I was playing a game this week in which you play a little rabbit creature with magic powers. The unstated goal was to murder everything in sight, for which you were rewarded with experience that made you stronger in interesting and fun ways. At one point my little serial killer came upon a creature she had been chasing, who was now stuck under some rubble. The protagonist rescued it and the narrator of the game informed me that she had reminded this creature that there is still kindness and mercy in the forest. After accepting the stolen artifact for her inspiring love, the protagonist blew up an owl with two magic missiles and used its soul to empower her to do so again in the future using only one magic missile.
On Friday, I made orange dark chocolate pudding for a party. I’m not sure it was the right snack for that venue. I didn’t put as much effort into the presentation as the above picture. People liked the dish for not being excessively sweet, and even though only three people out of eight (including me) ate any, one person may have had three bowls of it. I still have an awful lot left over, so I’ll take some to my co-workers who expressed interest on Friday when I mentioned I was going to make it.
But the crowning story of this week, if we include the prior weekend, is that Alice got to go visit the wild ponies of Virginia.
It is illegal to pet these ponies. Please witness in this picture, Alice is not petting the pony. To my knowledge, there are no laws in the state of Virginia against being eaten by ponies.
Precisely as fast as a speeding locomotive, the pokemon trainer Hedgeraux blasts across the landscape. He comes in range of a pokestop that begins to open its doors to give him a crucial item – too slow! He’s already far away! A rare pokemon appears for him to catch, and disappears on the horizon behind him! He develops a painstaking strategy of timing and skill and manages to engage a Pokémon before it’s miles away! It vanishes in a puff of smoke! This happens for a number of different pokemon and he begins to wonder why. Never slowing down, he looks up that the game punishes people who hack the geolocation system by making pokemon flee more frequently. The game also doesn’t understand the concept of a train, so he can neither use pokestops nor catch pokemon. You may wonder why he’s even still playing on the train. He sometimes wonders that himself.
A friend of mine told me about a question his dad asked him once. “Is it possible to make a non-violent video game?” My friend was sitting on his bed at the time, playing a game in which a pudgy Italian stomps on turtles. When they hide in their shells, the Italian kicks the turtles into lava. Absorbed in turtle-stomping, my friend naturally didn’t have an answer to his dad’s question, so his dad pondered it himself.
He tried to think of a game based around Jesus Christ, certainly a peaceful figure. In this game, you might press A to heal the sick, and B to speak about the virtue of loving thy neighbor. In response, my friend, then eight years old, kicked another turtle into lava, pumping his fist when the hurtling turtle shell hit and killed an ambulatory mushroom before sinking into the lava to meet its own fiery end. When my friend recounted this event for me twenty years later, it seemed indicative to us of the creative rut in video games, that nonviolence and entertainment value are somehow mutually exclusive.
This is not to say that no one has ever made a non-violent video game, even a fun one. Sports games, racing games, farming games, cooking games, puzzle games, The Sims, are all based largely around non-violent premises, and still manage to entertain significant audiences. There’s something about these games, though, that’s missing – an adventure. When you’re kicking a ball around obsessively trying to keep other people from kicking it, or driving around in a circle really fast, or telling an inexplicably recalcitrant fictional version of yourself to get out of bed and go to work every single morning because he just can’t seem to figure out how to do it on his own, or just waking up at the crack of dawn to milk your cows and water your seeds for thirty days in a row so you can grow eggplant to sell at market and buy more seeds to water until they grow into horseradishes, it somehow lacks the melodrama of an elaborate and whimsical journey across perilous landscapes kicking turtles into lava to rescue your love from the hands of a monarchical fire-breathing mega-reptile.
Where violent video games are what my friend and my generation grew up with, humanity itself grew up with the violent adventure story. In our childhood as a species, little boys and girls would sit on large rocks and old logs around a fire in the family cave and listen to Dad, Uncle, or big brother tell his story about his close encounter with a large cat, a wooly mammoth, or, god forbid, a human being from a different tribe. In these stories there was never any question of who to root for. You root for your family member and against the predator trying to eat him, the prey who wants to deprive him of a meal to bring home, or the other human, who could want any number of awful anti-your-family things. Plus, there’s a guaranteed happy ending because otherwise the storyteller wouldn’t be telling the story. Based on my extensive1 expertise in evolutionary psychology and its complex effects on modern culture, this is the basis of the adventure fantasy that to this day continues to enchant children and adults alike.
