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Almost Infinite Posts

Space, space… going to space!

Back when I wrote Diversions and Doorkeys I stated that I was not a video game reviewer at the beginning of the post. The comment on the post then praises my review of Undertale. I propose to resolve this apparent contradiction by talking about what I meant when I said I am not a reviewer.

My objective when I started this blog was to talk about the ideas behind games, not necessarily the games themselves. My intention is not to for this to be a rinky-dink self-published version of what Gamespot, IGN, Polygon, Kotaku, etc. do professionally. I don’t want to try and keep up with what’s new or the most popular. I want to write about games I find interesting even if they are several years old and/or somewhat obscure. A video game reviewer might have to be familiar with how new games compare to others in the genre or other games released in the same time frame, while I don’t intend to keep up with all of that. Sometimes I might want to skip over talking about some aspects of the technical gameplay to focus on why a person might play a game over how. A good reviewer would have to make some comment on several aspects of each game, which means that they would have to actually play the game in order to give it a fair review.

That brings me to a game that is fairly recent and that grabbed my interest fairly quickly with one of my favourite watch words: infinite. As soon as I heard a little bit about No Man’s Sky, I had to find out more. And I did: I found out why I’m not actually as excited to play the game as I was initially, before even trying it out myself. I’m not reviewing it because I haven’t played it, but I’ve watched and read some things about No Man’s Sky that has knocked it off the top of my list of video games I’m eagerly anticipating.

At first, I was as excited about the prospect of peaceful exploration of a vast and beautiful universe as you might expect the space core to be. “Procedural generation” is the buzzword that most of the hype I’ve heard about No Man’s Sky revolves around. It means that the game world that isn’t designed and drawn by a developer or development team. It comes together in a new way each time a new instance of the game is started. That’s not new; I still remember playing through Diablo II’s procedurally generated dungeons sixteen years ago. What’s new is the scale: No Man’s Sky promises us 18 quintillion planets, which is more than any human can possibly explore in a single lifetime.

The observable universe, containing an estimated 100 billion stars, or 1/1,800,000 of what is said to be possible in No Man’s Sky.

If you only spent one second on each planet, and did nothing but explore planets for 100 years, you’d fall short of 3.2 billion. Spending one second on each of 18 quintillion planets would be like taking the approximate age of the Earth, multiplying it by 1400, then by a million, then by a million again. My math is heavily simplified, but the point is that No Man’s Sky is almost incomprehensibly YUGE. I’ve heard it described as “infinite,” though I think that is a mistake.

No Man’s Sky seems every bit as finite as Andariel’s Cathedral: you may never see the precise same thing twice, but the limitations still exist. They’re conceivable even if we can’t reach out and touch them, and to be truly infinite is to be beyond the conceivable. In both Diablo II and No Man’s Sky the player can’t rely on specific knowledge of what monster or mineral deposit lies around which corner, but can know exactly what to expect conceptually. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact I would be really worried about any game that was indisputably infinite. That’s getting into The Matrix or OASIS territory. That No Man’s Sky is a finite game is not the problem I have with it. It’s that I was hoping for something that would push more boundaries, spatial and otherwise, rather than simply having well-defined boundaries that just happen to be far outside my reach. From what I am led to understand from watching play-through videos, it’s an exploration game where the main antagonist is your inventory management system, sort of like a massive multi-planet 3D Terraria but with less emphasis on building construction.

Caption
The eternal struggle in Terraria: keeping your inventory clear of garbage such as blinkroot seeds, waterleaf plants, and 999-stacks of dirt blocks.

So, what would excite the space core in me? A spiritual successor to Hyperspeed, a game from 1991 that I picked up on Steam a few months back for a cheap nostalgia trip. It’s a game where the player is sent out in a Trailblazer class starship, which though huge and powerful, is capable of being piloted by a single person. The idea is that you have been sent out ahead of a colony ship in order to gather resources, find a suitable planet for a colony, and ensure the neighbourhood is safe for colonization through some combination of peace treaties and warfare. As the player, you manage exploration, resource gathering, diplomacy, ship-to-ship combat, and the ship’s engine configuration. The limits in this game can be quite harsh due to the design standards of its time (remember, this is a game that was available on 5.25″ floppy disks). I can certainly forgive it for being limited compared to what is available today. One example of these limitations is as follows: my impression is it is almost impossible to honestly roleplay your way through the first trip into the Cerberus cluster and win. I tried. I explored, I gathered as many resources as I could find, secured the right alliances, and defeated my mortal foes. Even after turning on my allies and going on a resource-hungry rampage through the cluster I came to a dead end in being able to find what I needed to start my colony. To win, I would need to metagame: know which unknown star was the Athdalde homeworld, beeline it for that system, then commit swift genocide before I could even see what they do to solar systems (the only thing they are good at is strip mining at the planetary level). Without taking this step it may very well be impossible to gather enough resources before the rapacious Athdalde turn too many systems into barren husks. And perhaps even then I might have to do more. Knowing that I had to have the foresight that can only come from a previous run at the same cluster made the whole thing a little less fun, though I still thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia trip for what it was worth (less than $5).

Caption
The Trailblazer’s navigation display showing the Cerberus cluster.

This is what I imagine is possible: start with the same concept by giving me an awesome ship and tell me to go on a single-player expedition in an unexplored region of space. Except with the magic of procedural generation, unbind me from having to know what sequence of actions leads to success and create new star maps and alien races for each new instance of the game. But don’t stop there. Randomize the plot elements too. Does one of the generated races enslave a quadrant? How many previously unknown human colonies does the player come across? What possibilities are there for war and/or peace? Do I need to find a habitable but unclaimed planet to settle on, or can I impose (or peacefully negotiate the place of) my people on a populated world? What happens after my new colony is established? Am I even obligated to support the mission of resettling humans from Earth? In addition to the amount of space that can be covered, several other boundaries can be explored and played with. I know that’s asking a lot, and No Man’s Sky may well be a masterpiece in its own right and I still do want to play it, but I know it’s not the near-infinite space exploration game that I thought it could have been when I first heard of it.

The Artist is Present

I am about to ask you to do something I have to admit I didn’t do as much of during my academic career as I should have: do the reading before getting to class. Or in this case, I want you to watch a video on YouTube. Which is something I did more of during my academic career than I should have. Anyway, I need you to take about half an hour and go watch Ian Danskin’s excellent video The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide to understand where I’m going in today’s post. I want to put forward an argument that there are some games where the author is present.

