Games and Literature — From Shigesato Itoi to Undertale
Trying to make sense of the relationship between Video Games and Literature, taking the influences between Earthbound and Undertale as examples.
As a former Language & Literature student, I’m often asked about the relationship between Games & Literature. The problem when addressing this question is that there are not a lot of people with knowledge about what those two media entice. Few people engaged in the game discussion have detoured into questions of what Literature means as a medium, what are its limits, how are its resources experienced and combined to drive that experience. On the other hand, seldom are the cases of Literature experts that are acquainted with the notions of games as experiences, mechanics as semantic devices, conveying meaning and feelings through gameplay or emergent narrative within working systems. I’ll sketch some thoughts to confuse people further.
The first completely arbitrary thing that I will say, is that I will explore this subject considering Video Games as a particular sort of media. I don’t believe that Video Games necessarily tell a story, but since I will be talking about the relationship between Video Games and literature, I will focus more on those that take characteristics from media. This discussion goes all the way back to the Narratology vs. Ludology debate, which I don’t intend to revive.
The second arbitrary rule is that this is a mixed medium. Depending on the game, it might take elements from cinematography, photography, acting, sound design, music, pictorial arts, its own mechanics and level design and, of course, literature. Every piece that comprises this mixed medium interacts to create meaning. So, when talking about literature in games, I would like to define its literary aspect by isolating it from its other elements. So, ehem, read this one very closely because I’m pretty proud of it: We talk about literature in video games when we place the burden of meaning on verbal language, disregarding any other material aspect. It sounds so academic, let me say it again: We talk about literature in video games when we place the burden of meaning on verbal language, disregarding any other material aspect. Not bad for a dropout, doncha think?
Anyways, this basically means that the way we approach the literary aspect of a video game should be no different than any other literary work. But here’s the catch: like I said before, video games are a mixed media, and an integral analysis should not disregard how its literary elements interact with the rest to give shape to meaning. Confused yet? Don’t worry, I’ll try to illustrate how this system of inclusion and exclusion can be interpreted by comparing three closely related cases: the Mother series, Toby Fox’s Earthbound Halloween Hack and his masterpiece, Undertale. And if that fails, you can always write a comment. I’m pretty accessible.
Ostranenie in Shigesato Itoi Mother series
Ostranenie is a concept often applied to the arts in which the consumer is presented with an uncommon approach to a common subject. It is often used to explain the difference between artistic uses of a medium and regular uses. For example, a news article uses verbal language to convey information as clear as possible, while a literary work operates ostranenie on the same verbal language to distance itself from regular language, by presenting language in a way that differs from our usual use. What’s useful about this concept is that it needs two parts to work: a normative use of language and a deviation from the norm. A deviation might become a norm too, if replicated by a proper body of works, and we can, then, perceive new deviations from this norm. It is so cool!
So, let’s start with the norm. A while ago I found this really interesting article about the birth of RPGs in Japan. To understand how RPGs were shaped in that era, we need to understand a couple of things about their technology. Mainly, that they had more advanced graphic engines than western computers. This was not a stylistic decision, but since the Japanese alphabets (Hiragana, Katakana and, especially, Kanji) require a great more detail to be properly expressed, more graphical detail was required just to comprehend the language. What also is interesting in the article, is how it closely relates the birth of the RPG with that of the text adventure and, dare I add, visual novels. Maybe the best way to relay the atmosphere at the time is backed up by this quote, also quoted in the article, from The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Vol. 2:
“Back then, Japanese people didn’t have a well-defined sense of the RPG as a game genre. I suspect that because of this, the creators took the appearance and atmosphere of the RPG as a basic reference, and constructed new types of games according to their own individual sensibilities. In my case, I never had the opportunity to use an Apple II, so I was completely unaware of Wizardry and Ultima.”
The dynamic pictured by this quote can easily summarise some of the things we’ve been saying about Ostranenie: there was a basic appearance and atmosphere that was taken as a reference, upon which the developers experimented and deviated to create their own works. This general norm seems to be a top-down approach to exploration, and a first person view with detailed graphics for combat. Animation seems to take a step back, most of the time, and meaning is conveyed through dialogue boxes. And while the themes these worlds present can run from ancient ruins exploration to erotic parodies, most of them concentrate in fantasy settings, with all the rules we came to expect from such a genre.
