Sunday Summaries: 10/01/2016: Undertale and Fallout 4

Hey all and welcome to another Sunday Summaries, where I summarize both my week and the week in general as it relates to video games. If I ever felt like these need to be even longer, I might also include discussions on other non-video game-related media of the week. In fact, let's do that, because I managed to tear myself away from Fallout 4 enough times this week to watch/read some eclectic material. As you might surmise ("Sunday Surmising"?), I'm still working this feature out but ideally I want it to be an outlet for brief pieces of focused writing that individually might not have the legs for separate articles.

The thing I'm most stoked about this week, non-game related? That TV is coming back. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia just started its eleventh season and is just as twisted and brilliant as ever, while the long-awaited sixth season of Venture Bros. is due to premiere at the end of the month. I'm also falling further and further behind on my Adventure Time and Steven Universe, and I suppose I ought to acknowledge the last few episodes of Heroes Reborn since I've gotten this far.

I also read Irredeemable, the Mark Waid comic series about a Superman-tier superhero that goes rogue and starts destroying entire cities. It wasn't until I was a few issues in that I realized I'd read the whole thing a few years back: while it's highly acclaimed it apparently isn't all that memorable. I also recalled that I felt about it the same way I did after this new re-read: that it cribbed an awful lot from the Alan Moore tenure of the Marvelman/Miracleman series, which also took a hero very similar to Captain Marvel and opted to explore new and scary narrative fields with them, as tends to be Moore's wont. In that series, Marvelman's unpowered human persona - as he only becomes Marvelman and has his powers after uttering his long-forgotten catchphrase "Kimota!" - rediscovers his superhuman identity and later finds that not only did his younger Robin-like ward Kid Marvelman not die in the traumatic event that seemingly spurred his amnesia, but never reverted back to his regular human persona afterwards out of fear. Staying in his superpowered form for so long had twisted his mind, turning him into a deranged killer that would eventually brutally massacre people in their thousands during one memorable arc. I recall those sequences, where London lies devastated after his attack, having some really messed up imagery as Kid Marvelman went full Lecter on the poor mortals that he has considered beneath him for so long, and it's a little dispiriting that Irredeemable never went that far for as shocking as it could occasionally be. I don't think I ever read its companion arc Incorruptible, though given it has a lead character with the same name as Carmageddon's anti-hero protagonist, I'm in no hurry.

Game Updates!

As before, I spent the whole week playing Fallout 4.

It's getting to the point now where I increasingly have to justify the immense amount of time spent with the game so far. I'm afraid to check the clock, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it in triple figures by now. I've considered whether or not Fallout 4 really has a whole lot to recommend it over, say, Skyrim or Fallout 3 and I think it ties into how Bethesda makes every new one of these incrementally better in subtle ways, thereby reawakening the same feeling of wanderlust time and time again if to diminishing returns. I'll try to elucidate on why that is with some example play below:

It's a common enough occurrence when playing a Bethesda game: You see a silhouetted icon on your panoramic radar, indicating that it's a location you've yet to discover. The telltale outline - gleaned after perusing the in-game map key - suggests that this new location is an office building. You aren't sick of exploring these yet, you've recently gone back to a settlement to unload a full inventory of junk and office buildings have a better than average chance of producing electronics gear, which you presently need for building some automatic turret defenses in a new up-and-coming settlement you recently emancipated from ghouls. The office building does not have giant bags of gore outside - "Good," you think, "that means not having to deal with Super Mutants." Super Mutants are still an incongruous presence in the world given that the Fallout 1 Vault-Dweller dismantled the Master's FEV production some hundred in-game years ago and each subsequent game has tried to shoehorn in a "oh, but Vault-whatever or Military Research Facility so-and-so had barrels of the FEV" to explain why there's more mutants everywhere. They're also a pain to deal with in general thanks to their high HP totals and "Suiciders", irritating to listen to due to their greatly diminished intelligence levels, and the overreliance on them as an enemy can still be held up as one of the major issues with the Bethesda Fallouts, but they do offer the useful if entirely unintentional boon of decreasing the number of locations I'm likely to want to visit. When you're as deep into the loot scavenging cycle as I am, it's beneficial to have some boundaries. Like a diet that cuts out entire food groups that you almost certainly don't need.

These things don't build themselves. Though imagine if they did? That's worrisome.
These things don't build themselves. Though imagine if they did? That's worrisome.

