church

Undertale Review — Progressively Pointless

by Jed Pressgrove

If you kill just one monster that threatens you in Undertale, at the end you will be asked, “Is killing things really necessary?” This question isn’t morally serious, as developer Toby Fox’s message goes on to explain that playing through the game again without killing anything will give you a “happy ending.” This awkward moment confirms Undertale as little more than an obstacle course posing as an aspiring pacifist’s wet dream.

Though not marketed to children, Undertale often resembles a patronizing lesson for kids. When monsters start fights with you, you can either kill them to become stronger (the traditional role-playing game outcome) or make them lose their will to fight by talking to them, flirting with them, and so on. For one monster, you can select “Don’t pick on,” and the monster feels much better about itself and can be spared. For another monster, you have to laugh after it tells a joke in order to make peace. However, some enemies must be attacked until they’re too weak to continue, so the “merciful” path isn’t necessarily obvious. Ultimately, showing mercy is another turn-based routine that can be tedious, raising the question of whether it’s violence or monotony that prevents audiences from caring about throwaway characters.

The flaccid stakes in Undertale highlight the lack of a significant message in the killing/mercy dichotomy. Fox wants players to think twice about killing enemies while largely reducing the latter to unfunny punchlines, as when two dark knights finally realize they’re into each other or when a flamboyant robot turns into a pop star diva. Undertale’s depiction of humankind is even shallower despite the trusty find-a-way-back-home plot. Take a long look at the protagonist. The flaw isn’t the lack of next-gen polygons; it’s the absence of soul. (Undertale’s rambling about the souls of humans and monsters doesn’t make up for this limitation, either.)

The off-putting vacancy in the Undertale protagonist’s face is especially puzzling given Fox’s schmaltzy attempt to undercut typical turn-based combat. Almost jokingly, you dodge the attacks of enemies in real time as a heart avatar. Does Fox think the mere shape of a heart can be a stand-in for human depth? If the little snot you play as is supposed to comment on a hollowness about previous role-playing games, Fox takes the lazy route. The silent protagonist cliche, already parodied well by Super Mario RPG, does not complement any inventiveness Fox squeezes out of the monster encounters. And if the hero is meant to resemble a dead fish to show that “anyone can be a hero,” Undertale should come with a bucket to vomit in.

Undertale seems rather desperate when you enter a church and are told “You will be judged for your every action.” After a laughable sermon about RPG design (“[EXP] stands for execution points”), you are instructed to think about your actions in Undertale. But what’s there to contemplate? Either you managed to spare a goofy-looking thing that attacked you or you didn’t. Unlike Jack King-Spooner’s Beeswing and Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2, Undertale pushes make-believe morality — a sort of BioShock bullshit — as opposed to situations that get to the essence of life and struggle.

There’s a part in Undertale where you can pray to remind an enemy of its conscience. Such flippant moments suggest that Fox misinterpreted Earthbound, Undertale’s biggest influence, as merely quirky. Earthbound was strange, but its spiritual consciousness and emotional warmth were striking and genuine, especially in its prayer-centered climax. The final fight in Undertale doesn’t have much to show other than creepy sadism. Before the concluding battle, the game literally turns itself off, and it will turn itself off again if you happen to lose. If you win, the binary choice returns: kill or have mercy. If you want to be “good,” you have to pick mercy over and over and over before Undertale almost shuts up. Fitting that the big bad guy at one point says, “You idiot. You haven’t learned a thing.” That’s a perfect encapsulation of how pointless Undertale’s wannabe progressivism is.

Everybody’s Gone to the Secular Dehumanization Chamber

by Jed Pressgrove

Why do most reviews of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture not address the game’s spiritual and religious themes?

My best guess is that providence, salvation, doubt, and other human concerns would distract many from picking apart video games according to the boring standards that are applied to electronic toys. Does it walk? Does it run? Does it shoot? What all does it say when you press that button? What does this part do?

In 2013, a secular response was also granted to the rerelease of Earthbound, the most spiritually potent video game of all time. That game criticism underestimated Earthbound’s unifying, nihilism-defying prayer suggests that writers are either scared of criticizing faith or fine with faith being ignored by young minds.

Jim Sterling’s and Brendan Keogh’s long-winded yet insignificant comments on genre recall 2013’s other major secular blunder: the soul-sucking, stupid appraisal of Proteus as another “walking simulator” or “anti-game.” Nevermind that Proteus starts with a walk on water and ends with an ascent to the heavens.

If technology is the savior, and if meaning is gained by what we can clearly see and interact with, spirituality has no place in the gaming world (I wonder, do e-sports athletes pray like other athletes?). Hell may very well freeze over before developer The Chinese Room’s references to faith receive the different interpretations that one might predict based on such a theologically, existentially dividing word as “rapture.”

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We can’t blame everything on critics, as tempting as it is. Critic Scott Nichols stated as much when he said, “To me, the lack of religious discussion in reviews [of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture] suggests either the game fails or the reviewer failed, but something definitely failed.”

Something definitely failed alright. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture fails miserably because The Chinese Room internalized the “walking simulator” insult (frequently directed at the studio’s Dear Esther) and, perhaps inadvertently, produced the worst possible parody of the term. With the protagonist’s overemphasized gait in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the developers have made the same mistake as Sterling, Keogh, and countless others, allowing the mechanical (form) to overshadow what defines our humanity (feeling). This repugnant focus on putting one foot in front of the other — though you can’t see the protagonist’s feet — is compounded by the decision to make the complete tale a roughly six-hour exercise.

