You Have To Stay Determined! …Or Do You?: Reflections on Undertale

[Intangirble: Another guest post from Whisper here, with some of my own thoughts towards the end. I’m planning on my own, longer post at some point, but for now, have this from the two of us.

The following will contain spoilers for many of the gameplay mechanics in Undertale, which can be considered a significant part of the game.]

 

Whisper:

I gave in and played that cool new indie game that all the kids are talking about. Undertale has managed to impress pretty much all my experienced, thirty-something gamer friends, though we began by not expecting much. Although this is “a blog about videogame feelings”, I’ll spare you, except to say that I may or may not have cried uncontrollably the whole way through the ending and for thirty minutes afterward.

Hearsay makes it sound like a “message game”, as if it weren’t worthwhile to see a ripping good telling of a message no one would disagree with. But there are way more subtle messages to it than the surface “violence is bad, in case you didn’t know that” and “have sympathy even for those who don’t have sympathy for you.” Those messages are flatly stated in the first ten minutes of the game; then it moves on to say other things. The whole structure of multiple routes is used not just as a way for the player to indicate their preference, but as commentary about the way we game and the expectations games are set up with. It goes far beyond just a demonstration that fun battle mechanics don’t have to boil down to “kill the monster or be killed”.

There’s a critique to be read about the direction the game industry is going, and the passive way that gamers have been letting it happen even to their detriment. So many of the games I’ve played in the past few years expect the player to grind for better gear, unlock bestiary secrets by killing a certain number of monsters, and generally run on the assumption that doing more things in a game is an effort that should be rewarded in and of itself. They lead you to assume it’s worthwhile, and then reward it. In a certain RPG I’ve been playing recently, unlocking extra worldbuilding data in the bestiary is more interesting to me than the polished movie sequences or complicated political story. Which says something, because I love RPGs for their epic stories in the first place. It may be an attempt to shift more of the game’s content to be accessed via active gameplay, but linking story and gameplay falls rather flat when it basically just doles out lore tidbits as a reward for grinding.

Really devoted fans want a metric to measure the amount of devotion they have to a game. Often, it has to be measured in levels or in completionist data collecting. How else can you show your passion for a SNES RPG, if not reaching level 99 unnecessarily? But although it shows hard work and the desire to spend time inside the world of the game, it isn’t really playing the game “correctly”, to begin with. Chances are, if you love a game that much, you don’t love grinding at endgame; you love to play it the whole way through the way it was designed to be. It would be neat to see games have a “completed x times” counter to replace that. It might be a more meaningful statistic of how much time you wanted to spend playing the game as it was meant to be played, viewing the story multiple times and spacing gameplay appropriately. It would be more enjoyable than grinding, would provide a virtually unlimited way to raise your devotion tally, and would provide a better reflection of your fondness for the entire game.

Anyhow, what with the increasing move towards games that are meant to be continually updated with DLC to keep gamers busy on the same game, grinding has become a huge part of today’s gaming world. All the devs need to do is hand out some better gear that’ll take time to get, and a bit more to the game that requires you to do the work of obtaining that gear. These days, we hardly expect anything else of the devs. Achievements have also changed the landscape; for any content existing in a game these days, there’s probably a trophy you can get for viewing it, which makes the act of gaming a meta-game in which you collect trophies to show how much gaming you’ve done. Common achievements include grinding to high levels, collecting all of a certain kind of weapon, viewing every possible scene, and accumulating trivial data in the game encyclopedia. There are even trophies for obtaining all possible trophies, leading to a mindset of Total Completion as the ultimate goal of every game. No longer is it considered completion to “beat” a game and see the ending; the goal is now to unlock everything possible, see every potential way the story could have turned out, even after the fun part of the game is exhausted. Gamers are encouraged via achievements and micro-rewards to cultivate the drive to show that they are really enthusiastic about a game by unlocking every possible bit, even if it means they spend time doing repetitive and boring game tasks. Achievements also change the way we deal with game endings. These days it’s typical for games to have multiple endings, and achievement trophies for obtaining them all. Sure, that at least gives you story, but it also eradicates the concept of choice, of playing the game your own way to align with your preference. You’re still just watching the story that’s fed to you and having no effect on it– you’re just watching multiple outcomes. And most likely, you have to replay a chunk of the game to do it, which you’ll probably end up redoing right after you’ve just finished that part. Are we having fun yet?

Undertale does not reward unlocking everything. In fact, after a satisfactory ending is achieved, the game asks the player not to replay it. After completing the No Mercy route, the game upon reloading, one of the game’s meta-aware characters appears and acts confused that you want to restore something that you just took the effort to destroy, and even demands that you sell them your soul in order to proceed to the game’s menu screen and start a new playthrough. It’s directly against our instinct as gamers to think a game would punish us for wanting to see all the endings, yet there it is.

Consistency and making a committed decision on play style provide some of the best gameplay experiences in Undertale. The really solid and finished-feeling endings are only achieved by relentlessly choosing the same behaviour throughout, with no deviation. In the True Pacifist route, one of the characters appears and asks the player not to reset the timeline and undo everything. He urges you to let the characters go and enjoy their happy ending. (Heartbreakingly, it is a happy ending for everyone except the character asking you not to do it over. I may have mentioned some post-game tears…) The Neutral route– which is what you get if you are not fully consistent– is the only one that requests you to replay the game, and it’s made of dark screens with no graphics, phone calls, and unsatisfactory circumstances; it’s the ending you get when you don’t commit to how you want to play, which is what the game really wants you to do. It wants you to make your choice.