So far, so Fallout 3. But when passing through the building with the upgraded Scrapper perk, every useful object is highlighted: items with circuits and nuclear material, often in short supply, appear as green-tinted objects among the trash littered everywhere because I've assigned those components as valuable. I've also assigned "cloth" as a desired material; not because I'm going to run out any time soon, but because it highlights pre-war money and cigarettes - items of high resale value. With this, I can scour the building for anything I'd want with my enhanced combat shotgun, one-shotting any raiders who think they can hide behind cover. Those sort of AI cover tactics work out in the open, where I more often have to rely on long distances and my high-powered rifle and wait for heads to pop out behind walls and fences in VATS, but within the confined cubicles of this office building trying to hide is on a hiding to nothing. Once everything's dead, I can quickly take anything of value - which hopefully includes a unique perk-granting magazine or bobblehead - and be on my way. The whole process takes less than ten minutes now because of this handy modification to my UI. It takes a while to get to the second level of Scrapper - you need its prerequisite perk, at least five Intelligence (though why wouldn't you have a high INT score, given how it governs the amount of experience you earn?) and be level 23 - but it expediates the game in a way that does it no detriment. I almost wonder why it isn't an automatic feature of the "seek out rare components for equipment mods and settlement structures" aspect of the game, though I'm sure a modder has already come to the same conclusion and made steps to ameliorate the issue.

Before I leave, I notice a weapons bench in the room that the boss raider was hanging out in. Knowing I still need circuits, I find every upgraded weapon that the raiders dropped and hobble my way over to the bench to dismantle them. Weapons and armor have very little resale value for whatever reason, and a non-upgraded piece of equipment will usually only give you a small amount of steel if you break them down: a resource that can be found everywhere. Most settlements have the wrecks of cars lying around, along with other metallic trash, which can be processed into as much steel as you could possibly need. Upgraded weapons, though, can be treated one of three ways: you can remove the mods and dump the core weapons, as the mods have a relatively high value-to-weight ratio and be used on your own weapons if you haven't acquired any crafting perks; you can take a shortcut and just sell the weapons as they are, as they tend to be more valuable than their barebones equivalents; or you can scrap the whole shebang and end up with a small amount of the circuits, gears, springs and other less common materials required to upgrade the gun in the first place. I opt for the third option with the raider's weapons, since none of them are anything like as powerful as my own nor are particularly valuable, and walk out with a handful of comparatively light materials. This adds a little more time to the overall salvage process, but my component-hunting is made all the more efficient because of it. As I walk out with barely half my inventory full, I spot another unexplored building on the radar: a factory this time. Could be I take it on now, or simply get close enough to add it to the world map to quick travel to after I shore up the defenses of that new settlement. Maybe I decide to stop screwing around and follow the nearest quest marker, since I've got several I can be getting on with.

It takes all of that to make one of these, but the reverse is true too. Sorta.
It takes all of that to make one of these, but the reverse is true too. Sorta.

That's Fallout 4 in a nutshell. You could ask why it's necessary to work on settlements since it doesn't seem to offer much to the player character, or why I'd screw around exploring inessential locations when I have more concrete goals to pursue by way of the quest log, but then it becomes a slippery slope towards a "why do we even play games when it's all ultimately a waste of time" debate that I'm rarely prepared to host. Picking through trash to find the occasional treasure reads like the premise of one of those awful "storage raider" reality TV shows, but it's an oddly engaging activity that I frequently lose myself in while listening to podcasts and other audio media. I'd assume you already know whether or not you're the type of person who becomes equally attached to such menial video game busywork. If so, you probably own Fallout 4 already, huh?

Awesome Games Done Quick!

AGDQ 2016 came to a close yesterday evening (or earlier this morning, depending on where you are) and I'm starting to feel about it the same way I do with the Steam sales: I look forward to it every time, but I partake of it less and less. Maybe it's because you can only see the same Sonic and Mega Man speedruns so many times, or maybe because the novelty of watching speedruns for hours in general can wear off after so long, as was the case for SaltyBet and other recent Twitch phenomena. I certainly support their charity efforts though, and there's always highlights every year that become must-see internet TV. In the case of AGDQ 2016 specifically, that would be the Super Mario Maker block.

