation, my timing could not be more offensive for digging into my backlog. But after playing through Ratchet & Clank, Quantum Break and Uncharted 4 (only after wasting fifteen hours of my life to the godforsaken waste pile that is The Division), the shooter saturation had taken its toll.
After all that, an unassuming retro adventure like Undertale is - and I hate giving in to this cliche - a breath of fresh air. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the game’s magical soundtrack and authentic pixel art (never get enough pixelated indies). It’s old-school RPG format and mechanics have also been oddly theraputic after all the trigger-happy mayhem of 2016.
Of course, there’s much more to Undertale than this kick of therapeutic nostalgia. The game has been revered since its release, sporting a number of accolades and “best of 2015” nominations. As Kallie Plagge says in her review, it’s hard to express what’s great about Undertale without spoiling the experience. So, some spoilers ahead.
Games have been around a long time. It’s easy to compare the medium to things like movies or music and say that videogames are still in their infancy. This may be true, but games have still been around long enough to have developed a deep vocabulary which has embedded itself inside the minds of all gamers. We know how the skill tree works, we know the difference between a real door and a fake one, and we all know that “Press Start” was bullshit for years. Undertale plays with these expectations brilliantly; especially those associated with ye old JRPG.
One witty example can be found in the bartering system - or lack thereof. Upon first walking into a shop, I found the usual potions and stat-buffs (or the closest equivalents) for me to purchase. As to be expected, the shop UI had a buy, sell and exit tab. But upon selecting sell, the clerk balked at me for trying to pawn off some crap he didn’t need when he had a shop full of stuff he needed to sell. This is hilarious because it throws you off and makes a fool of you while simultaneously pokes fun at the absurdity of the “sell” fiction. Imagine how silly you would look if you walked into a RadioShack and offered to sell them bandages.
The prime example of this play on genre-associated expectations comes with the game’s combat. Though you may fight in Undertale, leveling up actually hinders your capabilities. The arcade-like gameplay incentivizes you to refrain from gaining experience, and this pushes you to explore alternatives to violence. I didn’t realize this problem until I had already reached LV 5; an achievement gained at the expense of several slain monsters. Once I became aware of this dilemma, I immediately regretted my harshness. The game sets you up to shoot first so that you may later realize your mistakes and feel a simulation of remorse. Cold.
Though a miraculously surprising and ingenious game, Undertale's play on gamer expectancy is not entirely unique. In the same way Undertale messes with the tropes of JRPGs, Fullbright’s Gone Home carefully tiptoes around those of first-person horror games.
The entire experience of Gone Home hinges on its purported horror influences. The moment you step into the house, you are greeted with the ominous creaks and thumps of an empty and possibly haunted house. An answering machine blips with a woman’s distressed message, thunder intermittently breaks the solace, and the breadcrumb trail of a ghost hunt all but confirms your worst fears. The game’s beginning is carefully set up to put the player on edge, hitting on just the right amount of horror tropes to get your heart pumping.
After building this tension, every room becomes a challenge; switching on a light, turning a new corner, opening a closet door - the simple act of progressing from room to room takes not only rudimentary combinations of button presses, but also courage in facing the unknown. A few times, our fears seem to be realized during our hunt for clues; the splatter of blood in the bathroom, the seance table set in a hidden room, and a foreboding sign of warning on the attic door all seemed to confirm my suspicions of the game’s horror influence. But by further investigating, we find that the splatter is merely hair dye, the warning sign was a ruse, and the seance table - well, it’s a seance table, but ghosts aren’t real, so whatever.
Long story short, there is not an instant in the game which threatens the player. Void of life (paranormal or actual) or danger, the house is simply a box full of notes, drawers, cassette tapes, and a carefully placed crucifix. But the fear experienced was still very real - more real, possibly, than that of any other gaming experience. By setting us up to expect that awful “jump scare” we so dread (yet crave, apparently), our anticipation grows and is never fulfilled, allowing for every single room to be that big scare we’re waiting for. I especially remember coming across the attic door because I was so frightened by its presentation, I actually said aloud “Nope. Fuck that.”
The game’s brilliance lies not in the coding of a completely static house, but in the way it is tailored to a very specific reaction summoned by playing with gamer expectancy. We are given a small taste of First-Person Horror in the beginning so that we may become intensely focused on every detail presented to us. Full Bright effectively tricks us into paying attention to the fine details, much like Haydn does in his Surprise Symphony (Symphony no. 94 in C major mvt. II). If you were listening to the track provided at the beginning of this blog, you will have no doubt noticed the surprising bang at the start of the piece. This was done to get the listener to pay attention so that they may be more prepared when the "surprise" comes back. It never comes back.
Toying with an audience’s expectations takes a very deep understanding of the art form and, indeed, its audience. It is a masterful tactic which too often goes unnoticed and is criminally underutilized. Games built completely around this element, like Undertale and Gone Home, should be (and often are) applauded and accoladed as models of masterful game design. But games which play more subtly with gamer expectancy, like The Last of Us, Portal, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and LIMBO, make for terrific examples of how to incorporate this deep understanding of the medium in marketable modern games. More on that another time, perhaps.