Undertale and Dark Souls: 2015 in Review

Undertale came out last year. It was a little JRPG-styled game for PC, made by one person. Although retro in its graphics and presentation, it was innovative for its option of nonviolence, its subversion of typical JRPG plots, and its use of a bullet-hell influenced battle system. Rave reviews and fanart have swarmed Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube since the game released. For a period, it had the highest Metacritic score of all time (and may still; I haven’t checked recently). A lot of people named it their game of the year. It won GameFAQs annual best game of all time tournament.

I didn’t play it. As time goes by, it becomes increasingly likely that I will never play it.

This is odd, because normally this kind of game would be right up my alley. I love JRPG-style games, and have been stumping for years for more non-Japanese developers to try their hand at it. The hook of the game was interesting to me. I didn’t buy many new games this year for financial reasons, but Undertale is only ten dollars, so I could have easily squeezed it into my budget if I felt like it. And for a while, I thought I would. But I didn’t.

A game I did play — not all the way through, but some — this year was Dark Souls. I’ve been making tries at Dark Souls (and its predecessor, Demon’s Souls) for years now, without making much headway. The problem is that I’ve never found myself hooked by that game. I boot it up, and I play it for a while, and it’s fine… but once I turn it off and move on to other things, I feel no real urge to start it back up again and continue. But I keep trying at it, every six months or so, just because everyone tells me what a great game it is.

And make no mistake, that is the only reason I keep trying. I had always told myself that I needed to sit down and finish Dark Souls some day just because it was so popular and influential that I needed to know what I felt about it, one way or the other. If I liked it, fine, I could join the crowds singing its praises, and playing the sequels, and being hyped for new games. If I didn’t like it, I needed to know why, so I could defend my controversial opinion. I needed to be able to state clearly and consistently why everyone else was wrong about this series and why I was right. Simply not having an opinion about something that was having such an effect on this hobby I’ve loved since I was a kid was not an option. Like MOBAs and cover shooters and aimless open-world games and every other trend in gaming whose effects I despise, I needed to know why this thing, despite being popular, was in fact bad.

And it wasn’t until Undertale came out, and I began to have the same kind of reactions, that I realized why this was such a stupid thing to do.

One of the big problems with our society presently is that everyone has to have an opinion about everything. There’s no longer any room for people to simply say “I don’t know enough about this, so I don’t have an opinion” or “I do not care about this, so I don’t have an opinion” or “This is not important to me, so I don’t have an opinion.” If something happens, you have to be ready, willing, and able to weigh in on it, regardless of how important it is or how it affects you or how qualified you are to do it. I feel like a lot of the clashes and demagoguery inherent in our system is simply because people feel compelled to stake out their ground and defend it from all intrusions, real or perceived.

And really, who gives a shit if I don’t like Dark Souls? The people who like it are going to go on liking it. Nobody is forcing me to buy them and play them. Even if I ignore every single Souls game and every game that tries to piggyback off the success of Souls, there will still be more games out there than I can ever play. I bought Brandish: The Dark Revenant on sale the other day, and in playing it for two hours, enjoyed myself more than the hours I’ve spent trying to figure out what my opinion is on Souls. I can stick to my own little corner of the gaming universe and be perfectly at peace with the world, Souls or no Souls.

No, the only reason to force myself to have an opinion on Souls is so that I can then present my opinion to others. So I can pick a fight with the people who have a different opinion, or receive validation from the people who agree with me. And dear god, that is so pathetic that I winced just typing it. I turn 30 this year. I’ve got a lot on my plate. I’d like to think my days of looking to beat my chest about my controversial gaming opinions on the internet are behind me. Gaming should be something that makes me happy and fills my down time, not something that I can use as ammo in a pissing contest with the entire world.

As a result of that, I’ve started to shy away from games where merely playing them is an opinion piece. I heard so much about Undertale after it came out, even trying to avoid spoilers, that I could never play it on its own terms. Just like Dark Souls, I’d be affected by people telling me how much I’ll like it, and the specific reasons I’ll like it. I could never get into Dark Souls because I had everyone else who’d ever played the game hanging over my shoulder telling me how to react, ensuring I could never have a genuine, spontaneous reaction to it. And Undertale is all about generating a genuine, spontaneous reaction.

And that’s not even getting into Undertale’s somewhat unique position as a weapon in the obnoxious culture wars that are currently consuming gaming. Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a South Park-ian “the truth is in the middle” thing. I’ve been very consistent in wanting games and the community that surrounds them to be more open and inclusive, so you won’t catch me trying to denigrate Undertale as “not a real game” or “SJW propaganda” or whatever. But if I play Undertale, and didn’t like it for whatever reason, suddenly I’m allied with that crowd, whether I like it or not. I’d have to constantly preface any criticism of the game with an assurance that I’m not one of those people. You can’t just evaluate Undertale as a game; your opinion of it instead says something about you. And I hate that.

So my New Year’s Resolution for 2016 (at least regarding games) is to play what I want and enjoy myself. If I ever catch myself playing something just so that I can have an opinion, punch myself in the face and load up Hearthstone instead or something. And that means that “touchstones” like Dark Souls and Undertale are not on the agenda.

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