Steven Moffat is Leaving Doctor Who

After Season 10 of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat is leaving the program as showrunner.

Many fans have been waiting for this news for quite some time. According to Radio Times, his successor will be Chris Chibnall: the original head writer and co-producer of the dark and diverse Doctor Who spin-off and science-fiction program Torchwood and the crime drama Broadchurch. From this alone, particularly his work on Torchwood, Chibnall seems to have promise but let’s let the other fact sink in for a little while longer.

Steven Moffat is leaving Doctor Who.

A lot of things have been said about Steven Moffat over the years. Some people believe he made Doctor Who a world-wide phenomenon. Others believe he has nearly destroyed the franchise. Some say he is an excellent writer, others believe that he has been a terrible showrunner, and still more look at him and think he is yet another casualty of “fan-fickleness.”

I know I have had my own opinion about his writing and showrunning: particularly with regards to The Doctor’s late and latest Companion Clara Oswald. But let me try, from albeit a biased fan perspective, to explain why so many fans have issues with Steven Moffat’s sense of direction.

When Russell T. Davies took up the mantle of showrunner and head writer for Doctor Who, he focused on the diverse elements inherent in the show. He looked at the future, at all the different kinds of futures, and wrote into it sexuality and gender and wonder that could never have really been explored on television in the eighties or nineties. But more than that, he took the old elements of the show — the aspects that made it Doctor Who — and built on them to tell new stories: new character-driven stories. Davies was in turns darkly Byronic and wonderful, managing to intermix the sublimely ridiculous, and the dead serious into something captivating and relatable to viewers. It was this tight, clock-work narrative of golden gears in darkness with baubles of pure delight.

Of course, Davies wasn’t without his flaws. Sometimes he did get overwrought and overly complicated. Certainly, the emotional and character cop-out that was the end of “Journey’s End” comes to mind: perhaps illustrating that it was time for Davies to move on.

Steven Moffat was Davies’ successor. He started off in Doctor Who, like Chibnall, as a writer. And he is a good one. Certainly he is an excellent monster-maker when you look at the empty children in “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” along with the Weeping Angels introduced in the masterfully told episode “Blink.” He has also introduced the dynamic and omnisexual characters of Captain Jack Harkness and Professor River Song into the Whoniverse. And this doesn’t even include the addition of Madame Vastra, the Silurian lady detective in the nineteenth century, her wife and maid Jenny, and … Strax. Yes: Mr. Potato-Head Homicidal Sontarian himself.

So Moffat could tell some good stories. Certainly, his reintroduction of a certain Missy, the episode of “Listen” and most of his previous Season Nine can attest to that. Unfortunately, by the time Davies left Doctor Who, Moffat’s role of showrunner became another matter entirely.

By this point, the tightly gear-oriented narrative structure of Davies is punctured, literally, with tears in time. Inconsistencies between stories and continuity get explained away by it all being the result of time-travel instead of sloppy story-telling. Character arcs and story ideas that could have been excellent in one or a few episodes, Moffat’s excellent self-contained mini-arcs for which he is so known, become dragged out and thin. Even the transitions between episodes — Doctor Who “Day of The Doctor,” I’m looking at you — are widened and viewers find themselves having previous events explained to them, instead of shown. It is the old “show, don’t tell” sin played all across space and time.

And this isn’t even including the “Mary Suing” that becomes more prevalent: especially in the form of Clara Oswald who is alternatively an extension of The Doctor’s character or an inconsistently-portrayed excuse of a human being instead of her own unique self. There is definitely a marked change from how Davies handled diversity and character development in the overall program to how Moffat dealt with these elements.

In the end, the best way to explain what happened to Steven Moffat is to make a bad geek analogy. Think about the original Star Wars trilogy: when George Lucas’ ideas and outlines were fleshed out and tempered by Lawrence Kasdan’s writing, Marcia Griffin’s film and cinematic work, and Gary Kurtz’s assistance. Now think about the Prequel Trilogy: where George Lucas’ former collaborators were all gone and there was no one else to reign in his ideas. Perhaps the most charitable thing to say is that Steven Moffat acts like the George Lucas of Doctor Who.

Take from that what you will.

My own conclusions are pretty clear. I liked Steven Moffat as a writer, for the most part, but as a showrunner he, at best, had a hit or miss direction in Doctor Who: becoming more of the latter with regards to using a character who had might as well be his own particular Jar Jar Binks. All that said, it is good to see that there will be a new showrunner and I hope that Chris Chibnall will be up to the task of playing in the sandbox that is bigger on the inside.

Be prepared to have to wait in order to see Doctor Who again. We will get one Christmas episode this year, and then Season 10 in 2017: Steven Moffat’s last.

A Winding Path of Angels, Glitches, and Binary Parallels: Gaming Pixie’s Raziel

Sometimes a series of lines curve and become a circle. Then that same line curves outward and makes the circle into a spiral. And then the line, that particular line, continues around the spiral and creates the second level of the spiral, emulates three dimensions, and breaks down into its essential numerical binary parts.

So after you imagine Gaming Pixie’s circle of Twine games leading to another string of personal dimensions, think of the second layer of her spiral of game making as a circle of glowing ones and zeroes in the form of Raziel.

Raziel Title Screen

For me the main challenge in writing about Raziel is that much of it is already documented by Gaming Pixie herself on her Games site. In a series of relatively short entries you will find that she began Raziel as a Twine for a Cyberpunk Game Jam: the premise of which expanding over time to include a few more details and various changes in mechanics as it became a short 16-bit game made on RPG Maker.

To be honest, even though I’d played the Twine game some time ago, and I was following the developer posts on Gaming Pixie’s Blog, I actually didn’t know what to expect from Raziel.

I’ll tell you what I did find though. Imagine a combination of The Matrix with its artificial intelligences and hacker themes, Inception with its levels of intersecting reality and memory, Christine Love’s *AI games with their background of gender, sexuality, and treatment of AI as individual entities, and Kan Gao’s To the Moon with its heartfelt use of virtual capsules and subversion of a single instance of combat. Raziel is reminiscent of these films and games, but it is more.

Raziel Intro

On the surface, Raziel is a cyberpunk game about a hacker named Glitch who seeks to kill a fallen angel: someone who must leave the Real World and enter the virtual Otherworld in order to fulfill this task.

The Real World itself in the game is a grey and closed off space: with very few places to go or see. As per some cyberpunk settings, it is almost a closed linear circuit of grim reality: to the point where the extra rooms and levels in the protagonist’s apartment building and the virtual chambers in the material version of Raziel’s Tower are almost superfluous. It’s specifically designed to be a world where you don’t want to spend much time.

Raziel Apartment

Basically you are navigating a cyberpunk world that interfaces from the Real World into Otherworld and, eventually, a series of inaccessible and non-human user junk code in the form of Etherworld. Otherworld and Etherworld, one decked in bright neon colours and the latter in light-screen fragments and binary are circular worlds: the former possessing few barriers and the latter possessing random ones.

Getting into and out of Otherworld, which is essentially an over-world map to other places is easy, but traveling into and interacting with, and getting out of, Etherworld is much more difficult: a series of different levels that — appropriately — intermix an over-world map layout with specific levels depending on what you access.