And so, amidst this normalcy of fantasy settings, came Shigesato Itoi. Now, it’s hard to summarize this man, but I’ll have to name a couple of things about his life and career which I find relevant to the following analysis of how the literary aspects of the Mother series were a deviation from the norm. Shigesato Itoi was a university student from the 60’s. The time when Structuralism was brewing the spores of the Post-Structuralism that would end up devouring it. When the study of Semiotics turned the whole world into a readable text, with passages accented by astounding poetry. When the colourful Brillo Boxes were disdainfully happy in contrast to the nihilistic white of past urinals. We often remark the errors and excesses of this time, but we fail to sing the praises of how much it has given us. Among other things, the very basic idea that Shigesato Itoi made his own with the debut of Mother on 1989: that video games, as any popular medium, were capable of great art.
Itoi has worn many hats with great success in the past, including being a renowned copywriter, collaborating with Haruki Murakami and Studio Ghibli, and running a daily blog without missing a single day for the last 15 years. And even though he has this ease with words, he hasn’t wed a single major, more traditionally accepted form of literature, such as a novel, always applying his art to that which we may consider lesser. A post-modern japanese romantic, in an open relationship with language, fond of the joke behind the dissolution of meaning, in love with the beauty of it all.
In the 80’s, he had this quirky idea for a video game and, to Nintendo’s credit, he got away with it. Yes, there were games with humour in the past and one might even say that with more refined humour, but in the Mother series the humour is the whole point. Shigesato Itoi had managed to use the humour of a video game to the same length that Bertolt Brecht had sported in his scripts, to create a “estrangement effect”. The whole game is built around this effect. From the pop-americana-as-seen-through-the-eyes-of-a-Japanese aesthetics, which are at the same time so artificial and ringing so much truth, to the comical-yet-endearing status effects (like homesick) and the humour that more often than not comes from cringe-worthy places of uneasiness rather than clever puns; the whole thing is based on distancing the player from the work, reversing the idea we have of immersion. But unlike Brecht and the epic theatre, he didn’t use it to push an ethical message, but to create a deep connection with the player. In using this approach, he managed to create an endearing world, where characters stand out and gain volume when distancing themselves from the narrative, separating them as free agents distinct from the context they were created to convey. What can I say? The man’s an effing genius. And I could praise his work on and on, but I want to get to talk about literature before I die.
So, the first thing we should notice about the Mother series is the simplicity of its language. In the NES era, where the first game was released, the tech limitations would not allow the more complex Japanese alphabet, and thus was written in simpler symbols, easily accessible to young readers. This choice was carried on to later generations of consoles, where the next iterations didn’t find this obstacle, and then became a stylistic choice. I can only imagine that it must have been a struggle to translate the simplicity of this style, and all its puns, to the English language, and I imagine a lot of it was lost in that translation.
This simplicity, though, can be seen in the grammatical structure. The predominance of sentences where the structure SUBJECT-ACTION-OBJECT (without too many adverbs) is the common norm (“Ness caught a cold”, “Yucca desert is the most boring part of this game”) give the language an almost objective feel. It is a language that purely describes actions. Of course, this objectiveness is often broken by a completely subjective feeling (“boring”, after all, is highly subjective, especially after that joke), to further distance the player from the chore at hand. Sometimes this is held on by the abstraction that the NES, SNES and GBA aesthetics allows us. The weird reactions of enemies (“thinking about the circumstances”) and the most emotional moments (“Lucas isn’t sure what to do anymore”) are mostly effective because they play on the whole idea of abstraction, where enemies have no animation and the burden of meaning is put on verbal language. The void filled by the words gives us a new understanding on what we’re seeing, and just a glimpse of what we’re not seeing and being omitted.
The Mother series takes the norm from RPGs like Dragon Quest, with exploration on a top-down perspective and battle on first person, and uses verbal language to constantly subvert it. It is not something that works outside of the complex multi-artistic medium, but by enforcing its exclusionary approach (by giving verbal words the power to re-signify images, in this anti-immersion behaviour) it makes verbal language of pivotal importance to understanding this work.
And it only gets better from here.
The necessary link: The Halloween Hack
Toby Fox’s first approaches to game design came as hacks of Earthbound (Mother 2, in Japan). Now, the importance of hacks and mods in the cultural landscape of games is something I’d like to address in another opportunity, but to those less akin with the gaming terminology, let’s say that game hacks are closely related to fanfictions. They take a pre-existing material and modify it to achieve a certain degree of artistic experimentation, be it by expanding the story, deconstructing the original material, subverting its purpose by transforming it in a communications tool, or whatever the author of the fanfic may have in mind. So, let’s cast aside the gloomy discredit the fanfic gets, and remember the fanfics that stood the test of time, like the Divine Comedy, or those that are pillars of classic French theatre, like Racine’s tragedies, and maybe even heed all literature, for the sake of the argument, as Jorge Luis Borges saw it: like a series of fanfics that could be traced back to three or four stories.
