Writing On The Blank Slates

So, what do I do when confronted with a semi-blank slate character?

Make up an incredibly ridiculous backstory, of course. Undertale is a good example in point, because of how deliberately vague everything in it is-given my fertile imagination. Obligatory spoiler warning despite the game having been out for quite some time now.

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The main character of the game is intended to be a blank slate. Their low-res appearance is intended to be of an ambiguous gender.

Nearly of my Frisks are girls, based solely on me thinking the sprite looked more like one. But more importantly, all of them have extant human families. The story of the one who climbed the mountain varies a lot-ranges from the child of two wealthy financiers to a struggling parent, to a crackpot “analyst”. But the one variable is that all of them are kind and loving. The worst I got was an unscrupulous and hideously ambitious “stage mom” who pushed her daughter too hard and, post-pacifist end, sees her as a way up-but who is still ultimately caring and not outright abusive.

I tend to dislike kicked-puppy backstories, and for someone like Frisk, it makes even less sense that an abused, beaten child could be as friendly and forgiving as them (to say nothing of their incredible will to live).

One of my crazier, not serious ones is Frisk as a Little Sister style test subject, the antithesis of that. One of my crazier ones is her as a descendant of a Circle Trigon fighter, but that’s just me liking that crazy taxpayer-funded Esperanto empire too much.

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Chara, the other human in the game, is a harder case. A kicked-puppy background is easier to justify for them, as they “hated humanity” and ended up committing suicide.  At first, I made Chara a boy named Charlie, but now they’re sometimes a girl with that as their proper name.

To be honest, Chara never held that high a place in the story for me. They’re long dead by the time Frisk drops into the underground, and that’s that. No genocide route and none of the increasingly twisted “narrator Chara possession” theories.

But I still wanted a backstory, and my most recent attempt at one was surprisingly large. Chara’s father was a war criminal who met a violent end, leaving his/her De’Londa Bryce-esque mother to try and preserve her lavish lifestyle on his dwindling ‘prize money’. When Chara got old enough, reading about their father’s actions and mother’s stress made something in them snap and they ran off to the mountain where it was rumored no one returned from. The rest was history.

Although, the words “war criminal” and “cutesy Earthbound homage” don’t exactly go well together. Oh well…

 

On Trying to Not Be Spoiled

I’m trying not to be spoiled by blockbusters until I finally read/watch/play them. It’s harder than it seems, but I’ve managed it on more than one occasion. I got most of the way through Undertale without being spoiled, and my experience was all the better for it.

Though I have to admit there’s little middle ground with games for me. It’s either a bumbling blind playthrough or a robotic walkthrough.

Another one where I wasn’t spoiled before experiencing it was the name of the traitor in Payday 2′ Hoxton Revenge. Then again, I only had a <30 minute mission to sit through, not a long, detailed game.

A Journey Through Ambiguity

Ok, I’ve been on a kick regarding nightmarishly ambiguous fiction. I don’t know why, but that’s what I’ve been on.

Sometimes, an ambiguous work of fiction is best left ambiguous. There’s a quote from an author (it might have been Tolkien, although given his love of detail, it doesn’t sound like him) that I vaguely remember as being how a landscape often looks more beautiful from far away.

Sometimes it can work, and sometimes it doesn’t.

 

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR YUME NIKKI, THE HOTLINE MIAMI GAMES, UNDERTALE, OFF, AND MONKEY ISLAND

 

 

 

 

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On one extreme, you have an old horror/adventure game called Yume Nikki (lit. “Dream Diary”). The game has essentially no plot beyond “a young woman who won’t leave her home has creepy nightmares, collects twenty-four ‘effects’, and then throws herself off a balcony.”

The speculation gap was filled because of that, with countless interpretations of the strange characters, the history of the protagonist Madotsuki, and even the seemingly straightforward suicide ending.

The alternative approach to the ending intrigues me. I honestly think it’s more than just trying to shove a happy ending into a game that obviously isn’t a happy one in the slightest.

What the alternate theory amounts to is that even the ‘real’ world is a dream by itself, that Madotsuki is confined/trapped there (somehow), and that the suicide is only killing her “dream” self and waking up. There are countless pieces of “evidence” for this (many of which are things that could be explained ‘out of character’ as game engine limitations), but I think an appeal is that it gives the game a story more adaptable to a conventional narrative, and consider it telling that the manga adaptation went (mostly) with said theory.

