Slowdown

A brief update, as this blog is starting to gather droplets of attention. I will be travelling for the next week and a half, without access to a computer, and between that and the backlog of material I used to start this blog slowly dwindling, my frequency of posting will slow a bit. I have a few posts queued up for the time I’ll be gone, but don’t expect to see more than a few until I return.

Long term, the plan hasn’t changed. The Dark Souls series will continue, and I will continue posting short fiction as I write it. For those now following, thank you and welcome.

The Chimera

Very rough, written for use in a War Torn/Rale playtest one-shot (hence the weird, second-person framing).  Posting primarily as an excuse to show off Rae’s art.

You feel time drain from your perspective.  Where you are is not here, when you are is not now.  The trees around grow tall and vast, larger than you have ever seen, and the underbrush grows in kind.  From the canopy, birds take flight, and squirrels scamper between the boughs. Amidst it all, you see a stag emerge from the greenery.  The creature is tall and proud and weathered by its years in the forest–it knows that even as it is surrounded by life, death is never far.

Even now, it is pursued by a group of men.  They carry bows and spears and fire, and eve though the creature flees from them at great speed, they are relentless.  Soon, it is tired, and the men reach it. Their blades and arrows pierce its hide, and their flames scorch its face, and though it tries once more to flee, its legs fail it, and it crashes, heavy, to the ground.

The men approach but do not reach it, for suddenly, a wolf leaps from between the branches and bites a man’s throat.  Blood flows, and the man’s companions stab the beast, but even in death, it does not forsake its quarry.

The stag, seeing life abandon its would-be salvation, cries out in horror.  The sound is feral, animal, real, but you recognize the creature’s voice all the same from the echoes you heard beneath the earth in your own world, outside this strange rift in reality.  Abandoned by life, it instead calls out to death, to draw the macabre scene into its warm embrace.

For the first time in the creature’s long memory, death heeds its call.  The branches around them, imbued with that deathly force, grow and pierce the men, enshrouding the dead wolf in monument of briar and blood.  At once, the stag realizes: To help the world escape death, it must become as death. It must draw the whole world into its embrace.

The stag, galvanized by fear and grief, sets about its task.  It devours the wolf, swallowing its tail, its flank, its shoulders.  As the stag engulfs the dead beast’s maw, a spark of life, of hunger, awakens inside it, and the beasts, now twinned, begin to eat as one the men, the briar, the earth, and the trees, until the chimera and the forest are one.

Years pass, and the earth shifts, and a Hunter arrives at the forest’s edge.  He understands, as the chimera does, the balance of life and death. And just as the chimera has, he has swallowed the strength of the dead, stocked it beneath his skin.  For years, the two hunt each other, attempting, as they had before, to pull one more soul into their embrace, but they are tenacious and tireless, and neither does prevail.

The Hunter grows tired of the hunt, but he cannot walk away.  He bands with a strange bird and a king among beasts, and the three end the chimera’s advance in a cavern below two burning trees, ensuring, despite the creature’s cries, that the world never will be saved from death.

Top Image: Embrace, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

To Build a Pantheon

On the Dragons and the Fire. Part two in the Dark Souls series.

Throughout history, the gods we’ve worshipped (or created fictional societies to worship) have borne a number of different faces, but similarities are easy to spot between the pantheons.  There is always a sun god (or god of Light). There is always a god of the dead (or at least an underworld). There’s always a struggle between [], etc. Dark Souls shares these similarities, of course, but I don’t want to start with the similarities.  Let’s start with humanity instead.

I.

Certain cultures (notably Greek and Norse religions) are known today for gods that behave in a particularly human manner: They squabble, they screw around, they father illegitimate children with mortals, and, generally, they are fallible.  This probably doesn’t strike you as odd. After all, why shouldn’t mankind want to link their gods to themselves in some way (see also: Christian God creating man in his own image)? It is odd, though. To posit a link between ourselves and the divine is one thing, but to shrink that gap to merely a difference in physical capability betrays a narcissistic fantasy: “Were I [man] to ascend to godhood, I would still remain me.”  Ah, yes.  I’m sure you wouldn’t change at all if you won the lottery either.