Now, what does the Halloween hack do with its source material? Superficially, it expands and explores the story of Dr. Andonuts, and his survivor’s guilt after sending his son and friends to deal with a fate overwhelming for a child. From Paradise Lost to The house of Asterion and Wicked, using the universe and characters of canon material as a canvas to explore different themes and work as commentary of the original work has become a relevant tool to further the discourse and legitimize the canonicity of their substrate. But, the interesting thing from an aesthetic perspective is that it realizes the ludic proposal of the original work and goes along with it. One of the consequences of the “estrangement effect” mentioned earlier, is that it puts the burden of interpretation on the public and, thus, breaks authorial authority over the work itself. Itoi addresses this idea of the relinquishing his authority over his own work when he says: “It looks like all my friends from around the world have discovered the theme to the game as they were playing — even though I didn’t think I gave it one”. In the same text he refers to Earthbound as a “playground”, and encourages the idea that his series is meant to be a thing to be played with. Another comparison with literature can be traced in works like Hopscotch, where the author encourages the reader to read the novel on any order they want.
The Halloween Hack takes a shift in tone, though. Horror is no stranger to Itoi’s work either. “It might not be something game creators these days go for, but more than anything I have this strong desire to make people feel distraught. I want to give them laughter and joy too, of course, but I’ve (sic) always filled with the desire to make people feel ever-so slightly heartbroken.” As such, the hack works as a commentary on the original work, taking something that Fox found in Itoi’s original game and expanding it beyond its surface. Fox’s version of the story of Dr. Andonuts contains chilling scenes of him performing surgery on the body of his son’s and friends’ body, their distant relationship, the absence of his wife, and these scenes are presented with chilling precision. It sometimes replays scenes from the original game, but adding the unspoken thoughts of the character, as to explore some implicit aspects of the original work.
But with this change of perspective comes a change of style. I like MatPat’s dramatic reading of the text within the game; he makes an effort to highlight when a more “wacky” conversation is going on and when the game takes a more serious and emotional shift. And, while using someone’s reenactment may seem a little bit prescriptive, it is at least evidence that there is dramatic nuisance to be had within the game. And this is noticeable in the way that Toby Fox constructs his phrases, too. Since there is no technical restriction in the use of symbols, as it was with the original Earthbound, the use of language tends to be a little more colourful.
Now, there’s something that we must understand before I go on, and it’s directly related to how style is conveyed in video game writing, and probably an approach about how it can be better understood. I’m going to tackle a subject that requires investigation (real investigation), and I’m going to tackle a very small aspect of that subject. To be more precise, I’m going to talk about how the technological restrictions that were instrumental to the development of console Japanese RPGs have created a particular poetic unique to their limitations. In classical RPGs, dialogue is conveyed only through text boxes, that can only handle just so many words (about 25 for Chrono Trigger, 19 for Final Fantasy VI, 22 for Final Fantasy VII, 20 for Xenogears, 20 for Alundra, 23 for Breath of Fire II). They’re are usually on screen until the player presses the button to go forward with the conversation, and then it’s only accessible by triggering the whole event that prompted the text in the first place all over again. These two factors constrained narrative and reading to a certain rhythm, that’s hard to explain but almost obligatory under these conditions. Under these circumstances, the resources available to create nuisance within writing had to work directly with its limitations. The dialogue box became a sort of semantic unit, not unlike how the stanza works in poetry. But, unlike the stanza, the reader can’t come back to it later. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. This also gives it a certain linking aspect of performance, where the reader can’t come back to a line when it’s gone. Through this restrictions, we can identify some common stylistic resources: the use of longer and shorter dialogue boxes to convey rhythm, repetition to reassure cohesiveness, structural parallels between comparative sentences able to be expressed in just one or two text boxes to create contrast, use of interjections at the beginning or ending of dialogue boxes to convey intention, etc. That’s why I will quote these texts using markers to signpost where player input is needed to advance through text.
