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.
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.
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.
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.
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.