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On Writing Goals, Undertale & Video Game Storytelling

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[Note: if you are planning to play Undertale or are partway through it, never fear! No spoilers here.]

Some context, before we begin: as I write this it’s two in the morning, and I’ve just finished watching jacksepticeye’s run-through of Undertale. Having sent the near-obligatory “I HAVE BEEN EMOTIONALLY COMPROMISED” messages to fellow fans of the game, and considering the fact that I tend to get very introspective and rambly in the small hours of the morning anyway, I feel like this is a good time to bring up some thoughts of my own on the topic of video games that have been brewing for a little while now.

For those of you that don’t know, Undertale is an indie game that came out earlier this year and quickly took the internet by storm, having been nominated for several categories (including Best Independent Game, Games for Impact and Best Role Playing Game) at the 2015 Game Awards. Despite sadly losing out on all fronts to bigger-budget productions, it’s still received praise from all angles… and deservedly so.

The soundtrack, composed by creator Toby Fox, is incredibly catchy – in fact as I write this, I’m listening to a playlist of my favourite themes, and (as I often do with songs stuck in my head) I’ve started teaching myself some of them and transcribing sheet music (download links HERE or in the “Music” tab up top). The artwork for the game, too, is very creative and quirky and never feels particularly limited by the game’s 8-bit design — rather, the simplistic format is embraced wholeheartedly, in something of a love letter to “retro” games of decades past.

As a writer, however, the thing that really impressed me about Undertale was the strength and diversity of the storytelling.

undertale main cast.png

I’ve already raved to many of my friends, fans of the game or otherwise, about the cast of characters. Undertale perhaps benefits from being an indie game with more creator freedom than a larger-scale developer would allow, as the supporting cast that the protagonist encounters is very diverse and progressive compared to a lot of other recent games. This includes multiple well-written female characters, two of which occupy traditionally male-dominated roles, multiple queer couples and a character who suffers from social anxiety. Another is very feminine-appearing but uses male pronouns and seems to have been widely accepted by the fandom as a transgender man (his origin story certainly validates this idea, but unfortunately I can’t mention that without running into spoilers). Even the protagonist (pictured above, far right) is outside the gender binary— while many roleplaying games would require the player to choose a gender alongside a name, the other characters in the game refer only to the protagonist with gender neutral “they/them” pronouns. This seems to have been accepted by the majority of the fandom without question – I have never once seen anyone refer to the protagonist as “he” or “she”, only as “they”.

The narrative, too, consistently impressed me throughout. In Undertale, there are three main narrative arcs that the player can potentially take based on whether you choose to fight the characters you encounter or befriend them… and only by trying all three can the player discover the whole story. Within those three arcs, too, there are other choices you can make that affect the game, easily out-performing this year’s “choice-based” Triple A release, “Until Dawn” which lauds itself as a multi-faceted exploration of the butterfly effect, when in fact your choices have disappointingly little effect the over-arching narrative. (I may have a separate ramble about Until Dawn in another post, actually. It let me down a lot.)

until dawn
I’m not even kidding. It literally gives you the same ending every time, give or take a few characters getting offed. *hercules voice* DISAPPOINTED.

In Undertale, however, not only do your choices lead to a vast range of possible storylines and character interactions, but the game factors many of its own mechanics into the story. Things bleed through into multiple playthroughs, the protagonist restarting from a save point is explicitly talked about in dialogue, choices linger after the game is finished. It’s a prime example of the unique nature of video games as a storytelling medium– there is so much potential there that is not available to other media like film or prose, but so often it goes untapped.

I feel I should point out here, just for the sake of clarity, that I haven’t actually played the game for myself (though I plan to give it a bash at some point in the future) – I’ve only experienced it through multiple Let’s Plays. I am not a gamer, just someone who enjoys video games, and the two certainly aren’t mutually inclusive. I’m hopeless at anything beyond Tetris and lack the skill to actually complete any of the games I’ve seen played online– but I still enjoy them, I still find it very easy (given the right game) to become immersed in the narrative as a spectator.

For quite a while, I thought about video games the way they tend to be viewed by the general public – mindless entertainment that mostly involved loud noises, shooting things, and raging at other players over the internet. I never thought about games from a writing perspective, never even considered that one could be invested in the narrative of a video game the same way I had been all my life with books or films.

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The gaming experience in a nutshell, as described by 2011!me.