Then there are the other popular interpretations of Madotsuki, one depicting her as a psychotic fugitive (one of the effects is a knife, and the player can use it)…

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Rather than go even farther down the dream-rabbit hole that is Yume Nikki speculation[1], I’ll turn to another dark, bloody minimalist game-which did everything that I warned it shouldn’t do.

That game was Hotline Miami-the original. The original was a simple, confusing, game. The sequel explained everything. And not in a good way. Any sort of hideous speculation is gone, and in its place is just a nonsensical storyline of the USSR invading Hawaii, turning the US into a puppet state, “resistance” fighters with animal masks taking on mobsters, and everything being nuked at the end.

Behind the curtain was a clotheless emperor holding nothing but shock value. The questions and fog surrounding Jacket were gone, replaced by a entire leading cast.

(A part of me thinks that the entire game was just angry trolling by the developers. With a strong suspicion that their hearts weren’t in it and that they didn’t want to make a sequel at all, the reveal is just a “look-here it is-nothing but (insert expletive here)” moment. This may just be me being too cynical for my own good.)

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With Hotline Miami being a perfect example of how not to maintain good ambiguity, an example of one that is “straightfoward” yet incredibly surreal is OFF (of which an excellent Let’s Play can be found here). The very setting gives rise to a lot of fan theories, and also does the more famous Undertale[2], where we know the Underground but little beyond it.

Even the more “non-surreal” Payday has its own mystery moment-the strange Dentist’s Loot[3], which is a heavy case with the infamous eye-pyramid, that is never talked about in any detail. What it is, and why it ended up in a casino vault is deliberately unclear.

 

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I’ll conclude this rambling by talking about what I think is an example of something that became ambiguous when it wasn’t meant to be. Yes, I’m talking about the Monkey Island II ending. I said people were overthinking it-call me a hypocrite.

There’s obviously no way of telling for sure, but I have a suspicion that the ending was the result of muddled changes. My guess is this: The writers use the ‘it was just a kid’s fantasy in a theme park’ ending they’d originally wanted to use in the original. But it doesn’t work in a long-installment setting the way it would in a standalone game. So, spurred by either by LucasArts’ hand or their own, they change it to the “illusion” ending that the later games used.

However, with the scene becoming famously bizarre, the developers make the understandable decision to run with the romance of it. After all, it’s far more fun to hint and wink rather than admit that it two unambiguous ones mashed together through the need to accommodate a series.

At least that’s what I think.

And I have some weird theories of my own, which I hope to share.

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[1]”rabbit-hole” is not an unintentional pun, there’s a lot of fan art crossing over Yume Nikki with American McGee’s Alice, thanks to the many similarities.

[2]Probably the most dubious and loudest claim is the “Sans is Ness from Earthbound” one. Look it up yourself, I think it’s garbage not worth discussing further.

[3]One of my many bizarre theories is that the Dentist himself is a being from another universe. No one knows anything about him, and he’s the only one able to fence the most famous diamond in existence successfully.

Blank Slate Heroes

I have to admit, I have less enthusiasm for Fallout 4 now than I did when it was released. Part of this is me knowing what happened rather than going into the game excitedly, but that’s not everything. (After all, I loved New Vegas despite my runs adhering rigidly to walkthroughs)

I think one big thematic misstep, which one of my favorite game bloggers, Shamus Young agrees with, is making the protagonist voiced. It’s a sort of uncanny valley where they’re too detailed to just be a blank slate, but aren’t detailed enough to be an interesting character themselves.

(That I’m not impressed by the voice acting doesn’t help matters either)

I had three couriers for my New Vegas playthrough. One was a talker who sided with the NCR, one a brute who sided with Caesar’s Legion, and one a physically weak ex-gangster who sided with Mr. House to redeem themselves. (Said courier compensated for her physical weakness by getting power armor and blasting the final boss with a super-railgun).

Even games without the customization of New Vegas make blank slates. For the protagonist of Undertale, the players (eventually) know their name, that they’re nice, and that’s it. For a Pokemon trainer, their family is known, but they’re not.

I do invent backstories for blank slate characters that often contradict the rest of the setting. Why not?

Who Could Be A Fitting “Sans”?

First, an obligatory spoiler warning for Undertale (even if this is like closing the barn door long after every single horse has left).

 

 

So, one of the most interesting and challenging characters in Undertale is Sans the skeleton. At first seeming to be just a silly, lazy character (in contrast to his overexcited, bumbling brother, Papyrus), he’s later revealed to know about the timeline changes caused by the main character/player saving and restarting the game, and becoming apathetic to the world because of it.