And stay with it: even if you choose violence, commit to living out your choice. An aborted No Mercy run chides the player for not having the guts to finish what they started. Some of the bitterest and darkest things that happen to your character in Undertale is when you complete one non-neutral route, and then go back and complete the other. Characters who are aware that the timeline is repeating mock you for being inconsistent, act baffled that you changed your mind, and accuse you of not even knowing what you want. And it’s the characters who seem to have the clearest understanding of saving and loading files who act the most confused and irritated, sometimes even disgusted, at your inconsistency. Even when it occurs to them that you “wanted to see everything before destroying it”, they go on asking why you would do that, or why you have such interest in a world that you also want to destroy. The behaviour that’s treated as normal completionism in most games– interest in playing through two very different routes– is treated in Undertale as the kind of inconsistency we’d see it as in real life, an inability to decide on how to approach the world or even to stick to a coherent moral code (or lack thereof).

“You think you are above consequences,” a character says to the player in disgust. Consequences don’t disappear just because you reset the game; once you play the No Mercy route, the state persists on your save file even through resets. Against all our expectations as gamers, the game punishes you for wanting to see all of the endings, and your True Pacifist route becomes Soulless Pacifist, in which the happy ending turns horror-movie creepy. True to its nature, though, Undertale will forgive you even if you’ve been a terrible person. You can remove the permanent Soulless status by going into your Windows directory and deleting the save files. However, you can’t delete your own knowledge that you did it, and furthermore that you even hacked the game to cover it up. Undertale forgives you; will you forgive yourself? You will know in your mind what you’ve done– and that, after all, is where a game’s impact matters.

But what is it that you have learned? Is it knowledge that you killed some game monsters? Yes, but even if you choose a pacifist route you’ll undoubtedly realize how many monsters of this sort you’ve been killing in other games. The thing you realize you’re doing in Undertale uniquely, the surprising thing to suddenly become uncomfortable with, is acting like the best thing you can do is to play through every possible bit. In the longest ending, you wind up fighting against your opponent’s stated desire to wipe everything out and reset the timeline yet again. You end up being forced to take the position that you won’t let him send everything back to the beginning for a do-over, and when that’s what the game says you’re really fighting for, you have to at least consider– if not passively accept– that you might agree. Undertale manipulates you into the position of saying that you don’t want to be forced to do it over until you lose, that you want to have a satisfying ending and stick with it.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that Undertale critiques level grinding, and it’s not just because you have to kill monsters to level up. The game character who represents (your own) violence, speaking to the player directly, refers to themselves as “the demon who comes when you call its name”, and identifies themselves with stats and gold. “Every time a number goes up, I am there.” What does it mean when we obsessively accumulate these numbers, and what is sacrificed? If we love an RPG and its world, why do we think we can best show it by slaughtering its wildlife in order to boast of high numbers? And why do we consider this repetitive, meaningless violence a good use of our time, when we have many games and many stories yet to see?

Just after playing Undertale, I turned on a different game I had in progress, and it was jarring to have my character run around slaughtering things for loot. It didn’t mesh with the mindset. I turned it off. I want to finish that game, but is it really worth doing all that just to see every possible bit of data? I’ll worry about it some other day. For now, I want to enjoy this feeling…

 

Intangirble:

I wanted to add a little companion piece of my own to this post. Some similarities, some differences.

This blog, in many ways, is about dedication. It’s about twenty-, thirty-year-old games that we still replay, that still have hooks in our hearts. It’s hard, in the midst of that love, to turn around and call dedication a bad thing; and it’s not, entirely. But Undertale works hard to show us the seamy side of devotion treated as a terminal virtue, without thought to the reasons or results.

Undertale’s most violent path has been dubbed the “Genocide Route” by fans; and though some dislike the name, it’s hard to deny that that’s essentially what it is. To stay on the darkest path and see the content that comes with it, you have to not only kill everything in your way, but go out of your way to kill when you otherwise wouldn’t. You’re not just casually violent, you’re maximising your level of violence. It’s a drive; it’s a pursuit. (It’s Determination.)

And isn’t that what we as gamers often do? We “level grind”. That phrase’ll never sound the same again once you’ve played Undertale, which is aimed squarely at the hardcore RPG fan who’s loved, and memorised, games like Earthbound. As seasoned RPG players, we don’t just beat up monsters as they attack us; we actively hunt down opportunities to kill so that we can get stronger, or get better drops, or more gold. We are ruthless pursuers of violence, often up until level 99 – the maximum reward of power most games can give us. If there’s a higher level cap, people will grind to that. We’ll grind until the game won’t give us anything else, because we want everything.

In online games, this kind of completionism is necessary just to keep up, but we’ll do it even when there isn’t a need. I was proud of having a save in Final Fantasy VI where all my characters were at level 99, because it showed the many hours I’d spent playing it, and thus my dedication to the game, to the world. Or did it? Did it just show my dedication to violence? I don’t feel like that was what I was trying to do at all; not that one ever does.

I do think that’s where Undertale, maybe, could have been more explicit. Because while it may be in part a commentary on game design, the dialogue doesn’t feel aimed at devs, but very pointedly at you, the player. It feels like it indicts you exclusively for the violence done – and I’m not saying we’re not a lot of it, or that we didn’t do those things, that we’re not worthy of judgment. But I would have liked to see just a little of the criticism aimed specifically at the game industry itself.

Because when devs don’t give you any other way to show your dedication, when there is no visible marker for your love of the game other than L(O)V(E), then you’re going to maximise LV. Even if you’re not a completionist in the ending-getting, achievement-hunting sense. You want to show to someone that you spent time in the game. Devs don’t give us a lot of ways to do that. A game clock can be maxed out casually by standing there. A LV number shows you did something. You interacted with the world. And when you’re only allowed to interact violently, what else do you do?

