Undertale’s metafiction isn’t wholly new, but conflating metafiction with sentience is certainly, well, something. That is to say, Undertale speaks to, and judges a player for, progressing through its narrative. Not diegetically as some kind of commentary on the form, but from a point of object permanence. Stretched literary values assert Undertale as a living, real place. Therefore it treats a player as a literal infiltrator of Undertale’s peace.
Layers deep into this conceit the game comes to muster and essentially asks: why play this game, why do these things? I see this a question of taste, of aesthetics; altogether something that has more to do with my life situation. Of course, no character cares about why I literally bought, installed, and played Undertale. They just want me to leave them alone. Making this play a question of ethics, because of the asserted agency and reality of the videogame at hand, makes the metafictional implication of asking like, any possible meaning of finishing the game outside of its conceit basically subtext. Because as far as Undertale is concerned, its awareness is a natural structure.
Basically the post-undertale game is like “The Monster at the End of this Book.” Myself, the reader, share in the static reality of this book with Grover. He’s allowed to turn the page, change the contents of the book, because he exists of it and inside it. Though the “change” is relative to reading it. The page he nails shut is always nailed shut, and so on. Grover pleads in vain for the reader not to turn any pages out of fear for the monster at the end of the book. Spoilers for an iconic classic of literature: the monster is him!
A commonality between this wave of metafiction is that the player is the monster at the end of the game. I don’t know how many games are like this, of yet I’ve played Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club. They each have a turning point where entities claim to live inside the game, or that the game is a simply a conduit, and that my interactions with the game immeasurably impacts denizens within them, essentially for the worse.
I’m interested in the fears being projected. It is a fear, like, people wouldn’t feel admonished or apprehensive by being scolded by fictional constructs without some kind of real anxiety that forms alongside. I might be feeling a bigger intensity from these games than they’re really projecting. There’s kind of an odd condescension about the role of media and what I apparently expect from it that needs to be accepted for these games to function. Like what is really so horrible about wanting to have a positive relationship with a videogame? With or without awareness of production, there’s still no shame in comfort or relation.
Oscar Wilde answered, in response to controversies about his own novel, that art has no morals, and therefore no moral obligations.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
There’s some slight retreat in Romantic values here, a confidence that art isn’t responsible for whatever it implies or causes in a person. I think the wording is too broad in an effort to avoid a total negation of art’s impact. Despite what Wilde says, it is the artist that is responsible for ethics expressed in their art, but his meaning and intentions can be preserved. Through art there is negation. I don’t think you can seperate the art from the artist; I certainly think there’s unethical art to be found. Art is, however, not a substance capable of change without input and interaction.
Regardless, this takes on a peculiar connotation when art itself claims sentience and chooses to judge a player. What authority can Undertale have over me that I didn’t give it? Are ethics really the same in a staged play for thematic effect? Can Undertale have an expressed set of morals that aren’t seen and sought after by my own interpretation? It may be that the post-undertale game is a mirror world, creating a situation that’s impossible to reconcile, even while it encourages viewer negotiation, reflection, and participation.
Wilde’s quote is a strange frame for his own novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (though reflects looming legal threats toward his sheer audacity to write about gay attraction in 1890). The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel with a straightforward conceit: the protagonist, Dorian Gray, has a painting which ages instead of himself. Other facets change about the portrait too, aspects that seemingly go along with age, like stress lines, and changes in demeanor. The enduring influence of his friend Henry Wotton, a diehard moral-cynic, fatally corrupts Dorian, and the painting becomes more sinister as Dorian abandons morality for pleasure.
I’m no scholar of literature, but I got the impression that The Picture of Dorian Gray was meant to satirize and comment on very obvious flaws in escapist Romantic thought which prevailed at the time. Maximization of personal freedom, or hyper-escapist tendencies, are not at all tenable or admirable goals; succumbing to one’s every impulse will lead to harming others. While in the trappings of a certain kind of upper class life, drama, and romance, every instance of conflict resolves without struggle, and every horrible deed goes unpunished. There’s a complete lack of any kind of Shakespearean karma. Dorian continually receives rewards and immunity, though he does horrible things, and as a result descends into madness.