Think of the book series that enchanted my generation growing up, me included. Harry Potter is about a young, somewhat generic English boy who learns that he has magical powers and is thus welcomed into an elite academy for the thaumaturgically gifted. By being generic, his personality mostly defined by liking good things (magic) not liking bad things (bullying), and holding no controversial opinions whatsoever, Harry Potter can serve as a de facto family member (as defined by my evolutionary psychology theory of adventure stories) to an otherwise improbably large audience. He then goes on to discover that the wizarding world is plagued by a being of absolute evil. Spoiler alert, in the end Harry kills the being of absolute evil, and thus since badness only comes from evil people, the world was perfect from there on out. Harry Potter trivia buffs may point out that Harry never actually killed Lord Voldemort, but was simply party to his death when Voldemort succumbed to his own violence literally bouncing off of Harry and back at him and died at his own hand. This makes Harry’s hands clean by technicality, much in the same way as if your game doesn’t count someone dying from stepping on a mine you placed as you having killed them, Congratulations! You have found a way to resolve the situation by peaceful means and can continue to be the morally unambiguous hero of the story.
The movie series that enchanted my parents’ generation and continues to enchant my own generation, features an even more violent premise, all but explicitly stating in its title that it is premised on the glory of warfare. The plucky band of rebels fights an evil, ostensibly insurmountable2 force. Neither party’s political motivations are expounded or given much thought, allowing people to read whatever repellent political philosophies they like into the vaguely fascistic black-and-red color-coded Empire. To further minimize mental strain and allow audience members to focus on the action, Star Wars even codifies its supernatural elements according to good and evil. Light = Good, Dark = Bad. Once again, happy endings come from military successes, that is, successful murders of the “bad guys.”
How do you make an adventure without encouraging tribalism and glorifying warfare? Somehow, even as we grew older than eight it never occurred to either my friend or me that it could be done. Where are the stakes if you’re not killing and dying? As a Quaker, a member of a dedicated peace church, I just tried to pick games and movies that were clearly fantastical, avoiding so-called military simulators or anything that tried to teach as a real-world principle that evil in the world came from evil people, and that with the extermination of evil people evil in the world would end. Even so, I kept myself aloof from most of the entertainment I enjoyed, in order not to feel like a hypocrite for identifying too closely with the horrible things the “heroes” I played or watched would do. The closest I could come to feeling like I could really identify with a game was when the game offered a setting so dark that I could pretend I was playing through a stark portrayal of the horrors of war instead of a glorification, but it wasn’t really true. No matter how much the surface narrative might tell me I was cursed and the endless fights were some sort of penance, the ludonarrative3 was always that fighting and killing is fun and rewarding. Of course it was. If it wasn’t fun and rewarding, I wouldn’t play. I still play and enjoy these games, and I don’t think anyone should feel ashamed for enjoying them any more than someone should feel ashamed about enjoying Harry Potter or Star Wars, but in terms of an action-packed, high-intensity game that didn’t teach the joy of carnage, even the notion seemed too preposterous to entertain.
Games that deliberately satirized this violence seemed designed to be un-fun, as if they were intended to do little more than upset and confuse gamers. “You Only Live Once,” a Flash game on Kongregate, parodies my favorite kick-turtles-into-lava game by giving the player only one life. Instead of dying and dying over and over again until you successfully kill your foe, you get exactly one try. Further attempts to continue only let you watch the protagonist get picked up by an ambulance, see a memorial go up briefly in his honor, and then vanish as his short-lived attempt to conquer an entire castle single-handed is completely forgotten.
Average Maria Individual, an even more direct satire of Super Mario Brothers4, is a game that I have covered on my blog before. Taking Mario and making the lead an unexceptional lesbian who has to be polite and considerate to her foes to succeed has been praised as deliberately sticking a finger in the eye of traditional gamer culture. Average Maria Individual has intentionally minimal gameplay. Maria can jump only a couple inches off the ground and walks mind-numbingly slowly. All significant decisions in the game involve whether to be a jerk or not. Spoiler: being a jerk gets you killed.
