Undertale is Garbage

Something I was thinking about recently that doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention in the voluminous writing about Undertale: the repeated theme of garbage and its redemption. Like how Bratty and Catty, two shopkeeper NPCs found in an alleyway, sell you things they found in the garbage, including the second most powerful weapon and armor in the game, or how Napstablook, a depressed ghost, invites you to “lie on the floor and feel like garbage” together, which results in visions of the universe. Spoilers ahead.

There’s a garbage dump in one area, which isn’t notable in itself, except that the ending of a Pacifist run keeps returning to it: there’s a bit about going to the garbage dump for a date, which leads to a conversation in the epilogue involving the line “OH MY GOD! YOU’RE GOING BACK IN THE TRASH!!!”, which results in everyone else saying that they want to be in the trash too. And why not? They really are rubbish monsters: even the most formidable of them failed to take down a small child without any EXP who wasn’t even fighting back. The same scene has them admitting that they’re all losers — but that being defeated by the player character was the best thing that happened to any of them.

The garbage dump collects refuse from both the underground and the world above, the world of humans. As such, it’s where the monsters get all their human technology. You get to it by falling, an echo of the fall into the underground in the game’s beginning. Thus, all of monster civilization is as a dump to the surface world. The humans regarded the monsters as trash, so they swept them into a cave where they wouldn’t have to look at them.

This is echoed in one other area, the True Lab, located far under the Underground just as the Underground is far under the surface. This is where Dr. Alphys ran away from her guilt by sealing away the wretched products of her mad experiments: disturbing things that glitch up your screen and put the wrong text in the wrong places during combat. In fact, the entire atmosphere of this sequence is one of wrongness, and the wrongest part of all is the monster named Amalgamate, which can’t even attack you properly: it instead makes pathetic gestures towards what would be an attack if it were being done by something less messed-up. But at the end, all the creatures in the lab are freed and reunited with their families, who accept them.

Dr. Alphys herself spends a lot of time at the dump. I suppose that makes sense with the dump’s connection to technology, but it also has to do with her sense of worthlessness, of having failed as a scientist and as a person. She was tasked with something bigger than she could handle, and she lives with the weight of the consequences. There’s some subtle suggestion of a suicide attempt. She’s so convinced of her true worthlessness that she engages in the always-disastrous ploy of trying to fake being a hero, repeatedly creating the appearance of danger so she can come to your increasingly unconvincing rescue. This plot thread is designed to make the player annoyed with her, but annoyance is defused once you recognize the hopelessness that inspired it.

The really striking thing about Alphys, though, is that when she’s first introduced, she seems like nothing more than a comic character, a socially-awkward anime-loving nerd stereotype. And she never actually stops being that, even as you come to understand her better and feel sorry for her. Forget redemption from guilt. It’s the guilt that redeems the character from being just a joke.

In fact, that’s a general feature of Undertale‘s style, and of Homestuck‘s style before it. (Toby Fox, creator of Undertale, is one of the main members of the Homestuck Music Team.) Characters and plot elements are introduced in a mocking way that makes you not take them seriously at first, but you wind up gradually caring about them as you learn more. Even the music often has a pattern that fits this notion, starting off with chiptuney square waves and then introducing richer sounds and realer instrumentation once the melody is established. Heck, the very first thing you see in the game is a mockery of all manner of awkwardness in old games: a picture in what I think of as “CGA Palette 2 Brown” over the text “Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS.” Accompanied by what sounds like the soundtrack of a NES title, but which eventually turns into the most significant and emotional theme of the game. Garbage redeemed.