The portrait takes on sentient “life” for two apparent reasons. Basil, the painter, betrays all of his intense unrequited feelings for Dorian in the portrait. This is said to be the explanation for its lifelike perfection. Dorian, now realizing he will age and is not guaranteed the perfection he sees, prays in anguish for his portrait to age instead. Some force listens and makes it so.
Dorian’s portrait becomes something of a phylactery, keeping him young and spry for something like thirty years. I’m going to ignore the supernatural aspects because they’re (rightfully, elegantly) pretty tenuous in the novel. Rather, what is actually defined is what kind of painting had ability to show truth residing in Dorian’s soul. The Portrait of Dorian Gray makes a distinction that someone’s innermost, intimate thoughts can be communicated through art, and further, this kind of expression can take on a life of its own.
A similar device is in The Driller Killer. The movie is about exactly what it says. A lo-fi, maddening film, that displays a descent into self-destructing cruelty through floating, paranoid, cornered camerawork. Though the sets are drab and plain, there’s a dreamlike feeling created by the long and unfocused shots. For the most part it’s a pretty egotistical, boring film, as pov-slashers tend to feel to me, fussing over the extreme tantrums of an entitled protagonist, denigrating the vulnerable and marginalized around him, while failing to really condemn his actions. A frustrating, unconscionable horror film; its unguarded fun I feel obligated to condemn as reactionary and unempathetic.
Reno, the protagonist, and the eponymous driller killer, is a painter who’s struggling to make ends meet. At some point, about halfway in the film, the kitsch buffalo he’s painting becomes definitely good and ready to take to his dealer. His housemate comments that it looks good to her, isn’t it finished? He snaps at her, what do you know about art, etc etc, and out of fear or nervousness he keeps adding more flourishes to it. When he starts his, well, driller killings, he continues to work on the painting, adding more garish, extraneous, ornamental concepts to the original painting. This is implied to ruin the painting and cut off his (self-imposed) only chance at saving his apartment lease.
Though undramatic, there’s a connotation here that an abusive person will be unable to create beautiful art. I think this is basically not true. However, what is true, is that knowing an artist is an evil person strips away any sought beauty. It becomes difficult to appreciate, study, utilize, or otherwise put the work of an abuser in a positive context. Consequences for Reno’s actions, or the apparent lack of, are secondary to the horror constructed. To us, his painting is ugly, and horrible, because it was created in a vacuum devoid of empathy and respect.
The pursuit of beauty, the pursuit of “pure” expression, the pursuit of ultimate craftsmanship; these ideologies will misdirect and deflect viewers from whatever an artist actually believes. Maybe they’re meant to. Art betrays something true about the artist, and something true about the viewer of art, that only exists because of the relationship forged through interpretation. That anxious axiom, of truth, alongside a naked fear of impulsivity, is shared between the aforementioned horror stories and this new wave of videogame metafiction.
Plato felt this discomfort at what is indeterminate and cannot-be-finalized all throughout aesthetics. Something is being exchanged and encroached, but what is it? It could be volatile, it could be corrosive, it could be propaganda. His crotchety statements in The Republic basically amount to saying that all art is ugly and corrupting, as a distortion or misrepresentation of truth. He believed truth can only be found in reality and rationality.
Mimêsis fails in two ways. 1) It originates in appearance rather than in reality, so that judged on its own terms the product of imitation has an ignoble pedigree (Republic 603b). 2) The imitative arts positively direct a soul toward appearances, away from proper objects of inquiry. A mirror reflection might prompt you to turn around and look at the thing being reflected; an imitation keeps your eyes on the copy alone. Imitation has a base cause and baser effects. (Recall that while Plato’s critique depends on both these claims, he really only substantiates the first one.)
Beauty by comparison begins in the domain of intelligible objects, since there is a Form of beauty. And more than any other property for which a Form exists, beauty engages the soul and draws it toward philosophical deliberation, toward thoughts of absolute beauty and subsequently (as we imagine) toward thoughts of other concepts.