That the limits of our influence in turn influence who we are should be obvious, but taken to its extreme, it has some weird implications that, for one reason or another, tend to get explored only rarely in fantasy/sci-fi literature (which, weird on its own, is probably the only branch of literature that would ever touch the subject).  To that end, in the process of designing a world for a game I worked on once, I walked through the following thought experiment:

Say you’re a wizard.  You can shoot fireballs out of your hands.  That doesn’t much alter the way you relate to people, though you might have a more relaxed view of the morality surrounding assault and arson.  Still, nothing out of the ordinary. Now suppose you find an artifact that grants you the ability to persuade anyone around you of anything. If you can describe it, you can make them believe it: the sky is green, the British are attacking, they are in love with you, whatever.  Putting aside the fact that you’ve just encountered an entire encyclopedia of ethical dilemmas, even the way you relate to people is seriously fucked. Maybe you are still tied to a semblance of humanity by the human needs you experience, but the way you operate in society will certainly no longer look human.  Perspective check, now: All you’ve found is the Tablet of Splendid Oratory–why the hell would earthshaking nigh-omnipotence look more human?

For the purposes of that game world, my co-designer and I ultimately settled on a history where four wizards had become so powerful (orders of magnitude beyond the above example) that they ceased to interact with the world as individual identities.  Rather, they ascended to the point where they were concepts, influencing the nature of reality and the thoughts of those that observed it.  The four were known as Love, Hate, Change, and Stasis. A minor detail: As part of the game world’s origin story, the former three collaborated to murder the fourth.  Wait…that sounds kind of familiar.

II.

Keep the notion of ascension to godhood in mind–we’ll come back to it.  For now, let’s talk about how Dark Souls’ gods fit in. Since it’s super short, I’ll just go ahead and include the entire transcription of Dark Soulsopening cinematic here (1):

In the Age of Ancients the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, Archtrees, and Everlasting Dragons. But then there was Fire and with fire came disparity. Heat and cold, life and death, and of course, Light and Dark. Then from the dark, They came, and found the Souls of Lords within the flame. Nito, the First of the Dead, The Witch of Izalith and her Daughters of Chaos, Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his faithful knights. And the Furtive Pygmy, so easily forgotten.

With the strength of Lords, they challenged the Dragons. Gwyn’s mighty bolts peeled apart their stone scales. The Witches weaved great firestorms. Nito unleashed a miasma of death and disease. And Seath the Scaleless betrayed his own, and the Dragons were no more.

Thus began the Age of Fire. But soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights. And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign.

First, because I just abhor subtlety: Good god, Bad god, and Chaotic god team up to murder Static god(s).  I’m apparently so fucking clever.

Second, recall the three layers of reality from the previous essay.  This is an origin story, essentially mythology, so there is probably nothing happening on the literal level (or at least we can safely conflate it with the metaphorical).  The metaphysical is fairly straightforward: In the beginning, the world is just mist, rocks, trees, and dragons, along with whatever unenlightened vermin scuttle below them in the dark.  Then fire shows up, the vermin find it and become gods. The greatest of them do battle with the dragons, they get one of the dragons to defect (2), and, one of the gods mysteriously does not participate.  Victorious, they begin the age of fire, but since fire, by its very nature, tends to burn out, they have a problem.  Begin game.

There are things worth calling out about the pantheon, many of which I already have.  God of light, check. God of death, check (though death has a very different meaning when one is Undead and one’s entire experience is constrained to the metaphysical).  The Pandora-esque role of the Witch of Izalith in birthing the demon race is also an interesting spin, though my choice of adjective ought to tell you that it, also, is referential.  The novel twist is the inclusion of mankind (the pygmy) within the pantheon, on par with the gods. Neat worldview on the metaphysical level, but it has deep implications for the underlying metaphor.  