I think the absence of the author is partially true of tabletop roleplaying games in some important ways. It is most certainly true of the rule books, supplements, and literary fiction that uses the same setting as the game that your GM/DM/storyteller wants to run. It is not true of the story the players are at the table to play through, though, because the DM acts as an author-figure during the play of the game. They can adjust the narrative in real time to make things clearer to the players, answer questions at the table, and confer in between sessions. The difference between this and the campfire storyteller is that the players are active participants in the procedure of creating the narrative rather than an audience that is expected to sit and listen quietly. This is what makes the tabletop RPG special. I did not say unique because I recently heard of a collaborative storytelling game called Storium which eschews solving problems with polyhedral chunks of plastic and other elements of what we normally consider games and really zooms in on the process of creating a narrative. I haven’t played this yet, but am very interested in doing so.

“The introduction of so powerful an agent as polyhedral dice to a collaborative narrative with players will make a great change in the situation of storytelling.” – Thomas Jefferson in Made-up Quotes Falsely Attributed To Founding Fathers, p. 133 

If, in the person of the DM, the artist is present, what does that change? Well, it ends the debate over authorial intent. Danskin argues that interpretation trumps intent when the author cannot be present. When creating a work, the author must think in advance about how the work will be interpreted. For example, if Beginner’s Guide included a sequence where the player was beset by enemies who look like they came straight out of a minstrel show, it most likely would not matter to us what Narrator Davey says or even what Davey Prime says about how the work is supposed to be a critical commentary on racism. If the game has us saying out loud and/or in our heads “holy shit, this game is super-racist and that’s awful” then at best the author had great intentions but failed as an artist if it really is that hard to see through to his critique. That’s the main beef I have with Bayonetta: it’s not that I can’t understand the argument that it’s not objectifying women, but it comes off that way so much that it’s not possible for me to come away without feeling that it does even if that wasn’t the original intention. Likewise, I wouldn’t blame people around my game table if I submitted official character portraits that depicted characters (particularly female ones) in a way that needlessly sexualizes them.

Caption
Why won’t anyone believe me when I say that I intended my druid to be a strong female character?

This is where the tabletop RPG is different from other kinds of games: if I have a femme fatale NPC that I hear from my players sounds more like creepy fan service than legitimate character, I have some options that I would not as a published author. If the character is straight out of a published module, then maybe that author ought to rethink the portrayal of women, but I as the DM can take the basics and rework them as I see fit. Or I can choose a different module, or homebrew something less offensive. Or, I can run with the character and do a session on peeling back the layers to show that she’s actually a person underneath the mask if that’s something that would interest the players. Or, I can just have her exit stage right and never appear again. There will be many options available to me, which will render the question of intent moot: if I proceed to play out something the players don’t like, and the players know it, then I alone am responsible for it and can’t hide behind some other author’s intent.

So, what does that mean for aspiring authors and dungeon masters alike? Be aware of your presence or lack thereof. In partially or non-interactive media (from video games to paperback novels) remember that authors are responsible for making sure the content they put out there can be interpreted in mostly reasonable ways by the target audience. There will always be people who insist on being exceptionally unreasonable, but the people who are never happy with anything are few though loud. In general, reasonable people will make reasonable interpretations but should not be expected to perform impressive feats of mental gymnastics to discover the artist’s cryptic intent. We create things to be interpreted by audiences and there is nothing we can do if they just don’t get it except create something else that does a better job of expressing our original intent. In fully interactive media where the author is present, remember that you are responsible for the content you use to shape the world. In the wrong hands, tabletop games can be used to create some pretty horrific situations for the people trying to play. Done the right way, the rules and the narrative can change during the course of play to facilitate additional play. That is why I find the tabletop RPG to be interesting enough to play, run, and write about. It’s the only kind of game I know where the author is present.

A Modest Proposal

This week I will be taking a break from writing about video or tabletop games due to something big that happened in my personal life. On Wednesday I asked someone special a very special question. I went to the coffee shop where we first met three years ago, secured the table we sat at, and when my partner arrived I proposed marriage.  Today I will be talking about the silly games that were played leading up to this fateful event — not personal drama, but the things that our culture and society have built up around the tradition of the marriage proposal.

Ring shopping was an exercise in reminding me why financial literacy and thinking critically about non-recreational games is so incredibly important: because without it, I might have been to play by an insane set of rules. Three months’ salary? One month’s salary? Nope. Such rules are hokum invented by the people who want to relieve you of as much of your salary as possible. “There will always be the question of who has the bigger ring, with girls comparing and boys not wanting to be outdone.” Count me out. That is a game I refuse to play.

I knew going in ahead of time that my budget was much lower than what might otherwise be expected, and that salespeople would try and upsell me because it is their job, but I was surprised at how viscerally I felt when that happened. It is frightening to think that I would ever have considered monthly payments. I don’t think I was ever the type who would go have overboard on a massive rock, but I have only recently become the sort of person who must restrain himself from projectile vomiting all over the display case when hearing the words “investment” and “financing” come up in this context. It is terrifying to think that I might have signed up for something like this if I was in this market even just three years ago. Like war, there are some games best won by refusing to play. This is one of them. I think more people ought to speak honestly and openly about how terrible this show-off contest is, and hopefully it will come to be seen as antiquated as a dowry. I happily made a purchase of something shiny and beautiful to imbue with sentimental meaning, but neither I nor my fiancée are competing with anyone in the process.

Dans le love game

And so I managed to obtained a ring to rule them all without getting sucked into trying to prove anything to anyone. Now let’s talk about venue for the proposal: I’m not out to judge other people, but what works for some people would be abhorrent to my sensibilities. I realize that once you get to the point of asking this question you should know that the answer is going to be “yes” unless there are some serious communications problems going on. However, it’s not a question if there is only one answer.

There was no way I was going to put her on the spot in front of a stadium full of people or anything like that. I would not have gone in with the expectation she would say no, but I would consider it a simple matter of respect not to ask the question in a way that “oh, um, can we take a little more time on this?” would have caused extreme public embarrassment. “Yes” is the only answer when you are put on the spot like that, which is why I was so appalled when I heard what happened to He Zi on Sunday. I am sure Qin Kai meant well, and they both looked extremely happy about it, but this is truly the antithesis of what my modest proposal was meant to be. Rather than labouring to produce a moment, or capitalizing on someone else’s moment, why not allow the moment to stand on its own? I can’t imagine looking back on that moment at our favourite café and wishing I had done it in a way that proved I was more clever and powerful than every other man alive at the timeParticipation in that sort of contest ultimately endorses the finite view of sexuality where the winner’s prize is not just won by defeating the opponent but where the prize is a defeated opponent (Finite and Infinite Games, p. 79). Although I may relish the titles of fiancé or husband, obtaining a title is not the endgame. It’s not about winning her hand in marriage. I do choose to make certain traditions part of my story, but I seek to make the story about chasing a horizon rather than crossing a finish line.

