Preserving Undertale: Do you want to have a bad time?

This is the trailer for Undertale, a video game playable on PC and Mac that was released in September 2015. To the uninitiated in the world of indie games, this might seem like something out of the 1990s: the graphics and soundtrack are reminiscent of older games made for the NES or Gameboy systems. The graphics and sounds are nothing new, and even playing such games on a modern system is rather old hat as emulators have grown in popularity.

However, Undertale has made quite the splash in the gaming world. On the online distributor Steam, Undertale is owned by more than one million people. The game has been reviewed as being the game of 2015 by IGN and best game ever by the GameFAQs community. This game is significant simply because of its popularity, but such accolades after a few months on the market, and as an indie game made by essentially two people, raise a few questions: why is Undertale so exceptional, and how did it elicit such an intense fan response? Also, as an archivist, how and what should we try to capture from Undertale’s moment in video game history?

[The following contains some mild spoilers to the plot of Undertale. Be forewarned].

The Power to “Save.”

Undertale follows some standard features of a role-playing game. The player controls one character, a child who has fallen into the underground, a large cave-like area below a mountain, where monsters have been exiled after a ware with humans. They encounter monsters, some of whom are friendly, and some of whom are not, and they talk, battle, and trade with them, going through different towns and regions on their journey to return to the surface.

This game acts as a commentary on the RPG genre as a whole in a number of ways. First, you can play the game without killing anyone. Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale, has built in a system where the player can “Act” in a number of ways to dissuade creatures from attacking them. This is known as a “True Pacifist” run of the game. Alternatively, the player can kill everything and everyone they encounter, a method many gamers follow in other RPGs– this is known as a “Genocide” run.

Another interesting feature of the game is that it remembers what users do, even if they do not save. For instance, if the player accidentally kills the first main “boss,” and then attempts to go back to their previous save file, and then saves the first boss, the following dialogue happens directly afterwards.

Such features have not been common in previous games, even those made by major gaming companies, as things such as improved graphics and battle mechanics have been valued over more introspective games. When commentary on the genre has been used, it typically is incorporated in dialogue, with characters breaking the fourth wall and discussing RPG tropes. Toby Fox, instead, has chosen to comment on the genre in the very mechanics of the game itself.

This is what is often praised in articles and reviews, and so for that reason, these reviews and articles are significant to Undertale; they highlight the moment in gaming when Undertale was released.

Underminers and Source Code

Downloading a copy of Undertale is not terribly challenging, and so presumably an archive could obtain a copy of it and maintain hardware to open it with. However, as has been noted by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his book Mechanisms, there are things we do not see that are important to how the game is functioning, and these are things that are important to not only scholars of gaming, but to the community itself. Because the game remembers what players do, there has been an entire section of the Undertale wiki devoted to “Consequence Avoidance,” so users can TRULY erase saved data, which requires some level of going into temporary codes/scripts.

Toby Fox had said on Twitter that he did not want people data mining originally, at least for the first year of the game, although he has had a less strong stance on this since January. Because Fox made the game in an application called Gamemaker, a lot of the data can be extracted without having the source files themselves. There is a Reddit community called Underminers who have gone through many of the games files, and have found new and interesting secrets about the game. Because Fox created a game with such depth to it, where certain actions could be remembered and trigger future, different dialogues and interactions between characters, such information is invaluable to those trying to understand Undertale without playing through it multiple times.

The Fan Community: Memes, Art, and Games

The fans of this game have been incredibly active, and incredibly creative in their own rights. Particularly with data from Underminers, many fan games have come about. These all build on the plot and lore present in the original Undertale, often allowing the player to battle existing characters in the game who were not fought in the original, or introducing new characters who talk about their interactions with other characters. Most of these fan games are in the format of a battle, where the player is able to chose whether to not hurt their opponent, or kill them, highlighting that this is one of the mechanics gamers thought was most important, along with the detailed plot of the game.

