toby fox

Everything Review — Nothing Upstairs

by Jed Pressgrove

At times you are told to press a button to “think” in David OReilly’s Everything. This command serves as a way for OReilly to smirk at video-game shorthand and offer trite existential dialogue (“Am I really controlling this?”). More ironically, the command is OReilly’s attempt to turn off the player’s brain, as anyone who doesn’t need to be told to think might see that this game, like Mountain, is an unfunny, unintelligent joke.

The premise of Everything is you can play as anything: animals, trees, rocks, grass, planets, and so forth. But you start off playing as one thing — in my case, a donkey. The donkey, like other animals, doesn’t walk as you might expect; it rolls thanks to extremely choppy animation with humorous intentions. So you roll to marked places in the world to talk to other things and learn new functions of the game, such as the ability to get similar things (in my case, other donkeys) to roll with you as sort of an absurd army. Along the way you unlock audio logs of philosopher Alan Watts, whose academic tone clashes with the idiotic sight of rolling donkeys and the game’s many silly and inconsequential lines, such as when a tree says, “I wouldn’t mind a nice jacket, though.” The tonal mismatch becomes even more embarrassing when you hear the pensive violins of the soundtrack.

If you actually listen to Watts’ words about all things being connected (it’s always tempting to turn off the audio logs), you might consider the notion that Watts watered down Buddhist concepts for pretentious westerners. At the very least, OReilly’s goofy vision, where anything from deer to rocks can procreate by dancing in a circle, muddies the contributions of the scholar. That everything in Everything seems to come with kindergarten humor suggests OReilly is hoping Watts can give some depth to an oversimplified portrayal of existence.

The closest Everything gets to genuine insight is how you can see the world from a different perspective depending on what thing, from gigantic to microscopic, you are. Perspective is not just about spatial differences, however. It’s also about different states and patterns of being. Thus, OReilly confirms his lazy intellectualism and design with the fact that animals in Everything travel and multiply in the same way that rocks do (was Watts ever this stupidly literal?). Everything could use the more distinct vantage points of Ryan Thorlakson’s Light’s End, which allows the player to assume the role of any person in the story, as in one memorable sequence where you, as a beggar, experience the prejudice of nonplayable characters. But like his condescending peers Davey Wreden and Toby Fox, OReilly knows it’s easier to create and sell whimsy than wisdom, so the superficial philosophy of Everything seems predestined.

Advertisements

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 Undertale’s main 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 the 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.