But then – maybe that’s letting us off too lightly. Because violence is a choice. Prioritising your number, your appearance of commitment, over pacifism is a choice. Prioritising your sense of achievement and dedication over the harm you do is a choice – as Undertale makes very clear. Maybe “but I had no choice” is a cop-out, the oldest cop-out of all.

As gamers, we admire dedication, but it’s not always a good thing. When I was fifteen, I had, like many gamers did, a serious crush on Tifa from Final Fantasy VII; like many gamers did, I felt a passionate need to defend her in the endless Aeris vs. Tifa flamewars that plagued the fandom. I was certainly dedicated to that defence: I had an elaborate web shrine, a fan club you could sign up to, little buttons you could put on your site – and, of course, plenty of essays praising Tifa and denouncing Aeris.

But my short-sighted dedication didn’t really do anyone any good. Not me, not the people I senselessly argued with, and certainly not Tifa, who didn’t need to be defended – but who I’m sure, if she’d had the opportunity, would have found the whole thing childish and ridiculous. Just because I care, just because I want to show other people I care, doesn’t always mean I’m doing good. And I could have benefitted a lot from reflecting on what I was doing and why I was doing it, and whether the end result was worth it.

In Undertale, there’s a difference between love and LOVE. You can show love for the people of its world, enough to show them true mercy, and let them go; or you can demonstrate LOVE, the manifestation of a clinging desire to see everything, to stay with the loved one for as long as possible, even when that means doing things they’d never want you to do. From the outside, they look like two completely different things, and they are; but from the point of view of the experiencer, they can feel so similar. Undertale warns us not to mistake LOVE for love, not to act possessively and compulsively in the name of devotion.

I do think developers have a lot to answer for. I do think we need more options for showing non-violent dedication to those things we love. But perhaps Undertale is also asking us to reflect on whether dedication, itself, is that much of a virtue that we should pursue it at the expense of all else.

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Guest Post: Final Fantasy Record Keeper And You

[Intangirble’s note: My wife Whisper often has interesting thoughts on gaming, so I asked if she’d compose some guest posts for this blog from time to time. Today’s post is the first fruit of that request.]

Hello. I’m your guest blogger today, here to talk about Final Fantasy Record Keeper.

The game itself needs a little introducing, because the premise is a meta-story. FFRK is a game about being a fan of FF games. The story goes that there’s a magic kingdom powered by stories, specifically the stories of all the FF games, and Record Keepers are the people who keep the memories of these stories alive. When the paintings start to vanish, the young Record Keeper– whom the game subtly hints at you to rename after yourself– goes into the paintings to relive memories of the plotlines of the FF games.

It really speaks for how beloved the FF series is when Square-Enix can successfully market a freemium game that’s one long advertisement for their expensive games, and make no particular effort to conceal this fact, and it’s reached millions of downloads. FF fans don’t care that S-E is marketing them a reminder of how much they love FF games, because it’s just that true. There are enough “shut up and take my money” fans to give a game like this a good reception. They– we– are so enthusiastic about the series, or at least parts of it, that we’re proud of being such hardcore fans that we’d put hours of play into an ongoing commercial for our fandom. The business brilliance of encouraging us to wallow in their products aside, it’s legitimately a fun game if you’re familiar with all, or even most, of the stories. People aren’t just playing it to prove they love FF, but because it’s fun to surf through the pages of nostalgia, and the game even has a sense of humour about it.

Boss battle debriefing.

Moreover, though, I feel really close to this game because it’s so much like what I used to imagine when I was just a kid. I used to pretend I was apprenticed to tribal elders whose job it was to carry on the tradition of remembering these legends exactly as they happened, so that one day if a hero came along needing this knowledge in order to find the magic that could seal an ancient evil, the details of those legends could be passed on; perhaps I could even join the party as a sage with secret wisdom, providing the hidden clues necessary to save the world. Which isn’t that far off from what’s going on in FFRK.

Despite the “friending” feature that lets you use an extra ability from some other player’s character, FFRK is essentially a single-player game, like the FFs it references; the quest is a private venture undertaken between you and the characters you love, resembling the adventures you’re meant to remember together. Its effect on the series, however, is social; it manipulates the way fans are meant to position themselves in relation to the games, each other, and S-E itself. Recently I read this article on save data as a historical artifact, which talks about how the experience of single-player games is also part of the collective shared history of all gamers. It’s a good article, but what’s relevant here is this part:

“When something as tiny as a save file gets passed around from person to person, it acts as a reminder that we’re all united by these common struggles and victories. It forms an invisible thread linking two strangers on an epic quest to save the (digital) world; strangers who will likely never meet. […] It also makes me feel like history’s greatest monster when I’m forced to delete someone’s save data to start a new game. My fellow adventurer has left behind this final record of their journey, and here I am casting it aside and undoing everything they accomplished. Monstrous!”

I’ve always loved the idea that the players themselves have gone on the journey, e-journey though it may be, and accomplished something in the world of that game. We want our adventures to mean something. And it turns out they do, after all.

In Record Keeper, what’s important is your fandom itself: your memories and knowledge of it, which you keep close because you love FF and revisit it and care about it. You’re told that you are doing a very important job by caring about and remembering these stories. It’s a thread that goes through a lot of FF, this idea that as long as you remember the games’ stories, you are actually, literally keeping these worlds and their inhabitants alive:

“If I should leave this lonely world behind /Your voice will still remember our melody. /Now I know we’ll carry on; /Melodies of life will circle round and grow deep in our hearts /As long as we remember.” (Melodies of Life, FFIX)

The idea repeats itself anywhere that S-E engages with the fandom qua fandom. FFIX was, after all, not just admitted but outright marketed as a nostalgia trip for people who liked the older FFs– a proto-Record-Keeper in premise, although when actually realized it was a quite individual game. The message is not only clear, it’s repeated through the generations: By remembering these games, we ourselves are contributing meaningfully to the games themselves.