Another major addition made by the fan community has been in the form of art and memes. Undertale has a number of memorable and repeated lines, and these have been used by a number of people in the gaming community to create memes and art pieces. These are significant and useful because, as a casual gamer myself, I have noticed that Undertale references have become abundant; people will say things like “[Insert anything here] fills you with determination,” “You’re gonna have a bad time,” or “Get dunked on!” These memes help highlight the phrases’ location/associations in the game, their usage, and their significance.

The fan response to this game has been immense, and is spread all over the internet. To document it, and to archive it in some way would allow users to see similar works, when and certain derivative games, stories, and images became part of the meta made by Undertale fans. This could also potentially become a growing trend for indie games. While major gaming companies provide games with expansive stories, requiring 40+ hours to complete, with lots of images, characters, and extra stories beyond the “main plotline,” Undertale is rather confined to one plotline with a few sidequests, and the game can be completed in under 10 hours. The fans of this game have filled in beyond this, and this could be a trend for future indie games.

Which Path to Take?

All of these aspects of Undertale are valuable, and could be documented/archived in some way. Their significance goes beyond Undertale itself, and the information they provide helps users understand Undertale, the gaming industry, gaming communities, and ultimately how the internet has affected so many aspects of how gamers and game creators interact.

Right now, I think that perhaps the most interesting route to take is in data mining and through the Underminers. This path, in my mind, highlights a number of the significant features of Undertale. By looking at certain aspects of Fox’s code available through data mining, and attempting to archive that content in a useful way, we can highlight the mechanics used by Fox that were so crucial to the game’s success. This type of data would presumably be useful for future game creators, something Fox seemed to be interested in fostering.

Also, this type of project highlights a moment in gaming history, where indie games are springing up because of programs like Gamemaker and RPG Maker that allow game designers to work efficiently, but also allow gamers to find out secrets about their games before playing them. Because of this, in many ways working with data mining and Undertale can include some social history elements as well, including perhaps a section on Fox’s opinions on data mining, and the Underminers’ reaction to such opinions.

Unlike the game Undertale, I think all routes here could lead to happy, fruitful conclusions.

13 Replies to “Preserving Undertale: Do you want to have a bad time?”

  1. While I’m not terribly familiar with the world of data mining in video games, I definitely can see how this aspect is very important to document. I know that many other game designers, such as Team Meat (Super Meat Boy, the Binding of Isaac), have spoken out about how data miners ruin the ability for players to experience a game in an……… wait for it…… authentic way. I assume that the developers consider the authentic Binding of Isaac experience to be reminiscent of console gaming circa 1995–no internet cheat guides, only being able to learn secrets by talking to friends, and so on. (Here’s a link to a brief article: http://www.siliconera.com/2014/11/12/edmund-mcmillen-disheartened-dataminers-exposing-binding-isaac-rebirth-secrets-already/).

    I am curious about how you are planning to archive the code. From my–very limited–understanding it seems like you would be archiving various save states so that a researcher could examine the code or play a snippet of the game. Would a researcher need to rely on a lot of documentation in order to understand the affordances of GameMaker in relation to decisions made by Fox/underminers?

    1. Without knowing exactly how the long-term storage & monitoring side of preserving the code would look, some ideas for making it easy to use and reuse. Just spitballing and maybe using some of them for my project too.

      Use git to document the development process, tracking changes, release, forks, etc. I mentioned yesterday how GitHub makes some people wary since it’s not an archival repository, but it certainly is useful for documenting the life of a piece of code — or a content standard! And anyway, GitHub isn’t the only git server software out there, just one of the more convenient slash better known to archivists. (And maybe in general.) It or a similar piece of software could be one of several pieces for managing archival source code over time.
      Consider a code sandbox for users to dig into the code, make changes, and generally play around without affecting the original or having to host everything on their own servers. Picturing an emulator for the coding and rendering environments, which could be more trouble than it’s worth in the near future while being more effective in the long run as each type of environment moves on.
      Choose a few parts of the game or pieces of code to package with heavy user annotations and adaptations. This is more like an exhibit or close reading where the heavy hand of the archivist becomes extra-apparent, but maybe the choice of code snippets would come from the Underminer community and where they paid the most attention.