However, since I discovered my love of gaming channels on YouTube a few years ago and watched run-throughs of story-centric games like Amnesia, Soma or the Bioshock and Portal series, my whole outlook has changed. I started to see the narrative potential there, and also to realise why I’d so enjoyed “choose your own adventure” books like Goosebumps when I was younger, and the film “Lola Rennt” in my mid-teens (which is definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it). It was the idea of multiple versions of a narrative, starting from the same square one, that fascinated me. I often find myself frustrated when reading a book or watching a film, either because I want more of that universe and characters or because I find the ending dissatisfying (as do many others, which I assume is why fanfiction exists). The idea of going back to the start and trying again, seeing what else that world and its characters had to offer, is something I really enjoyed as a reader… and, increasingly, want to try to explore as a writer.

Having seen three different runs of Undertale by three different gamers, and seeing their genuine emotional investment in a little group of pixely characters, has really cemented in my mind that writing for videogames is something I’d really like to try my hand at.

As it turns out, this was a sort of minor epiphany for me.

For the last few years I’ve felt like I don’t really know what I want to do with my writing. I’m not sure where my niche is, what I’m good at, where I want it to take me. Despite the fact that I’ve wanted to write for a living since I was five years old, I’ve never particularly had a lot of faith in my own work and, on several occasions, have seriously questioned whether it’s what I should be spending my life pursuing. Besides my delusional fangirl dream of one day taking over Doctor Who, I’ve never really had an end goal in mind and it’s been frustrating me more and more as the end of my Creative Writing degree inches ever nearer.

The more I think about writing for video games, however, the more the idea excites and inspires me, which I’ll admit is a feeling that is rather rare for me these days. Seeing gamers like Markiplier and Jacksepticeye get so involved in the narrative of whatever they’re playing, seeing them talking through their choices and ranting or raving about plot twists, really makes me want to create something that has the same effect.

I want to write games that really immerse players in the narrative, make them put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, think about their choices and what the in-game consequences might be before they make them.

I want to write games that lend themselves to multiple iterations, that make the player want to revisit it and always have a little more of the story to offer.

I want to write games with diverse characters, so that every potential player has the chance to see themselves represented.

I want to write games that make people reconsider how they look at video games, and not just write them off as something mindless and unsophisticated.

I want to write games that make other people want to write games.

I want to write, full stop, and with a level of enthusiasm that I haven’t felt in quite a while… and I have Undertale and its creative team to thank for that.

How To Write A Blog Post (A Foolproof Guide in 29 Easy Steps)

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  1. Have an idea.
  2. Get distracted and eventually forget idea.
  3. Remember idea at thoroughly inappropriate moment.
  4. Write down idea on scrap of paper in the form of mostly illegible notes.
  5. Promptly lose scrap of paper.
  6. Find scrap of paper some time later, completely by accident.
  7. Realise you only remember what half of it means and curse illegibility of own handwriting.
  8. Draw up a “proper plan”.
  9. Spend far too much time drawing up “proper plan”.
  10. FINALLY sit down to write blog post.
  11. Deliberate for much too long over title.
  12. Write title.
  13. Mess with tags and url so that you don’t have to start writing.
  14. Deliberate for much too long over first line.
  15. Write first line.
  16. Rewrite first line.
  17. Repeat step 14 ad nauseum and finally decide to keep original first line.
  18. Write first few paragraphs and feel proud of own progress.
  19. Read back work so far.
  20. Delete work so far.
  21. Re-write first few paragraphs.
  22. Decide it still sucks, but it’s better this time around.
  23. Repeat steps 18 to 22 with next few paragraphs.
  24. Look up from laptop and realise it is significantly darker than it was when you started.
  25. Look at clock and realise it is 1 am.
  26. Hurriedly write conclusion to blog post.
  27. Re-write conclusion to blog post.
  28. Decide it could be better, but it’s 1.30am and you would like to sleep now.
  29. Click “Publish”.

The Creepypasta BAFTAs

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Creepypastas, for those who don’t know, are the Internet equivalent of camp-fire ghost stories; creative and creepy flashes of fiction and/or pictures that get passed around the Internet, reaching various levels of notoriety. Being both a fan of horror and flash fiction, I’ve read my way through my fair share of them; and so, in celebration of the upcoming Halloween, I present to you the Creepypasta BAFTAs!

[NOTE: I accept no responsibility for any nightmares caused by the contents of this blog post.]

Most Widespread Creepypasta Award – Slenderman

As far as I can tell from my extensive and arduous five minutes of googling, Slenderman originated on the Something Awful forums as  a competition entry – two photos of him lurking around a bunch of children, and an accompanying story about how those children went missing. He was quickly snapped up by other creepypasta creators and since then, has steadily risen to his position as the King of the Creepypastas. I’d bet the average person is much more likely to be able to describe Slenderman to you than define the word “creepypasta”, and we’ve yet to see any other creepypasta names like Jeff the KillerSmile Dog and The Rake get their own video game (though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time).