That’s how we keep the worlds alive. Running parallel to this is the idea of keeping them safe. Of course our adventures in saving the world protect it on a storyline level, but on a meta-level, so do the conflicts. If the adventure weren’t presented in all its detail, if it weren’t the story we came to love, we wouldn’t have finished it. It’s the drama of the story and its conflicts that keep us playing. Ironically, by threatening the safety of the worlds, the villains summon us to come play the game and motivate us to follow through to defeat them. Often in the process we end up cleaning up various political messes and/or disasters that would have threatened the world, so it ends up far safer than it would have been if we hadn’t arrived.

“So what if I don’t finish the game myself?” we might think. “The story still goes that it gets saved, and it doesn’t matter whether I’ve seen the whole story or not.” That’s one way of looking at it. But it contradicts what S-E keeps putting forth about our memories being the living essence of the game’s world. If we didn’t complete the adventure ourselves, we don’t remember doing it. We never actually made it happen in our memories, and therefore we never actually made it happen in truth. In order to remember that the heroes saved the world that we were experiencing, we have to actually make sure they do it. It does matter that you finished that game and saved the world, because it has to be like that in your memory in order for it to be real.

Story-wise the second boss battle occurs immediately after the first, but actually you can go use the save point in between. FFRK’s battle sequence includes the random battles that occur only if you do.

This is the fragility of fictional worlds, but it’s also the really cool thing about them: they completely depend on us to keep alive and safe. Without us playing the game, the worlds really would fall into darkness and ruin. What does that mean? It means that all the things you care about when you are being a fan– the story, the characters, the places, even the pairings– these things you care about would actually be destroyed if you weren’t there to relive them. Yes, it’s you and a million other fans, but not a single one of those other people are more important in the preservation of the world than you are.

You have to do it. You have to try your best. For their sake. Because you are really saving them. So say the canon creators.

(And whenever they send out news and messages, they address it to “all the Record Keepers out there” and it’s super adorable because, for all that you get a little Record Keeper avatar in your party and stuff, ultimately you know that they know that you know that they know that you really are the Record Keeper yourself.)

Two Slides of the Same Story: A Detour Into “Sliders”‘ Production History

I’m taking a gratuitous detour, today, from the world of video game feelings, and into the world of TV show feelings: specifically, the often-cheesy, sometimes-insightful, cult-classic 90s sci-fi show Sliders. It’s gratuitous because I’ve recently been delving back into my years-long love of this show, and frankly, it’s what I most want to talk about out of anything right now. But at the same time, there’s a message here that I think is applicable to the gaming world right now, particularly in the light of recent schisms over who, exactly, games should be “aiming at”, and how they should do it.

Before I begin: this is not a political argument. I have no intention of seriously cracking open the can of worms that is politics in gaming right now, and as for whether I’m pro- or anti- “SJ”, I think there are reasonable arguments on both sides. Ultimately, I just love games, and fiction in general; and I have a great deal of respect for the people who make that fiction happen.

The story I’m about to tell you now isn’t about politics. It’s about two people: people who were mistreated in the process of making a story that could have been great, and whose mistreatment left no one happy.

Not actually this blogger’s opinion of himself. Really.

Continue reading

The Game Novelisations That Time Forgot, And Why They’re Actually Pretty Good

You may know from past posts that I’m a big fan of Primal Rage – though more in the “enjoy playing it” sense than the “knowing every bit of trivia about it” sense, which is why I only recently discovered that there was quite a slew of merchandise released for it back in the 90s. Between the comics, action figures, Polly Pocket-esque miniature playsets (what do you mean, your Polly Pockets never went on murderous rampages across a post-civilised Earth?), and even a board game, it’s clear Atari hoped Primal Rage would become the next big character-driven fad.

And if we’ve learnt anything from this disaster, it’s that you can’t force fame. Except maybe by having really catchy music.

Anyway. The question of whether I can justify buying half a dozen plastic dinosaurs on eBay aside, this got me thinking about some of the other bits of game ephemera (another word for “gratuitous tat attempting to cash in on the fanbase, and succeeding”) I’ve known and loved. Mostly, in my case, novels.

Novels have always been popular tie-ins for all kinds of media, probably because they’re cheap to print, cheap to have ghostwritten, and the buyer doesn’t know how terrible they are until they’ve already bought the things. Growing up, I was aware that most tie-in novels were slush-pile rejects and that if you wanted a good videogame novelisation you had to turn to fanfiction, but I bought several of them anyway. As my dear wife commented a few posts back, branding is a powerful force, and no matter how anti-consumerist we claim to be there’s something in us that always lights up at the sight of merch for our favourite things.

This was especially so back in the day, when game merchandise just wasn’t a common thing. Living in the UK during the SNES era, we didn’t get even the trickle of tie-in products that the US saw. (I would’ve killed for the Nintendo Cereal System.) The one time I saw a Tails plush hanging in the window of Future Zone/EB/whatever it was at the time, my granddad wouldn’t let me have it because “toys made in China are dangerous” – something about the eyes being held in with spikes! While I’m doubtful that my longed-for Tails doll was actually a death trap (yes, we know – and if you don’t know, btw, that link goes to a creepypasta), I would have happily put up with the chance of being stabbed if it had meant getting to indulge my forbidden love for the enemy.

…I’m still bitter about that doll. Decent-looking Tails plushes are hard to find, dammit.

Anyway. We didn’t have much, mumble grumble snow uphill both ways, so when you sighted some merch for a game you loved, you had to have it. Even if it was a crappy tie-in novel. But you know what? Some of them actually weren’t that bad.