I also don’t understand why some people think they have to deliver an award-winning speech when keeping it simple will do. If you are successful, you will have the rest of your life to weave flowery purple prose in honour of your partner. If not, well, then you won’t have written a speech for naught. Either way, in the heat of one of the most emotionally stressful moments in your life, why not just get it out? An infinite view of sexuality is not serious but joyous, and revels in open and honest self-discovery (Finite and Infinite Games, p. 84). There is therefore no reason to get it perfect in the moment, and every reason to be more dramatic than theatrical. I was far less nervous about the whole thing precisely because I had no lines to flub. There was no success or failure to be had, only a simple question that would define how we proceed with the stories of our lives.

I refused to play silly games according to rules that would have seen me make a much bigger, more expensive production over something that was simple and every bit as meaningful. Declining to compete with others in a crass display of wealth consumption is allowing me to focus on what’s really important. All in all, I think we decisively won this round in the game of love. I’ll be back to writing about storytelling and rolling dice next week.

Going on the Depression Quest

Interactive fiction strikes me as a combination of the internet and the choose-your-own-adventure novels that many people my age borrowed from their elementary school libraries. They aren’t games in a pure sense, but share some characteristics with games. That brings me to one work in particular from 2014 called Depression Quest. In case you aren’t already painfully aware, this is the game around which the shitstorm known as Gamergate originally formed. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the game, if we can call it that. Interactive fiction is somewhere in between the linear story and the plot-heavy game. And this interactive fiction game might just hit you very close to home.

I have to admit, for being as interested as I am in the possibility of games being used for social good (or social evil), I have remained shamefully ignorant about Depression Quest. I knew the gist of it, and followed the Gamergate fallout in the news, but I didn’t play Depression Quest until a few days ago. The game is fairly simple: a grainy polaroid sits at the top of the screen, a closeup of some object relevant to the current scene which is described by the text below. Sometimes the only option is to click “next” to continue, while other choices are presented at some points. Right away, you notice that the best choices are dangled in front of you but are then crossed out in red, like this:

depressionquest1

It’s, well, depressing if you pardon my word choice. I kept trying to choose the best of the blue choices, but found myself wandering into progressively more dreary situations. It quickly becomes apparent from the changes in the status fields, the top one in particular, that reaching out to people and asking for help is the way to go. If there is one thing that Depression Quest is not, it’s being subtle in making its point.

I made many of the "right" choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I clearly have not won the game yet.
I made many of the “right” choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I am clearly not out of the woods yet.

And then, suddenly, it was over – as much as Depression Quest can be be over. It leaves the reader/player with a message thanking them for playing and reminding them that life is just about moving forward and provides helpful links to mental health resources. Neat. Now, being a person who likes games, I would be remiss not to try at least one other path if I know there is more than one ending. I went back to the beginning and started a new run where instead of choosing things I either know are the right thing to do or are the thing I would do/have done in the given situation, to go ahead and choose the ultimate path of self-destruction.

depressionquest3
The increasing/decreasing static is a neat visual effect.

Yikes. I made some bad choices, refused to open up, and more and more of the choices I made last time came up crossed out. As I keep going down this path, several times I am given only the “bad” option and other times what looked like it might be a path back up to the light but sometimes it’s already too late to change some future events. Keeping on the dark path leads to a bleaker conclusion, though no more decisive than what seemed like the “good” ending.

Have I missed the point of the game? Perhaps the author wanted the audience to focus on relating to the emotional content more than trying to achieve objectives with their actions. While I can’t deny that this game is disturbingly relatable, at times seeming like it was spying on my own life, I can’t just look at it as a piece of literature I can relate to. If my actions didn’t matter then I would not feel like I needed to be offered the choices in the first place. But the player’s choices in Depression Quest do matter within the context of the game: it’s not just your well-being at stake. Your parents, your brother, and your girlfriend are all affected by your actions. If you choose wisely, they become happier people. If you choose poorly, they suffer. The difference between those two outcomes is up to you. If that’s not making a point about our real life choices about how we deal with depression, I don’t know what is.

Where does this fit into the big picture? Games, or game-like interactive stories, can illustrate important messages in different ways than linear stories or personal interactions. That is not always necessary, but sometimes it can be helpful. That’s why I think we, people who love games, have a responsibility to push back against the misconception that games are for simple amusement and wasting time. We also have to stand up to the toxic elements of gaming culture who want to reduce gaming to finite contests that exist only to stroke their egos. I don’t  always hate power fantasies that give the player the ability to shoot things, blow things up, or wage wars from above. I couldn’t play Civilization if I didn’t enjoy a good power fantasy. Rather, I hate the idea that games, video games in particular, are thought to be limited to that sort of thing when games like Depression Quest also exist to make people think.

So, if playing this game can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes you have to reach out and call for help. If you need it, go to therapy. If you need them, take your meds. And, unless you’re allergic, don’t say no to a kitten. I’m glad I didn’t.

Alignments and Absolutes

If you’re into Dungeons and Dragons and are a general pop culture geek (at least in Anglo-America) then you’ve probably had the conversation where you take various characters from your favourite movies and TV shows and try to classify them according to the nine character alignments. While it may not be a true infinite game, debating which character is which alignment can certainly fill an infinite amount of time. It can, however, be fun when taken in reasonable doses. Naming a character’s alignment helps us establish some common ground when imagining how the character would react if put into a new/different situation. It’s not just a matter of whether you are looking at a “good guy” or a “bad guy” but also of how the character is good or evil and why they make the choices they make.

If you read this blog or see me in person on a regular basis then you’ve probably heard me talk about Undertale a lot. This week I had these two conversations converge on each other: my partner asked me where I would place the characters in Undertale on the D&D alignment scale. This was actually quite difficult, since Undertale’s morality just doesn’t work like that. It employs an absolute morality in contrast to the relative morality described by the nine alignments. In plain language: D&D doesn’t care what you do, it cares why you do it. In Undertale your intentions are completely irrelevant. It does not matter why you killed a monster, it only matters that you killed a monster.