Regarding the metaphor: I’ve mentioned it multiple times now–let’s talk specifics.

III.

Start from first principles: Gwyn is God–capital “G” Christian God–as much for his role as God of light as for his Sistine-Chapel, Statue Edition appearance in the Ringed City (3).  But Gwyn didn’t come from nothing.  Neither did light. The story explicitly states that light was the result of the bifurcation inflicted by the Fire, and Gwyn himself simply found his Lordly role within the flame.  

This all sounds about right, because God didn’t come from nothing either.  Historically speaking, the first written record we have of the Christian God (or Hebrew God, technically) dates to around 12,000 years ago.  Fire, long considered to be the poetic beginning of man’s ascension above nature came long before (archaeological consensus estimates it around 1 million years back).  However, it is not at all clear that fire was the first tool we used. At an estimated age of 3.3 million years, stone tools predate fire by far. I’ll preempt the archaeological blowback: Stone tools preserve incredibly well, evidence of fire, not so much, so it’s entirely possible this chronology does not accurately describe our own world, but we’re not really talking about reality here–we’re talking about a story, and there are enough specifics here to claim that the story Miyazaki is telling is meant to reflect a certain history of mankind, that the triumph of the Lords over the dragons is meant to represent a shift in man’s perspective on itself: It is the moment where, rather than being ruled by nature (stone, stasis, what is), it begins to rule over nature, and the trappings of the Fire (religion, mythos, the pursuit of knowledge) begin to shape its perspective on the world.

Of course, the Fire is not literally fire.  Though, historically and poetically, fire is a turning point, it isn’t really a motive force–it’s more just another notch on humanity’s collective tech tree.  Moreover, don’t forget what exactly it is that’s turning. Per Nietzsche:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

(On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense)

More bluntly, it’s highly doubtful that mankind actually rules over nature now, much less that it did a million years ago when it first built a campfire.  What shifted wasn’t mankind or nature, but mankind’s perspective.  Thus, what Fire represents is not a physical force but a conceptual one, one with the power to reorient everything we see without leaving so much as a charred stain on reality itself.  What I’m describing is a value, both in the general sense that this is what values do and in that the Fire represents a very specific value. It has gone by a number of names throughout the ages, among them Virtue or the Form of the Good, but in my opinion, the most useful is Truth, and the whole metaphor–from the nature of the Dark Soul to why Gwyn had to die–weaves itself from there.

Footnotes:

(1): I know two paragraphs are missing.  They’re mostly off-topic here–we’ll get to them next essay.

(2): I am taking this very much at face value.  Lots of details about Seath, most particularly that he is scaleless, suggest he may not truly be a dragon, but for now, I’m ignoring them.  As his place in the pantheon is concerned, he seems to represent an ideal of scholarship, and the piece of Gwyn’s soul that is bequeathed to him may be a commentary on the privileged position academia has held throughout history as a subsidiary of religious institutions.

(3): It’s worth mentioning that my second reaction upon seeing this depiction was to ask what it meant that Gwyn feared the pygmy: “What would it mean if God feared man?”  Except God is dead–who do you think killed him?

Introduction: On Reality

This is the first post in what will be a much longer series on philosophy and Dark Souls.

In March of 2015, From Software released Bloodborne, and I, a neophyte neither to games nor quality, pronounced it quite possibly the best game ever created.  There are implicit qualifiers to that statement, as well as biases and all of the divisiveness that comes along with a discussion of this genre, but, knowing full well the proportion of the gaming “kingdom” that would dismiss it out of hand, I still hold a portion of the thought to be valid: Bloodborne is a fantastic exemplar of “Souls” genre, one of the best fantasy RPGs ever created, and a non-trivial literary exploration of the ways that humans interact with belief.  