There’s actually a second theme twined up there: Memory, a theme first heard from a music box under a forlorn horned statue in an unregarded passageway under a leak that’s raining water on its head. This statue isn’t in the dump, but it’s in the same general area. You have no way of knowing its significance, or even if it has any significance at all, when you first encounter it. It’s only much later that you find a “Royal Memorial Fountain” containing an awful statue of the local TV star Mettaton that was installed only a week ago to replace an old statue of Prince Asriel, and can put two and two together. Asriel is the game’s chief villain and also its chief victim, a dead child infused into flower by one of Alphys’s experiments, as forsaken as his discarded statue, with nothing but determination where his soul used to be. “Flowey”, as Asriel now calls himself, does his best to provoke you into violence throughout the game, but the best ending can only be achieved by showing compassion to everyone, including him, the character who deserves it the least but needs it the most. And the statue foreshadows that: by showing it a little kindness, protecting it from the underground rain with an umbrella obtained from a garbage can, you start the music box playing, giving you the musical clue you need for a puzzle that conceals a powerful artifact.

You don’t actually get the artifact, though. Your actual reward for your compassion: dog residue.

See, this is one of the game’s big participatory jokes. When you try to take the artifact, you’re told that you can’t, because there are “too many dogs in your inventory”. Checking your inventory, you see that there is an “Annoying Dog” in there that wasn’t there before. When you remove the dog from your inventory, it immediately runs to the artifact and absorbs it, leaving behind only some “Dog Residue”, which is variously described as “Dog-shaped husk shed from a dog’s carapace”, “Dirty dishes left unwashed by a dog”, “Jigsaw puzzle left unfinished by a dog”, and various other randomly-chosen descriptions. Using this item fills up all the empty space in your inventory with more dog residue. Except sometimes it also yields some “dog salad”, which is a healing item. So your reward looks like garbage, but it’s really unlimited free healing items, provided you’re hip enough to this game’s themes to not just throw it out. You can even sell the extra residues for free unlimited cash, if you can find a shop that will take them.

The amount of healing you get from dog salad is somewhat randomized, with different descriptions for different effects. At its strongest, it heals you completely, with the message “It’s literally garbage???”

Let me tell you a little more about Homestuck

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous post about the gamelike attributes of Homestuck: sometimes Homestuck is difficult. Sometimes just reading it is a challenge. That’s not just because it’s a sprawling and complex work with a lot of characters to keep track of. It’s also because the text is often obfuscated in some way.

Most of the story’s text is in the form of chatlogs, and quite a few of the characters have “typing quirks” of some sort, such as leet-style letter substitutions, which somehow carry over into their speech and even sound effects. The simpler and more consistent substitutions are easy to get used to, but then you get contextually-variable ones, where the same substitution has more than one meaning. For example, one character uses “8” for both “B” and the sound of the word “eight”, or sometimes even for just a long “A” sound, and when she’s upset she just starts sticking 8’s into words where they don’t make sense at all. Occasionally the quirks become incomprehensible enough to baffle the other characters.

There’s one character who speaks in white text — the website’s background isn’t quite the same color, but it’s still most easily read by highlighting it. The effect is sometimes that you see other people’s reactions to what he said before you see what provoked those reactions. There’s an infrequently-used alien alphabet, stolen from the Elder Scrolls games. There’s a character who’s a firefly, who’s completely mute and communicates (or tries to communicate, anyway) by blinking in morse code, transcribed for the reader in dots and dashes. There’s a brief appearance by a character who speaks solely in bad Japanese. It all becomes a sort of gesture of amiable hostility on the part of the author, who knows that anything he does to thwart his readers will be decoded in short order and posted online by the more dedicated ones. And that adds up to another bit of gamishness: even outside of the interactive sequences, people are getting to the full content by looking up hints online.

Let me tell you about Homestuck

After seeing Homestuck mentioned here and there for a few years now, I finally decided to give it a try back in January. It took me about three weeks to get all the way through the archives. During those three weeks, reading Homestuck was pretty much all I did when I was at home. In particular, it consumed the time that I would have otherwise spent playing games. It seems to me that Homestuck displaces games particularly easily. It scratches the same itch, because of the various ways it’s connected to them. I’ve never seen a work in any medium whose relation to games and gaming is so multi-faceted.