But this is where our overview ends: because if we journey any further into Otherworld’s circle of eternity, or Etherworld’s realm of code we are inevitably going to find a class of virtual sprite known as Spoilers.

So now that we are here, past the point of safety, I am going to give you the same choice that Gaming Pixie gives all of her players.

If you don’t want to use the Augment, read no further unless you’d like to hack further and remote-view said spoilers. However, if you’ve agreed to take the Augment then prepare yourself for exploration.

The warning above is somewhat misleading, when all things are considered. The option to use Augments, illegal and dangerous cybernetic enhancements that were both more prevalent and allowed you to access Otherworld in the Twine, exist only in the RPG as a plot device: something that gains you, through the character of Glitch, the initial notice of Raziel himself. The rest of what happens after that is entirely up to you. The game has an edgy attitude like that.

Raziel Twine

As such, there are quite a few differences between the Twine and RPG versions of Raziel. While the Twine has only the Real World and Otherworld, Gaming Pixie added Etherworld to the RPG: a place where the users’ intentions from reality intermix with junk data. In addition, only AI can generally access Etherworld. The best way to look at Etherworld is to imagine looking at the real workings of a living body dissected right in front of you, except you’re interacting with its subconscious mind that’s also laid bare. It is disturbing and it is meant to be.

Whereas in the Twine Augments were the only way you could “unofficially” access Otherworld, in the Raziel RPG Augments are used to heighten sensations in Otherworld: bringing you into a state of Null Space that we never see in the game but which we see quite a few references. People can go mad or die from using either “bad” or, again, illegal Augments. Also, if you look carefully enough you’ll realize just how important Augments have been in Glitch’s decision making. I wish you happy hunting on the latter, by the way, as I totally missed it on my first playthrough.

There are also no AI in the Twine version of this game. In order to create an RPG, Gaming Pixie had to expand on the world she first created but it pays off. First of all, you don’t always know who the AI are. It’s true that there are AI that serve one rudimentary purpose — similar to the Virtual Intelligences of Mass Effect — but there are others who are friendly, standoffish, and even creative in their own rights. Second of all, even the former type of AI is important to the game: in the form of Gates. Gates also don’t exist in the Twine predecessor of this game: essentially they are messengers or avatars of the fallen angel Raziel that actually allow you to access Etherworld as a human user.

Raziel Gates

But activating these living Gate AIs is not as easy as merely identifying and approaching them. What you really need to do is get hints from your handler, a woman named Maven — about specific interactions that you need to undertake, find where those are situated, and then find the Gates and access them. You will find that Raziel is subversive in that it uses the mode of the 16-bit RPG to explore: accessing an environment that is literally composed of navigating built-in puzzles specifically in the form of interactions with other characters. Everything is connected in Raziel. That is the point.

Even though Gaming Pixie helpfully provides you with a Database of beautifully pixelated sprite profiles and useful information that you gather as you interact with the world it is only through your interactions with the cybernetic aspects of this virtual reality — the humanoid elements in the electronics — that you even get this information, or feel any investment with it beyond your character’s own enigmatic self-interest.

Raziel Hub

Just like in the Twine version of Raziel, it is your mission as Glitch to destroy Otherworld by killing its living CPU the angel Raziel: and there are implications in doing so. Whereas in the Twine game destroying Otherworld potentially frees human users from the stasis of their own ennui, in ignoring the real world and beginning to get them to face the painful but inevitable task of making their offline lives better, there is a lot more at stake in the RPG. It’s true that many people come to Otherworld for escapism, but there are other programs that exist there as well.

For example, there is Esme: a snow princess who was created to be the friend of a girl who later committed suicide and who now exists to remember her and help other girls. There is an elderly couple that were programmed to function as foster parents: as the only loving guardians a young girl has ever had. And then you have Persephone: an AI who has exceeded her programming, changing her original name of Penelope, and creating artistic programs in her own right. If you destroy Otherworld, you will not only rob some of the human users of their friends and family, but you will basically murder other self-aware beings in the process.

Raziel Etherworld

But even then, it’s not as easy as merely stopping. There is Raziel himself to consider. The reason you have to kill Raziel doesn’t change from the Twine to the RPG. Raziel was a human being connected to the Otherworld for over fifty years. His physical form has been hanging between life and death, leaving him in constant agony, as his mind has been used to create and maintain the reality of Otherworld. Essentially, he is the one who gives you the mission to kill him: to end his pain. While you have to directly find him yourself in the Twine, his contact and friend Maven is the one who recruits you, after he finds you in another form, to undertake this act of mercy.

That’s right. The final boss of the game wants you to kill him and even helps you to do so after an awe-inspiring cut scene and a particularly vicious battle.  There are no other random battles in Raziel. The other encounters you have are by necessity those that you don’t confront in Etherworld. There is no grinding, or leveling up your character. There is one boss battle: and it is the most difficult challenge you will have in this game, morally and physically.

If you kill Raziel, the Angel of Mysteries in Judeo-Christian theology, you will end his pain but you will destroy Otherworld and every AI in it: robbing its human users of their one joy and connection in contrast to a dull and colourless existence in the Real World. But if you let him live, he will inevitably go insane, crash Otherworld, and take everyone down with him. It’s much like the illusion of alternate paths in Gaming Pixie’s games What’s In a Name? or, fittingly enough, The Choice. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like much of a choice at all, does it?

That is something else both the Twine and RPG versions of this game have in common. In fact, should you choose the “wrong” options, the game will shut itself down much in the way Toby Fox’s Undertale will do when you also choose wrong, or lose.

But here is the interesting part: in contrast to the idea of the illusion of free will, in Raziel it is actually about a lack of choice being the illusionEven if your choices seem limited, they still exist and if you think about the greater good, you will make the right one. Yet while the Raziel Twine leads to the game “crashing” no matter what you do, choosing the option of the lesser evil, the RPG is more nuanced. The battle with Raziel is inevitable, but how you choose to fight Raziel depends on how you much you explore beforehand, and how much you pay attention.

swfm paths

You can see the influence of Gaming Pixie’s She Who Fights Monsters on the ultimate outcome of the RPG. At the end of Monsters you — as the protagonist of Jenny — encounter a screen where you have to choose between three boxes: love, hate, and indifference. Some of those options will be opened or closed to you depending what karmic choices you undertook in that game: and specifically whether or not you accessed the places where the game’s Memory Crystals are found.

temple-final

However, in the Raziel RPG it is different. In the cavern that represents Raziel’s virtual prison, there are four other rooms guarded by the Gates with which you’ve interacted to get this far. In it are four coloured Flames that represent different aspects of Raziel’s power and suffering: pain as defense, anger as attack, sadness as magic, and regret as evasion. Whereas accessing Monsters’ boxes or Crystals determines Jenny’s developing personality and future, encountering and defusing the Flames actually de-buffs Raziel’s stats: keeping you from getting curb-stomped in your battle with him.