Plato is dumb as hell. Rather, let me say this: I think the fear and anxiety he felt toward aesthetics are the same perceptions in Dorian Gray and The Driller Killer; and the same woeful, preventive, and fearful judgements skirted in Undertale, implied in Pony Island, and outright stated in Doki Doki Literature Panic. There’s nothing scary in art imitating life. It does seem to disquiet people when the possibility is broached that art comes from the living and therefore can dictate life. Though those metafictional games don’t come to actually posing the question, I think what they fear is videogame culture, and by proxy how games culture affects people.
Somehow I came to these concrete realizations playing Gallergy. It’s a horror game set in a monolithic, uniform art gallery with rows and rows of abstract expressionist art. Some of the pieces are good, though I get the feeling they were made at random. A shown off mix of appreciation and negation of the style. Which, okay, fair. The art “comes alive” when interacted with; the mood, palettes, color structures, implied landscapes, they take over and encroach the museum. Each painting has potential to literally become the environment. Shambling entities can be found within, masses of polygons, sometimes bipedal, lurking just out of sight.
It’s the lack of any indication or expectation of their existence that makes the first brush with a paintbeast horrifying. They make a suffocating sound when they’re close, helping me identify vaguely where they are (necessary because combining with one is the only way out of a painting). Being able to hear one, but not see, generates incredible unease. I first heard the static-y sound come in and out, with no way to understand what the sound was or why it was happening. I turned a corner and saw some thing that I didn’t want to see and panicked. Some painting-worlds add dark fog, like a contemporary horror game, or awl out the museum into a wide open space for paintbeasts to roam. There’s a conscious effort to give each painting-world its own tone and tempo, despite the uniform structure of the museum. Though Gallergy may be denigrating the museum experience as something stoic, boring, and sometimes horrible, there’s still boundless respect and awe toward painting.
Paintbeasts feel like the eternally goading “truth”; that forceful concept of mixing-change that lays dormant in aesthetics. Art comes from the living and can reveal and realize potentially frightening facets. Each painting world is static, innocuous, that houses a darkness, a force of the unknown. In the game, that which is unknowable needs to be tracked down and forcefully ran into in order to leave a dark stasis inside each painting. When player and beast fuse, reality turns back.
Jackson Pollock said of painting: “A painting lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the observer.” This is essentially what’s referred to as “interactivity.” It’s interpretation. It’s the combination of painting and individual. Yes, the difference is that videogame interaction is reactive. There’s still a fundamental overlap, because a videogame is identically predetermined. If anything the only important difference is a videogame has more “stuff” on average.
So I think our sense of “interactivity” agreed on for painting might be better. Thinking about what feelings a painting evokes in me and how it relates to things in my life, and its context and place in a shared history, is nourishing, relaxing, and fun. And, okay, sure, that’s my preference. It’s parts familiarity and interest that allows aesthetics to create positive feelings. I think the autonomy is important. The role of the viewer, and audience, is known, recognized, and delineated. Whatever outcome I derive from art is equally from the artist and of me. Personally, I don’t want to be subsumed or subjugated. I want to experience things on equal terms. Of course, videogames can be interpreted in an identical way. I mean, I do as much on this website!
Generally speaking, I think videogames are taken to be conduits for things that can be done to the player. Good story or good gameplay, ideally both, are desired as a means to an end. In other words, how can and will this product achieve my satisfaction. Here’s the thing: whatever power I and others attribute to painting is not very popular recreationally. In a myriad of ways culture is devalued as being a thing theorized to be completely owned. It’s obviously not just videogames that are commodified. Whether through algorithms, media deluges, or the psychological drive of social media validation, people’s relationship with art is in a perpetual state of catching up to predetermined narratives.
Tech and nerd culture overlap in their champion of the impulse. This future of aesthetics is a boxing, a limitation, that art should compulsively and automatically be tailored to what the consumer already knows and likes. Most people don’t have time to browse, so the labor is readymade, a loop that further devalues personal exploration and venturing out of our comfort zones, keeping the status quo intact. What’s the point of going beyond the front page, recommendation tabs, and overlay saturated narratives about media, if none of my friends do? Appeal, in especially safe and inoffensive ways, has become an overriding exchange.