These games captured my imagination, but only intellectually, and nothing like them has been successful enough to make waves in the gaming community. They seemed to encourage rather than undercut the notion that an exciting adventure has to involve glorious killing. Thus besides the occasional, brief, excited conversation about these gimmicky exceptions to the general tone of adventure-based gaming, I continued to keep my gameplaying to myself, lowering my voice and staring at my shoes whenever asked what I did for fun. This was the degree to whch I was unable to imagine the medium could really be a force for good.
Then, on October 6, I casually glanced at a game rating website, and noticed that among all of the heavily advertised multimillion dollar corporate produced games at the top of the list was a little game whose name had never reached my ears. Although in production he collaborated with a small group of other people, Toby Fox is widely seen as the auteur behind Undertale and as music director, lead artist, writer, and lead programmer, the credit seems earned. So, when his name showed up next to Nintendo and Ubisoft, multinational companies each comprising thousands of employees at least, a game he’d thrown together while completing his college coursework beating out their products as the highest rated game on meta-critic, I had to give it a try.
If it weren’t for the hype, this game might’ve been a hard sell for some people. The first impression someone will get of a game from its screenshots is of course going to be the graphics. While I personally enjoyed the minimalist retro aesthetic, I must admit that I could see where my coworker was coming from when he said that it looked like an 8-bit dog had pooped on his screen5. Provided I had figured out that it existed someway or other, though, I would not have needed even one person to recommend it. All that I need to hear to know this was a game that I wanted to play was that it was calling itself “a friendly RPG where no one has to die.”
In Undertale, You play a small child of ambiguous gender trying to make their6 way out of an enormous cavern filled with monsters. Death is on the line, you have special powers, and combats are played through exciting bullet-dodging minigames. Sounds pretty adventurous, huh?
If you’re paying attention though, one thing that becomes quickly clear is that monster is just a species delimiter. This underground cavern, rather than being stuffed full of hideous creatures who want nothing more out of life than your destruction, is full of hideous7 creatures just trying to make their way in the world. Because of an old enmity between humans and monsters, they will attack you, but that doesn’t mean that you have to attack them. Nearly all combats can be resolved without ever hitting the fight button. Instead you read the description of the monster, look at its image on the screen, and carefully select actions such as “talk,” “hug,” and “cheer up” to convince each different type of monster that you are in fact a friend and not a foe.
It’s completely possible to play through the whole game mashing the fight button and get the neutral ending, but each creature you kill will be one that does not show up again later as a friendly NPC8 that livens up the landscape, and the game may start feeling barren and desolate. I won’t even go into detail regarding what happens if you systematically kill everything you possibly can, save to say that the game is dramatically different. To get the best ending in the game you have to not only spare all monsters you encounter, but you have to go on “dates” with three of the main character monsters, learning more about them and their complicated relationships with one another, all delivered with the same charisma and wacky humor present throughout the game.
Getting the pacifist ending is much harder than getting the neutral ending. You still have to fight all the same tough battles, but in addition to surviving you have to solve tricky puzzles based on your ability to understand other people and creatively solve problems. Like dealing with real people, you’ll also need patience. Sometimes it will take some trial and error to figure out what you’re opponent does and doesn’t like.
If you stick it through and demonstrate to the monster community that not all humans believe in violence and that at least one human makes a pretty good friend, you can save them all and get the sweetest most charming and uplifting ending I’ve seen a video game. This is where the fantasy comes in. People may say that you can’t just end a war by being nice. This makes it look too easy to resolve real-life violent conflicts with hundreds of years of enmity.
Is it less realistic, though, than Harry Potter? Killing one big bad guy abruptly cures the world of evil, and everyone lives happily ever after? It’s not less realistic. They’re both adventure-fantasies with happy, feel-good endings appropriate to an adventure-fantasy, just one is founded on the old traditional principles of adventure fantasy about fights between people who are like the audience (the heroes) and people who are not like the audience (the villains), and the other, Undertale, is founded on the principle of people like you reaching out to the people not like you and learning that, well, they’re really a lot more like you than you thought.