Written in the space of four months by a team of three writers under the pseudonym “Martin Adams”, Virgin Publishing’s four short Sonic novels were my first introduction to books based on games. While they weren’t released outside the UK to the best of my knowledge, many Brits my age remember them fondly, for the simple reason that they were fun. Not earth-shattering literature, but fast-paced and playful, giving Sonic and Tails some believable flaws (Sonic’s confidence in his coolness makes him narcissistic at times; Tails’ desire to be like Sonic leads to him biting off more than he can chew) without delving into either Saturday Morning Specialness (“Now what have we learned today?”) or brooding angst.

Honestly I think if there’s one thing Sonic should not be, it’s angsty, and I suspect these books played a large part in cementing that view for me. The Sonic who brushes off claims of immodesty with “You know I’m good, I know I’m good, so why should I pretend I’m not?”, and the good-hearted, overcompensating Tails who borrows a book of out-of-date slang from a friend and proceeds to indulge in it throughout the story, feel fresh, funny and right to me in a way that none of the games’ overwrought attempts at being plotful ever have. Interestingly, in associating Robotnik with eggs (he constantly eats eggs in the books, and is described by Tails as “addle-pated”, to which he replies “I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like the sound of it”), they also managed to tie his Japanese “Eggman” moniker and his Western “Robotnik” one together better than the game canon ever did…

But enough of that, lest I descend into long tangents on the early Sonic canon. The next two novels I owned, unlike the popular Sonic series, seem to have all but vanished from collective memory. I can’t find any reference to it online – and Street Fighter, like Sonic, is a fairly well-documented fandom – but I swear that at some point in the 90s I picked up a thin paperback novel based on the Street Fighter II canon, specifically featuring Chun Li and her quest to bring Shadaloo to justice. The only evidence I have that it existed is that I remember it listing Chun Li’s favourite food as crepes, which is apparently canon; the only other SFII canon I’ve ever owned is the SNES game’s manual, which fails to mention such trivialities. Anyway, I remember not finishing this one due to it being fairly bad, but it’s now giving me a mental itch; if anyone has more info on this book, or any other (non-graphic) SFII novels that might have been published around that time, do drop me a line.

While trying to track down any info on this mysterious novel, I did run into this, which I’m quite sure is not the one I read; but it does lead into an interesting bit of trivia, in that the UK magazine SNES Force was apparently responsible for publishing (or rather, giving away for free) several game-based novels over the course of its run. Unlike other giveaways that were “samplers” of books you could buy, these books weren’t available anywhere else: they were literally created for the magazine. An attempt at promotion, an outlet for an enthusiastic fanfiction writer, or both? I’m not sure, but SNES Force was apparently also responsible for the one other game novel I remember: a book featuring, of all characters, Putty.

Does anyone remember Putty? Also known as Super Putty in his outing on the SNES, he was a blob of blue goo with eyes who had a mildly successful run of games across various platforms. Actually, scratch that: apparently he had two games total on three systems, two of which were Amigas, and basically didn’t exist in the States. Which is surreal, because when I was a kid it felt like there was a Putty game out every week. But then, I had an Amiga.

Anyway, Putty was popular enough in the UK, if a slightly odd choice for a speaking protagonist, that a novel was written for SNES Force. The only record I have of its existence comes from archive.org’s OCRed text of SNES Force, issue 6: “If your Super Putly book isn’t here ask your newsagent lor it.” (Has OCR technology improved at all in the last 20 years?) But I remember that it involved Putty and his former enemy Dweezil as washed-up has-beens in a noir-like setting, drinking at a bar called the “Axe & GameBoy” with other ex-heroes. I vaguely remember there being some kind of deeper plot in there, something that would rejuvenate them and give their lives meaning again, though I’m sure it can’t have been anything close to canon, inasmuch as Putty had a story.

Certainly, a book like that would never get published these days; it’s not dour enough for most of today’s videogame franchises, and not mindless enough for the others. Somewhere along the line, game writers decided that storytelling meant manpain, meant hypermasculine gun-toting war veterans slogging through endless reams of carnage, meant vampiric anti-heroes mournfully combing their silken locks as they curse their immortality. And somewhere along the line, anyone who wasn’t trying to craft poetic fiction or grim realism decided that “meaningful story” and “fun” couldn’t coexist, and began to churn out purely comedic games with none of the heart or soul of even the cheesiest 90s titles.

There’s little room today for sincere playfulness, whimsy without nihilism – even though a light moment here and there can make a serious story bearable (has anyone ever criticised Final Fantasy VI for lacking emotion and gravitas, despite the quasi-regular encounters with a purple octopus wielding four-ton weights?), and though many of the most memorable and enduring games of previous generations began from patently absurd premises (blue hedgehog who travels at super speed collecting rings? Portly Italian plumber traversing a land of mushrooms and turtles?), yet were cherished enough by their creators that they transcended their absurdity and became something more. Became worlds we enjoyed spending time in, rather than (just) transparent attempts at cashing in.

Few developers heed this balance today. But in the 90s, people seemed more aware that you could play with the stories of games – nudge the fourth wall, have the hero’s time-honoured traits be his undoing – without losing what made us love those stories. That there was room to get a little self-reflective about games while still producing something that made fans sit up and go, “Yes, this. This is the world I know and love.” That it wasn’t a choice between outright parody with no substance and grimdark with no levity, but that you could have both.

That was what 90s gaming taught me: that fun and meaning could go hand in hand. Seeing my favourite worlds portrayed playfully yet well helped me to appreciate the serious themes in lighter-hearted games, and the lighter themes in serious ones. And that’s why, cheesy as they are, embarrassing as they are, these novels will always be important to me.