The Super Mario Maker block, if you haven't been watching, was built around the idea of a relay team blind race. This year's AGDQ has been absolutely packed with races - multiple speedrunners trying to finish a game before their rival(s) using most of the same glitches and tricks, as all of them are well-versed in the optimal speedrun path, and so the thrill comes in seeing whether each one will attempt a risky and difficult maneuver to push ahead. Most, though, aren't going into the game blind and certainly not in teams of four who must alternate players relay race-style after every death. The race took place across eight newly-created stages in Super Mario Maker, individually about as difficult as a normal Jeff or non-Patrick-trolling Dan stage - let's say in the region of 1%-5% completion rate - but made far more challenging when you're on the clock and have to wait for your three teammates to crash and burn before you get another attempt. Professional YouTuber and part-time hot-dog Patrick Klepek and I have been racing these ourselves - though it's worth mentioning that Patrick has no idea I'm racing him, as he's simply going through them in the order they appeared for his Mario Maker Mornings show as a means of thanking the various communities involved for donating to get one of the AGDQ stages named after him - and it's been gratifying to compete (and eventually win) in the same way as the runners. Of course, a handful of those runners then went on to compete against each other through a series of stages I couldn't possibly hope to defeat. Notoriously difficult courses from the likes of Panga that, due to their skill, training and diligence, the racers could trounce in one or two attempts before moving onto the next. At this point the Super Mario Maker block became something akin to the Tetris: The Grand Master showcases of the previous GDQ events: exceptionally skilled runners with thousands of hours of practice making the hardest video game accomplishments in the world seem like pushovers. It was humbling to watch, as are most of these runs.

All that's left is to watch the Awful Games Done Quick archive once it appears - they always bury that block in the wee hours of the morning, despite hosting some of the more fascinating games to speedrun - and calm my roll until the Summer GDQ event later this year. If they bring back Super Mario Maker again, and I imagine they will, I'm looking forward to it.

New Games!

A quick scan of the site's upcoming new games page and... well, yeah, it's January. What was that famous RedLetterMedia saying? "Fuck You, It's January!". We have the PS4 ports of Gone Home (hence the reason why Steve Gaynor was in town for UPF this week, since I'm sure he didn't show up for that Squad game) and The Banner Saga, both of which I'd happily recommend and have done in GOTY lists past, as well as the second game in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Chronicles 2D side-scrolling spin-off series. I didn't play the first one, set in China, but it seemed like a half-decent merging of the enormous Assassin's Creed franchise and that Klei stealth game Mark of the Ninja. Ubi probably played that game and realized how much easier it was to work with enemy sight and sound detection cones in a 2D setting, building games that more purely rely on stealth than combat. I've heard promising things, but I don't know if it's a priority purchase for me this year. I kinda have one big stealth-based game I still need to get to. Possibly two, if Dishonored 2 shows up anytime soon.

/Edit: Breaking news, apparently they're rereleasing the PS2 SRPG Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits on PSN this week as well. If you like SRPGs that handle their mechanics a little differently, and has a "see how the other side lives" concurrent storyline with a different set of characters that are nominal enemies of the main party, I'd recommend trying it out. There aren't many SRPGs out there that do radials instead of grids, after all.

Wiki Updates!

Let's skip Wiki updates this week! I kinda didn't do any Wiki stuff! All right, so I did write this Wiki summary article a few days ago. Check it out for more information on some PC Engine games I came across while on my Wiki traversals. Might be a few you recognize.


A.k.a. A Spirited Defense of Undertale, Because the Internet Needed Another One of Those

Actually, I'm just going to focus on the music in this case, because it remains a sore point from the GOTY discussions. That isn't to denigrate the music of Giant Bomb's eventual winner Splatoon nor the efforts of the far-smarter-than-I Austin Walker, who put up a spirited if unfortunately brief fight to defend the game's soundtrack with a handful of notions I want to cover in more detail below. Specifically the game's escalation of complexity and use of leitmotifs. I'm no music expert, but I realized early on that Undertale was using music in the same meta-textual way it was playing around with game mechanics, graphics and story: they were equal parts a faithful homage to older console JRPGs, jokes that creator Toby Fox was playing on the audience, and subtle clues and commentary to the overarching story going on in the background that attentive players could pick up on early. Undertale uses its music not just to score its scenes and settings with the right amount of pathos and atmosphere, but to explore storytelling via yet another underutilized channel.