Trust me: you know that box that comes up before you go into Raziel’s main prison cell asking you if you want to go further and if there is anything else you want to do? For the love of God, listen to that message for what it is: a warning. According to Gaming Pixie, this box wasn’t originally there — she had to add it so that the encounter wouldn’t be completely impossible — and once you go into that cell you will save and not be able to get out again. You will die: many, many times against the power of Raziel.

Yet why is it that despite Raziel’s aid, his manipulations, and his request for death that he fights you with every fiber of his being? Why doesn’t he just give up and let you kill him? Are there safeguards in place that automate him to protect himself? Or is it more than that?

Raziel Existence

I am going to reveal to you Raziel’s and ultimately the RPG Raziel‘s ultimate secret. The truth is that Raziel doesn’t really want to die. The Otherworld built from Raziel is wondrous, but there has always been something missing from it: some component that the best scientists and technicians could never replicate. Glitch has felt this and other users have no doubt done the same: perhaps even influencing their need to leave the banality of the Real World and use questionable Augments and experience Null Space while they are there. But that’s just it: it is merely existence. And existence does not necessarily equal essence. Existence is not life.

It’s Raziel’s sense of self-preservation that makes him fight you. It’s your sense of wanting to live that makes you, as Glitch, want to fight back and finish the deed. It is that moment on the edge of death, of contemplating oblivion, that the will to live is arguably the strongest impulse any living being can ever possess. And this is where the two Raziel games diverge with extreme prejudice: the Twine game being a grim lesson in the lesser of two evils and the RPG — Raziel itself — becoming a story about connecting with others, learning to feel the needs of others above your own, helping them shed the pain of their old and cumbersome attachments, and allowing things to be renewed: allowing the angel to be reborn.

It is a redemptive ending as Raziel leaves his physical body behind and becomes a powerful AI that flushes the will to live throughout the entire system of Otherworld. It’s as though Raziel played Gaming Pixie’s The Choice himself — a game about suicide — and realized the most positive and powerful choice is to live. But it is not just Raziel who makes this decision.

If you consult Gaming Pixie’s Blog entries on Raziel, you’ll realize that she wanted to incorporate the karmic system that is popular in her Eden, Shadow of a Soul, and She Who Fights Monsters games as well as many other independent ones of late, but she decided against it and took another approach. While Raziel is about the angelic CPU of Otherworld, it is also about Glitch.

Raziel Glitch Menu

Glitch becomes more than an optional name in a Twine game. In another loop between her video game creations, Gaming Pixie takes you out of the second-persona of “you,” and places you behind Glitch’s first-person “I” perspective. Glitch follows your commands: within reason. This game persona mechanic is reminiscent of Christine Love’s don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. The hacker is caustic, sarcastic, and sometimes outright impatient. You might want to explore, and Glitch will indulge you until you intrude on someone else’s personal space, go against their wishes, or you waste Glitch’s time. In this sense, Glitch is the narrative of the game. Even Etherworld and one ending of the game where it crashes is a reference to Glitch’s actual name and what it means in a system like a video game.

Raziel Glitch

Yet Glitch is more than this. It’s strange. In Gaming Pixie’s other games, your gender is neutral, default female, or you have a choice between three genders of “him,” “her,” and “they.” In Raziel, however, you only get two genders to choose from. This is a controversial move in a lot of ways: especially when you consider that depending on whether Glitch is male or female, this protagonist will interact with other characters in different ways. Even so, his or her personality is generally the same and is more than just a blank slate silent or unnamed protagonist. And if you look closely, very closely, and double-check all information about Augments in the game you might also find just what might be the motivation behind Glitch wanting to destroy Otherworld.

There is, however, one other element that definitely shines through. Whether you choose to be male or female, Glitch is always going to be a Black bisexual person. Bisexuality is a core theme in many of Gaming Pixie’s games as a legitimate sexual orientation and identity: just as it is for her main characters to generally have a default Black identity. The way this is introduced is just as a given. Everything else in Raziel is utterly fantastic, whereas diversity, bisexuality and indeed the LGBTQIA spectrum is seen as commonplace: especially in a virtual world where you can appear as you want to be.

Raziel Dance

Even so, it is intriguing how when Glitch is female you get a little more clue as to her mental state as she develops a relationship with Maven, who is a lesbian, whereas the information about Glitch’s past is hinted upon differently when he is male and he tells a gay and newly incarnated Raziel — who becomes his lover — that it has been a while since he has been with a man. But either way, Glitch has his or her own exposure to that life affirming moment where they realize they want to live: and actually move on with a real life past their former self-destructive Augments by the game’s end.

Writing about Raziel is hard. It feels like every time I thought I was making progress, I encountered one of the angel’s Gates, or I had to search for a node to access in a confusing realm of junk data and ideas threatening to diverge from the point, or that each time I was missing the prison chambers that could lessen the stats on my sense of intimidation in writing about the game. Certainly, I began to wish that I could take an Augment just to make sense of it all: just to organize these experiences. But Raziel is about binaries. It’s about the differences and similarities between the Real World and Otherworld, male and female, human and AI, hope and despair, Gaming Pixie’s other games and Raziel, and even the Twine and the RPG version of Raziel.

Essentially, I’ve had to make an Etherworld out of Gaming Pixie’s game: exposing some of its bones and shapes, while giving you hints about its codes and interactions. It’s like weaving behind a curtain while simultaneously painting the scene of the stage. But it’s more than that. If I’m going to refer to Gaming Pixie’s Etherworld, I should mention that it is the heart of Raziel. It is its soul and its very being: and it says something powerful about the human condition.

Raziel Heart

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I had no idea what to make of Raziel but I can safely say that through this short game built from her Twine, Gaming Pixie has more than exceeded my expectations. Her particular voice shines through both her pixels and her text with the strength of empathy. In fact, if there is one flaw in what she’s built it’s that she’d built an entire world that deserves more than just one interactive story.

You can find Raziel, for free, at Gaming Pixie’s Games and I couldn’t recommend it more.

Supreme Leader Snoke’s Victory In Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Once you start down the dark path, forever will its Spoilers dominate your destiny. If you continue reading, what you’ll here is only what you bring with you: namely, and hopefully, your experience with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

You might think to yourself at this point, did I even see the right film? Supreme Leader Snoke is the leader of the First Order. He is the mastermind behind the First Order’s rise and the Knights of Ren having extinguished Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Order before it was even born. But the leader of the Knights, Kylo Ren, was curb-stomped by the young scavenger Rey and left wounded and fallen on the disintegrating world that was once the First Order’s superweapon Starkiller Base: before General Leia Organa’s Resistance obliterated it. Many of the First Order’s troops probably didn’t evacuate the planet in time and it lost a great many resources. This isn’t even taking into account Kylo Ren’s humiliating defeat, and injuries: even though it’s pretty certain he was taken off the planet in time before it exploded, and the fact that the First Order failed to gain Luke Skywalker’s location.

All things considered, you would totally be forgiven in thinking that the First Order had a really bad time from all the events leading up to, and including, the Battle of Starkiller Base.

But Supreme Leader Snoke had a really good day if you really think about it.