We’re a long way from the old caves, sitting on logs and rocks and hoping that no bear will wander in or rival family find our hideout. We live in vast countries now ruled by law such that the threat of immediate death by strangers is so distant compared to ancient times that in most cases it can be safely ignored. Instead were surrounded by people, many of whom who aren’t like us, some of whom may even seem outright difficult or maybe of a group that we’ve been hearing is dangerous, much like the protagonist of Undertale has heard all her life that monsters are evil, dangerous creatures, just as the monsters themselves have heard the same thing about humans.
We are past the era where we need to understand how to hate and kill in order to survive. Now are in an era where we need to cooperate and understand people who are different from us. Recent events have highlighted how much this value still needs to be taught. That’s why being able to understand people instead of killing people isn’t just a one-off gimmick. We need more games like Undertale. Do you hear me, Indie developers? Undertale has been snubbed by most mainstream game award giants, but anywhere that the average gamer has a say, it is winning awards and getting attention. Penny Arcade writer and traditionalist gamer spokesperson Jerry Holkins admitted that even though he personally couldn’t get into it, he can tell that there’s something special about it. A Kotaku writer said it changed his outlook on life and that he now bases some of his social skills on Undertale characters. This game shouldn’t be an anomaly. Let’s make it a movement. Let’s redefine the adventure fantasy.
————————- 1 not really very extensive 2 but in reality surmountable within the length of a three-part movie series or your money back 3 The story implicitly told by a game’s gameplay 4 Look closely and you’ll see where the name “Average Maria Individual” comes from 5 His words were not so family-friendly 6 This is the pronoun used in the game 7 Actually pretty cute
Although I play many games, never before have I devoted an entire blog entry to reviewing one. It’s not that I haven’t played good games. I’ve played some very fun games, some of which I’ve even been tempted to write a blog entry about. It always felt hollow, though. does my experience with this game have any value outside the game itself? Average Maria Individual is different. Average Maria Individual, I say without irony or reservation, is a work of art.
Readers who like to play video games, take note: Most of my audience will not ever play this game, so it is my intention to convey the most important bits of wisdom within it. What follows is rife with spoilers. If you have any intention of doing so, I strongly recommend you download the game now and play it before reading on. You have been warned.
On its surface, Average Maria Individual is a Super Mario Brothers clone. The look and feel is clearly based on Super Mario Brothers except the colors and the music are dark and gloomy, the foes look a bit less cute and a bit more creepy, and the main character is not Mario, but Maria.
Maria’s girlfriend happens to be princess peach who, it turns out, is missing. As you walk forward (to the right, just like a proper 2D side-scroller platforming game) hoping to find out where she’s gone, something that looks vaguely like a goomba, but with a gaping maw full of sharp teeth comes towards you.
At this point if you have been playing Mario games all your life like me, you hit the “jump” button. Unfortunately, as the title suggests, Maria is not a super brother, but an average individual. As such, she can only jump a paltry foot or so off the ground, which is not high enough to stomp or avoid anything in the game. So, with the distinct impression you’re going to die, you just walk right into the goomba.Instead of eating you, the goomba, whose name is MX. Gloom, asks you what you’re doing here. The game gives you two options: you can say you’re looking for your girlfriend or you can say you want to kill your enemy. The goomba is more helpful depending on how kind you are and how much you respect your girlfriend’s wishes. If you tell her you are worried about your girlfriend and that you are not trying to “save” her, Gloom applauds your respect and points you in the right direction, which is in fact left, not right. Otherwise, she advises you to consider your girlfriend’s feelings and ask rather than assume what it is she needs.
If you continue going to the right, you will run into a short pipe, something a Super Mario Brother could easily overcome, but you are not a Super Mario Brother. After a few seconds, the pipe begins to laugh at you and gives one of the best lines in the game:
So, you turn back and go to the left. After a few strange scenes of glitchy, broken backgrounds, a “?” block that’s tired of catering to people’s endless obsession with acquiring new items, and a deadly plant that will kill you if you are not respectful, you fall down a pipe and reach the famous plumber himself.
This part is a little odd. After a short conversation where Mario clearly and explicitly states what must be the attitude of every violent video game protagonist, that the universe is made for him and that everyone else in it is monsters, he rushes at you. Now contrary to your non-violent life-respecting options earlier in the game, now you have no choice but to quit, jump into the lava, or goad Mario into killing himself by making him bounce off of you into the lava.