Advice from sans
The advice you get from Sans if you grind for EXP

So, why does this distinction matter so much to the discussion of alignment? Because although moral absolutism is rarely practical advice for our own lives, it is still very useful in making a point. In Undertale’s case, it was a point about violence in roleplaying games. In explaining to my partner how Undertale morality is different, I gave her an example of a D&D scenario that is for “good guys” and conforms to the relative morality of the nine alignments but is actually terrible. Think of an old school dungeon crawl where your lawful good paladins and clerics are delving into some old ruins to liberate the long-abandoned temple from the orc henchmen who are their to guard it for the big bad guy. The orcs can speak “common” (read: English), but why would you want to speak to orcs? They are inherently evil and that means they will incessantly come back to kill you and ruin your quest unless you righteously smite them. Of course, if your rogue has motivations related more to treasure than to righteous smiting, she may be of a different alignment but share the same goal of killing the orcs. Your paladin, though, remains lawful good if it is legal to slaughter orcs and he is doing it for the benefit of his people and his faith rather than his own selfish interests.

Going in and killing every last sentient being in your way, in real life we call that genocide. In Undertale it’s called a genocide run or the genocide route. In other roleplaying games, it’s called grinding. Your choice to kill every monster (and the DM’s choice for them to be willing to fight to the death) can be good relative to the morals established in that game world while being uninspired at best to our critical eyes. If your DM is awesome there will be other ways to solve problems in addition to hacking monsters to death, but it is still presumed that combat is still on the table as a valid option. In Undertale’s absolute morality it doesn’t matter how necessary you feel it is to kill in self-defence. You kill, you’re bad, end of debate. It works to make the point that the way we approach role-playing games is often pretty messed up, but no matter how much I adore what Toby Fox created I have to admit that it’s very heavy-handed. Perhaps it needed to be in order to be what it is, but that doesn’t mean it will always work. In particular, I think an open-ended tabletop game would suffer greatly if as the DM I was so hard on players for fighting. I find that tabletop RPG players typically don’t want a simulation (sorry, your paladin has trench foot from too many nights camping in cool damp dungeons) but want enough verisimilitude to make the fantastical story seem sufficiently believable.

Thinking further about how to rate the alignments of Undertale characters, I have come up with four absolute morality alignments that can be used in a comparable way to D&D alignments. These are named mostly according to the options for the protagonist’s choices, but I have inferred from dialogue which monsters are actually trying to kill you and which ones merely block progress of the story unless you can win the fight (either by fighting or by figuring out how else to win). Of course this all revolves around violence because unlike in other games where morality and choices matter, there are no opportunities to lie, cheat, or steal. The protagonist always follows the rules, even if it involves following the rules for killing everything in the world. The absolute moral alignments are as follows:

  1. True Pacifist: will not kill anything. Killing is wrong. It doesn’t matter why you did it, the fact you did it means you are a bad person.
  2. Neutral Pacifist: avoids killing at almost all cost, but has a breaking point after which they feel it finally becomes necessary to kill in order to stop an atrocity in progress.
  3. Neutral Killer: still heavily frowns upon killing, but is absolutely willing to do so if they feel it is necessary. May have killed between one and six times before the game started.
  4. Genocider: in this world, it’s kill or be killed. In order for mercy to be successful on genociders you must somehow break their will. You can’t just refuse to fight them.

So, for what it’s worth, this is what I came up with for Undertale characters and their alignments, relative and abslolute:

Character D&D Alignment (relative) Undertale Alignment (absolute)
sans Neutral Good Neutral Pacifist
PAPYRUS Chaotic Neutral True Pacifist
Napstablook Lawful Good True Pacifist
Undyne Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer (I think any normal person on their first time through
Mettaton Lawful Evil Genocider (at least in his initial form, perhaps I might consider Mettaton EX to be more neutral)
Alphys True Neutral (this was the hardest because she is kind of all over the place, but in the end does strike a balance of all things) Neutral Pacifist
Muffet Lawful Evil Neutral Killer (leans towards Genocider, but will admonish you for killing spiders)
Toriel Lawful Good True Pacifist
Asgore Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer
Flowey Chaotic Evil Genocider
Chara Neutral Evil Genocider
Frisk/protagonist Lawful anything (good/neutral/evil based on the route chosen) Player's choice
Temmie Temful Neutral True Temmie

As I reflect on my own alignment I contemplate the balancing act of law vs. rebellion and of benevolence vs. self-interest, and it fills me with determination.

 

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map

There are many ways to play Dungeons & Dragons or similar tabletop roleplaying games. Some people love power gaming. Some people love drama and political intrigue. Most like at least a little of bit of each. I’m not here to judge your game. If you and your fellow grognards love your old school dungeon crawls and have a special affinity for grease pencils and plexiglass, you do you. That being said, I have a particular way I like to run things and there is a reason behind every one of the choices I make, from race relations in my settings to the crunch of the numbers on the character sheet to the physical elements on my table. I present my choices merely for consideration; I am not out to convince anyone else that my style is better than theirs.

Last week I talked about fighting to the death, and the week before on how visual elements are the first tools given to players for understanding the world. Today I will delve into some of the visual elements I use in my tabletop games (which by volume is mostly D&D, though I will be trying my hand at running World of Darkness on November 5, 2016: more details on that closer to the date). One important element of the D&D game is the encounter. This is, loosely defined in the context of a D&D game, an event where players interact with non-player characters in some way that involves dice rolls and success/failure conditions. Some editions are more explicit than others when it comes to exactly what an encounter is, but in all circumstances it is left to the Dungeon Master to make it work.

So, you are in for an encounter. You have tried to defuse the situation with the best Pelorian apologetics and an epic song and dance number courtesy of the party’s bard-in-residence, but the mind flayer and his ogre associates are having absolutely none of it. Your party is going to have to fight at least a few rounds. It’s time for heroic combat in a space that looks like this:

So, what were they doing in that featureless room at a dead end passage in the dungeon before the plucky heroes showed up?
So, what were they doing in that featureless room at a dead end passage in the dungeon before the intrepid heroes showed up?