Imagine battling this guy on the xbox in the dark. Jeez.

For more information, click HERE.

Shortest Creepypasta Award – Knock

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door….”

This also wins the award for the oldest creepypasta because it was, in fact, written in 1948… well before Tim Burners-Lee gave birth to the Internet. As well as being a microfiction in its own right, it is also the first two lines of a short science-fiction story by Fredric Brown; having read the story, I much prefer the two-sentence version. Leaves a lot more to the imagination.

Longest Creepypasta Award – BEN DROWNED (or “Majora’s Mask”)

Okay, so maybe you’re groaning at this inclusion since it’s gone horribly viral, but this lengthy beast is still worth the time it takes to read. Comprised of chat logs, videos and prose, it chronicles the experiences of a young man who buys a Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask game cartridge haunted by “Ben”, who drowned in a lake as a child.

Read Ben Drowned HERE

Dumbest Creepypasta Award – The Day Of All The Blood and WHO WAS PHONE

One of the unfortunate things about fiction on the Internet is that sometimes, one has to sift through layers and layers of the mediocre and the downright dumb to get to the good stuff. These two pieces, however, are almost so bad they’re good. ALMOST.

Urge… to correct… spelling and grammar… rising…

 

I can’t tell if WHO WAS PHONE is a monumentally failed attempt at a genuine creepypasta or simply a parody by a trolling forum user – either way, it’s ridiculous. The Day Of All The Blood, however, is just downright – well – weird. I won’t explain it, but do enjoy this rather amusing dramatic reading complete with trippy animation.

The Childhood Ruiner Award – Squidward’s Suicide and Dead Bart

The “Lost Episode” is a common form for creepypastas to take, and these two are by far the most notorious examples. Both are anecdotes, in which the narrator watches an unscreened episode of Spongebob Squarepants/ The Simpsons – at first, the episode seems a little off, and gradually becomes more and more twisted until you will never look at Squidward Tentacles or Bart Simpson in quite the same way again. “Squidward’s Suicide” is the scarier of the two, but the last paragraph or so of “Dead Bart” really got me.

Read Squidward’s Suicide HERE
Read Dead Bart HERE

Best Plot Twist Award – Candle Cove

“Candle Cove” is told through an online comment thread, in which several users discuss their memories of a children’s TV show of the same name from the 1970s. It starts off innocent enough; but as the comment thread progresses, people’s memories of the show become more morbid and frightening…

Read Candle Cove HERE

Best Picture Creepypasta Award – Who Are You Running From?

This is an odd choice, perhaps, given that there are plenty of more disturbing creepypasta pictures out there, but I picked this one because unlike the many other haunted-games-console stories, the story behind this one is entirely true. Back when every kid owned a game-boy, there was an accessory called the “Game Boy Camera” which allowed you to take small, grainy photographs with your games console. On the menu were five options, the last of which was the word “Run”, a word which became responsible for scaring the pants off small children in Japan and America all through the nineties. When “Run” was selected, the screen would freeze for three seconds, and abruptly switch to this:

Needless to say, any child in possession of a Game Boy Camera lived in perpetual fear of accidentally selecting that option.

 

And, finally…

Scariest Creepypasta Award – The Russian Sleep Experiment

This one is downright disturbing: a gruesome account of how Russian scientists test a gas designed to keep people awake around the clock on five political prisoners, and the slow descent into insanity as the prolonged sleep deprivation drives the test subjects completely and utterly out of their minds. This resonated with me particularly, given that I’m an insomniac (I once stayed awake for near enough five days and ended up having a lengthy conversation with my cat before deciding that my bed had eyes and spending several minutes muttering that I wasn’t “going to sleep in that monstrosity” – true story). Quite a lengthy creepypasta, and certainly not for the faint-hearted, this story is so convincingly written in the style of a factual historical report that I almost genuinely believed it… it also made me feel rather queasy.

Read it HERE.

Honorable Mentions

Bad Dream

Short but sweet, this one is a personal favourite. It is not by any means the scariest I have have ever read, but the second person narrative and the excellent cliff-hanger are brilliantly executed.

Read it HERE.

PLEASE WAKE UP

Only a little longer than “Bad Dream”, this one-paragraph wonder uses meta in a way that leaves a lasting impression.

Read it HERE.

An Hour Ago

Very cleverly done, with chilling narrative symmetry – I had this as a runner-up for the Best Plot Twist Award.

Read it HERE

The Other Watcher

Not the best-written creepypastaa out there, but still worth a mention; a three-paragraph quickie that you read, read again, and then back away from very quickly as you realise what just happened. Another runner-up for the Best Plot Twist Award.

Read it HERE

And thus concludes my halloween master post… happy nightmares!

– AnnaMay