Force Awakens Snoke

First, let’s look at what happened towards the end of The Force Awakens on a galactic and political level. By Snoke’s own order, the First Order destroyed the New Republic’s capital world, its star system of four other planets, and one Republic Starfleet. Suddenly the First Order is no longer just a well-organized fringe group of disaffected former Imperials. The Republic might not be gone, but it has been dealt a crippling blow: politically, economically, and morally. The First Order comes from the Unknown Regions. Starkiller Base was by no means its own capital or even the extent of its entire power. It seems that, right now, they are the most organized force in the galaxy against many worlds that have lost their leadership and fleets. And the Resistance itself is, on the surface, an even smaller group than the Rebellion had ever been: and with their resources from the Republic Senate permanently taken from them, they will be at an extreme disadvantage.

Of course there is the opposite argument. The Republic homeworld has apparently become rotational: the capital of the galactic government periodically shifting to different planets. It is also unclear whether or not the entire Republic fleet was destroyed or merely a part of it. Even if all of the Republic’s military force was destroyed, the other Republic worlds will not stand by and wait to be taken by the First Order. They will assemble their own fleets, or reunify them into another Republic armada. In addition, everyone by this point remembers what happened to Alderaan and they will fall upon whatever they can find of the First Order with great vehemence. If anything, while there might be a delay due to member worlds needing to elect and create a new Senate, Snoke’s order will potentially unify the Republic against the First Order in a military (as opposed to a diplomatic sanctioning) capacity. In short, unleashing Starkiller Base made the galaxy aware of it, and basically encourages the Republic to declare war.

Leia Organa’s immortal words to Tarkin come to mind.

Death Star Tarkin

And the Resistance itself may not lack for resources after the other Republic worlds decide to take on the First Order: much like the way the Rebellion gained more member worlds after the Empire destroyed Alderaan. Then again, any of this might take time, and politics and in the inevitable infighting can slow down a democratic government: even one at war. Perhaps that delay is all that Snoke truly needs.

There is a second consideration to take into account with regards to Snoke’s plans. While General Hux might believe in the power of his superweapon like the neo-fascist Tarkin enthusiast that he is, and both he and Captain Phasma have invested heavily in their child indoctrination stormtrooper program, they are all just so much dressing to Snoke. They are merely tools. As with Palpatine before him, Snoke seems especially preoccupied with the Force: specifically the dark side of the Force.

What do we know about the dark side? Well, the dark side feeds off of fear, anger, hate, and suffering. The Empire and the Order of the Sith Lords seem to have been destroyed thirty years ago: removing much of the dark side’s influence over the galaxy, or making it unfocused and decentralized. So what would be the best way to bring the dark side back into galactic prominence?

Well, a galactic war would be a start.

Snoke most likely possesses enough resources to tide the First Order against the Republic and the Resistance for a while: assuming he doesn’t have a few other surprises hidden away somewhere. The chaos will not be over anytime soon. This isn’t without precedent. Senator and then Chancellor Palpatine helped to engineer the Clone Wars and create the foundation of his New Order from the chaos.

Knights of Ren

And Snoke has his Knights of Ren. He had already succeeded in taking out the Jedi before they could become a threat to him. Right now he has an Order of darksiders against an enemy that — for the moment — lacks trained Force-sensitives to be any kind of threat. After all, what could soldiers do against enemies that can predict your movements, telekinetically attack you, and even mind control your troops: not to mention essentially overpower you with enhanced reflexes and potentially lightsabers that can cut through most substances. And of course they have a legion of elite trained stormtroopers to back them up.

Yet this is only the background. Being able to influence and even shape the battle field is one thing. The Knights of Ren and the First Order are still just tools: some more useful than others and all them thinking that they are indispensable. But there are still two pieces missing.

Some things are worth more than rations.

Luke Skywalker is still missing. In addition to that, Snoke also knows about the woman who defeated his apprentice: Rey. Kylo Ren never had the chance to hand her over to him when she was his captive: and now she is with Luke. Think about how powerful Rey was without Jedi training and imagine how considerable she will be when she inevitably gets it. Ideally, Snoke would have wanted the location of the world Luke is hiding on so that he could use Starkiller Base to erase both of them from the face of the galaxy, but that option is now off the table. Starkiller Base has also been destroyed before Snoke could have it used on the current Resistance planet base of D’Qar: thanks to the Battle of Starkiller Base.

But this also works in Snoke’s favour. Snoke has influenced events to a point where the last Jedi Master can’t remain in hiding forever. He has wounded the Republic and created enough opportunity for anarchy so that the First Order can gain ground on a galactic level. Luke must have also felt the horrific wounds in the Force caused by Starkiller Base: making him aware of just how much power the First Order truly has. In addition, because Rey survived the destruction of the Base and discovered his location, she may well even provide a beacon for Snoke’s darksiders to find as she gains more training. Even if Luke teaches her how to mask her Force signature, as he most likely has, the two of them will inevitably be drawn right back out into galactic affairs: and right into Snoke’s new playground.

Luke having memories about the good old days with his lightsaber: getting shot by training remotes, barely being able to summon the lightsaber to him in the Wampa's cave, his own father cutting off his hand, not to mention the lightsaber ending the lives of children by his father's hand. Ah, those were the days.

And now it is even more personal for Luke. It’s bad enough that Snoke corrupted his nephew against him and his dream, but now Snoke set the stage for the death of his best friend and brother-in-law by his former apprentice’s hand. It’s bad enough that the Resistance lost a potential General in the form of Han Solo, another victory for Snoke, but he keeps hitting Luke where it hurts: just trying to get him to reveal himself and “fight for his friends” like he did when Darth Vader captured them on Cloud City. Of course, Rey herself — whatever relationship she has to the Jedi — is now at risk and Luke, for all he might have learned to no longer be that impatient young man on Dagobah might not be able to sit this one out.

But then we have the centerpiece of this twisted little show: another impatient young man named Kylo Ren.

There was once another Master of the dark side who fomented a galactic war just to hone, train, and mold another young, powerful Force-sensitive to his will. At the very least, both Palpatine and Snoke engineered the perfect battleground to make a new apprentice to their respective orders. Kylo Ren is the master of the Knights of Ren. But for all of his power and skill with the Force, he is still young and relatively inexperienced. He has never really had a challenge to prove himself against, and he lacked focus.

Kylo Ren’s betrayal of the Jedi trainees wasn’t enough. He always tempted by the light to renounce the dark side. Kylo Ren wants to kill his uncle and finish off the Jedi once and for all, but that is too abstract: too detached to be a worthy sacrifice towards the dark side of the Force. It is when Han Solo shows his face again and actually goes to Starkiller Base that everything falls into place for Ren. Up until this moment Kylo Ren has been eliminating Resistance and Jedi trainees, but in one fell swoop he murders a potential Resistance asset, hurting Leia Organa’s morale, and increasing his own connection to the dark side. Ren’s guilt and self-loathing will only make him more powerful and the fact that he was defeated by Rey — the former beginning to have some kind of inkling as to who she really is — will make him more determined to excel.

It's on now.