I’ll clarify that it was this last point that fueled my assessment.  Games as high art is something of a hobby horse for me, and for a medium passing sixty years of age, there are surprisingly few games that can so unambiguously boast the distinction.  Bloodborne, of course, came from somewhere, and even at the time, it was not my intent to denigrate its origins.  Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were groundbreaking, and I was singing their praises right along with the other multitudes that had caught the “Souls” bug.  Bloodborne was different, though.  It was both a fully consummate game–a gamer’s game, in contrast to a more purely (and blatantly) artistic piece like Journey–and a world whose details, precisely, lovingly placed, had something profound to say about the way we live life.

The literary reading of Bloodborne is fascinating, and perhaps I’ll write about it one day, but that is not the purpose of this essay.  Rather, this is about what I didn’t realize in 2015: Dark Souls had already gone there too, and the scope of its literary aspirations dwarfs anything the games medium has ever attempted besides.

Returning to my story, after Bloodborne, director Hidetaka Miyazaki returned to Dark Souls, releasing Dark Souls 3 just over a year later.  I played it, I loved it, but even then I didn’t see it.  Two DLCs came out. I played them as well, but it wasn’t until I neared the end of the second that I walked into an in-game room and nearly dropped my controller.  The room in question was a small chapel in the Ringed City, decorated at its center by a statue of Lord Gwyn, tall and regal, placing a crown atop the head of the pygmy pathetically kneeling at his feet.

Well.  That isn’t subtle.  From then on, I resolved to pay better attention, because there was almost certainly something still to notice.

Ultimately, my attention rewarded me last year, as I replayed the original Dark Souls, having read Lou Keep’s excellent essay Everything is Going According to Plan (very long, not at all about Dark Souls, but practically a prerequisite for everything I am about to say) around the same time.  Abruptly, one day, I realized that the two were telling the same story to a remarkable degree of specificity.

Now this was something new, something deep, interesting: Dark Souls as an allegory for Nietzsche, awe-inspiring and soul-crushing, like some abyssal incarnation of Tolkien.  I set about exploring the metaphor and found it surprisingly robust, going so far as to imply specific arguments within Nietzsche’s framework. Still, several attempted essays later, I come to you with concerns: If I am to explicate what Miyazaki seems to be saying, then we must be clear about some problems with reality.

The first is that Dark Souls (I will continue to use the unitalicized term to refer to the series as a whole, where I will italicize specific titles), as a primary source, is extremely unclear, to the extent that almost all of the information it tells you plainly (and, it should go without saying, all of the information it doesn’t) is debatable.  Part of this is because Dark Souls is presented as scraps of history from a wild variety of sources, over a massive amount of time. From these scraps, it’s difficult to get a complete picture of the world, and the fact that different viewpoints, biases, and even mistakes tend to make the scraps incommensurable only adds to the difficulty. Aside, this is why you should take any lore details you hear on the internet, from any source short of Miyazaki himself, with a grain of salt.  The game very deliberately leaves its details open to interpretation, and you should be wary of certainty (including mine, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment).

The second problem only adds to the murkiness.  It turns out the “undisputable” details that the game directly provides (ie, what literally happens on screen) don’t make a ton of sense.  You find kingdoms practically stapled to each other, immense geographical distances collapsed into runnable tracks, and, in reference to the medium itself, denizens of these truncated locales sitting there, waiting for you.  I will explore the nuts and bolts of this argument in later pieces in this series, but to resolve this problem, I will be subdividing all of Dark Souls lore into three substrates of reality:

  1. The physical/literal reality of the world the game is describing.
  2. The metaphysical reality layered atop the history of the literal.
  3. The metaphorical reality that the literal reality is grounding and the metaphysical is representing.

Based on this framework, you would assume that we are starting from the physical and building up.  You would be wrong. The actual action of the games takes place in the second layer, which helps to explain some of the whacky disparities between what the game shows you is going on and what it textually tells you.  Of course, things are never easy. The layers often blur together, which may seem like sloppy writing (be it on my part or Miyazaki’s) until you realize that real life works much the same way.