Why Games Break Interestingly, And Why It’s Good When They Do

A few weeks ago, I ran across this post on Kotaku, about how a new Super Mario Bros. glitch has been found after almost thirty years, and it sparked something in me. Something I didn’t know how to put into words – until I revisited this “Let’s Break” of Final Fantasy VI. Specifically, that last page I linked to, and its last couple of paragraphs.

You can only play FF6 so many different ways (read: 1), but you can glitch it endlessly. It’s a shame, really, that this type of glitch exploration is going away. With the evolution of non-sprite based, highly structured and non-exploitable coding dealing a significant blow towards the crazy things you can do with video games, these types of world-exploring, horrible messes have essentially gone away. And now in the current generation, where glitches are typically small scripting bugs or your game freezing up alongside constantly patched video games, the final blow to glitch exploration has been dealt.

Here, Elephantgun captured something that I’ve often thought but never been able to articulate: that glitching, Game Genie-ing, and generally breaking games has become less interesting with each generation after the NES era, with the NES and its agemates producing the best glitches, the SNES and co. producing some pretty good ones, and everything after that feeling… well, pretty lacklustre. And – here’s the crucial point – that the same idiosyncracies that made NES and SNES-era games so interestingly breakable were also what made them feel so alive, like worlds of their own.

I’ll back up here, and explain what I mean by “interesting”. I feel like I’ve said this before, but I think that of all the games out there, the one that glitches most interestingly is actually, yes, Super Mario Bros. If you’ve never seen any SMB glitch videos, I’d implore you to do so: Brad Corrupts has some particularly good ones.

The thing that makes SMB glitches interesting is that they can affect any part of the game, and often do so in ways that render the game still playable, while being very different from the original. Most games can have their graphics glitched; sound glitches are plentiful, though the results are usually ugly; plenty of games let you glitch through walls, or warp to other areas. Some games allow you to make enemies friendly, or to turn previously helpful items into deadly ones. SMB glitches can do all this – but they can also rewrite the very laws of physics. A glitch can let you float in the air after jumping (Princess Toadstool-style), run at unholy speeds (take that, Blast Processing), make the title or intro screens a playable part of the level. A glitch can turn the music into actually-pretty-nifty remixes of itself, allow you to swim through the air, or, as in the famous Minus World glitch, even create whole new areas that actually seem (semi-)coherent. And these are all pretty easily findable by throwing in random Game Genie codes – they don’t require peeking into the game data and precisely manipulating values. Just about anything you can do to SMB, up to and including “pulling the cartridge out during play, inserting a different one, then swapping back”, will fail interestingly.

I’m not a coder and have no true idea how or why this works (though if someone can, please let me know! I eat that stuff up with a spoon), but I’m going to guess that it’s because SMB’s physics, music, enemy behaviours – just about everything that makes up the game – are pretty simple, primitive blocks of code. The game doesn’t use millions of fine-tuned instructions to define how the character moves through a complicated 3D terrain; it doesn’t have countless little scripts that trigger and push things back on track whenever they go out of bounds. The game isn’t constantly trying to bring itself back into line with the creator’s incredibly detailed, incredibly specific vision. It just says a handful of things along the lines of “here, have a playfield; you can run left and right and jump within this space; if you touch a particular sprite you clear the level”.

In short, SMB is a set of rules more than a precisely-crafted experience; more like chess or D&D than the “interactive movies” a lot of gamers complain of today. It has a few blocks of code designed to handle your actions, and a few blocks of code defining playfields that allow you to explore what those actions can do, which can be put together in just about any combination and still make something interesting. (I think the word I’m looking for is modular. It feels modular.) And because it’s so simple and so flexible – because you can complete the levels however you want rather than being railroaded down a narrow path, because the limited number of actions you can perform encourages you to push the limits of those actions, and yes, because it’s bare-bones enough to sometimes break – it feels like a world.

It’s ironic, really: for decades game developers have been yearning for technology to improve so that they can create the lush, realistic worlds and intricate narratives they’ve always dreamed of, worlds that you can lose yourself in. We gamers have too. Yet it seems the more intricate games get, the more constraining the rails must become, like a tabletop GM who won’t let the players get creative because it would ruin their carefully-constructed plot. Games can’t make up new plot points on the fly, so they have to either code in an absurd amount of options or force you to hit all of their plot triggers, keeping you moving down the singular path the developers had in mind all along.

And it’s not just plot points. Many early RPGs are basically elongated quests to Find The Next Plot Trigger, but their minimalistic approach to feeding you chunks of the story, letting you wander hither and thither in between even if blowing all their gil on chocobo gambling isn’t technically what the saviours of the world should be doing with their time, makes the world feel vast and free. By contrast, when you paint in every little detail of a vast world, force the camera to linger on that impressive structure rather than letting the players find and gaze at it themselves, it stops feeling so vast. You’re not exploring the land, breaking new ground with every step. You’re on a tour bus, having the sights of interest pointed out to you. (Apologies for plucking the low-hanging fruit here, but who else wanted FFXIII‘s Nautilus to be the Gold Saucer II? Who else was disappointed?)

The most enjoyable games, to me, are simple games, games that don’t have the life coded out of them, that don’t need to anticipate your every possible move because the structure is versatile enough that you can figure it out yourself.

Because they aren’t programmed to handle every situation… they break.

And because the actions you can perform are few, simple and applicable to just about every situation… they break interestingly.

Games don’t break like that any more, and as a result, they feel less like wild places open to possibility. When you’ve found everything the programmer put in the world, you’ve seen the entire game. But when we discover a new Super Mario Bros. glitch after several decades, it’s a potent reminder that these older worlds – for all that we’ve loved them, for all that it can feel like we’ve loved them to exhaustion – still hide some secrets. It gives us hope that perhaps they’ll always hide secrets, that we’ll never fully map their limits or boundaries. That, perhaps, they don’t have boundaries at all.