After that, though, you come to the great demon king, who tells you the sad story of how constant attack by Mario and his ilk forced him to become a monster to protect himself. Now he’s wracked with self-loathing and tells you to go ahead and kill him by cutting the bridge and letting him fall into the lava. Of course, you get an opportunity to choose whether or not to cut the bridge. If you do cut the bridge, the demon king falls into the lava and dies.
The next scene is Princess Peach, hanging out in the room behind the demon king. If you spared the demon king, she apologizes for not telling anyone where she was going, but if you killed the demon king, she’s so horrified by what you’ve become that she stabs you to death. If you didn’t kill the demon king, you can still call her friends (the scary goomba and plant from before) “monsters” and she’ll break up with you and ask you to leave. The best ending is achieved when you agree to start visiting the great demon king’s castle with Peach in the future.
The articles I’ve read on it suggest that Average Maria Individual was constructed specifically to infuriate gamers who want the games of their childhood to remain pure and unquestioned. As someone who revels in shattering fantasies and illusions, I think that’s terrific. Beyond that, aside from goading Mario to kill himself, Average Maria Individual seems to teach remarkably good values about simple human decency. It is for this reason that this is now one of my favorite games and deserves a blog entry all to itself.
Oh, and the pipe. “I am insurmountable. You cannot conquer me.” Heh heh, you gotta love that pipe.
If you’re interested in another more in-depth analysis of Average Maria Individual, you can find it here.
So, I was playing a bit too much Dark Souls II the past few days. Eventually I decided that things had gone too far and I told my girlfriend Alice that I would play no video games for a week. I had tried this many times before, but this time I had an external entity to keep me honest. I asked Alice to ask me every day she saw me if I had played any video games since the last time she’d asked. If I had, she should be ashamed of me. Alice, as only Alice would, decided she would take it one step further and be publicly ashamed of me, explaining in detail to everyone we jointly knew how I had set myself what a normal human being would see as a simple goal and failed miserably. Then she suggested she could cook me a whole chicken if I succeeded, but I declined, finding the threat sufficiently motivating.
I started my video game fast late Friday afternoon, so I’ve been clean two days. It’s gotten markedly easier since yesterday, when it seemed I could think about almost nothing but enchanting my blacksteel katana with poison to get through the Smelter Demon’s heavy armor. In the meantime I’ve made significant progress on my work and done a lot of cooking and exercise with Alice. Yesterday we made another kale salad with miso tofu dressing, which we took to a potluck with Alice’s covenant group through the Unitarian Universalist Church.
Today, though, we had a particularly exciting lunch.
Believe it or not, that is a slice of tofu. We’ve prepared it as “Tofu Steak.” It was one of the multiple items piled onto our dish today. I cooked this tofu in a miso and ginger marinade while Alice fried some radishes. Between us we had only one stainless steel spatula, and we were neither of us interested in using the plastic one, so we passed the instrument between us in a sort of frenzied dance, each trying not to let our own dish burn. I repeatedly added too much oil to my dish, which reacted violently with the water in the tofu, treating us to a relatively constant boiling hot spray as we worked. At one point Nate came in and asked me to pick up a plate for him, since I was standing in the way of the cabinet, which I did with one hand while flipping the tofu with another, carefully maneuvering my chest to keep my apron pointed towards the stove to protect me from the brunt of the boiling oil spray. My neighbor knocked on my back door and said he wanted me to meet somebody, and I chatted with him for a few minutes until he asked me about the thick fog of smoke billowing from my kitchen.
Somehow despite all the wacky hijinks, we managed to make a plate stacked high with delicious food.
Then we went out to Lake Johnson, which baffles me in that I haven’t been kayaking on it the whole three years I’ve been here in Raleigh. For $10 we rented two kayaks and explored the various coves, dams, and bridges for an hour that seemed simultaneously to go on forever and end too soon. Not pictured here are a seemingly unlimited supply of puppies that crowded the shoreline and dock.
In short, it wasn’t nearly so hard to maintain my fast today, although I do look forward to giving that demon what’s coming to him next Saturday.