Before delving into that further, I should explain just what Homestuck is. It’s usually classed as a webcomic, but that’s misleading: much of the story is told through lengthy text passages, animation (usually simple animated gifs, but with the occasional longer Flash-based movie with musical accompaniment), and even interactive sequences, with no separation. But it’s definitely a work of serialized fiction, written by Andrew Hussie (with sporadic collaboration on art, music, and code) since 2009 and still ongoing as I write this. The story concerns a group of teenagers playing a videogame called “SBURB” that affects their reality, and which turns out to be major part of the cosmic cycle involving the end of the world and the creation of a new one. Although greatly given to rampant silliness, it’s got very good characterization and a twisty, turny plot that pitches wildly from heartwarming to slapstick to horrified “OH MY GOD” at the drop of a hat.

So, just from that description, the most obvious connection to games is in the premise: this is a story about a game. It goes further than that, though. Gamishness pervades the world of the story, and fake videogame user interfaces are just part of the way that world is presented. The characters struggle with obtuse inventory systems, have JRPG-style battles with family members, and gain experience levels before they’ve even started playing SBURB — if they can ever truly be said to be in such a state; in a sense, we later learn, they’ve been part of the game for their entire lives. (You may think it’s hinting at an obvious just-a-dream-style twist ending where the entire story and all its characters turn out to be just parts of a larger game, but honestly, that wouldn’t even be a twist at this point. The twist is the uneasy fusion of game and reality; simplifying that would be an untwist.) It’s not just videogame imagery, either: there are entire plot structures and groups of characters organized around card suits, chess, and pool (to one-up Carroll).

Secondly, there are those interactive sequences I mentioned. This flows from the game-centric plot: when you read about a game, it’s only natural to want to play it — so much so, in fact, that the fans’ craving for a Homestuck-based game resulted in one of the canonical highly successful Kickstarter projects. But even before that, Homestuck contained multiple games, or game-like things, as part of its narrative, in a sort of inversion of the usual game/cutscene relationship. Now, understand that these are still games more in presentation than in function, hinting at the presence of mechanics you can’t actually use while really just providing an alternate frame for dialogue: walking a sprite around a map and pressing a button at people to trigger canned conversations. But then, consider how many actual games try to get away with essentially the same thing, modulo annoying random encounters. In Homestuck, at least it’s completely clear from context that any interactive elements are subordinate to a linear story. Also, by virtue of its episodic format, Homestuck gets to keep experimenting with the pseudogame systems, or even completely replacing them. At one point a character explores a long-dead world, and the minigames adjust appropriately: instead of a tile-based RPG imitation, you get a short but fully-functional Myst-like.

Even if the gameplay in the interactive Flash parts is driven by plot, the plot on a broader level has been to some extent driven by gameplay. Probably the most prominent game element in Homestuck is the command prompt: pages are linked, one to the next, with simulated text-adventure commands addressed to the characters. Although this is just a stylistic quirk today, for the first few chapters these commands were a form of audience participation, chosen from suggestions submitted to the website. Not that this put the audience entirely in the driver’s seat. As Hussie explains on the site, “When a story begins to get thousands of suggestions, paradoxically, it becomes much harder to call it truly ‘reader-driven’. This is simply because there is so much available, the author can cherry-pick from what’s there to suit whatever he might have in mind, whether he’s deliberately planning ahead or not.” Homestuck inherited this mechanism from the three previous projects that it shares the mspaintadventures.com website with, and those previous projects were much more reader-driven: in the first such experiment, Jailbreak, he simply picked the first suggested command at each juncture, which inevitably produced a story mostly about poo and dismemberment. In Problem Sleuth, the story immediately preceding Homestuck, Hussie was exercising choice, but also quite clearly didn’t have a lot planned out at first and used the suggested commands for ideas, kind of like in improv comedy. For example, at one point early on, a reader suggested building a fort out of the Sleuth’s broken office furniture, and Hussie immediately started spinning pseudo-game mechanics around play forts of this sort: sitting in a fort provided access to an imaginary but objectively real world, but only if your Imagination stat was high enough, although if it wasn’t, you could get a temporary Imagination boost by drinking alcohol, etc. Although much about the overall structure of Homestuck was planned out before it even began, some the details came out of this sort of give-and-take.

