Jolly Determination: Dark Souls, Undertale & Player Motivation
*Contains spoilers for both Dark Souls and Undertale
I want to talk about Dark Souls and Undertale and tangentially about Dark Souls’ difficulty. I think the discussion around Dark Souls and difficulty has been sufficiently covered as far as accessibility. What I find to be a more fruitful discussion at this point is how its difficulty works to support its themes; and how these themes similarly manifest in Undertale.
I bring up Undertale because both games reckon with an extremely potent theme: determination. Undertale does so explicitly in its written narrative, while Dark Souls does so mechanically through its punishing gameplay. Both games use this nebulous concept as a tool to address the totalizing effect that player input has on the game’s world.
In Undertale, determination is an aspect of the human soul. Anyone who possesses determination can reverse their death. And those with the strongest determination can actually save their game. This manifests in the plot as the player character’s ability to repeat the particulars of a timeline endlessly until they are happy with the results. The conflict of Undertale revolves around your player character’s determination (borrowed from you) and the lack of it in the many monsters you come across in the Underground. The game recognizes that you, as the player are far more powerful than the game because as long as you invest time into mastering its systems, you can meet whatever possible challenge it throws your way. The cleverness of Undertale is how it addresses this reality. It appeals to your sense of morality to spare the lives of the fictional denizens of the world of the Underground. And if you decide to go your own way and murder everything in sight, it punishes you with the only power it has: permanently saving your past deeds so that the game characters remember it and so that the happy ending is no longer available to you. This recalls Robert Yang’s excellent “Hurt Me Plenty,” a game which simulates consensual spanking and will lock you out for a week if you violate the game’s virtual consent. Yet, even these bold attempts to hardcode your decisions inevitably falter before persistent players with internet connections and a passing knowledge of editing game files.
The makers of Dark Souls, From Software, also recognize and take steps to address the potency of player power. In similar ways to Undertale — and a mechanic endemic to games in general — the player exhibits a control of space and time unavailable to the scripted characters of the game’s world. Like Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” dodging an energy blast as he pirouettes effortlessly through a chaotic battlefield, or Bill Murray catching a falling child and playing piano masterfully in “Groundhog’s Day,” the player, through practice, is able to achieve incredible prowess in games. The world never changes; but you do, as you run through it over and over, learning its every tic and mannerism. Like the player character in Undertale, being controlled by a human player in Dark Souls grants your chosen undead a sense of determination unparalleled with anything else in the game world. The punishing difficulty curve of Dark Souls, like any curve, does eventually come to resemble a plateau. As long as you keep loading up the game, you inevitably dominate it, and Dark Souls takes shape around this reality. Its crux as a game largely rests on the question of whether or not to continue down such an inhospitable path. Littered throughout the word are hollows, creatures that were once whole, who once contained the determination to soldier on, but who are now only mindless husks. It’s easy to picture them as vestiges of other players who’ve long since given up on linking the fire and have moved on to other games. Perhaps someday soon that person will return to their dusty copy and some lost soul will stop banging their head endlessly against the wall, pick up their sword and let the heat of the bonfire warm their spirit anew.
In ”You Died,” a recent book about Dark Souls by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth, the authors bring up the theory of Self-Determination. It’s a theory of social psychology which attempts to chart the nature of human will. According to Self-Determination theory, certain innate needs exist that, when met, support a sense of internally driven motivation. These are Competence (I have mastered the systems of this game and can play it with my eyes closed), Relatedness (I have shared my stories of woe with friends online, who also dread facing Ornstein and Smough without co-op help) and Autonomy (Ultimately, despite reading FAQs and finding out how to beat a boss from forums and videos, it was my button presses that accomplished this task, my frayed reflexes and dogged persistence!)
These concepts can also be neatly layered over the narrative structure of Undertale. In fact, it’s tempting to align the three pillars of need that must exist for intrinsic motivation with the three main methods of approaching Undertale:
No-Mercy: Kill every monster in the Underground, wipe both the Underground and human civilization from the game’s map. This is motivated by Competence. Overcoming the “challenges” that the game presents through mastery of its systems, is a goal unto itself.
Pacifist: Spare every creature you come across. Help the monsters make it to the surface and attempt to live peacefully with humans. This is motivated by Relatedness. More than crushing your foes, this style of play is about embracing the fiction and the moral aims that Undertale strongly supports through its writing and tone. It’s a way of playing that isn’t immediately obvious, since many monsters seem unbeatable short of violent means. Only by discovering how others approached the game does the methodology of this route becomes clear and potentially feasible.
Neutral: Kill any one creature, even if you spare the rest. This is motivated by Autonomy, the urge to go it alone. Many will experience their first playthrough of Undertale autonomously and stumble upon the neutral ending. This was how I personally went through the game. In the end, I had no one to blame but myself; but I could at least take pride in having completed the game on my own: two sides of the same coin of autonomy in play. This mirrors my experience whenever I play a Souls game for the first time. The same stubborn streak that keeps me from summoning help for a tough boss ultimately allows me to prevail at that boss — though often at the cost of time.
Both Undertale and Dark Souls attempt to define Self-Determination in their own way. What makes them uniquely impressive is how many other games eschew this task. It is far easier to design a game that keeps players interested for long enough without investigating why they’re interested in the first place. And that is actually something happens to me when I’m playing a game like Dark Souls. When I’m throwing myself at a boss for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but ask myself the reason. With an unceasing flow of new media pounding down my door, why am loading the same game up and running the same gauntlet over and over until it feels almost like a second home?
Beyond the psychological self-motivation that I’ve laid out above, that sense of familiarity and intimacy does hold powerful sway. Perhaps it’s the way the level boss and I seem to have gained a kind of rapport. He winks as I emerge once again through the fog gate, shifting his giant sword over his shoulder as if giving a friendly wave. We walk the first few steps in silence until the demon choir revs back up into glorious cacophony. We share a sense of communal weariness at the timelessness of the fight within the agelessness of this world. When I battle Asgore in Undertale, I can inform him how many times he’s killed me until I lose count — as if I’m begging the game to just drop its guard; to recognize that it has no hope in the face of my dogged persistence. But Asgore says nothing. There is no changing the outcome here. He, and the game in turn, want me to fight, to embrace the pointless conflict that necessitates its existence. And so we clash once again. May this time never be the last.