The Value of OFF after Undertale

zacherie

It can be difficult to recommend OFF in a post-Undertale world. After all, it would seem that everything Mortis Ghost’s 2008 indie darling had to offer was revisited and built upon by Toby Fox’s recent masterpiece. OFF, in broad strokes, is basically equivalent to being locked into a Genocide Run; only without the other, redemptive half of the story on offer. This isn’t to say that OFF is somehow to blame for this: the seven year gap between the two games spans the death throes of the PS2, the entire 360/PS3 generation and the beginning of current-gen and nascent VR; it’s to be expected that there would be leaps and bounds in what could potentially be programmed even before taking in Toby’s experience as a modder versus what was, by all appearances, the first time effort of an amateur developer. I come not to dismiss OFF nor to bury Undertale, but to ask: what does a landmark work have to offer when future generations build on its best ideas?

As you might suppose, extensive spoilers for two excellent games will follow hereafter.

metaflower

First, let’s finish squaring away those points of succession. OFF’s claim to fame was its exploration of the relationship between player and avatar, and the player’s default assumption that the protagonist’s morality must be the correct one. The hitch to all of it, which Spec Ops: The Line would also run into in its critique of the shooter genre, was that there’s no alternate option for the player to seek out. While the game is a critique of violence it’s also the player’s only option, unless we’re going for the fairly insufferable smarming of “the only way to win is not to play.”

And that weakness, all but inherent in how games are classically structured, becomes Undertale’s great strength. The creation of a pacifist path (it isn’t the first to do so – Metal Gear Solid offered no-kill runs, while Iji had an entirely alternate narrative based around it) strengthens the condemnation implicit in continuing a violent route. Free will makes a critique of defaulting to violent behavior mean something rather than constructing a path that forces the player into the desired behavior, even if they would have done so anyway. Telling the player that they’re monsters, in other words, only works if you offer them a neutral playing field to begin with.

chara

This is, at first, a hard blow to take in discourse around these games. For years, the enticing factor to do with OFF was tied up in the reveal of its ending and the nature of the Batter’s mission. And with the thunder of that twist gone, it can be tempting to consign it to irrelevancy. But, like Psycho before it (famous for the lengths it went to in order to conceal what is now one of cinema’s best known twists), there’s plenty of craft worth going back to. And the biggest separating factor between Undertale and OFF winds up being their respective hearts. Or rather, the way in which OFF tries to hold emotions at arm’s length.

That’s not a knock, as much as it probably seems so on the surface. Undertale as a game is all about heart, it’s true: it forms the basis of the main character’s very being, after all, and damn few are the games that reach the soaring, triumphant majesty of the game’s True Pacifist ending. OFF, by comparison, is cold. It’s full of worlds that are barely populated, characters who react only tangentially to your presence up until you murder them, and move almost akin to uncanny, living mannequins. But it works, because in spite of their joined fascination with player agency the two games have very different MOs. Undertale creates a fully functional world with characters who have lives and motivations beyond the player character, and then asks the player to meditate on the personal investment we place in fictional characters, our bonds to them, and what our actions as player mean in light of that.

brecht

OFF, by contrast, is a game about roles. From the flatness of the greyscale characters against their vibrant landscapes to the recursive stories-within-stories throughout the game, the player is constantly asked to think about the game not as a “real” world but as a game. It’s a Brechtian approach to storytelling, constantly stopping to remind the audience that they are watching a performance rather than allowing them to enter the reality of what they’re seeing. It forces them to let go of the “but I just like it” mentality and function on a critical level, which can be exhausting when done consciously but is, on occasion, a very useful mental exercise – particularly for individuals who aren’t used to adopting such a mindset.