      Also, I’ve been mulling over you-know-what and wonder if we shouldn’t be framing this whole conversation around whose authenticities rather than trying to pin down an authenticity. We seemed to circle that issue yesterday without really digging into it. Maybe another class!

    2. Toby’s remarks definitely reflect the ones presented in your article, that disheartened sense that people had ruined the game for others (Toby also tweeted about how his lack of recent projects was not due to the datamining efforts, so I would assume some people had blamed them for no “Undertale 2” or like projects). I think a collection that included datamining and datamined material would have to keep that intent in mind somehow, so this is something I will have to consider should I pursue such a project.

      The code itself is really interesting. So what I would get from datamining wouldn’t be QUITE the same as getting the save states, so I understand from my own somewhat limited understanding of datamining. The save states are all about the temporary files (which are something that dataminers work with), while dataminers primarily go into the .exe file, open it up, and see what scripts, .jpgs, and .pngs are available there, and see what they can do with them and learn from them.

      I haven’t dug into this myself quite yet (I don’t have a copy of Undertale on my Linux to mess with, and so I have to get my Mac working, which is a whole other layer of platform issues to consider, Mac vs. PC), but I’m not sure how much the script is specific to GameMaker or generally readable by those familiar with object-oriented programming, but still some documentation might be required for researchers to understand the scripts and how they work, so that is definitely another thing I will have to consider.

  2. This is such a good case study for exploring ownership in game communities. Is there a licensing element to Steam or is it just a distribution / discovery platform? Game ownership seems to have this long history of tinkering, breaking, and remaking associated with it, which I imagine extends to the 1,328,987 ± 26,851 (???) Undertale owners. But what kind of official rights and responsibility are involved?

    1. Steam is interesting in its own right, and probably could use a whole project in and of itself. Steam is a digital distributor, but it also does some digital rights management stuff (I don’t know if this amounts to licensing in the case of all games)– so while you have the games locally on your computer, if you’re found to be doing things you shouldn’t, Steam can make things “not work” pretty easily. There are definitely some idiosyncrasies to how Steam functions, both in terms of code/script (e.g., your save files work differently in a Steam version of a game than in a “regular” version) and in licensing (again, Steam can revoke your access to games you bought through their system, because most of them I believe you launch through Steam).

      For the sake of this project, I don’t think I’m going to deal with that too much. Undertale is available through a separate website (and a lot of users seem to refer to this as a “DRM-Free” version), and so I will be focusing on that iteration of the game if I end up going to a more code-oriented route, because that is definitely the one that users work with to discover some of the deeper facets of the game through looking at the save files and game code. Also, it allows me to avoid the digital distribution beast that is Steam.

      1. Thanks, this all makes a lot of sense. I guess as a game designer it makes sense to hit several different channels with a release, especially if you want to leave open the possibility of different levels of use.

  3. You do a nice job anchoring the significance of the game in critical response right up front. From your presentation, it’s clear that the way the games save features work and how they have spawned a whole ecosystem of hacking the game are key elements of what is likely to be significant about it in the future. That is likely to present some interesting challenges in terms of preservation intent, as you would want to focus not just on the game itself but on documenting some of the broader ecosystem of those hacks and the kinds of ways that players are working with that element of the game. So it’s clear that the Wiki is important in that regard. In that space, things like Toby Fox’s tweets also seem like an important element there too as you’ve already cited his reaction and response and expressions of his intent as the creator there too. Along with that, the reddit you mention about the Underminers is likely also important to that aspect.

    The various memes, art and games you mention that illustrate the broader cultural impact of the game are also interesting and would likely entail some broader approach to collecting. Along with that, it is worth noting that it would likely also be important to do some work unpacking the meaning of these. That is, simply hovering up a bunch of memes is a good start, but given how much insider knowledge is involved in how these are used and understood it would likely also be important to do some of the initial interpretive work to try and explain a few of these to help provide a point of entry into them for future users.