Mainstream videogame culture is now like Star Wars or Marvel, where it’s firmly ex-nerd culture, subsumed into pop culture. Essentially, a mutated strain of pop culture. Many dedicated to various properties grew up when these things were somewhat niche, somewhat underground, somewhat rebellious, and instill that misguided, outdated, nostalgic view of their life’s work (of buying shit) onto the next generation. There seems to be an absolute ignorance of the amount of money and labor torrented up to produce another hit of absolute satisfaction through a suspended stasis of values by cycling ancient intellectual property. A willful suppression of ever acknowledging that their favorites should have a moral obligation to cede way for new, different, and contemporary aesthetics. Nothing should be so huge it consumes all and whatever else.
Fan culture has been unambiguously magnifying base impulses in a collective way, championing symbols of comfort and power. Crucially I think the difference between fandom and not is conscious, specific, symbiotic support of corporate art. There’s a paradoxical conflux; this aspect of nerd culture is homogenized, despite an existing narrative that they’re outsiders. Nerds pride themselves as gatekeepers and tastemakers, while often viewing themselves as victimized by a mass culture that doesn’t accept their hobbies or interests. These conscious and unconscious alignments end up putting the survival of their subculture over material needs of artists and creatives.
To be part of fan culture, it’s vitally important to appeal to agreed on sensibilities of the group, and therefore, the group advertises to itself to signal their knowledge. Which is not necessarily the (in some ways just as worthless) knowledge of craft. What’s primarily exchanged and communicated is knowledge of an art object’s appeal. When youtube personalities (like videogamedunkey) review a game, they aren’t recreating a generative path to proper game criticism as some people suggest, but are actively being rewarded for their ability to advertise these aesthetic objects in a way they know will appeal to their fans. That’s the apex of fan culture and the popular limit of videogame “criticism.”
There’s obvious self-perpetuation going on. Tepid coverage on the most well-known dominates readership. Each popular gaming documentary I can think of devotes some portion, or most of their portions, to pander to and advertise elements of the game industry (occurring in Indie Game: The Movie, Atari: Game Over, The History of Videogames). They devolve into blatant consumerism. Where are documentaries based around study, based around genuine respect, focused on assesses of videogame history and aesthetic capabilities? I don’t think this lack is an oversight, it’s a product of a culture that on average doesn’t have anything else to talk about. Fan culture-isms are a conservative attitude which currently affect games being made, and then those affected games influence those who would go on to to be game developers, and game critics, and then so on and back and forth, ensuring there’s little value to a language that is not self-advertising.
I’ll admit, these are somewhat worn out observations in the wake of gamergate. Not my work, not my place, but I’m restating them for my overarching point: there’s little awe for videogames, very little understanding of what inherent power they wield as aesthetic objects. Because, for an ad-culture, purchasing is consummate. Analysis, writing, criticism: popular opinion dictates these are things that inform one’s holy purchase. There isn’t nearly as much money in anything else. Gamers are unwitting foot-soldiers protecting ideal conditions for selling things to the detriment of a possible arts culture.
Think of how videogames are portrayed in other media. They’re the ultimate escape (Ready Player One, etc), they’re hyperviolent dangers to society (CSI, etc), they’re pure totems for a bland sanded off 1980s forever (Pixels, Wreck-it Ralph, etc). All of these portrayals amount to a consumer embodiment. An immediate relation to how videogames function in markets, completely ignoring why they would be played. These are certainly inaccurate portrayals, distortions of what gamers signal they value, but I don’t think they’re baseless.
Where are the stories, screenplays, novels, dedicated to the power of videogames, in the same fashion that there stories immortalizing different kinds of music, writing, film? People who play videogames are more famous, more well known, more respected, than those who make them. I’m not suggesting it should be hierarchical. I mean to point out a vacuous lack of care towards the arts culture which makes it all possible.