Here be dragons. Here be wonder. Long live the glitch.

The Console I Never Owned: Sega’s Saturn

Sorry for the absence: I’ve been at a convention, and picked up some nasty con crud as a result.

Said con, however, did at least bring me closer to a topic I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while: the Sega Saturn. It was the first opportunity I’ve had to play an actual, physical Saturn, and only the second time I’ve played a Saturn game, the game in question this time around being Panzer Dragoon Zwei. As a game… well, it was fun if frustrating, the lack of analog control being a big problem with the D-pad having trouble moving the cursor fast enough, and the hit detection in general seeming poor. On the plus side, the graphics (for the era) are nice, and the game in general has this good, solid feel to it, the feel of a first-party project. I think I’d have a better time with it if I could play it for longer, possibly in one of the upgraded versions that allows analog control.

But this post isn’t really about Panzer Dragoon, although it’s a series I’ve always wanted to play. It’s about the Saturn in general, and how it became a semi-mythic fixture in my imagination, despite – or rather largely because of – the fact that I never played it at all.

Like most kids of the era, I had my brand loyalty. As long as there are competing consoles there will be console wars, but the console wars of the 90s were of an intensity not seen before or since. In the Beginning – where I define the Beginning to be the NES era because I’m not quite old enough to have played anything before then – there was Nintendo, and there was Sega. Or rather, there was Nintendo, because who really had a Master System? (I did, much later. But I never knew anyone for whom it was their primary console.) Then came the 16-bit era, and with it, two powerful consoles with divergent selling points. The SNES had the latest Mario game, and everyone loved Mario; but the portly plumber was slow, and the upstart Sonic had a fresher look. The SNES had F-Zero, StarFox, a bunch of weird neat games from Japan; the Genesis (or Mega Drive if you’re from Europe) had a stronger focus on action and sports titles, and lacked Nintendo’s censorship when it came to fighting games. Nintendo had a reputation for reliability; Sega had edge and style.

All in all, it was down to what genre of game you preferred, but the fights were vicious. Before Internet forums, before even arguments played out in the letters columns of magazines (and I read a lot of those, contributed to some), there was a clear line drawn through the two halves of kid-dom. Did you have a Nintendo or a Sega? Mario or Sonic?

For the kids who wanted to seem brash and aloof, Sega’s aggressive, bordering-on-creepy ads and too-cool-for-skool hero were a no-brainer choice. On the playground at least, Sega was the truly cool choice, even if the Sega kids secretly did enjoy a game of Mario. Those of us who sided with the SNES didn’t have many bragging points on our side: our love was in an appreciation of subtler things, of the quirky styles and exciting ideas coming out of Japan, of Squaresoft and their quest to craft the most intricate and expansive of fantasy worlds. They appealed to our hearts, but they didn’t garner many cool points. The war – this war that seemed so serious to us, that enveloped all of kid-dom – would be won on loyalty, not persuasive arguments. So we dug ourselves into the trenches, and swore never to touch a thing made by the Evil One.

Of course, we were kids, and we found ways to bend the rules. I refused to own a Mega Drive, but I did buy a Master System, when it got late enough into the console’s lifespan that it didn’t feel like a vote. I snuck to friends’ houses to play illicit games of Sonic 2 on their consoles, experienced the shady thrill of controlling Tails through a world half-understood, only parsed in these hurried glimpses. I even had those little ring-toss water games in Sonic varieties, hoping they would be a way to experience the fun of Sonic without selling out completely. (Spoilers: they weren’t.)

Green Hill Zone theme not included.

Time wore on, and the 16-bit generation sang its swansong – not without great mourning from me, but at least now I felt free and clear to buy a used Mega Drive with my pocket money, as a sort of grief assuager, and a bunch of games off the open market. And so the pattern continued: I would buy the enemy’s goods, but only once the current generation was done. (Besides, we were kids: we only had the ability to buy, or more likely have bought for us, one new console per generation. Thus morality aligned nicely with practicality.) Then the Schism happened – the one that split a small but loyal fanbase once more down the middle. Squaresoft’s partnership with Nintendo had ended, and those who wanted to continue the series would be forced to jump ship, to the ominous new kingdom of Sony. Some loved Square enough to make the jump. Others looked at Sony’s marketing, increasingly catering to an alien crowd – older, “cooler”, more mainstream kids, not the cartoon-loving nerds we were – and shuddered, fearing for the future of games in a world where fun was not enough.

I was one of the latter. Thus I redoubled my trench-digging, asked for a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, and refused to touch anything else.

It was strange, how I did all this without really, consciously realising it. Deep down I knew that there was no “war”, that one purchase here and there wasn’t going to drastically effect console sales, that my allegiance was only symbolic. It wasn’t even like I had a reputation to protect: I was pretty friendless at the time. But it mattered, and so the world outside Nintendo became a foreign country to me, appealing yet so distant from my reality that the idea of living there seemed unfathomable. With the price of consoles rising with each generation, a secondary one was as unreachable for us as the moon, and those sour grapes no doubt fuelled our brand loyalties. I knew I would never own a Saturn; I knew it so vividly that even today, long after console wars had become irrelevant to me, I’ve still never broken down and bought one. I believed so strongly that it was out of the question that I made that my reality.

I never realised that until now.