This brings us to the third problem, which may be with me.  A few online forum-goers have brought up the connection with Nietzsche in a shallow, “this seems to be inspired by” sort of way.  Miyazaki has not. This is not trivial. Much ink has been spilled on Dark Souls as a gaming phenomenon, and Miyazaki has not been stingy with his interviews, and throughout everything I’ve been able to find on the record, I’ve found no reference to the nihilistic metaphor I see, nor even so much as a reference to Nietzsche as an inspiration.  I’ll claim death of the author if necessary, though I won’t do so lazily.  While I am confident of the artistic validity of the interpretation that I present here, I truly cannot say whether Miyazaki intended any of it.  My apologies to him if this should obscure any of his actual intent.

That said, let’s press on.  No matter the reality that all of this is drawn from, our reality has been on a particular philosophical course for some time, and Dark Souls may have something to say about that.

To make this argument (as well as the source material I’m drawing from) sane, I will be zooming subsequent essays in on much more specific pieces of the overall Dark Souls codex.  It is likely there will be detours in the format, but right now, the basic road map looks like this:

  • The Dragons and the Fire
  • The Undead and Lordran
  • The Linking of the Fire
  • The Abyss
  • Reactions to the Abyss (likely multiple essays)
  • The Lords of Cinder

These are high-level areas for exploration.  It’s entirely possible I will need to delve more granularly, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.  Regardless, welcome. Let’s see what’s waiting in the dark.

The Dragon’s Thesis

At first, I did not know what to make of it.  This tome, Hazeen’s darkest secret, the sole condition of his surrender, contained nothing at all.  There was no forbidden knowledge, no power warranting censure, certainly nothing that would save us.  There was merely a gargantuan and sorry heap of blank, tattered parchment. I wept then, for I know for the first time that we were finished, that my dream of Haven was just that: a dream, a dewdrop world, dangling from a dry branch, mere seconds from a ruinous descent to the desert below.

My sorrow was the first thing it took.

As my tears ran onto the pages, I felt a great shadow rear up before me, and, raising a spectral hand, it wiped the anguish from my eye.  I reeled back to find that, in truth, there was no demon, but nonetheless my eyes were dried and my heart emboldened, and when I peered once more over the pages of Hazeen’s grimoire, the first few were stained with a twisted scrawl.  They began:

Human, would you like to hear a story?  It is a story of a man with a dream. You had a dream as well, didn’t you?

I read on, unable to look away.

The man came upon his dream in a time of great impermanence, the page continued.  The soil was soaked with blood, and men ended–frequently and without warning–beneath the shadow of the crow.  In this tumult, the man desired a particular constancy: He desired to remain. Even in his mortality, he knew what this meant–he knew that he sought more than mere survival.  To survive is to endure, and endurance is temporary. His aim was clear: he would be eternal.

The message came to him from below bloodied waters:

“When the Dragon rises, it shall devour the world, and when at last its maw reaches its tail, only Dragon shall remain.”

To remain, he knew he must become the Dragon.

In his pursuit of this transfiguration, the man wrought horrid, inelegant things upon the earth–just as you have, savior–but he learned from them.  He became the greatest scholar the world would ever know, and with his knowledge, he armed himself with the trappings of Dragon-ness: shields like scales, to deflect mortal swords; flames hotter than the flesh-furnaces of Ka; and a great and devouring hunger for ever more of the earth.

They protected him, and he remained.  His inelegant things rose up and cast him to the ground, and, still, he remained.  He knew, though, that he was still no Dragon. His scales would rot. His flames would gutter.  His hunger, still far too human, would never outlast the prolonged rale of his dying planet. It was in the fetid depths of this realization that he encountered the nascent impossibility that for so long he’d sought to emulate.

We shall pause, the page read.  Savior, what do you know of the gods?  We do not speak of the vermin who slouched across the wastes as our would-be Dragon did, adorned with the trappings of divinity and the trinkets of better men.  We speak of those gifted with the power to transcend their becoming–to be eternally.

I did not speak, though I cannot say what recognition crossed my face.  Somehow, though, the book intuited a clarification.