Back to our subject. In the hack, Toby Fox uses the “zany” style inherited from Shigesato Itoi, for most of the time. The game, on the other hand, is subject to longer monologues that reject the estrangement effect in favour of reducing the distance between player and material by appealing to emotion. For example, this is the monologue in which Dr. Andonuts describes how he sent the party of heroes from Earthbound back in time, as told from his perspective:
“When the Phase Distorter was finally completed, I was completely ecstatic./This was going to be me./I would have done something helpful./Something immensely helpful./I would finally be able to prove my worth to the world… to my son…/To… my wife./… yes, I was excited beyond belief./But I was also very scared./Nobody had attempted time travel before./There were things nobody could have foreseen./… I ran into a horrifying realization as I went over the final plans…/Lifeforms are demolished in the time-travel process./I would have to…/…I would…/I had to turn my son into a robot./I had to turn his friends into robots./…/…There was something chilling about opening them with a scalpel/They have the same flesh and bones as me./They have the same blood, the same heart…/You know…/…I’m not even a real doctor./Just… somehow I managed to finish operating on them./Then they stepped into the Phase Distorter./Their will to save the world was absolute./They were going to fight the greatest evil./For some reason they were less afraid than I was./At the time I didn’t know why I was so scared./Now I know why./That machine was a death trap.”
Notice how the first sentence starts with a relative clause, longer than the rest of the sentence. This creates the effect of a monumental task (“When the Phase Distorter was finally completed”) contrasted with the subjective experience of the task by a being that considers himself smaller. This doesn’t hold that much significance, I just want to warn you to expect this nuisance. The text itself vacillates between recounting the actions that happened and the inner thoughts of Dr. Andonuts at the moment, with different dialogue lines referring to this different aspects. Through the use of repetition, shorter lines, a lot of nuisance is conveyed about the character. We can see that Dr. Andonuts has conflicted feelings about the event. On the one hand, he expresses pride and regret, he turns this moment on one of great victory but ultimate defeat. There is hesitance transpiring through the use of ellipsis and dialogue broken into different lines. A sense of emotional stunning is fabricated in the relationship between the tale of what happened (the machine is complete, the children must be butchered to be made into robots, the kids step into the machine) and the subjective experiences of Dr. Andonuts (“This was going to be me”, “I’m not even a real doctor”, “At the time I didn’t know why I was so scared”). It’s not that the monologue is particularly good or bad, your mileage may vary on that one, but it’s undeniable that there is a certain art to how it is constructed, a certain knowledge of how language interacts with its elements put to practice. And it is a deviation from the norm that encapsulates the difference between the original work and fan realized subversion: while the Mother series pushes the player out of immersion in order to give the player power about details and meanings within the story, the hack draws the player in to explore the psychological complexity of one of its characters.
To end this up, I would like to say that the hack does take things a step further. There are times in the game when the writing embraces resources of modern poetry, like avoiding capitalization and punctuation marks, mostly to convey psychological imbalance and weakness: “look at my giant, ugly body/isn’t this punishment enough/why/why do you have to hunt me down/please go away”.
Toby… if you ever read this, I’m really sorry to have brought up again this hack you did when you were 16.
Undertale: a narrative mechanic
So, we finally arrive to Undertale, the 2015 indie darling. I’m not going to waste your time singing the praises of this games because many people has done it better than me. If you want that, you can literally find it everywhere. Like, everywhere. I’m going to talk, though, about the game a little bit.
The first thing you will notice about its combat system, is that it is a party of a single character, and the game encourages you to gain no XP through combat, rather finding peaceful resolutions. This means that no attacks can be directly lethal, and that the player always has to have a fighting chance, since they cannot improve their stats through combat. Toby Fox addresses this issue by making the defensive stage of the fight the center of it. Gameplay is, thus, more focused in avoiding damage than in inflicting it. There are, though, two offensive strategies offered to the player. The first one is a traditional attack, attached to a timing mini-game. This way of confronting enemies is purposely repetitive, in order to encourage the player to use the other option. This option is referred as “Act”. Upon selecting it, it asks us to target an enemy and, after that, we’re offered enemy specific-actions, like hugging, laughing, un-hugging, teasing, petting, etc.