Now, I actually read Problem Sleuth for a little while when it was still ongoing, and only learned of its connection to Homestuck shortly before starting to read Homestuck. I gave up on PS when it was about halfway to completion, at a point when it shifted its focus from fake contrived adventure-game puzzles to extremely long fake JRPG combat sequences. (Homestuck is closer to the latter register from the get-go, but somehow it’s held my interest better. Possibly because it starts out in that register.) But at its best, it left a strong impression that the author had managed to invent an online crowd-playable version of Mentalia.

“Mentalia” is the name that some friends of mine gave to the pseudo-tabletop-RPG that they played sometimes, although I imagine other people have come up with the same idea independently. It works like this: Like in D&D, there is one GM (Mentalia uses the term “Madmaster”) and one or more players; the players control the actions of specific characters, while the GM controls the world. However, the world runs on whim. There are no outright rules other than non-contradiction. If you say your character can fly, then your character can fly, and no one can tell you otherwise. There is, however, one very strong guideline: that simple, straightforward solutions to problems should never work, and if the reason they don’t work is absurdly implausible, so much the better. (This attitude in particular is all over Problem Sleuth.) So, for example, directly attacking the fearsome beast guarding a passageway would probably just break your sword. You’d have more luck with an indirect approach like, say, getting the beast on your side by converting it to Christianity — which would doubtless require sub-quests like fetching books on theology for the beast to peruse. A really off-the-wall approach like replacing the beast with a statue, and doing it so quickly and stealthily that not even the beast itself notices, might work without further complication simply because it’s amusing in itself. A lot is up to the Madmaster. Now, I’ve been in good Mentalia sessions and bad Mentalia sessions. The worse ones are the ones where the participants just treat it as a way to show off how wacky and off-the-wall they can be individually. But at its best, Mentalia involves everyone building off each other’s ideas, collaboratively inventing not just a story but a set of assumptions that allow a story to take place. The story starts from nothing, flails about randomly for a while, and then somehow coalesces into structures and goals that you can follow towards a satisfying conclusion. And that’s what Homestuck is like.

Even in its post-collaboration phase, this is a story that keeps revealing more and more of its underlying rules. Partly this is because the author keeps on inventing new rules, but partly it’s because it’s to a large extent a story about people figuring out how their world works. For example, there are long sequences of pages devoted to showing the players experimenting with the game’s crafting system, making ridiculous weapons by fusing the essences of ordinary household objects. One player even writes up a strategy guide for GameFAQs! This sort of figuring-out is of course a big part of the gaming experience — according to some theories, the joy of learning to master a complex system is the core of what makes games fun. And yet, it strikes me that it’s something that very few works of fiction concerning games have tried to depict. Homestuck, to its credit, depicts it quite a lot. As the characters learn the ins and outs of the game, the readers learn alongside them, getting some of the game-fun for themselves. And even when the story isn’t focusing on the characters figuring stuff out, there’s stuff for the reader to figure out about the story. Major revelations come in forms that you only come to understand gradually, after noticing repeated patterns, or callbacks to things that appeared hundreds of pages ago. Or, as one reader put it, “[I]n Homestuck, answers are freely revealed while the reader has no idea that it is an answer to anything or what sort of question it could be answering… When the question is finally revealed later in the story, the reader is reminded of the answer being presented to them way back when absolutely nothing made sense, and the entire plot begins to fall into place.” In short, the story is a kind of riddle, a ludic element in itself.