In the end, Snoke destroys the capital world of the New Republic and a portion of its renowned fleet. He creates a the beginnings of a conflict of pain and suffering — the destruction of worlds creating wounds in the Force itself —  that will spread the power of the dark side throughout the galaxy. Snoke essentially has great influence over the battlefield he made. Leia will undoubtedly remain uncowed by the death of her estranged husband, and her patricidal son and continue the conflict against him. Luke himself couldn’t even bring himself to kill his own father back in the day, never mind strike down his own nephew and former student. As it is, Luke and Rey will be drawn back into the fray again and made vulnerable. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren will continue to become more powerful in the Force and now has a single focus to eliminate both Luke and Rey: or perhaps gain other ambitions and become the dark side’s foremost champion.

And if Kylo Ren dies, that’s fine too. After all, there is always Rey — with her raw Force-sensitivity, self-righteous passion, potential Jedi training, and antagonism towards Ren — to corrupt towards his ends.

The destruction of a single planetary base and First Order lives can be seen as a small price to pay for someone like Supreme Leader Snoke: especially if following the Sith Handbook is only the beginning of his real plans. We will just have to wait and see if overconfidence, or victory, will be his ultimate downfall.

Long, Long Ago is Now: Star Wars The Force Awakens

If love and hate are two sides of the same impulse, then so was the prospective hope and dread that many fans potentially felt — that I certainly experienced — while waiting for the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fact is, if you read this article, right now, you will be skittering close to the dark side of The Force Awakens reviews known also as Spoilers. Remember, you can draw back from the abyss and recall the patience and calm that you need to actually watch the film, if you haven’t already. Or you can succumb to the quick and easy path, right now, if random comments on the Internet didn’t cut off your hand and leave you wailing like Luke in despair on Cloud City.

First, let’s start with what really works in this film.

The introduction.

I’m not kidding. Instead of the Prequels, where we got deluged with taxes, politics, and nebulous “heroes on both sides” that didn’t happen in the actual movies, we have the place where Return of the Jedi left off: namely, Luke Skywalker is missing and the Resistance against the First Order is searching desperately for the last Jedi. There. Right there you have an introduction, after the monumental “Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away” and the glory of the Star Wars logo that hooks you. It feeds into the questions that the film’s multimedia campaign has raised in many of us. Where is Luke? What is going on? And where in the nine Corellian hells that may, or may not still be canon, is this going?

Force Awakens Attack on Jakku
The First Order likes to make a dramatic first appearance, just like the Empire before it.

Then we see the slow reveal of the First Order and their deployment on the desert world of Jakku. The First Order also wants to find Luke Skywalker: so that they can outright kill him. Three characters are introduced at this stage: Poe Dameron, Finn, and of course Kylo Ren. Poe Dameron is with his now iconic droid BB-8 getting part of a map to find Luke Skywalker, while Kylo Ren and his First Order troops are there to also get that information and kill all witnesses. It seems pretty standard, at first when you consider how events in Star Wars movies often go: but it establishes right off the bat who the heroes and the villains are in this saga. Or so it seems.

"It was a pleasure to burn."
“It was a pleasure to burn.”

This is where J.J. Abrams begins to change the script a little bit, as it were. As Kylo Ren executes the leader of this settlement and orders the deaths of the villagers, and Poe Dameron hides but also tries to defend them, something else happens. Even as stormtroopers and flametroopers are causing death left, right, and centre, we see Poe kill some stormtroopers. Now normally that would be the end of it. Stormtroopers are generally a dime a dozen, but then … one of them falls into the other’s arms. You see blood come from the fallen trooper as his comrade holds him and he dies in his arms. Three streaks of blood mar his comrade’s helmet and you see the latter genuinely shaken.

That is the beginning of Trooper FN-2187: whom we find out later is one soldier out of many who were recruited and indoctrinated into the Storm Trooper Corps and assigned only serial number designations by the First Order as children. Abrams manages in that one scene to do something none of the films really had done. He shows us that the stormtroopers are thinking and feeling beings just like anyone else: and that they can suffer pain and post-traumatic stress like any soldier … and begin to question orders.

" Take four red capsules. In 10 minutes, take two more. Help is on the way."
” Take four red capsules. In 10 minutes, take two more. Help is on the way.”

We also get a look at some new Force powers and a visual cinematic representation of some old ones as Kylo Ren manages to casually freeze a blaster bolt in midair for several minutes, and use telepathy and mind-probing on a captive Poe Dameron. The first Force application was definitely something I wasn’t expecting and it actually raised my expectations of Kylo Ren just a little bit. And that mind-probe skill comes into play later: for all the reasons that Kylo Ren doesn’t want it.

Mind probes: for when you can't find the droids you're looking for.
Mind probes: for when you can’t find the droids you’re looking for.

Of course, our trooper friend finishes questioning orders after a cold encounter with his commanding officer Captain Phasma and actually decides to act against them. He ends up freeing Poe and they escape in a new and modified TIE Fighter that actually has two seats, and may well even possess a hyperdrive. The banter between Finn and Poe is excellent. Poe is a hotshot pilot and soldier for the Resistance, but that is only one part of who he is. While many people call him this film’s Han Solo, he is actually the opposite of the smuggler’s jaded and cynical nature: still managing against capture, torture, and conflict to be idealistic, optimistic, and overwhelmingly positive. He is the one that gives Finn his name and they celebrate their escape with adrenaline-fueled screaming together even before they are shot down and they crash land onto Jakku in order to find Poe’s droid: who has part of the location of Luke Skywalker in his databanks.

And all of this happens even before we are introduced to Rey.

There is some very excellent character development and promise in The Force Awakens to look at. I’ve already talked about Poe’s incorrigible spirit, and Finn’s sense of conscience. But then we have Rey. Rey is a scavenger on Jakku. You have probably heard enough about her at this point: she is self-sufficient, hardened by the desert world of Jakku, canny, and curious. You can also tell that she has a great of experience in self-defense: particularly in wielding her staff. But it’s not until she meets BB-8, who finds her in the middle of the desert, and she has the choice to sell him for a massive amount of food rations — as that is how the scavenging economy on Jakku seems to work — and she decides to keep him that you see her real character: her sense of integrity.

Some things are worth more than rations.
Some things are worth more than extra rations.

Right here, we have our hero. Anakin Skywalker was an idealistic slave child with his mother on Tatooine who flew in deadly podraces. Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer on that same world who was raised by his aunt and uncle while whining and dreaming of greatness. Rey seems to have been raised by no one after being abandoned on Jakku when she was five. Her dream is the hope that one day her family will come back for her: whoever they are. In the meantime she grows up a free and solitary woman on a harsh world where just survives … until a little droid comes into her life and changes everything.

He kind of grows on you.
He kind of grows on you.

It’s hard to talk about one character without looking at how they interact with others. This is another strength of The Force Awakens: interpersonal development. Finn is stranded on Jakku after his stolen ship is destroyed and Poe Dameron seems to have died: his newest friend and fellow liberator since the death of his stormtrooper comrade. He has no idea what to do now and is constantly afraid of being hunted for his betrayal. When he encounters Rey and BB-8, he is wearing Poe’s jacket and they think he is a thief. Then he pretends to be part of the Resistance, which encourages Rey to help him as she wants to get BB-8 back to the Resistance: realizing that there is more to her life than just waiting for the family that seemingly abandoned her. She makes that active choice because, again, it is the right thing to do.