Read on, graced the bottom of the page.

I turned it to reveal a scene, etched by ink as if into stone, of a village in ruin.  The streets were slick with blood and bodies were everywhere: pinned to walls, shredded in piles of dirt and charnel, even suspended in the sky by twisting, crimson tendrils.  I exhaled. I recognized the force–a blank, man-shaped space at the bottom of the page–from which the bloody tendrils emanated. They were old stories–those that mentioned him–but so very many had been told for so long.

The Blood God, the next page read.  The harbinger of our end.  What do you suppose made him a god?

It certainly wasn’t fear or reverence: A great many have commanded those and died wretched, suffused in humanity’s scum.  You might be forgiven for thinking it was his might. He had so very much of it, but since his time, men have held blades just as sharp and died just the same, leaving only the faintest scar upon the world.

Our Dragon surmised, thus, that godhood was that which had no counterexample: It was that which remained, that which never died.  But he failed to grasp the pith of it.  Something allowed the Blood God this storied immortality, and our Dragon had no notion of it until he encountered one with the true potential for godhood.

The page was blank after that.  I turned to the next in hope of more to the story but found only blank parchment.

“What happened then?” I asked aloud, to myself as much as the book.  The answer oozed onto the page, as if bleeding from a puddle of ink below it. Eventually, he realized his ambitions, it said. He became a god.  We know you do not desire godhood, but like our Dragon, you do desire for you and your Haven to remain, no?  Read on, then. For your attention, we will give you the answer you seek.

Top Image: Redemption, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale
Middle Image: The Blood God, by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for 
War Torn/Rale

Project: War Torn/Rale

My tastes in tabletop roleplaying have always been a little unconventional.  Part of that is probably the way I learned the genre. About thirteen years ago, a group of my friends gathered in a basement and learned that you could essentially build your own video game from the ground up by writing your character down on a sheet of paper and rolling dice.  Apologies to the folks who found that description caustic–the New Times are no doubt very different from the Old. My unconventional take, though, was that I didn’t actually play Dungeons and Dragons for another six years.  For me, it was homebrews for nearly all of my young-adult life.

Enter War Torn.  A little over a decade ago, Bill Masek designed a roleplaying system (the most rules-heavy I’d played up to then), and, as I was good friends with his brother, I was roped into a playtest group.  It was more unconventional than I think I realized at the time. It did away with much of the tables-upon-tables minutiae of DnD and its ilk and instead tied character progression to a single axis: your abilities, which, in DnD parlance, behaved like feats.  In Bill’s game, there was technically a system for the creation of magical items, but in our experience the difference between a new character and a battle-hardened veteran was simply the number of abilities he had accumulated.

As the years went by, I lost touch with Bill, folks in the playtest group went off to college, and I experimented with a number of other systems (including DnD and White Wolf’s Exalted), but I never stopped building on War Torn.  I built a mod that I affectionately dubbed War Torn, 3rd Edition (after the two distinct versions I had playtested for Bill–in reality, Bill had made his own 3rd edition separately), aimed at increasing accessibility at the expense of the tenuously tame balance of power that existed in the original, but I never pushed it out beyond a close circle of friends.  Eventually, though, Leland, Bill’s brother, approached me with ideas on how to truly build on the ideas Bill had set down, and our current collaboration was born.

In the War Torn that exists today (sometimes referred to as Rale), little remains in terms of the specifics of Bill’s original design, save for the feat-like ability system, the names of the stats, and the theme of a dying, dark-fantasy world.  While I may use this blog at times to discuss some of the nuts and bolts of the game’s design, that dying world is what I intend to write about the most. We have developed a storyboard of several thousand years of history, which we intend to furnish with fiction and illustration, both of which I will be posting here.  As with much of my material, the fiction does fit into a much larger whole, so if you find anything inaccessible, feel free to pose any questions you may have in the comments.

Top Image: Hope, by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

Because You “Can”

Image result for sans the skeleton

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?

I.

“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.

II.

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?).

III.

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