    It may also be worth putting on the Platform Studies hat to think about what role Game Maker plays in understanding the game. That is, if you think like Montfort and Bogost about that particular platform, it would likely be important to understand the game as part of an ongoing dialog not just with previous games in the genre but also with the underlying tools that the developers would likely have taken for granted based on the platforms used to create and disseminate the game.

    You’ve done a nice job establishing the case for the significance of the game. It seems like the main decision a this point is if you focus primarily on more of the technical aspect of the game, or if you also include the broader forms of cultural production relating to Memes that are related to it too. I think there are good cases to be maid either way when you get into your Preservation Intent Statement.

    For a few other things that might be interesting to check out related to this you might check out “Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning.” This book explores the various modes of cultural production that different women engage in around the Sims. It might be useful, in that it frames everything from Modding, to producing fan art and Machinama as part of a continuum of cultural production around the original work. http://www.amazon.com/Women-Gaming-Sims-Century-Learning/dp/0230623417

    Along with that, on the game maker/rpg maker platform aspect, you might be interested in these two papers I wrote about RPGmakerVX.net http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1312/1312.2530.pdf & http://www.trevorowens.org/vitae/social-videogame-creation-lessons-from-rpg-maker/

    *Edit: I pasted in all the comments I had written about different projects so far, so I pulled that out 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments! I had not considered GameMaker as a platform; I had sort of hastily thought “well, the platform is PC/Mac, and who cares about that; it’s not all that interesting,” (except when things break) but the importance of GameMaker here is definitely one worth considering, particularly if I end up exploring the work of the Underminers. It seems that both RPG Maker and GameMaker can be opened in ways that reveal text files and sprites really easily for most users, so that component makes indie games made on these platforms far easier to data mine.

      I think there are still thinggs I need to explore in regards to how people in the Undertale community interact with one another to build the fan games. There might be particular dialogues about authenticity to the source material that wouldn’t be found in a website like the one you discuss in your articles (RPGmakerVX.net). Such discussions, if saved/archived, could serve as some of the documentation for the games themselves, which would help users understand what the creator intended, and how they were interacting with a wider community of gamers.

  4. It seems like there are a lot of different things that you can include, between what you’ve mentioned and what has been suggested, so many that it could easily spiral out of control. Are you going to be able to narrow it down into one focused thing or are you just going to try to grab everything possible and say its all related and important?

    1. I will definitely be narrowing my focus– even within each of these “arenas,” there is a lot to consider and document, so I imagine I will settle in on one aspect of Undertale. I’m not quite sure what yet, though. I emailed Toby Fox to ask for any insights he might have, and he responded with a one-line email: “the most important part…. is the game”

      So, ultimately, I’m not exactly sure which direction to take, but I will definitely be refining this quite a bit. (It’s like I’m choosing between routes in a run of Undertale! Oh such fun).

  5. I really enjoyed the article about Undertale. I have never played the game, but I have herd good things about it. I found the part about how the creator wanted to limit the data mining of the game to retain the ‘authentic’ experience for as long as possible to be very interesting. In this day and age the idea that a game experience can exist, and should exist, by itself free of outside influence gives me mixed feelings. I understand why he would want this but I feel that it is both nieve to trust everyone to respect that desire and at the same time a waste of potential. I wonder what a game creator could accomplish if they embraced the data mining community/culture and made something that took advantage of it?

    1. That’s definitely an interesting question– I would say that, for a game creator, Toby Fox has embraced the data-mining community pretty well. Beyond the tweet I referenced in the blog, he has sold his game without DRM so that people can get into some level of script about the game and manipulate it (and I believe he has even given the DRM version to people who have downloaded the Steam one first if they ask him personally about it, though I’m having trouble at the moment finding that reddit post). Also, by using GameMaker to create the game, I would imagine he was aware of the ramifications that come with that– specifically, that the .exe is relatively easy to pull data from.

      I can understand Toby Fox wanting people to enjoy and appreciate the game, and also to have it sell for a reasonable amount of time as well. The game has only been out for about six months now. In the future, I would imagine a lot of these indie games will end up in places like My Abandonware, and at that point datamining options might be more advanced.

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