And OFF is harsh about it, too. The four elements that make up the game world – smoke, metal, meat, and plastic – are manufactured byproducts of natural objects, produced purely for the purpose of being consumed and are, in large quantities (say, entire concentrated Zones), more harmful than healthful. Characters are defined by their roles: the Batter must purify the world, the Elsen must work for the Guardians, the Guardians must protect the Zones. And to deviate from those archetypes leads to madness. Even Zacherie, afforded an awareness of the fourth wall, must play by these rules – he’s just allowed a larger scope of roles.

It reflects, in a basic way, the process of making a game. The player moves through flags, which trigger events and disappear afterward. An area, once its content is finished, is essentially a blank space. When code fails to work as it was programmed to, it glitches. And because games are traditionally created to be goal driven, you reach the end and turn it OFF. In pure mechanistic terms, that’s it.

But a game is not only its mechanics but also its narrative, and this tension sets it apart from other mediums. The act of flipping pages is not integral to the consuming of a book, and people don’t come to the movies in order to feed canisters to a projector. But games are inseparable from the manner in which they’re delivered, and that affects the story they tell. Depending on the creator’s goals, the story can be all- or completely un-important in comparison with mechanics, and that will not necessarily make one more valuable than the other.

burnt

And OFF seems to know that, too. The final zone the Batter visits before the final boss battles is “The Room,” which travels backwards through time to when the world of the game was created. We watch things reconstruct themselves, and in doing to know how they fell apart. It’s the stage of context, underpinning everything that the player took for granted, and it isn’t offered until things are nearly over and it’s too late to change anything. Why things went bad is never quite clear – Hugo got sick, the Batter was banished or simply gone, and has returned only now that things are too late. Because of course, from an alienation point of view, it doesn’t matter why things went bad. Only that they did, because that’s the way things have to happen if there is to be any conflict.

But there is a genuine tragedy to seeing the optimism of the Guardians after the fact, a tragedy that lurks in the moments when the game breaks out of its mechanisms. When “The Judge” becomes Pablo, he is simply a small, helpless cat mourning for his lost brother. When Zacherie is not at his merchant stand, he is a motionless observer unable to stop the proceedings. When the Zones are empty, they echo with haunting cries for help. It is the cry of the game itself trying to exist as a story beyond a set of player-centric goals, shackled to its fate.

Many of the ideas Mortis Ghost was exploring are unavoidably prototypical, bound by the restrictions of RPG Maker and his own knowledge. And many of them will now seem dated to younger gamers who encountered Undertale first, and mark this older effort as a pale substitution. But teaching oneself to think purposefully is always a valuable exercise, all the more if it’s backed up by slyly effective tragedy and a still haunting soundtrack and aesthetic. And the professional gaming industry is already eager enough to eat any traces of its own history – there’s no need to help it along.

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3 comments on “The Value of OFF after Undertale

  1. Feo Takahari says:

    For all the comparisons between the two, I can’t connect OFF with Undertale. Chara’s evil without purpose or remorse, like the world is a sick joke and he’s the only one laughing. In games, he’s most directly comparable to taking the Demon Path in Soul Nomad & the World Eaters. The Batter’s order without remorse, but with unending purpose until his goal is complete. I could compare him to Inspector Javert, but even Javert wasn’t so robotically devoted to his cause.

    I guess that’s what you’re saying–that the Batter does things because he’s incapable of not doing them, while Chara does them because you the player decided to do them–but I can’t frame the Batter as “evil” enough to fit him into the same discussion as a villain like Chara. He just does what his creator made him to do, even when that means his creator must die.

  2. Since you brought up an NIS game, actually a good counterpart for Batter is the dark knight Sprout from the otherwise warm&fuzzy Phantom Brave. His whole drive is to bring the demon Sulphur back from the netherworld in order to kill him…with dark magic. At no point is anyone able to convince him this is a terrible idea. Not even Marona, the title character, whose Cooldown Hugs have been averting disaster time and again throughout the game, can sway him from his path.