Sometimes doing the right thing is hard.
Sometimes doing the right thing is hard.

In fact, aside from the absent and presumed dead Poe Dameron, Rey is the only one who sets out from her familiar life to do exactly that: the right thing. Finn runs because he is afraid and also wants a sense of belonging. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca, who they meet after finding the Millennium Falcon appropriately in a junkyard, are just on their next job on the fringes: having become alienated from Leia Organa and the Republic years ago. She is the unifying point to remind them of what is important: and she doesn’t stop there.

Starting, and continuing, down the dark path ...
Starting, and continuing, down the dark path …

In contrast to Rey is Kylo Ren. Unlike Rey, he knows exactly where he comes from. But right now, he is following what he thinks is a legacy. In fact Ren is actually the product of a few legacies. Being born to a founder of the New Republic, a legendary smuggler and General, and the nephew of the last Jedi are just a few of the expectations he has discarded. You can imagine the amount of pressure to conform to those expectations too and perhaps the role they’ve played in Ren’s decision: especially when you consider the one legacy everyone involved wanted him to avoid.

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“I will finish what you started … minus losing all my organic limbs, getting burned all over my body, accidentally destroying everyone I love and, well … having children I knew nothing about.”

But Kylo Ken is not Darth Vader. On first glance he seems like a shadow of the Sith Lord. He displays perfect control and ruthlessness when dealing with a situation well in hand. When he’s told by a subordinate that they lost BB-8, you think he is going to pull a Vader: that he’s going to Force-choke the man and levitate him off the ground and let him die in midair for his failure. Instead, after a pause, he draws out his lightsaber and proceeds to slash the computers and technology around him in a purely psychotic rage. It’s that moment that makes you realize that there is a major difference between Darth Vader and his successor: that when Vader caused damage, it was purely calculated to punish incompetence and cause fear, whereas Ren lacks focus and control. He is a young man who is perpetually angry and follows Supreme Leader Snoke and the legacy of Darth Vader in an attempt to actually deal with the insecurity and instability inside of himself: and for most of The Force Awakens it isn’t working when he needs it to be.

Everyone has a Kylo Rage once and a while. Some more than they'd like to admit.
Everyone has a Kylo Rage once and a while. Some more than they’d like to admit.

What we have with Kylo Ren, at least through most of the film, is a young man who hasn’t proved himself yet. It’s like seeing Padawan Anakin Skywalker alternatively whining and raging, or Luke Skywalker whining and fumbling to find his own heritage: except that while the first two sought to grow in the light side of the Force, Kylo Ren chooses the darkness for reasons that haven’t been yet revealed: which are hopefully more than just impatience and for the sake of rebellion. We are looking at the growth of a darksider and his own self-perceived hero’s journey into realizing what he is, and the prices he will pay for getting there.

I won’t go further into a recap of the film, except to say that there are a few scenes that were utterly striking. The first and foremost was Rey gaining a hint of what her destiny truly is: with the vision she gained as Luke’s old lightsaber — which we could sense from its treasure chest with all the sounds of screaming and agony — summoned her to it.

Your father wanted you to have this ... whoever he is ...
Your father wanted you to have this … whoever he is …

There was also the apex of Kylo Ren’s own character arc where he kills Han Solo — his own father — as his personal sacrifice to the dark side in order to drive the light away from him forever: and to earn the undying enmity of fans everywhere. It was … hard, watching the Solo Luck finally run out in the worst possible way.

But watching Chewbacca shoot Ren with his bowcaster is utterly satisfying. The only thing more satisfying, would have been if Han had already known his son was irredeemable from the start and as Ren thanks him, a dying Han touches his face and says, “Don’t thank me”: pressing a trigger to the series of thermal detonators he was wearing under his vest: trying to take his murdering son down with him.

But what actually happens next is epic.

We have Finn actually facing his fear, after running for so long, and fighting and losing against Ren: only to have Rey step up and take her destiny.

It's on now.
It’s on now.

The Force Awakens is primarily about Rey’s own awakening. After Kylo Ren captures her and tries to tear the information on Luke’s whereabouts from her mind, he inadvertently activates her latent Force potential: which she uses to mind-trick and rescue herself. She sees into his mind: and sees his fear. She makes him confront it.

Up until this point, you have to figure: Kylo Ren has only dealt with non-Force sensitives. He has encountered other Force-sensitives through his seemingly untrained mother, his fellow Knights of Ren, and his former fellow Jedi trainees that he slaughtered. The only people that he perceives to be more powerful than him, with his Skywalker bloodline, is his uncle Luke and his Master Snoke. At Starkiller Base, Kylo Ren is wounded but he draws on his physical pain, pounding his ribs where Chewbacca shot him, and uses it to augment his power in the dark side. He has been trained, he has defeated the obstacle of killing the man he loved — his own father — and it is still raw and untempered. And he thinks he is the only one, perhaps even the Chosen One, that can do what must be done.

"You're afraid you'll never be as powerful as Darth Vader."
“You’re afraid you’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader.”

In an inadvertent way, Rey also helped him. She revealed his fear: that he would never be as powerful as Darth Vader. But he did something that not even his grandfather could do: he killed someone he loved in order to embrace what he thinks is his destiny. Rey has also helped him to awaken in a warped and twisted way. But he severely underestimates her. At her age, Luke was still getting his ass handed to him by training remotes. And even Anakin was still a Padawan with questionable judgment. Also remember that Rey grew up on a desert world with no luxuries, and where battle is not training and is ultimately a matter of life or death. She has incredible Force potential, she’s already already learned not to shoot blaster bolts at Ren, and she is fighting to save her new found friends. I know I rooted for her when she brutally and efficiently beat Ren down.

And it could have ended right there. It could have ended with the destruction of Starkiller Base and Rey returning to a grieving Resistance General Leia Organa — a development that I thought was excellent given Leia’s background in guerrilla warfare and rebellion compared to her previous political fate in the now Legends continuity — and promising to see an unconscious Finn again before riding off on the Falcon — the ship she basically inherited from Han — to find Luke Skywalker.

But the film doesn’t stop there. Instead, it stops at that point in time where she finds him. She actually finds Luke Skywalker: and presents to him his old lightsaber. The look of grief and heartbreak on Luke’s face after the destruction of his Order before it even began by his own nephew, his possible farsight of what occurred in his absence, the sudden appearance of a blade that had a mixed place in his own past, and the look of hope and desperation on Rey’s face says it all. It all comes full circle and you can see — right there — that the legacy is going to continue.

Luke having memories about the good old days with his lightsaber: getting shot by training remotes, barely being able to summon the lightsaber to him in the Wampa's cave, his own father cutting off his hand, not to mention the lightsaber ending the lives of children by his father's hand. Ah, those were the days.
Luke having memories about the good old days with his lightsaber: getting shot by training remotes, barely being able to summon the lightsaber to him in the Wampa’s cave, his own father cutting off his hand, not to mention the lightsaber ending the lives of children by his father’s hand. Ah, those were the days.