Unlike his brother, Sans never fights the player on either a “normal” route or a pacifist route. However, on the so-called “genocide route”, where the player must go out of their way to keep killing literally every single monster in every single area throughout the game, Sans finally rouses himself into action and serves as what is generally considered by far the hardest boss in the game.

The Sans battle in its entirety.
Sans is jokingly referred to in the game’s “check” screen as the “easiest enemy”, having only one HP (but dodging every attack), and only doing one damage (per frame).
Now, I goofily wondered what a rough counterpart to Sans would be in other games. Not in terms of the character (either lazy or uncaring), nor even in terms of being an incredibly hard battle (the mechanics would be different). No, what I was thinking of was the style. To be a Sans-equivalent, said character would have to:
  • Be established throughout the main storyline, regardless of what path the player takes.
  • At the same time, having a good justification not to fight the player unless they go to a terrible extreme.
  • Nonetheless, in that extreme case, going to action.

 

For the most literal example, from my favorite RPG of all time, Fallout New Vegas, the replacement for Sans would be none other than-Yes Man.

Yes Man is a robot/computer program that is programmed to enthusiastically obey any order given to it by anyone. The character is a clear plot device, intended to serve as a bailout for players who fail the other three main quest lines. Yes Man obviously can’t say no, and their inability to be permanently killed (even if contrived) is to prevent the the player from losing that way.

New Vegas’ own pseudo-genocide route requires the player to use Yes Man (after all, even the crazed Caesar’s Legion needs you to spare them). 

The psycho ending.
So, while clearly not existing in the real game, my fanon would involve the Yes Man battle. Throughout the game, not only will he not oppose you, but he can’t. (If you went down that path in the fanon, you’d see hints of indecision and warning start to pop up in his speeches).
Then, after the normal final bosses are dealt with, Yes Man comes, and instead of his congratulations and statement of “assertiveness” (misinterpreted as him going rogue, but another plot device to make him just loyal to the player), he’d (with a changed voice tone and image from the silly smile), say “Do you really want to rule?”, and have a short conversation about how the Lucky 38’s computer installed a defense protocol inside him (the same one that largely spared the area from the nuclear war).
(The player can do a speech or science check, which doesn’t do anything even if passed-the implication being “Ha, now you’re trying to bypass fighting, sorry nope”).
From there, the player has to fight through waves of upgraded Securitrons (all with the “Yes Man” angry face) until they blow up the Lucky 38’s reactor, which destroys the entire area in a giant mushroom cloud and kills them. The end.
Ok, that was still pretty dumb, and me trying to shoehorn in too exact an analogy.
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From my childhood RPG dream, there’s a lower-stakes but much easier way to include a “Sans”. That setting would be Pokemon, and the metaphorical skeleton is obvious-the professor that gives you your starter.
Give the player the option of evil shortcuts (stealing trainer Pokemon, using dubious power-ups)-and then, should they use said shortcuts, have them face the disappointed professor with a team of six level 100 fully evolved Pokemon.
The boss would say things like “Do you really care about loving your Pokemon, or just winning at all costs?”

 

(Even Rare Candies might technically qualify, given the number of people who used the item duplication glitches to munchkin their way to the top.)

There are undoubtedly more ways, both as contrived as my Fallout example and natural-seeming as my Pokemon one, to give the player a bad time throughout numerous games. This is one of those silly speculations I love thinking about way too much.

 

Examining the the Loops, Part 1

I’m going back to loopfics.

 

-There’s one big problem with them. They have no ending.

Then again, the same can be said about nearly all fanfics. What makes loops stand out?

-Ok, they have no plans for an ending.

The same can be said about even more fanfics (even of the ones that were completed, many were improvised), and many professional works as well (Hi, Mass Effect writers). What makes loops stand out from those?

-They do have plans for an ending-in that they explicitly and completely remove the possibility of an ending.

What does that actually mean?

-Here it is (Warning, spoilers for Undertale and several other games follow)

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Well, from the author’s guide, here’s the backstory:

Yggdrasil, the world-tree computer that is/runs/controls the entirety of all universes in existence, has broken down for some reason. The Admins who run Yggdrasil have decided to keep all the universes looping in time in time while they fix the problem (whatever said problem is). Some people within these universes remember events from time loop to time loop: these people are called loopers. The Infinite Loops are the various stories of these loopers, who are based off fictional characters from any and all media, as they try to live with time continually repeating. They aren’t completely bored out of their minds though. Occasionally, loops will have variants where people swap places, gender gets bent, history is vastly different, or the loopers are placed in a moment earlier (or later) in their lives. Loopers themselves are the only ones that remember anything about any of the loops: anyone who isn’t looping will just reset. Death means nothing to loopers: they will just reset into existence next loop (having still remembered their death though.) Sometimes different universes will cross over, either merging for a single loop, swapping loopers or non looping characters, or just creating any number of fanfiction-world variants. Virtually anything is possible.

