The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

But Nobody Gamed: Undertale vs The Difficulty Discourse In Gaming

Well look I'm sure you can play a browser game with a controller if you just TRY harder to-

Oh, welcome back! My good friend Vivian James and I were about to play Undertale! Why is Vivian James here again you ask? Well, it's simple, really. I want to talk about difficulty, and as a True Hardcore Gamer Vivian has lots of experience with difficult games.

But Undertale is difficult in a way that a lot of True Hardcore Gamers seem to hate, and even resent. Some of this is because of the queer and female and queer female characters... some of this is because they just hate anything popular on Tumblr... but a lot of it is because these guys just for some reason can't get over how difficult this game is. Not mechanically, I mean. No, they can't get over how difficult it is affectively--how difficult it is on a visceral emotional level. And they really, really seem to hate how challenging it is when it comes to typical game content!

For this reason, a lot of gamers seem to have denounced the game entirely.

Vivian, as a hardcore gamer, what do you think of this attitude?

You don't think so?


And like the last two games we discussed, Undertale offers a particular kind of horror experience that's outside the realm of the typical horror game, a kind of horror that assaults the player directly. Tonight I want to talk about this element of Undertale, why it's important, and just what it means that so many of the people who consider themselves True Hardcore Gamers, the same people, perhaps, that would like to see themselves as Vivian James's comrades in arms, hate the way this game challenges them.

It should come to no surprise to anyone that I really enjoyed Undertale. It hits a lot of the buttons and tropes and things that I’m interested in which are probably apparent by now due to the other stuff I tend to write about. Undertale interests me though because I think it does horror in a really interesting way. I don’t know that people think of Undertale as a horror game, but it certainly has horror elements, even if those elements aren’t necessarily in line with the way horror is typically done in games. I think this dynamic is part of why so many hardcore gamers are so freaked out by Undertale and resistant to it… which just emphasizes how effective its particular horror is.

I’ve talked for the last two articles about how gamers are accepting of some forms of horror in games and very resistant to others, or at least seem to have ignored certain possibilities. In my piece on The Last of Us I talked about how the environment of the game is, atypical for a horror game, gorgeous in its own right, which feels odd from the perspective of a horror media tradition in which the environment is deliberately creepy. In exploring this aspect of the game I wanted to see how a kind of complex affective space can really add to the thematic content of the game, even as it challenges both players and developers to navigate a sometimes contradictory range of emotions.

Then in the Fallen London article I talked about a piece of content called Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name, a storyline that has no reward, follows a doomed quest for a dead god, and literally results in you throwing away everything of value you have in the game. I explored why I’m actually interested in playing through that content if it returns, and what makes this content compelling.

I’m particularly interested in the way that SMEN involves specific in game consequences rather than simply applying a morality meter to the player and having that morality meter drop down if you make “evil” choices. Seeking the Name isn’t so much evil as mindbendingly ill advised, and the game makes that apparent not through some transcendent Goodness quality where every action raises or lowers your status along a simple axis. Instead, it presents your choices as having particular consequences. Often, particularly nasty consequences. But how you judge your own actions is largely left up to you.

This is kind of similar in some respect to what Undertale does.

Now, Undertale has an evident attitude in how it treats your choices, and it will critique your choices. But I think the game largely criticizes through consequences and actual gameplay mechanics. The game lets you do what you want, and then it shows you the actual narrative results of those decisions. This is, I think, frustrating for gamers who are used to a more detached or distanced moral framework for their games.

I decided I wanted to look at this because I was so blown away by how many "critiques" of Undertale seemed to be outright violently hostile to the most engaging and experimental aspects of the game. The ultimate example is probably a post that has been dubbed Undertale Prime, a post which emerged, shockingly enough, from the cesspit that is Rationalist Tumblr. The post was a grand scale misreading of Undertale and its message, claiming that it was a horribly morally compromised work for just the stupidest reasons. Most notably, however, it suggested that Undertale was bad because it was, somehow, what fandoms would turn the TRUE Undertale into. Of course, the offered version of Undertale was grim and gritty, boring and trite, and the author of this post later went on to complain that fans "reward" characters they like with homosexuality, asserting this is, for some fucking reason, The Worst Thing.

It’s an interesting post though both because it’s hilariously bad and because it’s representative of a major response I’ve seen from gamers: that Undertale is fundamentally an immoral game. I'm actually way less interested in digging into the basically incoherent and exceedingly dull argument in the post than this quality--this conviction that Undertale is doing something truly evil ethically.

And why?

