The unlikely final boss of Undertale says to you, just before he dies: “No matter what, you’ll just keep going. Not out of any desire for good or evil…but just because you think you can. And because you “can”…you “have to”. Not a profound indictment of someone committing genocide in a friendly, fictional universe (which, for those unfamiliar, is precisely what he’s trying to stop you from doing), but it says something interesting about human behavior besides. I lead with this because it’s neat and quotable and I’m not great with nonfiction, but this essay isn’t about human behavior in general. More particularly, it’s about art.
To the detriment of most of the other things I do, I do a lot with games. I design them, I play them, I write about them in random essays like this one, and I have conversations, one of the most common of which starts with the question: “Are games art?”
Oh boy. Even if you despise games, you’re probably having an unpleasant flashback to a high school English class, where a mildly humorless middle-aged bane-of-your-existence asked you to provide a definition for art, knowing full well that your opinion was garbage and that you never learned to approach a definition as anything other than concrete. Well, maybe you liked your English teacher, but I suspect that this particular classroom experience was less than enlightening. There are a number of good discussions (on the Internet, in scholarly publication, within art itself) on what art is–I won’t address any of them in detail. Instead, I’ll just offer that as a society, we have defined a fuzzy zone in which art is plainly identifiable beyond a certain point. You know that art isn’t limited to [pictures, sculptures, films, music], but it’s unambiguous that all of those things are art.
This is why I tend to be a little surprised that people give the “Are games art?” question any credence at all. There shouldn’t be a question. Every video game and most analog games are a purposeful amalgamation of the constituent parts of that list. Do people think that the juxtaposition somehow lessens the value of those parts as art? Of course not! And, of course, games are art.
And, of course, I’m arguing with a straw man. What the Roger Ebert-esque character I’m addressing really meant was that video games aren’t “high art.” Take that, plebs. Mind you, I disagree, but now the discussion isn’t it about art, it’s about getting art high, Dogg, which is innately cultural, which means a lot more anger and a lot more disagreement about what words mean. For Ebert himself, the distinction was authorial control, which is akin to saying the parts of games not included in the above list are not art and thus necessarily degrade the overall product. That seems silly, but I’m just some guy, so I’ll channel Nietzche: Good (high) art is what makes things beautiful, or at least suitably profound. Again, it’s clear that paintings and films do that. The sculptor makes his rock beautiful; the musician arranges beautiful sounds–why can’t we do something similar with agency?
“Ah, so that’s where Undertale fits in.” Not uniquely, but sure, why not? Undertale is a game about choices, in the sense that it’s a game about one specific choice repeated over and over, of the form: “You could try to murder this person you just met–do you?” The very intentional trick to it is that you are making this choice in a video game, where murdering people is not just acceptable but expected, to the point that even though the game tells you right off the bat that you should talk to the things you “fight” instead of stabbing them, everyone’s natural instinct is to stab them anyway, because that’s what you do in an RPG. Usually, people take the hint after a little while and at least figure out how to make friends with the bosses, but, again, very intentionally, it is impossible to be anything other than morally “meh” on your first playthrough (no matter what, you have to kill the king and trap everyone underground).
At this point, there are two reactions: “Whatever, I don’t get it. I’m done.” and “To the Internet!” It should go without saying that the intended audience will overwhelmingly choose the latter, wherein they will find that Undertale actually has three endings: One, they just got. A second can be achieved by playing the game and using its mechanics properly (ie, don’t murder people), and a third–undesirable but there–can be achieved by going right off the deep end and murdering every character in the game (including characters spawned by random encounters). This is where agency comes in.
Choices in games, even choices that radically alter the player experience, aren’t new. “Choose Your Own Adventure” became a thing in the ‘70s–it’s not like Warren Spector suddenly showed up with Deus Ex, fully developed from nothing in 2000. Still, there’s a difference between giving players a choice between outcome A and outcome B and making that choice mean something. The point is abstract; I’ll try to elaborate: In Undertale, different actions (at least in the second go-around) lead to different stories with different endings. This is neat, but it’s nothing new and nothing particularly subtle.
