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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.

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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.)

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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.