Fundamentally, because Undertale challenges the player to reconsider the way we play videogames, or even play certain types of videogames at all. The idea that there might be a wrong way to play videogames, or that videogames are worth critiquing at all, is monumentally offensive to this particular stripe of gamer. We can see this, too, in the ridiculous, overblown response from Tycho of Penny Arcade infamy:

It is insufficiently reverent, and does not perform the proper obeisances.  Others like it for precisely these reasons.  I’m delighted by the iconoclasm intellectually and repulsed by it viscerally; if nothing else, it’s providing an intense psychological workout.

Fucking breathtaking. I mean the whole response is ridiculous, totally emblematic of someone who thinks he’s a brilliant stylist but really just can’t manage to be minimally coherent, but it’s this visceral repulsion that fascinates me, this idea that DARING to challenge the content of fucking JRPG gameplay is this deep moral affront… that’s absolutely captivating. How could I possibly ignore such histrionics?

Undertale is a difficult game not merely in terms of its gameplay (which I found challenging because my reactions are shit) but also in terms of the affective experience, with the Pacifist and Genocide or No Mercy runs offering quite different difficulties. It’s a difficulty that screws with the gamer ability to distance oneself from the material. This is, as I’ve pointed, out, something gamers are unwilling to face--difficulty is excellent if it’s mechanical, ok if it’s a theoretical, philosophical choice that can be taken abstractly and shoved onto the played character, and unforgivable if it is difficult in terms of the player’s own experience. This game positions the player as personally responsible for any negative experiences he may be having, rather than allowing for a nice comfortable padding of abstraction and alternate identity.

For those who haven’t played the game yet for whatever reason, I’m going to try to briefly summarize what the paths mentioned above are like, the Pacifist and No Mercy runs.

At the start of the game, you’re introduced to a world where in distant ages past a civilization of monsters, locked in a war with humans, was trapped beneath a mountain. According to legend, if the monsters are able to attain seven human souls, the monsters would be able to break the magical barrier trapping them underground.

You play a human child who falls down a hole and ends up in this city of monsters, and your soul happens to be the last soul needed to escape.

There’s several different ways you can respond to this state of affairs.

You don’t have to actually kill basically anything in this game. Instead, the game allows you to show Mercy to your opponents. Much of the gameplay involves effectively talking your “enemies” down and finding what they need or what kind of treatment they desire. THe combat is essentially traditional JRPG combat, but with the Spare option it’s possible to simply play through the game dodging attacks in order to get to a point where you can Spare your opponents.

This results in three major play styles.

There’s the normal run where you’re sparing some characters and fighting others, there’s the True Pacifist run where you don’t kill anyone at all and ultimately you get through the game without killing anybody, a mode which offers (controversially, apparently) the best ending, and then you have the No Mercy run, where you kill… everything.

This means you don’t kill every enemy you encounter. Instead, you take each area and kill every single enemy that spawns until nobody comes.

It’s grueling, it’s horrible, and if some folks are to be believed it’s outright evil that this mode exists. But not for the reason you’d think. Like with Fallen London, your choices in this game frequently come back to bite you in major ways. This seems to be what gamers find so outrageous.

Leaving aside some of the dumber criticisms (“Having queer characters is pandering!! They mentioned anime a few times so this is a Meme Game!!! MUH VIDYA”) I think the best way of describing the way Undertale uses horror is to describe how player-centric it is. It’s horror that’s really derived from the player’s actions and decisions and the consequences thereof, rather than things trying to spook you. There’s very little horror in the game derived from being in danger (the game goes out of its way to point out that humans are far more powerful than monsters) and while there’s some things later in the game that might be considered horror from the creepy scenario and the character in danger, but it’s nowhere near as central to the game experience as places where the game engages with the player’s particular decisions.

I think the biggest example of this, and the one that seems to have affected a lot of people, is a fight early on with what functions as the first boss. Toriel, a character who’s been extremely kind to you up to this point, basically says she won’t let you pass from the ruins where you wake up into the rest of the monster city unless you can defeat her in battle, because she doesn’t want you to go into the monster city and be killed for your soul.

I think many players, like me, assume that if you just keep fighting Toriel you’ll eventually wear her health down enough that she’ll give up. For a while during the fight, that seems to be roughly how things are going.

Then you unexpectedly land a blow that does far more damage than expected, and without really meaning to… you kill her.

And this is horrible.

You can go into this intending not to harm her and you end up killing someone who’s been incredibly kind and who just doesn’t want you to go off and die. It’s just wretched! It’s such a bad feeling! It’s horrible knowing that you just murdered someone who’s shown you nothing but gentleness and concern.