Ouch. Someone has gone to the trouble of finding his box of dungeon tiles, but this visual representation of the room is hardly inspiring. If pitched battles in featureless arenas are your thing, then carry on. But if, like me, you want this encounter to take place in a space that the players can believe in, you’ve got to put more work into fleshing this out. You don’t need commercial dungeon tiles, pre-printed poster maps, detailed drawings on grid paper, or indeed any physical encounter map at all. A lot of DMs excel at creating an interesting room with their words. However, I am a fan of the encounter map for the following reasons:

  1. Good graphical maps include elements that I might forget to mention or draw. I might draw a rectangle on a piece of grid paper and label it “dining room table” and I might say something like “in the middle of the cold, dimly lit room there is a foul-smelling feast of various offal laid out on a table that once held fine dinners for the king’s family” but neglect to mention the lit candelabra on the table. It might seem rational to assume that is there, along with cutlery, platters, plates, etc. but a little reminder to both the players and DM that there is a live source of fire in the middle of the table.
  2. It’s good for the wow-factor. Nice maps have people imagining that the rest of the world they are not looking at is similarly detailed. You might even get further with this by detailing a tavern complete with pantry, etc. than you will with a grandiose world map full of nations the players may never visit. What good is it to know that this nation’s main export is wool scarves if the shop you’re in doesn’t have any cues to remind you that there is a wide selection right in front of you?
  3. Sometimes people zone out when it’s not their turn. Any method of keeping track of player and non-player character positions can help them stay focused. This can be done very simply with dry erase mats or grid paper. I just happen to like the look of printed graphics. Tokens and miniatures help too. They don’t have to be elaborate or cost more than a few cents for a large set. In the picture above, the custom player character tokens were created using a consumer-grade colour printer, some cardboard out of my household recycle bin, and a little bit of 2-sided tape. It is a cheap and easy way to make something unique to each character and, along with the grid map, helps keep players focused on where their characters are in the room.
  4. I enjoy the process of making maps at both the micro and macro scale. I also like figuring out how to take an existing location and sew it into my larger setting. The chance to be creative is what drives people to DM.

Horizons aren’t always literal horizons, sometimes it’s being absolutely sure there is a pantry behind the kitchen and that there is flour there even if it’s not part of the DM’s notes and descriptions. It’s also semi-mandatory for keeping the DM’s sanity when running 4e encounters. Other editions and rule sets may lend themselves better to the theatre of the mind, but the system I started out with and have by far the most experience running games in makes it hard to run encounters without a grid map. Some people didn’t like this; I didn’t mind. Either way, it’s become a habit for me and I find it difficult to run a game with no maps. The one-night Risus scenarios I ran last year used maps closely resembling floor plans (in fact they were actual floor plans from a few Canadian universities I mixed and matched to create a fictional college), as that rule set is pretty much the opposite of 4e in this regard. However, I still liked having the layout to go from when coming up with the descriptions for each room as I went.

Now you know why I like my grid maps so much. If you like playing without them, keep on doing what you do. However, if you find that players often get inconsistent ideas such as one player assuming “crate in the middle of the room” means a large but portable box and another thinks of it as something that would require a crane or forklift to move then you might want to consider drawing it out. I’m not writing this to tell the DMs out there that they need to change, but I do encourage experimentation with different styles that help bring out the best of your tabletop RPG’s potential.

TO THE DEATH!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem with killing creatures in tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t think the problem is the violence itself. We play these sorts of games to escape into a different world and engage in heroic conquest in ways that we couldn’t (and/or wouldn’t want to) do in real life. As much as I loved Undertale, I’m not wishing that every roleplaying game was committed to making the case for pacifism. But I am thinking that those of us who run tabletop roleplaying games as the GM/DM/storyteller/etc. really need to rethink the way we set our players up for combat. I think this could apply to video games too, but the consumer is less often also involved in designing scenarios.

I have a confession to make: I ran two major campaigns in 4e D&D, and in each of them I railroaded the party into fighting a lot of things. The worst part is that I lead them into evil, “the termination of infinite play in unheard silence” (p. 32, Finite and Infinite Games). Evil, not just in the pitched battles with the “boss” creatures, but in the process of killing enemy mooks for experience to gain the levels they need to go toe-to-toe with higher-level enemies. Too many monsters or generic cultists were willing to fight to the death without having any purpose in the story except to be designated targets. If there is one thing I regret in my “A Trip to Castle Stirling” campaign, it was not setting a breaking point for all of the enemies (with appropriate punishments for good-aligned clerics and paladins who go for the kill after a surrender).

If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.
If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.

It makes sense, though. Take a look at your published modules for your favourite sword-and-sorcery tabletop game. See how they provide a wealth of statistics involving hit points, armour, movement, damage, attacks, etc. What don’t you see as often? How to defeat rather than fight monsters to the death. Will lizard people respond well to bribery? Dryads to flattery? Are demons actually quite cowardly? A skilled and determined DM would be able to improvise something, but the default course of action is to fight the minotaur until its HP reaches zero, it is dead, and the players gain XP and treasure. I did a little bit of experimenting with NPC-surrender with named NPCs and one group of snake-people in my last 4e campaign, but in retrospect it is kind of terrible that this was a variation rather than what usually happens. I can do better. We can do better.

I just finished playing in a tabletop campaign run under the Risus system. It’s better suited for short one-session games, but my regular tabletop group has found out that it is possible to keep it running as long as any D&D campaign. One of the most interesting ideas I came across in this system is that there is no such thing as HP. You run on cliché dice, and once you have been brought down to zero, you are out. Defeated. Not dead, unless it is explicitly a fight to the death, and the winner chooses the consequence to be death rather than some kind of last-minute mercy).

I ran a one-night Risus game a little while back, where the premise was that there is an annual scavenger hunt at a fictional university which everyone becomes irrationally obsessed with. Except one year when a mad scientist type became so obsessed with winning a broken version of the contest he ended up holing up in the abandoned areas of the basement and playing out a Phantom of the Opera sort of trope. The game ended when the party of player characters was able to outmatch him at his game. In the end, they defeated him more decisively than they could have if they killed him and made him the tragic protagonist of his own story. They responded to his outrageous villainy by handing him the old trophy and declaring him the winner of the impossible contest. He was left speechless, dumbfounded, and completely lost. The sense of pure and unadulterated defeat was palpable. It was wonderful, possibly one of the finest moments I have ever had as a GM. I want to do more of this, and less guiding players into the kill-XP-level-kill cycle. My future campaigns will have a Mercy button.