In the Halloween Hack, Toby had played with the idea of using status-inducing attacks as a core element to make the battles more interesting. Different kinds of enemies would be weak to certain status-effects, making combat in this difficult hack easier. With the “Act” command, he goes all the way. Choosing an action from the action menu is not only a matter of trial and error, but rather a reaction to an assessment of the situation. To understand how the enemy will react to a certain action, one must read into their designs, into what they’re saying, into their attack patterns. One must recognize every enemy in the game as a character, with its own story, needs, wants, struggles. There is this Snowdrake in the Snowdin forest, who has to keep a tough appearance and probably was chastised by his father when he told him that he wanted to become a comedian, and who only needs a little bit of encouragement. There’s also these guards, who have been defending their station since god-knows-when, and who have feelings for each other but, thus far, haven’t been able to confess. And every enemy has this kind of narrative treatment, where the best approach is to try to figure it out as a character instead of attacking it. There’s a certain element of puzzle, in the point-and-click vein, where connecting the dots between the elements with meaning, like dialogue, art, behaviour and options, and braving an interpretation is what yields the most satisfactory results. This is an element of classic point-and-click puzzles that has been also its threshold for immersion, the joy of seeing how the different elements of the world interact with each other, against the level of abstraction required to see the connection. And the limited amount of options never drags the encounters to the point of exhaustion, which avoids a frustration that would result in a less immersive experience.
The language also returns to a simpler expression. There is a decision to lavish down the language in exchange for poignancy and subtly. There’s a sequence of jokes in the battle with Papyrus if you keep flirting with him, in which he dabs different elements behind his ears, preparing for a date. It goes from Bone Cologne to MTT-Brand Beauty Yogurt, in an identical grammatical structure, only to end with a punchline where “Papyrus realizes he doesn’t have ears”. The use of humour reveals the absurdity of the whole scene, and to take effect it has to be told, not shown. There’s a certain art applied to lead the player through different emotions through its use of language, that spirals from the comical to the tragical. You can tell Asgore how many times he has killed you before, to which he reacts by nodding “sadly”, “grievously”, “pitifully”. The structure of the sentence contrasts, like the one we analyzed when talking about the Halloween Hack, something huge (“You tell ASGORE that he’s killed you too many times to count”) with something small (“He nods pitifully”), pushing the player to feel pity towards him. Asgore is a defeated man. By now, we know he lost both of his sons, and his wife. We know that he doesn’t want to kill us, endlessly. The art shows him looking down, avoiding our stare, in shame.
There are some lines and words that become sort of leitmotivs throughout the game. “But nobody came” is the one I find the most interesting. Since the phrase starts with a conjunction, it demands a context. In a Neutral Run, the phrase is used along a call for help in the final battle, to accentuate despair. But in the Genocide Run, the phrase appears again and again. Every time you enter a random fight when you have cleared all the enemies from that area, a text prompts in the battle screen telling you that. In this case, the verbal context is elided from the phrase. The phrase becomes ominous, something that at the same time has and has not a definitive meaning, a meaning that, by being excluded from language, extends itself across blurry borders. It is a powerful micro-narrative, that works on the same principles than Augusto Monterroso’s now classic “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there”. But it can also be used to express triumph. In the True Pacifist run, the phrase that appears after the heart that represents our soul is broken, is “but it refused”. Here, too, the phrase is not preceded by a verbal context, even though in this case the context required is much more clear.
Toby Fox has a clear understanding of the video game language, particularly that of console JRPGs. It is not really difficult to understand why it was its year’s indie darling. It managed to use all of its elements to interact with each other. Art is an essential part of its narrative, narrative is an essential part of its gameplay, gameplay is essential to its meaning. These elements, that are often presented as exclusionary, merged not by attempting to make them invisible, but by making them connect without concealing their differences. And, most importantly, it connected with people. In the end, Undertale is a game about understanding its characters, about becoming fond of them because of their quirks, because of all the self-consciousness it has about itself, its medium and its tropes.
We can see how the style deviated from the norm presented by Itoi in the Mother series. We can see how it took humour to create estrangement, in order to increase sympathy. It is in the way in which battle messages are handled, and how NPCs dialogues are constructed. But, in the end, Undertale will be remembered for what it did different rather than for what stayed the same. And, in that sense, Undertale, just like the Mother series, will remain relevant for a long, long time.
Isolating an element, such as the literary aspect, of a Video Game can yield powerful results to understand it, but it cannot be divorced from the rest of its elements. The way Language interacts with the works is pivotal to unraveling them. There is certain merit in taking elements from poetry analysis to understand a medium that, from its own inception, used poetic resources to overcome technical limitations. We can better understand the relationship between literature and videogames by focusing on what one takes from the other in the way the both construct meaning, rather than pointing out influences between works, but it’s still important to acknowledge this history in order to understand how this dialogue between the two arts work.
I hope you have enjoyed this. I apologize if here and there my English is not top-notch, but it is not my native language and I still need to figure out some way to have them proofread.