The knowledge that this is accidental doesn’t help much. Directly after your HORRIBLE DEED you meet with the real final antagonist of the game, a character named Flowey, who mocks you for your action. You, the player. Flowey calls you out for what you did and proclaims that you’re just like him, that the world is kill or be killed, and even if you try to go back and reset what you’ve done (by quitting the game and starting over) you’ll still have done it. There’s still consequences to your decision to fight Toriel.

You enter the last hallway after Flowey in total silence, and it’s a real long hallway that you have to walk down, all alone, feeling like a real piece of shit.

This is a game, then, that is setting out to punish you, the player, for thinking through the game as though it’s a typical RPG. This is, admittedly, disturbing stuff. The game, however, is all the better for this. It makes for a profound experience, one that deeply challenges your preconceptions and what is actually driving your decision making process in this and any game.

Now, the Genocide Run is actually quite in line, deliberately, with typical videogame behaviors. You’re going into an area, you’re clearing the area of monsters, and the game is rewarding you in the sense that once you start moving into the Genocide path a counter appears that tells you how many monsters per area you need to kill. That’s traditional gameplay 101 for a lot of stuff--see a counter, try to max it out. Embrace Competionism!

One of the criticisms of this game is that it’s manipulative. I agree! I just don’t see that as a bad thing, because it’s accomplishing so much artistically by being manipulative. But yes, the game by providing this counter is manipulating you into considering the genocide path as an option. And then it presents the consequences of following that path.

The consequences are pretty awful, as we end up seeing in the endings.

The genocide ending is bleak. Totally bleak. By the end of that gameplay, you’ve killed absolutely everybody. I couldn’t do it, personally. I decided that I didn’t want to viscerally experience the message myself. You’re doing something, after all, that’s pretty awful, and then the game tells you that you’re awful for doing it. That’s a level of intensity I didn’t feel equipped to deal with.

Not that it necessarily mattered. I watched a Let’s Play of the game, and lo and behold at one point Flowey monologues about how “sick” people are who would just watch the mayhem without actually participating!

But even watching the Genocide run is grueling. The monsters spawn more and more reluctantly over time--it takes longer and longer for monsters to actually show up, because they’re so terrified of your murder spree. Eventually, you clear the stage and a blank encounter occurs: you go into the battle screen, but it’s empty, and you simply see the words “But nobody came.”

It’s chilling.

But the game doesn’t necessarily say outright that you’re evil. A few people do, but only a few. Instead, you’re described as cold, unsettling, strange. Areas where you would or should normally have had control over your character, the character takes over entirely and behaves in a threatening and strange way.

It turns out this is because you’re awakening an omnicidally angry entity through your actions and this entity starts taking control of you. By the end of Genocide Run you have no control over what’s happening. You’ve fucked up so hard that you actually become the vehicle for this omnicidal entity’s rebirth into the world, and the subsequent total annihilation of literally everything.

Good job, Player.

This is where the horror really comes in. It’s not just “you’ve done a bad thing” it’s the actual visceral consequence of having just MURDERED THE FREAKING UNIVERSE.

Then the game kicks you a few more times when you’re down.

If you start the game again you get an empty screen which, if you sit staring at it for about TEN MINUTES, eventually gives way to a conversation with the malevolent entity that stole your body and used it to kill space and time. This entity offers you a deal. You can go back and do things over… but in return you fork over your soul.

One might think that’s not a huge deal, because it’s just a game. If the game resets… what does it matter that you forked over your soul?

Well, that’s where the pacifist ending comes in. If you play the pacifist ending normally, the game ends with a montage of the characters enjoying themselves on the surface world after you’ve befriended them and defeated the Evil Entity.

Unless you sold your soul.

If you DID sell your soul, instead of seeing your character hanging with the other characters, you see the same images with Xs over the characters’ eyes and this entity in your place.

In a profoundly permanent way, you’ve become a permanent vessel for this being, you’ve wrecked reality forever and ever, and it’s all due to your personal decisions as a gamer. Not as a character, as a gamer. Your decision to strive for 100% completion despite the fact that the genocide run is tedious, lacks narrative content, and is monstrously difficult at points so that even though the actual content is minimal the run takes hours to complete… despite all this, the fact that you fought all the way to the end for some reason… that decision led to this nightmare.

It’s all your choices. It’s all the consequence of your decisions.

What really wigs people out is that these are choices that are rewarded in other games. You’re punished for playing a game the way gamers expect to play games.

That’s… I mean… that’s kind of the point though: to question whether that is a valid way of approaching an entire artistic medium. This is not merely a thematic but a formal exercise, one that impacts its audience through emotional means and Undertale seems to follow a pattern where dramatically breaking with form while posing an emotionally charged challenge to older established conventions spurs a vitriolic response. The Rite of Spring prompted riots, and people attacked the paintings of the Impressionists with their umbrellas, you know. This is kind of the last hundred and fifty years in art, music, and literature. It’s nothing new.

