Characterization, the process by which writers create fictional characters, is a critical part of the storytelling process. Now more than ever, good characters are in demand. Memorable characters have graced television screens during a renaissance period for TV shows, and people like Rick Grimes (The Walking Dead), William Adama (Battlestar Galactica), Walter White (Breaking Bad), and Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) have become ingrained in the public imagination. Due to consistent dialogue, memorable personalities, and unique roles, these characters have become beloved among their respective fanbases.
What do you to characterize someone who never speaks, though? In television, characterization could be done through physical acting. After all, words aren’t the only way we define ourselves, even if they are the easiest way of portraying what a character is like. However, what happens when you take away the ability to physically act? What happens when your medium no long allows you the luxury of even physical action?
This was the question tackled by developer Toby Fox in his breakthrough game, Undertale. Widely considered one of the greatest releases of the year and spawning a massive fandom, fan inspired artwork, and endless musical remixes, Undertale broke through into the public consciousness while featuring a character who never spoke a word. How did Fox accomplish this? It is true that he populated his game world with plenty of memorable characters who made the experience memorable, such as the skeleton brothers, Sans and Papyrus, as well as the perpetually melancholic, Napstablook.
To say that the silent main protagonist did not receive characterization would be a lie, however. In our discussion of Firewatch, we discussed the importance of player agency in interactive fiction. The ability to choose to engage with others, and to choose how you engage with them, is an important part of investing the player into the role of the main character. In Firewatch, that meant letting players choose to become involved with fellow character, Delilah, and decide whether to be kind to her or not.
Undertale doesn’t even allow for this level of interaction, however. Once again, this is a silent protagonist, one who never has access to the abundant dialogue choices that typify other games. How, then, was Toby Fox able to create a game in which the protagonist’s characterization fell entirely into the hands of the player? By attaching the method of characterization to the mechanics of the game themselves.
In Undertale, players could kill or spare any of the monsters they came across. Rather than giving the player dialogue choices, Fox gave the player fighting choices. However, these choices came with consequences. In Firewatch, choosing certain dialogue could provoke an irate response from Delilah. In Undertale, choosing to kill, and particularly choosing to kill every monster, results in negative consequences to the world around the player. In the worst conditions, entire regions of the game world will become abandoned as people run away from your onslaught.
However, it’s the conversations people have with beloved characters that will produce the greatest heart ache. Characters who love and believe in you during playthroughs in which you spare everyone will become angry, afraid, or saddened by your actions during playthroughs in which you kill monsters. As in real life, what you do becomes the ultimate means by which you characterize yourself. Over the course of the game’s length, your actions have accumulating effects. If you choose to spare everyone, the game’s characters become powerful allies, not so much in that they help you fight but in that they encourage and show you love as the game reaches its end. Some of the final conversations of the game are, quite rightly, tear jerking.
The conversations are well written, but it’s the fact that the player, up until the point the conversation occurs, shapes the world and how people see them. Fox did something few games do, and tied both objective consequences (a harder game and bonus ending for those who spare the monsters) and subjective consequences (a beloved child or a heartless monster, depending on what you do) into the game’s mechanics. Games typically choose to either have objective or subjective consequences, but in going for both, Fox made the most rewarding type of game. He gave gamers the differentiated endings they were seeking for different behaviors, but also allowed gamers complete control over who their character was.
Characterization doesn’t need to always occur through dialogue, and indeed, it probably shouldn’t in most cases. Undertale took what could have been a weakness of its graphical presentation and made it a strength. By reducing the character to silence and allowing players complete input into who the protagonist was, Toby gave players complete investment into the game and its outcomes. The final product was a game that won the hearts of millions specifically because it let players be who they wanted to be within the scope of the game’s world. This behavior had a real impact on others in the game, and created truly heart rending, emotional scenes as a consequence.
Undertale is available on PC, OS X, and Linux.