Of course, there are the other aspects of the film to consider as well. I have to admit that seeing Poe Dameron just appear out of nowhere after he supposedly died did seem kind of anticlimactic: though it was also good to know he is going to stay around.

Don't worry. Not only do I explain how I escaped, but you might be able to see how it happened in the novelization.
Don’t worry. Not only do I explain how I escaped, but you might be able to see how it happened in the novelization.

But I think my main quibble with The Force Awakens is Starkiller Base and the New Republic. The Republic really dropped the ball on this one: underestimating the First Order as an Imperial remnant with all of these resources clearly on hand. It also strikes me as hilarious that Snoke seems to order the use of the Base’s star system destroying lasers as something of an afterthought. And it is never clear in the film if it was just the Republic’s capital world and Starfleet destroyed by the lasers: or if it was all of it. If the First Order just destroyed all of the New Republic in one shot, it just seems to be a little bit of a cop-out to me: not the least of which being the fact that this film didn’t really need another “Superweapon of the Month” my Death Star is bigger than yours element.

"You'd think we would have seriously learned by now."
“You’d think we would have seriously learned by now.”

Also, Supreme Leader Snoke’s CGI Voldemort meets Gollum appearance was a little off-putting in a movie that used less computer-generated special effects. And there are many things that have happened, gaps in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens that have yet to be explained.

But these are minor quibbles really.

Many fans and writers have already covered one other aspect of Star Wars The Force Awakens. They say that it is highly derivative. But perhaps it is more apt to state that it parallels elements from the other films. And even if it is derivative, with its hearkening to deserts, ice planets, forest worlds, Force visions, the wise old mentor dying, rebellions, the destruction of life, heroes journeys, and light and darkness vying against each other in self-referential ways, or with acute self-awareness of their tropes, so what? Mythology itself is derivative. Storytelling is derivative. Stories come from somewhere: from a convention of ideas, events, and feelings.

Star Wars is a mythology that draws on the archetypes of interactions with certain environments and situations and certain characters. Of course its latest movie is derivative. But I think there is another consideration to take in when thinking about mythology. Even though stories are derived from other stories, the best ones are those that tend to add something new to the mythos. The question you have to ask yourself is this: does Star Wars: The Force Awakens add anything new to the Star Wars cinematic universe?

Personally, I think that if it already hasn’t with the way it is has subverted some of the tropes, I think it will. After all, Kylo Ren had clearly been suffering from a lack of focus or certainty in embracing his power: and he is not going to stay that way. He will awaken too and hopefully realize that he should do more than live up to Vader. He has to surpass him.

Still a better antagonist than Jacen Solo from the Star Wars Legends continuity.
Still a better antagonist than Jacen Solo from the Star Wars Legends continuity.

And as for Rey, it is pretty clear she is going to learn the ways of the Force, continue to kick some ass and struggle with what is important. She might even learn about what she came from and integrate it into where she is going. And I look forward to seeing what J.J. Abrams, LucasFilm, and Disney will build from this impressive beginning.

Rey is a bad ass.
Rey is a bad ass.

In Undertale You Are Player Two

I wrote a brief post about Toby Fox’s Undertale a month or so ago. It was difficult as I was really trying to remain spoiler-free while, at the same time, attempting to actually say something relevant about the game itself. But now that I’ve had some time to think, and talk, about Undertale there are some more things about it that I would like to write about.

You are now in the Spoiler Bone Zone. Please either play the game first, as it is excellent, or don’t upon your own risk. As always, you have been warned.

Undertale

Mechanically speaking, the game is a work of pure genius. For the most part it feels like an RPG with some very elementary, archetypal cartoon aesthetics. On the surface, it is a combination of turn-based battles and puzzles. But then there are some interesting aspects to the conflict portions of the game: interactive gameplay elements that will really affect the plot as you go on. And, believe me, you will see these effects almost immediately.

Undertale Fight

The fact that you have the option to either Fight and kill, or Act and Mercy enemies is not a spoiler in and of itself. Acting actually gives you many options as to how to deal with monsters as people: each one having their own likes and dislikes.

Undertale Act

When you interact with them through the Act option long enough, you can Spare them and continue onward: sometimes gaining money, but no EXP. Or, you can kill them and they disintegrate into dust.

Undertale Combat

The battles, or if you want to get more technical, the Encounters are structured in an interesting fashion. While they are turn-based, allowing you time to heal with items or choose other options on your screen, the monsters’ turns are mostly bullet-hell mini-games. You play as a small red heart in a box, and the object of those games, on the turn of your opponent, is to avoid their attacks until it’s your turn again. Generally, you can move all around the box but then … sometimes … Toby Fox will change the game dynamic.

The way that Fox changes the game dynamic in encounters often ties into the Special Attacks of particular monsters. For instance, there are at least a few situations where a bullet-hell can become a platforming or even a shooter mini-game. Having mini-games in an overall game is nothing new, of course, but these different games — turned into specific dynamics or interactions with characters — provides the skeleton (if you pardon the pun, which is ironic as there are two Skeletons that love and detest puns respectively, with their own encounters) of Undertale as a game.

Of course, I’m probably not saying anything at this point that no one has heard before. The game itself, like many contemporary and independently created interactive narratives, is fairly self-referential and — a jargony word — intertextual. It is a game that spiritually and mechanically knows its a game to the point of fourth-wall breaking and is aware of other games. Even the plot of the game is fairly straightforward at first glance: where you play a silent protagonist child character who is trying to escape from an Underground realm ruled by Monsters that were banished there by humans during an ancient war from long ago.

But aspect from the Pacifist options of being able to Act and Spare in encounters, Undertale has two more unique characteristics that can either make, or break, a good game.

These two elements play into each other well. The first is that Toby Fox creates archetypal and relatable characters. You very clearly know who they are from their brilliant musical leitmotifs and their cartoon aesthetics. And the best part is that a majority of all the other characters are Monsters. That’s right. They could be your enemies and Toby Fox goes out of his way to make sure that they are people who have their own hobbies, likes, dislikes, families, and friends. They are not nameless creatures that you kill to gain EXP. And some even befriend you on their own.

Sans and Papyrus

Fox manages to blend enough self-awareness, humour, and far-reaching emotional resonance into your interactions to make you seriously look at what you’re doing in the Underground and what you are willing to do while you are there.

Just think about it. That Woshua that just wants to clean you and might not be aware that they are hurting you until you Act with it, could be a Monster that you just kill. Or that Froggit that comes at you in all ignorance, that could have given you some advice in the beginning, could be your unintended victim.

But you see, you can’t really kill by accident. Well, not exactly. Because there is also the other element of Undertale to consider: the moral structure of the game itself.

And here lies the rub. There will be times, especially in the beginning, when you don’t know how to Spare a Monster if they won’t Act with you. In my experience, what happened was that without knowing what to do, I reverted back to my old time and tested gamer routine: I tried to damage an opponent to the point where I hoped they would ask me to Spare them, or give me the option to do so.