That's sort of where leitmotifs come in. A leitmotif is a piece of music that is meant to be associated to a specific character, often played whenever that character appears or presently has the spotlight. The most notable and possibly the earliest use of the leitmotif as a narrative device was in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. A story told with both a narrator and with overarching music, every character in Peter and the Wolf - including the eponymous Peter and the Wolf - is accompanied by a composition on a separate instrument. When they appear in the story, you hear their music. When you hear a character's music but the narrator hasn't yet explicitly stated that they're in the scene, the listener can interpret it to mean that they're either there in secret or are about to appear. It becomes an effective method of showing rather than telling in a non-visual manner.

Undertale's characters have leitmotifs of a sort, but only a few major characters have a significant recurring theme. Those that do, though, have themes that eventually build in not only intensity but in instrumental complexity. Since that's probably not a real term in the musical world, I'll explain what I mean by that: Undertale is very much aping the older school of JRPGs of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras (it can't seem to settle on either) for its presentation and so most leitmotifs begin as simple chiptunes you could feasibly imagine an NES producing. Once the intensity arrives, usually because the player is forced into a boss fight with the characters they pertain to, the music becomes more complex and varied with extra synthesized instruments and sound channels that would be less likely in a video game of its supposed vintage. It's like the game forgot it was supposed to be an archaic throwback for the sake of dramatic effect, and it can be a very potent narrative tool in its application.

I'll have to get into spoilers for the "neutral ending" route here to properly demonstrate what I'm talking about, so if you've yet to play the game I'd recommend you do so before opening the below spoiler block and reading any further. I would suggest to new players that you might want to keep in mind going in how certain characters are represented by their music.

So, all right, there's a few cute references here and there with the leitmotifs. Toriel and Asgore's themes, for instance, have similar melodies but different instruments and/or musical styles involved. This, their identical race and similar use of fire magic are meant to indicate a deeper connection that has been severed for reasons that won't be laid bare until the game's true ending, but can be ascertained through context clues upon meeting Asgore for the first time close to the end of the game. Characters like Papyrus, Mettaton and Undyne give you brief snippets of a basic leitmotif when you're in scenes talking to them (or running away, in Undyne's case) but will become more layered and complex once the inevitable fights with them begin.

The most prominent case of the game's effective use of leitmotif is with Flowey, however. Flowey the Flower is the first monster you meet and appears to act as a sort of tutorial fight for new players. His true malevolent intent is to murder the player character where they stand, but he is foiled by the sudden appearance of Turiel as she walks the player through the game's real (and far too long) tutorial. Flowey's deception is made all the more surprising by the cute and unassuming ditty that accompanies him, which sounds like Totaka's Song for all its chiptune crudeness. The player doesn't see Flowey again (or do they?) until the very end, where he manages to get the drop on the ostensible final opponent Asgore and kill him in his weakened state. He steals Asgore's collection of human souls and takes on the player character again, now with the equivalent power of six humans just like him. The resulting boss fight is something to behold, as Flowey not only breaks the game's aesthetic with his "advanced" (read: Jaguar-era) graphics and digitized actors, but breaks the game's programming with save state scumming and manipulation. He essentially has the same powers as the player (as in, you playing, not the player character) and then some, where having god-like control over a virtual world means being able to mess around with its core coding, in a fashion similar to Neo or Agent Smith from The Matrix movies. His leitmotif is still here, however, buried in the ominous and manic drum n' bass that accompanies this hopeless fight. It's not until the tables are eventually turned after surviving his attacks for long enough that the fight goes from hopeless to optimistic, and the rousing recovery music - simply titled "Finale" on the soundtrack - goes from scary to sublime. The music builds to an intense plateau of percussion instruments as the player lays the smackdown on the suddenly defenseless Omega Flowey, his curious and mocking gasps from weak blows giving way to genuine screams of pain as the player's damage output gets higher and higher.

It all ends in an unexpected manner I don't need to get into here, but by charting the course of Flowey's theme music from the basic handful of notes you hear when he is first introduced to its eventual stirring intensity during your final clash with him is a huge part of why Undertale's music is used so effectively and so cleverly, not to mention a really enjoyable listen.

(Also, if you happen to be playing the genocide/no mercy route, reached a point in any given area where encounters stop appearing and get those long, ominous, bassy notes after no-one shows up, guess what you hear when you speed it up fast enough...)

Anyway, my thanks for reading this week. I'm going to have to figure out how to make these a little more bite-sized moving forwards. Or perhaps I don't, and they'll continue to grow in size until they consume the entire Giant Bomb website before somehow passing through to the real world and destroying everything and everyone you hold dear. Happy New Year!