The real magic is in the details surrounding those endings, for instance: endings 2 and 3 (from here on, the “Pacifist” ending and the “Genocide” ending) are significantly harder to get. Actually, there’s a hierarchy: Pacifist is more challenging than Neutral (first ending), Genocide is way more challenging than Pacifist. Add on to that the qualification that Pacifist is a happy ending for everybody and Genocide is the gruesome annihilation of the world, and you have two axes by which you’re selecting responses. So, yeah, your choice of Undertale ending probably says something about you.
A brief digression: A surprising amount of robust game design theory has come from analysis of Magic: The Gathering. If you’re talking about designing art based around the choices people make, you’re presumably interested in why they’re making those choices, which is why Mark Rosewater’s (or WotC R&D’s) codification of player archetypes (one of a number of similar efforts–I feel this one is generally the best) is so helpful for dissecting something like Undertale.
For those not familiar, Wizards of the Coast categorizes its players into the archetypes Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Timmy is interested in feeling powerful (see also: flashy), Johnny is interested in feeling clever (see also: unique), and Spike is interested in winning (see also: obsessive self-improvement). Standard disclaimers apply: These are archetypes, not people. No one is all Timmy or all Johnny, etc.; they are tools we can use to organize the drives that people actually have when they’re at play. Likewise, not all games will appeal to all of these drives. Johnny doesn’t much care for Pong. And Spike doesn’t give a fuck about No Man’s Sky.
Undertale, meanwhile, has two major game systems. The first is a fairly standard explore-and-dialogue, a la every JRPG ever. The second is bullet hell. Due to the Internet, Johnny has to try to care about either (someone has to write all the stuff on the Internet, but he’s gotta be on the bleeding edge or it doesn’t really matter). Meanwhile Timmy can get invested in the game’s characters and secrets, but the bullet hell dancing he has do for them is *whatever*. So Spike commits genocide because doing so makes him the best at “playing the game,” where “playing the game” equals “getting the trickiest ending and beating its hardest level”. Why does he do this? Because if he’s the best, he “can”. And to prove it, he “has to”.
One might say that Toby Fox is an uncanny judge of character, and while doing so certainly adds a moral punch to this analysis, it isn’t necessary for Undertale’s artistic validity–the efficacy of the polarization here is interesting enough. Let me reiterate: The player’s exertion of agency in Undertale is not just a difference between outcomes–it’s a difference in the game being played in the first place. And moreover, the path a given player takes is going to look bizarre to anyone who takes another path. The Genocide player is going to look at the Pacifist and wonder why he stopped playing the game halfway through. The Pacifist is going to look back and wonder what kind of psychopath would brutally murder the characters he spent 15 hours befriending just because he can.
In fact, precisely because the choice is so polarizing, it begins to look less and less like a choice (ie, is it really a choice if you would do the same thing ten out of ten times?).
So all of that is very interesting, and I write the analysis here partly because I’ve never seen it written before in a way that doesn’t make my eyes bleed and partly to answer the original question: “Can we make high art using agency as a medium?” We’ll leave the questions of what words mean to stew in a corner, but I think we can confidently say that agency can produce a deep, analyzable, and, importantly, beautiful experience akin to film, literature, or visual art. “So, basically, yeah?” Yeah.
The problem is that proofs of concept are great and all, but they can only do so much to provide us with an affirmative understanding of the limits of the medium. The best we can do is ask questions and think carefully about what we’re playing, and I plan to do just that with a very different example in my next essay(s). For what it’s worth, Warren Spector is probably right in all of his crowing about how choice matters, but it ought to be taken in a broader sense. And, paradoxically, that means that understanding choice as a design element may get pretty fucking meta.
Top image: Sans the Skeleton from Undertale