It didn’t work. And they died. They died because of my own actions.

I was horrified. That was not what I intended to do, and yet in retrospect I realized how flawed that idea was. I mean, when you meet someone sympathetic in real life and they get in your way, do you beat them within an inch of their life to get past them? To get what you want? Just what kind of person does that? What kind of person does that make you?

And so, I decided to reset, to Load my Save because I knew there was another way to deal with it without killing them: this character whom I’d grown to care about, to relate to, and made me feel conflict when they opposed me. But even when I figured that out, the game itself … remembered what I did in my last Save. It didn’t let me forget.

The game still forgave, then, but it didn’t forget.

Undertale Flowey the Flower

Undertale’s moral structure acts like something of a stereotypical gamer deterrent. It punishes you for gaining Levels, for grinding for Levels, for resolving issues with “Solo shooting first violence” and even for the extreme end of Determination: for seeking to do something just because you know that you can.

This is the spirit of Undertale. It is more than one of those games that have consequences for every action of the player. It is the child of a popular idea in various parts of the independent game-making scene: the notion of deconstructing violence as a normal interaction in games and creating alternatives. And some of those alternatives branch into consequences and elements of diversity and representation. What I love about Undertale is that these aspects do not lead into places of heavy-headed preaching or messages. Rather, your actions are reflected in what happens to the characters whom you’ve grown to relate towards: even and especially if they are different from you.

Snowdin Puzzle

In a way Undertale can also represent the idea of a ludic society: of a social order and community operating on interactions of “playfulness” or games. The Underground literally has a tradition of puzzle games to confound and challenge humans and outsiders. These puzzles are how the denizens of the Underground interact with each other and the player: and they notable because they are generally non-lethal. Even befriending certain characters triggers parodies of dating sims mini-games.

Papyrus Date

It can also be seen to reflect another ideal in some of the independent game-making scene: of games being more than just entertainment, but art itself. But perhaps this potential Games studies look, with its possible influences on independent game-making night be reading a little too much into what Toby Fox might be intimating.

But these implications are good to discuss. Because Undertale does say something about a particular stereotype of a gamer that is hard to ignore. The way he does this is fascinating. At the beginning of the game you are told to name the character that you will, presumably, be playing. In addition, you will encounter your first enemy: who will continue to follow you around and offer “advice” throughout the entire game. It even fits well into the story.

As it turns out, you have a special power as a human called Determination. In your case, it allows you to control time to a limited extent. You can Load and Save your progress. You can even Reset the game: the very world in which you are interacting. Your enemy, if he is your enemy, also had this power once until you came along. He is, in a lot of ways, your shadow: your doppelganger. He represents what happens when you replay a game far too many times, when you commit all good and evil on each reset, when you become bored with your game, when you persevere to great and ridiculous lengths to gain an achievement … and he will question and mock you for everything you do: while sometimes helping you … for his own benefit.

But here is the thing that you need to understand. This first enemy of yours, as powerful and terrifying as he can become, may not really be your enemy at all. He represents something. And depending on what you do, this antagonist is just Player Two to the real enemy that can manifest in the game.

After all, there’s a reason why the mirrors in Undertale have dialogue boxes when you click on them.

Undertale Mirror

Eventually — depending on what life choices you make — you realize that the person you named, early in your adventure, isn’t who your silent protagonist actually is. It turns out there was another human, long ago, who fell into the Underground. They are the person that you name. And if you choose what’s called the Genocide Route, namely going through the intense grinding motions of leveling up and killing every Monster in your way, they will manifest and you will lose control of the character.

In fact, the person you play as isn’t even your character. They have their own name. It is a revelation that through the grandiosity of the True Pacifist Ending actually took me out of my immersion with the game by sheer confusion. I named that character. Even if they were different from me, that was how I related to them. Naming was yet another assumption that gets subverted. It’s only when you play the Genocide Route, it is your murderous intentions, your capacity to kill, your lack of caring for puzzles or characters as people, your lack of fun, that will re-awaken someone or something else that will take control of the person you were supposed to guide. It is pretty clear what Undertale states through these actions, and the words of some characters towards the end, about certain kinds of gamers.

And it can be both unsettling and off-putting.

The truth is, you can’t accidentally play the Genocide Route. You have to painstakingly, numbingly, grind through all those Monsters with their own thoughts and feelings. You have to distance yourself from your emotions and capacity to feel relationships to kill and maim and take what you want. You will destroy people that you could have been friends with: that you could have loved. And you will encounter bullet-hells and platforming battles that are completely unforgiving: and the ending of the game will not be a pleasant one. You do not get rewarded for mass-murder.

In fact, your “reward” for doing this will ultimately be a jump-scare worthy of a creepypasta.

Undertale Chara's Deaths

And it gets worse. If you play Genocide before Pacifism, it will taint every other playthrough that you make. It is at this point that the game does not forgive you. You deal with the consequences of your actions. And if you played Pacifist first, killing and tormenting your friends will feel like agony unless you have completely distanced yourself from these interactions as “just a game.”

This morality is Undertale‘s greatest strength. It can also, arguably, be considered a flaw. Genocide reveals other information about the story line that you would not have gotten in any other route. There are different interactions and sides to the characters that you will not see in any other way. And if you do this, you will be punished for it in all of the aforementioned ways. For the most part, it isn’t preachy but there are some moments where it feels like you are being punished for wanting the full experience of the entire game. It even goes as far as to castigate you if you watch the Genocide route on YouTube.

Flowey is an Asshole

Obviously, this moral mechanic destroys Undertale‘s replay potential. You don’t want to go back and kill your friends. You also don’t want to obliterate their — or your character’s — happy ending if you have achieved the True Pacifist run. And so here is this game, with all heart, that when it’s over — if you think of these characters as people — you should just make sure it’s over. It is said that art is an imitation of life, and if Undertale subscribes to that ideal of being art instead of primarily entertainment — even through the microcosms of the puzzles that the Monsters make in their society — then there you are: that is your experience.

In fact, it’s not even your experience. It’s not supposed to be about you. The person you name isn’t even the protagonist and all of your aggressive gamer impulses, if you have them, are vilified … by you. And no matter what, whether you are Pacifist or have committed Genocide, the story becomes about someone else. And if you respect the flow and the rules of the game and its code, you will have to walk away.

The fact that Undertale feels like it is against replay value can be seen as a detriment and a punishment to that completionist mentality in a gamer, but the Catch 22 of the thing is that without it, this game would not be Undertale. It would not be special.

And there is the rub. Just like the foe you displaced by coming to this world of games, you are not the central character. How does it feel to actually know that you were always Player Two? And do you have the strength to play through it, to guide your character, to go for the best ending, to relate to others without hurting them, to walk away when your time is finally done with some grace? Will you need to alleviate that need to know more by “cowardly” viewing “other timelines” on YouTube or other recordings? Will you need to read and create fanfiction to make the emptiness of Undertale‘s completion go away? Or will you just grind on and become a Dirty Brother Killer?

In the end, I know what choice I made when I put my metaphorical controller down.

Frisk the Ambassador