Except for new media.

One of the books I made heavy use of during my thesis writing process was Neil Cohn’s book on comic structures. While on the whole the book was useful, one of the strange things in the book was an assertion he makes towards the end that American comics are in trouble because their unified visual language is dissolving, and therefore, I guess, it’s difficult for them to function as communicative tools. This is bizarre for a whole number of reasons, among them the fact that this just doesn’t seem to be, like, real, you know? We haven’t lost the ability to read comics, even extremely abstract comics. Each comic is capable of developing and convey its own discursive structure--this is well established by folks like Thierry Groensteen and followers Hannah Midrag and Barbara Postema.

I suspect probably, though I’m not well read in game theory, that the formal elements Toby Fox critiques in Undertale constitute a particular kind of discourse as well. One of the deep complaints here, when you cut through the often strictly inaccurate bullshit critiques like “it’s a meme game,” seems to be that this game goes the way of avant garde American comics: it’s manipulating or even fully abandoning existing semiotic or language-like structures in games, and it’s not doing “the proper obeisances” (hrrrk hrrrrrrk blloooork).

Like one of the wretched reviews I looked at in preparation for this article was some video where this nerd spent ten freaking minutes complaining about how this game runs on Windows XP. Seriously. No, really. His primary critique was that this game SHOULD have been able to run perfectly on a ten year old computer, and the fact that it didn’t made it a Bad Game.

This is the absolute apex of classical formalism over content, placing the mechanisms whereby a game runs before the actual content of the game. As long as the game runs at 60fps and fits narrowly within what this brand of gamer thinks of as Good Gameplay, these gamers are happy, particularly if the game includes Great Stonking Tits.

The real horror that Undertale poses for these gamers, the reason they’re crying so hard about this game, is that they’re being forced to confront the possibility that there’s ways of constructing games that don’t pander to their precious little gamer feefees.

I’ve already mentioned that Undertale is an Evil Game to these guys, but for reasons different from what you’d expect. You might think their complaint is about the way Genocide encourages you to murder with no compassion until the entire cosmos and timeline are nothing but desolation. But nope! This game is immoral, as far as I can tell, because games are fun… and you should want to have fun… so being told by a game that maybe you shouldn’t play the game… is manipulative and evil.


This is so emblematic of how entitled gamers are to their power fantasies. It’s very easy for these gamers to say that they want games to be treated seriously than for them to deal with the consequences of games being treated as an artistic medium. It’s all about cultural dominance. They want the personal credibility of being A Gamer, they want to personally be respected and even revered for being gamers, but games being treated as art actually doesn’t do much for them personally. It means that games, and gamers, might actually be criticized for being parochial, ignorant, backwards, or simply lazy. So what a gamer means when he says that games are art too is “respect me as a connoisseur” not “join me in engaging with games as an object of critique.”

This is the peak of entitlement. Hardcore gamers seem to just want to be treated as precious special snowflakes just for playing video games despite having done no work to get there.

As a result, when they’re faced with this kind of personal affective difficulty, a difficulty that comes from the way it makes you sad or scared as a result of the player’s actions, a difficulty from the way the game addresses the player emotionally without a filter of distance and role playing, these guys pitch a fit.

What this particular difficulty reveals is both the language of games as socially constructed--something that’s emerged over time--and then challenges that constructed discourse--as lazy, frustrating, reactionary, or simply very disrespectful of the player’s time.

Above all else, suggesting that maybe playing through a game just the one time is the most moral way of playing, suggesting that getting the best ending and then resetting anyway because you missed a few secrets… man that hits hardcore gamers in their wallets and boy do they hate that. Genocide run is even worse on bang-for-your-buck terms--like I said, it’s actually SHORTER than playing through normally, and most of the gameplay isn’t particularly fun.

But difficulty is part of art. You can see this with contemporary performance art for example where feeling sickened or repulsed is a potential valid response, but simplistically condemning what repulses you as valueless or immoral is simply the apex of conservative arrogance and parochialism, the absolute pinnacle of unwillingness to consider the possibility that an uncomfortable experience might have a point to it and maybe you shouldn’t have your beliefs pandered to all the time. You can even see this in older art, stretching from the dark warped cityscapes of the German Expressionists to the Church lopping off marble dicks and replacing them with plaster fig leaves.