Virtually every looper is very very stir crazy. And very very powerful.

Seeing as the time-till-completion of the Yggdrasil repairs is infinity, they better buckle down for a long ride.

So, it’s a justification.

What is it?

Before the loops began, something (and no we do not need you to explain what caused it.  This is the frame for our Excuse Plot.  Just don’t think too hard on it okay?) happened that destroyed a large chunk of Yggdrasil and threatened to destroy all of reality. Instead of simply rebooting the whole multiverse (which might not have worked in the first place) the Admins that run Yggdrasil decided to go for an alternative solution: lock the universes in repeating time loops until they could solve the problem. How long until they solve it? Well the given number is Infinity. Though there was a number in the Warhammer 40k loops semi-recently: a section of the multiverse was 0.000….002% restored. Yeah. We’re nowhere close.

So yeah, that’s what it is. Out-of-universe, it’s a novice writer’s dream. In-universe, it’s a character’s nightmare. This is, as they say themselves, an obvious excuse to just write “crackfic” snippets-except by linking everything together, it becomes a twisted monster.

If there was no linking, no canon, and it just was a crackfic free-for-all, then I wouldn’t care for them-but also not gaze at the concrete foundation supporting the mess. Maybe it’s SB’s love of the quantifiable, but the gap between the rigid base and the ‘random’ mess it supports is huge.

The loopfic authors themselves don’t think that much of the stated backstory-but, for whatever weird reason, I do.

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One of the things that got me inspired (or, to make a reference, determined), was seeing an increasing amount of Undertale loops. Undertale has time-loops in its own universe (they’re the in-universe explanation of saving and restarting the game).

So, this is not only a little bit of an issue, but it illustrates the other parts. Sans the skeleton is arguably, in the looper’s terms, Awake, and it has turned him into a cynical, lazy creature. Flowey, the antagonist, was driven to evil thanks to the SAVE ability and getting bored by everything. Characterization the actual loopfics noticeably lack.

Realistically, anyone who looped would go insane. But with dramatic license removing that, there’s still no theme, no point. Compare this to existing works of fiction featuring time loops.

-Imagine if Groundhog Day ended with the loops continuing. The final scene would be Phil Connors waking up after dying fighting a grizzly bear, and in the scene before that he built a jetpack and flew into one of those oversized mascots.

-Imagine if Majora’s Mask ended with Link doing something even weirder, with the main conflict not even resolved.

-Imagine if Undertale ended with the main character trying to bounce out on a trampoline.

That’s the level the Loops are at. Goofiness propped up by a setting. Shackled by the fact that the theoretical end-point is totally out of the protagonist’s control. Yes, only 2×10 to the negative 1903568th power percent of the multiverse is restored, and the few universes that are are probably some throwaway games or generic action novels.

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If I had to write a loop, what would I do?

-Show everything.

-Have a planned ending with the multiverse being returned to normal, with plenty of drama to come from that.

-Build the story around the loops ending.

That way, the loops would be used as a plot device, rather than as an excuse.

Next installment, I’ll talk about possible suggestions for reforming the loop threads.

Fallout-Tale: The Improbable Pacifist

An RPG was recently released. This game, released to much applause, stood out for its ability to progress through the entire game without the main character killing any enemies. The name of this RPG was-

 

-Fallout 4. What, you thought it was Undertale? Oh, it was that too. The two are as different as games in the same nominal genre can be. While Undertale was designed for this (and in fact, to get the best ending requires it), Fallout clearly wasn’t. Someone found a way to win at Fallout 4 without technically killing any enemies. Note that it should be said technically. They still end up dead, it’s just that your counter stays perfectly clear.

Fallout 1 has zero required kills (directly, at least). Fallout 2 has only one. Fallout 3 has a handful. The game I’ve played the most, New Vegas, could theoretically be done with one direct kill (Mr. House on a Yes Man route), or zero if one assumes the Brotherhood of Steel’s evacuation procedures are very efficient (blow up the bunker as House requires without killing anyone inside).

4 is far more combat-focused, and has unskippable, unavoidable encounters. The player managed to do it anyway, though pushing the already wobbly game past its limit at some points. And watching it is interesting, to say the least. (Just in the first video the player “level grinds” through putting up a million wooden bureaus).

The result can be seen in this playlist.