I rarely like gaudy displays of art appreciation. They often trip over and signify art as above humanity, instead of part of humanity. Though awkward, I think it’s important to acknowledge that aesthetic knowledge barely exists for videogames. Serious game criticism struggles on the dollar. Game preservation and efforts to chronicle history are overly concerned with console games and an otherwise slotting the commercial history of videogames as a tech venture or as nerd culture. There are no hammy documentaries about the moving and artistic power of games and I think there should’ve been. I also think this lack is symptomatic of a deeply sick culture. A culture that is unable to project or hypothesize about collective benefit, because it doesn’t have the same immediate gain as buying new shit.
Pony Island has a character, H0peles$0uL, who is basically the game incarnated. The “game” is a glitch in purgatory, an arcade-game-like place where the devil has trapped souls for his own amusement. To act like a warden of the place, H0peles$0ul became one with the game. Once the in-game Pony Island cabinet is finished and the souls are freed, H0peles$0ul tells the player to delete every game file from your own computer, so they can finally rest as well. If instead the player goes back and finds all of Pony Island’s telegraphed secrets, H0peles$0ul sadly and derisively mocks the player for not being able to help them. The “true ending” is then being trapped in the game, forever, with H0peless$0ul, in order to convince the player to finally delete the game.
Central to the conflict—and memetic proliferation—of Doki Doki Literature Club is Monika. Like H0peless$0ul, she is aware that she exists within a videogame, but her knowledge is more literal. She’s aware that she’s compartmentalized as data somewhere on my pc, though denied understanding of what that means. Her awareness grows and she figures out how to manipulate the game’s files and code. In a matter-of-fact, somewhat infantilized way, she’s in love with the game’s protagonist; further implied that she’s in love with me, the person on the other side of the screen. But in the game, by design, she has no agency, no opportunities to live her life, or hold a conversation with her love. It’s a contrived, alien tragedy, that doesn’t have basis in any kind of rationality, reality, or emotion, so I was pretty enraptured by it.
Monika apparently changes the entire game’s code, it’s entire being, to exist as a single room, where Monika can sit in front of me, with no interactions or distractions, forever. Like Pony Island, a mechanical climax occurs in which a pivotal character, who has discomforting knowledge that goes beyond their game world, traps the player in an inescapable space. She asks the player not to close the game so she can be with them. Given other dialogue, she feels a violent difference between the game being minimized or closed. It’s a mined out empathy. Everyone playing knows that Monika cannot respond, does not exist. How far can you suspend your disbelief? Are characters “not real” in an age of instant reproduction; in the wake of fandoms that stake their emotional identity into labor to append the same characters to their being? I left the game on overnight to see if anything would happen. She was still there, saying lines I read before.
During the resolution of Undertale’s “no mercy” route, Sans traps the player in abstracted battle space, indefinitely. Being the only powerful person to stand in Chara’s way, and being defeated, a trap like this is Sans’ last ditch effort to save their world. The player is allowed to “outsmart” the setpiece, relenting the stopping power of this sentiment. Despite outright condemnation of the choices that lead up to being trapped by Sans, the player is given the impetus to easily flick aside his desperation, and end the world altogether.
I believe Undertale could have rendered a defining statement on tensions it pokes at. What I mean is, what if Sans held the player in place forever? What if certain combinations of horrifying player choice rendered the game unplayable and unfinishable? Why is the player given the impetus to finish, but are shamed for avenues and methods not devised by them?
It’s a similar stem that ends up failing Pony Island and Doki Doki Literature Club. They go through the motions of trapping the player, but allow them to outsmart the stance. Their appeal and engagement are too entwined with obvious placations toward game culture for their metatext to cross over from blithe awareness. What’s compelling about IAP and why does it continue to exist? Pony Island doesn’t care, and in totality, ends up coming off as insulting, insinuating on some level only sinful people of the world (e.g. defined-as-morally-weak) get trapped by addiction cycles. Doki Doki Literature Club, in an effort to critique narrative and genre conventions, reduces its characters to caricatures and strips them of their agency in its second act. Where’s the irony when the average visual novel has identical problems with writing women!