Hardcore gamers don’t seem to realize that they won the fights against conservative anti-game crusaders and then promptly turned into entities indistinguishable from their former opponents. When they’re saying that this is an affront to gaming for the GameFAQs Game of All Time poll to have Undertale as the winner, they’re embracing the same mindset of denouncement and censorship: they’ve decided that things shouldn’t exist because they, personally, don’t like it.

Undertale offers a way of addressing horror in games radically different from other forms of horror gaming.

Forms of horror that move beyond the realms of scary into the realms of tedious, frustrating, depressing, or even just confusing have incredible artistic power. Things that have a complex affective content, ones that challenge the player to continue not just mechanically but emotionally, elevate the medium. They justify games as a narrative experience. And what’s more, they help to prove the power of even the most fantastic of games. You can have a genre game that explores particular kinds of experiences not easily described as merely “fun”.

This is all huge because I do, truly do, think that games, like comics, deserve to be treated as a valid and vibrant form of art! And part of that is going to have to be accepting that the discourse around difficulty in games among True Hardcore Gamers is shit. It's just absolute garbage. I'm not saying that everyone needs to enjoy Undertale--I mean, I'm literally describing parts of Undertale as a deliberately negative experience, it would be silly to say everyone should enjoy this. Difficulty isn't for everyone.

But if we're going to accept that difficulty isn't for everyone, then first of all we need to stop worshiping difficulty as the Golden Calf of gaming. No more pitching fits when people suggest that maybe there SHOULD be a "story mode" or "no damage mode" on games like Dark Souls or Star Fox. No more acting like (S)NES games were the pinnacle of game design and everything after that point is just pandering to casuals.

Because right now all of this is just blatant hypocrisy. You can't spend all your time building up this idea of the Hardcore Gamer and then freak out when a game dares to explore horror in the way Undertale does... or dares to include queer characters, or women whose boobs aren't hanging out.

A true hardcore gamer would be accepting of multiple levels of engagement with variable forms of difficulty. A true Vivian James, a true representative of everything games can be, would embrace rather than decry games that challenge the discourse of the medium and challenge the player on not just a mechanical but an emotional level. A true avatar of gaming culture in ALL its forms would understand that being a Hardcore Gamer is the same as being a scholar of any field: you have to be willing to experience all kinds of challenge, and to try to understand the engagement of others with different media objects.

This is simply a plea, then, that we should embrace experiences of games that go beyond mere “fun”, games that embrace challenges that go beyond the mechanical.

Do it, if not for me, then because Vivian James would definitely want you to.

And that concludes the semi-seriously titled Gamers Are Weak trilogy. Next week sometime, I'll be going back to an old staple of mine: Homestuck. If you're a Patreon backer you can currently vote on just what I have to say about Homestuck next week, and also soon will be able to listen to the podcast versions of the last three articles. You can currently read the rough drafts for these articles there as well.

These articles are made possible by my backers on Patreon. Subscribe to view article drafts, see behind the scenes artwork, listen to the podcast versions of each week's article, or even to commission an article from me.



  1. On the game mechanics itself, I liked this video:

    On the morality itself, there was one very good critical article I read. Perhaps you'll disagree, but I at least found it to be an interesting critique:

  2. Having thought deeply about the nature of violence in video games, and the consequences that often get glossed over, have you ever considered "Lisa: The Painful RPG"?

    It has a stance similar to Undertale when it comes to violence, but with a different angle on it. Undertale starts with a blank slate protagonist, literally an innocent child, and blames the player for corrupting them. In Undertale, violence is a cop-out, an easy solution that technically works but is totally unneeded for the player, an immortal entity that defies time and space. The player has limitless power in Undertale, up to simply deleting the root directory files if the consequences of No Mercy displease them, so in a way there is a certain responsibility to respect the game world…

    The Lisa series does not star a blank slate. Instead, you are handed control of a tired old man (and later, a younger character inspired by their actions). Brad Armstrong deconstructs the senseless violence of protagonists everywhere- because nearly every problem he encounters is at least indirectly related to something in his own past. Brad solves his problems with violence, and it only results in suffering followed by more problems. A fairly good example of this is in an optional scene, where Brad can encounter some gangsters holding a man hostage. He can pay the ransom, leave them alone, or declare that he's going to fight them… in which case the gangsters EXECUTE THE HOSTAGE, and THEN fight Brad. Because that's not how hostages work, Brad. This isn't an action movie.

    While Undertale denounces violence by punishing players for indulging in it, "Lisa: the Painful RPG" denounces action hero tropes by shoving violence down your throat until you vomit. There's not even a perfectly happy ending (since the world was already ruined by the time you got there), only a matter of whether or not Brad Armstrong can keep a simple promise. His brutality was inevitable, but you, player, are young enough to make better decisions…


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