So, I propose that for the purposes of determining defeat conditions the DM/GM/storyteller/etc. should consider enemies in combat encounters as being part of one of three groups based on function:

  1. Robots: things that are designed or built with the specific function to fight and kill the players, includes not just mechanical robots but also reanimated skeletons, raised zombies, etc. They may be able to speak and understand language, but for them it is more like how computers understand input.
  2. Animals: creatures which are alive, likely sentient, but not capable of higher reasoning. This would include traditional animals, fantasy beasts, as well as anything else that runs primarily on instinct. Creatures such as zombies could also be this if they are created by a natural phenomenon rather than a person. They can communicate emotions but not ideas.
  3. People: sentient, intelligent beings capable of abstract thinking. These are not necessarily organic, bipedal, and humanoid. These are characters with agency, judgement, feelings, beliefs, values, and motives of their own. Sometimes we want to populate our fictional towns with people but end up putting a lot of human robots in there instead of human people. Where possible, people should be made to function as people.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.

For this purpose, the finer points of what constitutes the difference between an animal and a person at an ethical level are up to your group to decide. By all means, consider a cat to be a person, a cultist to be a robot, or a feral clockwork automaton to be an animal. I am not suggesting that this classification be used to determine whether or not it is ethical to hurt/kill/destroy the creature if it is attempting to coerce the players in some way. That is up to the players to decide. I am only drawing this distinction for the purpose of suggesting how each should be defeated other than a fight to the death:

  1. Robots should be able to be defeated by circumventing their programming or mechanics. Robots, if sufficiently provoked, will attempt to fight the player to the death unless specifically prevented from doing so. Of the three, it should be easier to justify destroying these than either of the other two types of creatures. By all means, smite the necromancer’s summoned undead without a second thought.
  2. Animals, when provoked, will try to fight to the death unless they become scared. Fight or flight. To provide a solution to avoid a fight to the death, the DM should back up one step and make the encounter with an animal not lead to a fight unless specific conditions are met. Additionally, the conditions under which the animal will submit or run away out of fear should be spelled out in your notes. The players should not be too harshly punished for killing the owlbear if they really felt like they had to.
  3. People should rarely try to fight to the death if given the chance to be spared, unless they are true believers in a cause. These are the hardest creatures to plan for, but that is what makes the tabletop game such a great medium. You can improvise a little at the table. People should always have a breaking point. Perhaps it is fear and self-preservation, perhaps it is greed, or perhaps it is an appeal to their conscience. Players may choose to execute defeated enemies who are people, but that should lead to more consequences than an experience point reward. Killing people should always require justification. Defeating them should be more satisfying than killing them.

Simply by considering what the function of the enemy is can help determine how we let players go about defeating them without a battle to the death. You can only go on so many super-hammy rants of to-the-death defiance as a DM before it starts losing its impact. By the time you hear it from the main villain of the campaign, it starts to sound the same as when the hobgoblin deckhand swore to end you at any cost because you wrecked his ship. If the hobgoblin is functioning as a person, let the players convince him to give up piracy instead. And don’t just bring him back to assist in the battle when you later fight the pirate lord to make it harder than if you had simply executed him earlier, either. That reduced him to a talking robot. The players should also have the option to stab him in the back on his way out of a holding cell. I am not calling for DMs to enforce morality, but rather to provide for the existence of a reasonably tenable morality that players can play with and around.

So, when you are designing encounters in a tabletop roleplaying game rather than a combat simulation game, consider making combat and death a part of the game but make it the means to an end rather than the goal itself. I think it makes the game more interesting whether the players have the choice of finding a non-violent solution, fighting only to submission, or choosing to go all the way. Giving players the choice of how to solve problems allows for a wider range of play and that fills me with determination.

First Impressions in Game Worlds

“A finite game takes place in a world… A world provides an absolute reference without which the time, place, and participants make no sense.” – James Carse, pp. 89-90, Finite and Infinite Games

There is a lot that can be said about the importance of the world in a game. Today I will be talking about the importance of visual elements in making first impressions, and one of the first games where the world itself made a big impression on me, Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle.

First, let me be clear about what I mean by “world.” This word is often used as a synonym for the planet Earth, but that’s not helpful for looking at the worlds that games take place in. The world, to any given group of humans, is how we collectively make sense of what we see around us. This is how you can have a “world economy” or a “world war” or a “western world” that do not encompass the entire planet Earth. Some of those come very close, while some exclude most of the planet. The point is, the world is everything a game’s audience could possibly interact with in the context of playing that game. In Pong, the world is comprised by two paddles, a ball, a centre line, a scoreboard, and the boundaries of the screen. It is not a terribly compelling world, but it does not detract from the game because it’s a simple amusement; people don’t play Pong to escape into another world. If a game is designed to be large and meaningful in some way, the world needs to be many times more complex and engaging than that.

It’s not just a matter of appealing graphics, nor the absence of apparent boundaries that make a world seem interesting right from the get-go. Visual elements (such as screen graphics, printed cards, boards, tokens, etc.) are usually the first thing that introduce a player to a world. That’s why they’re not just there for the wow factor or to make marketing easier, though they do help with those things too. The look of a game is the first tool the audience gets for making sense of the game’s world.

That brings me to one of the first video games I ever played a lot of, the Commander Keen series. For those of you who haven’t reached age level 30 by now, this was an episodic series of games for the PC in the early 1990s, a time when PC gaming was a niche interest compared to the popular consoles like the SNES and Sega Genesis. I, however, was not among the kids my age who had those consoles in their homes. We had no consoles newer than the Intellivision until I was in grade seven and the age of the Nintendo 64 had arrived. I did not grow up playing Sonic, Super Mario Brothers, or Metroid. My PC gaming nostalgia is brought to you today by the letters D, O, and S. Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Ultima Underworld — these are the games I remember from the 1990s. I played plenty of demos and shareware, but Keen was to me what Link or Mario was to most gamers close to my age. And it was playing Commander Keen that gave me the first experience of truly appreciating the world in a video game based on the visual elements of the levels.

Mars, as presented in episode one of the Vorticons trilogy. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as lime green.
Mars, as presented in “Marooned on Mars,” episode one of the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. Most of the game looks a lot like this. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as teal and lime green. This blog does not receive any advertising revenue from multinational beverage corporations.