    You don’t play him, but you can affect very minor dialogue changes at the end, where he either continues to push towards hitting the Reset Button, or he dies because he relearned knightly virtue and now wants to kill the demon to save the world. Either way, he summoned Sulphur back, then he dies, similar in some degree to how you choose which state to leave the world of OFF in, but doesn’t change who’s already been killed. On a similar note, everyone who tries to divert him from this path before you meets a pretty horrible end at his hands. The areas Sprout goes through become lifeless save animated inanimate objects, as his sword steals the souls of those he beats as well as draining life from the world itself the longer he remains in an area.. The world (and the player) are largely unaware of Sprout or his true motivations until about 80% of the way through, where everyone’s general reaction is “ARE YOU SURE THAT’S EVEN WISE?!?!”

    In a way, comparing the two is similar to how comparisons between Undertale and Shin Megami IV are frequently brought up by those who’ve played both games. They share nothing but theme, but the theme running between the two are quite heavily comparable.

    (technically, the theme of Phantom Brave could also be read as True Pacifist Frisk encounters The Batter who is on the way to calling forth Omega Flowey, who is able to blast him for good because he’s not actually a part of the world he’s been messing up. Only after dying and breaking the cursed sword does Asriel become an option. The sword is also practically a bat itself, it’s just a large, flat, wide hunk of black iron with a pulsing purple tint. Similar to Cloud Strife’s sword, or Soul Calibur Siegfried’s Requiem it looks more like freakin’ surfboard than an functional weapon.)

  3. ravenesta54 says:

    Okay, this blog post is old, but I’m going to go ahead and politely disagree with you on a few points, and make a case for OFF.

    For the record, I played Undertale first, but recently played OFF after being recc’d it by a close friend. I noticed the parallels, the tonal and thematic similarities, and the atmospheric aspect of both games, and in many aspects, I’d say that Undertale is a spiritual successor to OFF. However, having finally played both games, I’m not sure how anyone could reach the conclusion that Undertale could render OFF obsolete, or that the two are even tangentially related. (I know you’re claiming to be on OFF’s side, here, but your tone says otherwise, and I’d like to expand.)

    Toby Fox had more experience in this sort of thing, both as a modder and through his work with Hussie on Homestuck, and as such, it could be argued that this made Undertale more polished. However, Toby Fox did not make a better game: he made a different one. Both games conveyed atmosphere, tone, emphasis, in different but viciously effective ways.

    I’d argue that the lack of a pacifist route isn’t a detriment to OFF, and is critical to the Batter’s story, to the significance of seeing it through to the end. OFF isn’t a story designed for you to control, or change. You’re just the puppeteer, enabling the Batter to reach his goal.

    There was a notable parallel between two of the last scenes of the games: the pre-Asgore hallway scene, where Sans weighs your actions throughout the game, and the final scene of OFF, when the Judge appears to condemn you and the Batter, and it shows in stark detail why you can’t really, truly compare the two games in regards to their themes.

    The pacifist route worked very well for Undertale because it is, as you said, a heavily emotional game that revolves around and focuses on your relationship to the characters, how the choices you make can affect their lives. Undertale is a game about choice.

    OFF’s final choice is inherently, in the words of the Judge, “futile”. It doesn’t matter, and it wasn’t designed to matter, and it completes the story of the game regardless. It’s not OFF’s “great weakness,” nor is it Undertale’s “great strength.”

    Undertale is, in many ways similar to OFF. Toby Fox did an incredible job of pulling a page out of Mortis Ghost and Alias Conrad Coldwood’s book, in the art of creating vivid environments through a certain art style and a brilliant OST, and in the art of breaking the fourth wall to pull the player into the game. In all honesty, however, it felt more like an homage, something that Undertale is full of. It did not expand on or improve upon every idea that Mortis Ghost presented, and it’s so unique that it’s honestly difficult to compare the two.

    My real point here is:
    You don’t need to make a case for OFF in a post-Undertale world. OFF is a uniquely unsettling, gorgeous game that has withstood the test of time, and can stand on its own legs, its own art, its own music, and its own story, themes, and meaning.

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