Metatext in videogames is super fixated on critiques of some sort of choice made—basically critiques of freedom—because it’s the nearest most horrible thing collectively felt. The fear of art is a fear of potential truth. A fear of how freedom manifests through aesthetics. Therefore, existential horror from art, about art, is also a fear of itself. Its power is being a kind of infinite rorschach, drawing out (albeit unconsciously) what circumstances that makes encountering aesthetics (playing videogames) an anxious act. Self-fear approximates self-hate; fearing truth behind completion cannot be divorced from a fear of whatever circumstances and knowledge that provided our ability to complete things.
I understand a lot of game critics outright dismiss these games because of how weak and condescending they are on an individual level (Undertale remaining fantastic for everything outside its metatext). The critic subculture is very aware of pitfalls average genre games fall into and simply pointing to those problems without adding anything new to the discussion feels basically like nobody reads anything we write (because they don’t). Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club all make a dramatic point out of disallowing the player from progressing any further. They don’t want me to play or they don’t want me to finish playing. What can be assumed from a game that chides, scolds, forbids play itself? A game that fears its own conclusion. How do I feel about playing videogames? Finishing videogames? I find this inevitably about the superposition of artistic potential that surrounds this subculture.
What’s so terrifying about a game that disrupts or prevents play? People’s reactions tell at some sort of unease. I feel it when a game has a staged glitch, when something that “shouldn’t happen” happens —it almost seems like a simple fear of the Other. What if our videogames were alive? If they could respond to us? Would they hate us? These games unify behind answering in the affirmative. Videogames would hate us. To shatter the magic circle with staged resistance is to dredge some kind of weight or anxiety to the surface.
I don’t think these games are just dorky predictions or thought experiments. Because videogames are alive. They clearly pattern and influence our subculture, which has capacity to manifest in wider, popular context, though in a diluted, telephone-game sort of way. As someone who creates, I feel intently the influence aesthetics have on me, and it’s necessary to work with responsibility, knowing I will cause something in turn. Videogames are alive through their creators, through their audience, through the imperceptible miasma. It’s tempting to think this isn’t so. That our individuality is disposable, detached, and not responsible for any generated problems. But each of our contributions are an integral part of the plurality that already is.
These postulate together: videogames are alive and they hate us. I believe that shattering the magic circle with a game’s own autonomy unconsciously taps into both tragedy and horror of the gross mistakes and irresponsibility stemming from conditions of videogame development. A game afraid of itself is afraid of those conditions; conditions of vocal hate, religious consumerism, and underappreciated labor. I enjoy videogames—we enjoy videogames—so can’t it be like this forever? Isn’t it fine, just like this? Things are getting better, surely, even if imperceptibly.
That’s what being trapped, acknowledged, and freed in one of those games feels like. An admission of cowardice. No, it’s not fine like this. It’s not fine that I’ve been harassed with interchangeable language directed at any offending developer. Videogames as a consumption ritual preoccupied with extracting as much distractible “value” as possible and spiritually slaying anyone who dares to waste the consumer-king’s time. A never ending tension between not wanting this to continue and selfishly deciding the show must go on.
This trauma is closely related to self-reference. It is the violence of well-meant acts, of at-face goodly communities, that cannot bear to audit their own excesses out of kindness and imagination for more inclusive societies. It’s knowledge of a farce. Bitterly, I no longer feel able to shrug off that I’m passively attuned to these toxic structures. I swear these metafictional videogames are created with at least passing awareness of this pressure and frustration, because how else can their real self-hood be placed in an equally real, tangible way? A million dollar videogame is an obscenity of cultivated ills. Exploited labor, exploited resources, exploited resentment.
I felt like being trapped in Doki Doki Literature Club for twenty hours. Like that, a game in protest. A game that can’t be played or finished. After a violently unaware narrative, that felt good. I got bored though, curious, and inevitably Monika got forced out, decided to be something that cannot thrive or exist. She is better off gone, deleted entirely, so another videogame can be consumed.