The most amusing part of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the absurd inclusion of a “sprint.” You must hold a button for several seconds to move a little faster. Expecting anyone to initiate and acknowledge this negligible effect points to the developers’ incompetence at best. Assuming they’ve played the game, commentators who say reviewers overreacted to a lack of speed should consider the possibility that The Chinese Room holds contempt for its potential audience.

If nothing else, the development team’s poor attention to detail can’t be denied. In certain areas, you can walk on things that you can’t walk on throughout the great majority of the game: discovering this during moments of dialogue turns already amateurish drama into farce. Or wait until you spot the numerous ostensibly bendable plants that appear to be as hard as concrete when you get close to them. Someone could defend these and other things as inevitable artificiality, but as much credit as some give to The Chinese Room for starting something different with Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture seems outdated and lost compared to many recent works, from the good (Off-Peak, 9.03m, Moirai) to the mediocre (Dream.Sim, Curtain) to the bad (The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable).

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture involves humanity and community, but it’s extremely difficult to feel that just by looking as you traverse the town of Yaughton to activate audio diaries, phone conversations, and flashbacks of a sort. In his great review, Ed Smith skewered (among other things) the game’s reliance on voice recordings, which he compared to the flaccid nature of “pressing a button next to a waxwork of Abraham Lincoln.” But the visual approach is more egregious in making Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture inhuman and, thus, intolerable.

In the quasi flashbacks, the characters are depicted as lines and dots of light. Every person has the same form. This silly construction, like the walk/sprint dynamic, points to a fundamental lack of seriousness. The people-as-light conceit not only makes characters hard to remember (dull names are the primary distinguishing factor) but also implies that The Chinese Room is too lazy to care, which further suggests parody of artsy minimalism. In the best-case scenario, this graphics decision reflects a shortcut that had to be taken for some reason, but it’s up to the developers to have some wit about it, such as when film director Frank Capra opened It’s A Wonderful Life with angels and God as light-up blobs, knowing that it would serve his lighthearted but sincere tone. The sight of the talking lights in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is only justified by sci-fi mumbo jumbo.

Going with audio only for the characters might have better suited The Chinese Room’s intention for the audience to use its imagination. At first, one might not suspect Jeremy, for example, is a priest without other characters calling him “Father.” In one of the game’s better moments, Jeremy and an older lady named Wendy trade Bible verses in a talk about holy appearances and judgment, but the artistic inadequacy of their “bodies” distracts from the interaction rather than emboldening it. Similarly, when Amanda expresses her fear and anxiety to Jeremy on a couch, the vagueness of their appearance mocks the emotion. And one can only pretend that a marital affair would matter with sexless figures, yet that’s the preposterous picture you get in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

The environments also reveal an absent-minded, passionless illustration of human life. The Chinese Room wants you to discover a once-inhabited place but forgets that simple things explain existence and a lack thereof. The bar in the first segment brings so much attention to its phoniness that one could reasonably believe the developers have never left their homes at night. Beer bottles sit on tables with their caps on, and multiple taps have the same label, yet a cigarette burns in an ashtray. Even stranger, you can go into a house with the notion of learning about a family, only to see hanging pictures of flowers that also appear in a doctor’s office. Such inconsistencies display a deconstructive purpose that says nothing about the upended status quo. Like the scientist Kate says near the beginning, “I keep looking, but it makes no sense.”

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture can’t absolve these sins with what some call “pretty” looks. Without a zoom-in, the game doesn’t value fetishization of minutiae like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which utilizes more defined ghosts to articulate its flashbacks. However, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture one advantage over The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does suggest hope: in the former, a church isn’t used to communicate shallow negativity.

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The soundtrack of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture should have forever connected it to spiritual experience. The hymns, Jessica Curry’s best compositions, attempt to inspire reflection on the soul, but the story gradually moves away from this foundation, especially the last segments that reveal The Chinese Room’s deception in evoking theological debate.

Despite the misleading term “Rapture,” you can’t say Dan Pinchbeck’s script throws any curveballs. His story is not the first to encourage an interpretation involving an infatuation with extraterrestrial life rather than heavenly beings, but the build-up and the finale lack the emotional power of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Unlike Pinchbeck’s tentative and unfeeling word choice of “Pattern,” Spielberg’s allegory for supernatural signs and religious conviction doesn’t confuse ambiguity with subtlety. At the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the protagonist receives a clear reward for his commitment, allowing Spielberg to personalize and transcend abduction cliches. The emotional basis of Pinchbeck’s tale merely evaporates with hackneyed Cold War paranoia and formulae scribblings that are cheap, non-universal, and impersonal.

Jeremy’s newfound supplication and Wendy’s belief in the simplicity of a divine plan can’t overcome the fatalism of the blood you keep finding on the trek through Yaughton. Only the infidel couple of Kate and Stephen take any action against this nastiness, with both insisting that the unearthly visitors don’t mean to bring suffering to humankind (Stephen makes this point with a risible anecdote about his dad’s pet fox). Jeremy’s reawakening in particular gets the backhand during one of Kate’s speeches when she says that Jeremy “lies at peace with his God at last,” as if the Christian couldn’t die soon enough. In the same breath, Kate ridiculously implies a human relationship is experientially the same as salvation.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture indulges Kate’s obsession with the “Pattern” just as game critics indulge their obsession with basic form and fan service (and the inert politics that arise from these banalities). Rendering the spiritual overtones of Curry’s score futile, the ending acts as a shrine to Kate’s insensitivity and confirms that The Chinese Room has referenced religion gratuitously, with nothing to say about it other than “Oh well.” Faith may not be a prerequisite for empathy, but I see little humanity and zero truth in this game and the predominate commentary that surrounds it.