Before the age of DLC, there was a way that game developers could release part of a game and then charge for the rest. It was called shareware. The additional content, whether branded as sequels or additional episodes, were not truly distinct games. You copied a game for free, then you (were expected to) pay for the remainder of the content beyond what the developer deemed to be enough of a teaser. Commander Keen is ostensibly a series of six episodes, but it’s really two games: the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy and the Goodbye Galaxy trilogy. For the sake of simplicity, I am counting Aliens Ate My Babysitter in the second trilogy because it plays the same as episodes 4 and 5 even though there were differences in story arc and license/distribution that set it apart from episodes four and five. Six episodes, two distinct games. At one point I had both of the shareware episodes: “Marooned on Mars” (#1) and “Secret of the Oracle” (#4). I was offered a choice: my parents would pay to complete one trilogy and not the other. I had to choose between sticking to the chronological order and continuing Invasion of the Vorticons, or getting the rest of the newer games. I chose the latter. If you asked me at the time, I would have told you it was for aesthetic reasons. I wouldn’t have used those words, but that’s what I would have meant when I said “better graphics.” It’s actually quite remarkable how far things advanced between December 1990 and December 1991. But the appeal is not just in the fact that the Mars presented in “Marooned on Mars”looks kind of like a maze made of molded plastic, while the Shadowlands of “Secret of the Oracle” contain diverse biomes rendered in stunning 256-colour VGA graphics.

It’s apparent when you walk around the first few levels in Secret of the Oracle. The backgrounds imply a bigger world than the maze you are currently navigating. You can go in and out of doors. And most strikingly, there is a new feature: you can look up, look down, and see that are other areas in the level where life goes on without you needing to be there, right in the middle of the screen. The difference a year makes is not just in aesthetics, but also in the little mechanics that help me believe the world exists outside of the boundaries of my screen.

The rich visual splendour of 256-colour VGA graphics make a good impression. The picture shows the same stretch of path looking up and looking down.
This game was released one year after the game pictured above. Shown here is same stretch of path with Commander Keen looking up and looking down.

The visual elements of a game’s world doesn’t have to involve sprawling, highly detailed landscapes in order to make a good impression. The blocky worlds of Minecraft and Terraria do just fine without realism. If the game world gives me the tools I need to feel like my place in it is meaningful and relevant, then it becomes something I can get invested in. Sometimes that can involve beautifully rendered landscapes with the appearance of horizons. Sometimes that can involve something as simple as being able to look up and look down. And so, to conclude, I leave you with the recreation of the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket I built in a Terraria world I named Gnosticus IV. The concept of a world in that game is really neat, but will have to wait for a future post.

The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.
The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.

 

Hell, Titles, and Houses

Four blocks, I should mention in a song if I want to get along with change, who doesn’t wanna change this? – Tegan and Sara, “Hell” (2010)

Ten years ago, circa 2006, Tegan and Sara wrote “Hell” about a neighbourhood that was part of the infamous downtown east side in Vancouver. It’s a song about a place with some real social and economic suffering going on. If I were to ask you where in Canada you’d pay a king’s ransom to live, you’d think that a place once dubbed “Hell” by the Vancouver Sun wouldn’t make the list. But now it’s 2016, and it costs over a million dollars to buy a house there. Or, if you are lucky, you can spend $300,000 on a condo there. And no, there was no rampant increase in wages and salary nor a magic cure for poverty and homelessness applied in the last decade. Housing prices and rents have skyrocketed and income has not. This in turn creates upward pressure in the suburbs, with the area of effect slowly increasing as people have to go farther and farther to where they can afford to buy. Meanwhile, it becomes harder and harder for regular people to put a roof over their heads. It’s crazy unsustainable.

But what does the outrageous inflation of a real estate bubble in Canada’s most famous city on the west coast have to do with my thoughts about games? In a word, title. What do you get your name on when you buy a slice of dirt with a house on top? A title. What does a person win in a finite game? A title. Considering this aspect of personal finance as a game might sound like a really odd thing to do, but remember that I’m the sort of person who chooses to write ~1000 words per week comparing games to obscure philosophy texts. And one of the reasons I do that is to look at things from a different angle in order to understand them better. So, home ownership vs. renting as a finite game. This helps me make sense of what would otherwise be an inscrutable case of people desperate to sink their own financial futures. I don’t live in Vancouver or Toronto, so I don’t feel the effects of this nearly as much. Yet even here I can hear the marketers and salespeople singing the siren’s song: stop throwing your money away on rent. The effects are less spectacular and headline-grabbing outside of Canada’s two hottest markets, but the sickness exists here too.

My preciousssssss...
My preciousssssss…

So why is it that the title of homeowner is so coveted? It’s considered uncouth to obsess about expensive clothes, big flashy jewellery, and luxury cars. Sure, it’s not necessarily unfashionable to buy those things if you’ve got the cash, but to focus your life on acquiring those things will earn you labels like materialistic. And so too will obsessing about ensuring your house is gigantic with all kinds of features unimaginable to middle income families in the 20th century. Yet it seems there is something magical and different about owning your dwelling rather than renting it. Taking on large debt to buy a car is considered irresponsible while going into epic debt to buy a house is rationalized as “good debt.” That makes sense, since the expensive car is usually an accessory for the title of rich while homeowner is a title unto itself. It is a title won in a game of life rather than a recreational game or other form of structured play. I think of it this way:

  1. The beginning: A person has to accumulate enough money for a down payment, which is presumed to be a reasonable measure of one’s value to society. Obviously a problematic one, but for the purposes of this game, people who have lots of money are presumed to be hard working savers and people who don’t are presumed to be on their way to that state, suffering as a result of poverty, or maybe they are just hard partying wastrels. In any event, we all start with nothing then begin accruing through various means.
  2. Consent to play: We consent to play this game by addressing issues of income inequality by looking for ways in which people who can’t afford to buy houses become able to rather than questioning the premise in the first place. When we congratulate our friends on their (illusory) equity gains. When we weep and gnash our teeth because affordability is a train to success that is about to leave without us, and consider long term tenancy as a state of failure.
  3. Rules are externally defined: we play by the rules of the industry and the banks, and can know what they are, though many choose to remain oblivious.
  4. Played within boundaries: houses in New Glasgow just aren’t coveted like they are in Kitsilano. Your title, in both senses, is worth more in Vancouver.
  5. The purpose of the game is to win: by being clever in your choice and timing, having the right stuff to be able to secure the deal, and being diligent and determined while you pay off the mortgage leads to you being a winner while I am a loser because I will never escape making a monthly payment. Nobody pays over a million dollars for a crappy house just because they just need a place to sleep.
  6. The game ends when someone wins: when the person who has captured the homeowner title either sells and pockets huge capital gains, or they hang on forever and reap the benefits of never having to make a monthly payment for their shelter again and the equity becomes a treasure hoard for their heirs. Assuming, of course, that a correction or crash does not wipe out the gains.