Still, I was fascinated by the Saturn. The PlayStation, too, but then the PlayStation was everywhere; the Saturn, being the less heavily marketed of the two, felt more obscure, slightly mysterious. I began “deciding” in my head that, as for the also-rans, I preferred the Saturn over the PlayStation, even though I’d never played either. It was at least Sega, not some third, newer upstart, and the games did look cool. First-party titles that would never be ported to other machines, ever (or at least, within the Saturn’s lifetime) flowed from the fingertips of devs and onto magazine pages. NiGHTS. Panzer Dragoon. Virtual On. (Okay, that one was in the arcades. I had no idea!) Even Baku Baku Animal seemed intriguing when you had no way of playing it.

With only magazine articles and ads to go by, helped along by the vaguely otherworldly marketing campaigns that were popular at the time, I constructed a surreal idea of what I imagined these games to be like. Somewhere inside I knew they couldn’t match it, but that was part of the fun: if I couldn’t have them, I could pretend they were anything, untouchable treasures that would blow my mind and catapult me into a whle new reality. Ironically, through depriving myself of it for loyalty reasons, I unwittingly elevated Sega’s new console to a miracle machine in my head.

Part of me still does. Part of me never wants to go back and play those games, even now that I can; they’re better as intangibles. (I feel like this is a punchline I’ve taken far too long to get to.) Or are they? Panzer Dragoon Zwei‘s control scheme isn’t great, but playing games at a con isn’t the ideal experience, and I did get the feeling there was something special under the skin. If I sat with it for long enough, maybe I’d uncover wonders even greater than the ones in my imagination.

Or maybe imagining that is only setting me up to be let down.

Chanticleer Hegemony, and Other Stories

So a couple weeks back, the delightful Stuart Ashens managed to get his hands on a game some of us had been dying to see for a while: the one, the only, Chanticleer Hegemony.

For those not familiar with the backstory, Chanticleer Hegemony was a game oft promised yet ne’er revealed, at least until this moment. And no, it wasn’t vaporware. The reason it was so elusive was that it was one of a rotating, and frequently randomised, selection of games included with the handheld abominations collectively known as “POP Stations”: pound- or dollar-store LCD games, like Game & Watch but crappier, in housing that ripped off Sony’s PSP (hence the “POP”) as well as every other handheld console known to man, and a few that as yet are only known to the Big Man Downstairs.

Burning in hell, where it belongs.

Sporting a wide array of titles including Street Overlord (no relation to any other, more popular game whose name begins with “Street” and ends with a descriptor of a warlike individual), Nonsuch Racing (yachts are not involved) and Super Mary (I’ll let that speak for itself, while casually dropping the fact that “Mari” is how Mario is typically pronounced in Chinese), as well as many other versions of these same three games with slightly different LCD graphics, the POP Station is mostly notable for being amusing in its terribleness. But perhaps more amusing than any of the titles actually on offer was one that was listed on a small number of POP Station boxes but repeatedly failed to turn up inside. That game, of course, was Chanticleer Hegemony: a game whose title, in less archaic English, roughly translates to “Chicken Dominion”.

So, long story short, “Chanticleer Hegemony” was one of those things you whispered at friends in the know to make them bust out laughing. The game itself, now that it’s been found, turns out to be a clone of the Street Overlord game with chickeny graphics, at which no one is surprised. (Though it does have great chicken sound effects!) Ultimately, as we all knew it would be, the game was funnier (and more intriguing) when we didn’t know what it was; with a name like that and a platform like the POP Station, it could never live up to its memetic status. And yet, when I saw on Ashens’ channel that it had finally been discovered, I admit… my heart skipped a beat. The Bio Force Ape of shanzhai, here at last!

Not to wax too lyrical about a horrible reskin of a horrible LCD knockoff of Street Fighter – oh, who am I kidding, this blog is entirely for waxing lyrical about things like this – but I think the whole thing put me in mind of a lot of similar, more legitimate experiences I’ve had with video games.

As I alluded to in my post on Gals Panic, a lot of early games had titles that were just word-salady enough to haunt the brain, while half-convincing you that you’d fever-dreamed them up. Actually, this is still true today – think Bravely Default – but these days developers generally know what they doing when they render the title overly literally, or as is, from the Japanese. It’s a form of kitsch that’s intentionally capitalised on because it’s cool, these days, to signal that your game has a Japanese lineage. Less so in the past, when publishers feared that if their games looked too “Oriental” nobody would buy them, and weird, clunky titles marked the more obscure games, the ones that slipped through the net because their publishing houses didn’t know any better.

Iunno, this always struck me as kinda culturally insensitive…

To a kid who’d never heard of any of those games before, seeing these strange titles listed in some back-of-the-mag small-print ad or glimpsing them in an arcade lit a fire under the imagination. What could we expect from a game called Nuts & Milk? Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together? Even Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy, though we’re used to them nowadays, are unusual-sounding when you think about it. I remember my mother worrying about my keen desire to buy the newest “Final Fantasy” game for PC because, to her, it sounded pornographic; I had to patiently explain that, no, it was “fantasy” as in Tolkien, not “fantasy” as in sexual. (Thankfully she never saw Wall Market.)

It’s easy to laugh at this as a gamer, but think back to when times were simpler for you, when the titles of these now-familiar franchises were an enticing mystery. Behind each of these titles, we knew, was a portal that could catapult us into wondrous worlds; figuring out which ones were worth the trip, and the price tag, was a challenge to which we devoted our minds. One of the things we learnt early on was that the stranger the title sounded, the more likely it was, if not to be good necessarily, then at least to be a departure from the norm: something to tickle our fancy for the barely-comprehensible, to give us, here in the West, a taste of a culture and a way of seeing things that at the time was utterly alien to us.

I never expected Chanticleer Hegemony to be anything like good, or even intriguingly strange. But for a while, the little saga of its elusiveness took me back to those days when, with only a flimsy paper guidebook in our hands in the form of a magazine, we wandered mostly uncharted territory, searching for treasures unknown.

Besides, the sound effects really are great.