This aspect of life fits the characteristics of a finite game. The big question that I would like everyone to consider is this: should we consent to play this game? And if the answer is no, what does that look like? I choose not to play. Regardless of whether I remain a renter or somehow become a homeowner, it will never be my goal in life to own a house. My personal financial stability will remain paramount and I will not sacrifice it on the altar of real estate. Shelter is a need; owning is not. I am not saying there is inherently anything bad or wrong about buying a house, especially if you think of your house as a place to live rather than a guaranteed source of wealth and prestige. There are lots of good reasons and circumstances where it makes perfect sense to buy. I am saying there is something inherently wrong when prices start flying away from wages and salaries because of FOMO.

It’s been hard for me to come to the conclusion that never buying a house isn’t a fail condition. It’s been hard to listen to people talk about real estate like it’s a magic wealth machine that never fails to deliver long term wealth and happiness. But I’m up and over it and over them.

Diversions and Doorkeys

I don’t know what I would say about Undertale if I was a video game reviewer. I have mixed feelings about the procedure of playing the game, as many of the puzzles aren’t very interesting and there are an awful lot of long walks with nothing happening through faux-retro 8-bit scenery. As a fun little diversion, the crunch of this game served its purpose but wasn’t any more exciting than Hook. I picked up that game for what I expect is the same reason most of its users did: I was browsing the free section of Steam, not finding anything interesting, then decided to see if there was anything they had that was available for almost free. It is a lovely minimalist puzzle game that took me about three hours from start to finish (including breaks). It’s a fun diversion, but makes no pretence about having a plot or making any commentary. If you’re into puzzle games and low prices, Hook may be a good buy for you. If you act within the next two days (until July 4, 2016), it is 10% off on Steam. That will save you the princely sum of $0.11 CAD. Get to it before that hot deal is gone!

Press the buttons (black circles) to retract the pins (thick lines), but do it in the right order so that you don't snag any parts.
Hook: press the buttons (black circles) to retract the pins (thick lines), but do it in the right order so that you don’t snag any parts. 

Back to Undertale: after starting the game with a bizarre interaction with a flower who turns out to be a supreme asshole, I was introduced to Toriel. She is the NPC who goes out of her way to tell the protagonist to not to go on an adventure instead of delivering the standard but thou must speech. It was at this early stage that I could see for myself that Undertale wasn’t going to be a standard dungeon crawl. Whatever was to come in terms of combat encounters and puzzle games to reward me with the key to the next room, I knew that Undertale was created for reasons other than passing the time with challenges and rewards. It’s not just a matter of overcoming the enemies, solving the puzzle, advancing the plot, and winning a title (with or without a “score” number) at the end.

The value of the education the player receives from Toriel isn't obvious at first, but it reveals a lot about what Undertale is all about.
The value of the education the player receives from Toriel isn’t obvious at first, but it reveals what Undertale is really all about.

Undertale is, in addition to being a game, social commentary about gaming and that’s why I find it interesting and worthwhile. Undertale’s visual style reminds us of the games of the 80’s and 90’s that usually railroaded the player into combat. For example, Konami’s 1991 arcade brawler The Simpsons puts the player into a setting that does not lend itself to wanton violence and then steers the player into fighting a mass mob of goons as an archetypal suburban American family from a TV sitcom. This might have made more sense if it was a Treehouse of Horror game, but the Springfield that most people know outside of the Halloween episodes is a generally peaceful place. Why fight there? Because The Simpsons was a massively popular TV series, video games were an emerging market, and so it made sense to make a Simpsons video game. And in 1991, making a video game meant either making a sports game or making a fighting game. A game set in Springfield where nobody had to be beaten in a contest or in a fight would have been inconceivable at the time, but turning The Simpsons into a fighting game was par for the course.

So, in Undertale we are quickly introduced to an 8-bit underground dungeon full of monsters. Anyone who has played a video game that looks like this is going to be expecting some hack and slash if nothing else. When faced with an enemy the character is presented the expected options of attacking with a weapon, using items, and trying to run away. This is very normal for a game about escaping from the spooky underground ruins. But Undertale also offers the player the act and mercy buttons. The one action almost always available during a fight is check, which hopefully reveals something about which of the other actions might have a desirable effect. The other actions are entirely context-dependent based on the target. For example, Froggit is the only enemy that can be complimented or threatened.

Thankfully, checking Froggit gives you a useful hint about how to proceed without killing it or running away from it.
Thankfully, checking Froggit gives you a useful hint about how to proceed without killing it or running away from it. “Check” isn’t always this helpful.

There is usually some kind of hint that can be gleaned from checking an enemy as to which actions will affect it the most. Many enemies can be rendered uninterested in continuing the fight, which opens up an option when you hit the mercy button. There are only two things available in Mercy: flee, and spare. The latter usually only works after sufficiently pacifying the enemy through some combination of low hit points (from attacking it) or lack of willingness to fight (choosing the right type of action). You can try it at any time, but that may just earn your enemy a free attack. Even if you are determined not to hurt anything, you can’t get through the game by doing nothing but fleeing. Unlike games where dialogue and non-combat actions are secondary to the play of the game itself, Undertale puts them front and centre.

Games can be used for social good and to understand ourselves. Not all games are very good at that, whether they are a peaceful and serene recreational experience (Hook) or a logic-defying rampage (The Simpsons). Undertale is amazing at this because both violence and pacifism are available options, and the choices the player makes are important. By the end of the game, the player is explicitly asked to evaluate their own choices they made with respect to violence. In general, we are socialized to reject violence and murder as methods of solving problems and getting our way except where all other options have been exhausted and it becomes a matter of preserving life. We expect armies and police forces to make room for diplomacy or talk down a gunman if they can, and social unrest ensues if there is even the perception that they didn’t do enough to prevent violence. In games, especially dungeon crawling video games where you encounter monsters, the expectation is to kill things and be rewarded for that killing with experience points and in-game goods and/or money. There is a dissonance there, and Undertale boldly shoves it right into the player’s face. It proves that games can be made to challenge us to see gaming in a different way, and to examine how that affects our lives. That’s what I hope to be able to do in any game-related creative pursuits I engage in. Playing through Undertale for the first time did involve some tedious puzzles and corny dialogue, but it also made me think and filled me with determination.