Humans and Monsters

Level Up Gif
Leveling Overlay in MMORPG Maplestory

“Yes! Finally level 150! Time to grab that sweet gear!”

“Amazing, I’m only level 100. Gotta go grind more mobs to catch up, I guess.”

The feeling of euphoria and achievement when reaching high levels in RPGs after killing many thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of computer-controlled monsters is not at all uncommon to many online video-game players. After all, that time and dedication paid off in the form of higher character statistics! Now your warrior can swing that blade even harder and mage can cast fireballs that burn even brighter! All… to what, kill even more monsters? Look cool in your fancy new armor?

Have you ever thought about all of those monsters’ lives that you took to get a little tiny bit more EXP?

MMO Monster Kill
Fighting in MMO Canto

No, I have never.

That is, until I discovered the RPG named Undertale.

Undertale Logo
Undertale Logo

(Huge spoiler alert for Undertale!)

I know, I know, for those of you who already know of Undertale, even bringing up its game can cause lots of groans and shaking of heads, but hear me out. Undertale, for me, completely changed the meaning of a RPG and how it conveyed such deep and emotional meaning about how a player normally treats games astonished me.

Here’s the rundown:

Undertale, a wildly successful indie game with its endearing 8-bit art style, starts out the same way as many single player RPGs do. The main character, a human played by you, had climbed a very tall mountain, found a crater, and fell down into the underground, where all of the monsters have been exiled to after losing a war to the humans.

Fallen Down
Undertale: Fallen Down

The obvious goal is to get past all of these monsters trying to kill you and return to the overworld. Almost immediately, you notice you have a LV number, HP (hit-points), and AT (attack), DF (defense), EXP stats.

Stat Panel
Undertale: Character Info (Note: This player named themselves “Shulk”)

Again, highly reminiscent of most RPGs. However, Undertale has one glaring difference. You can progress through the entire game without killing a single monster. As the story unfolds, you are informed that the monsters attack due to their fear of humans, but you can choose to talk to them, give them mercy, and spare them instead of killing them. Undertale’s fighting mechanism is bullet-hell, meaning that your Soul, represented as a heart, must dodge all of the missiles in a box to avoid taking damage.

Act Menu
Undertale: Actions Menu in a Monster Encounter

While the player continues not to kill any monsters, the main storyline progresses. The human is taken through the whole underground on their main mission to leave the Underground, forming friendships with the boss monsters along the way. Notable ones include Toriel, the tu“Toriel” monster who teaches the player to be merciful at the beginning, Papyrus, a goofy skeleton-soldier-in-training, Sans, Papyrus’ interesting and punny brother, and Asgore, the king of the Underground.

Pictured from Left to Right: Toriel, Asgore, Sans, Papyrus

The player learns that the monsters are kept Underground by a magical barrier that was created after the war to keep humans safe that will not allow monsters to pass. Only a being with the both the soul of a human and a monster is allowed to exit from the Underground, and the barrier can only be shattered with 7 human souls.

Undertale: The Barrier

Coincidentally enough, there are 6 already collected… and you know what this means.

You’re up next.

Collected Souls
Undertale: Collected Souls

Furthermore, the player learns of the first human to ever fall into the Underground. This person was adopted by Asgore and Toriel, who were the royal couple back in those days. The human was the pride and joy of the Underground, and was treated the same as their biological son. However, the human became sick after eating too many buttercups, and became terminally ill. Their last wish was to see the golden flowers in their home village. Thus, Asgore and Toriel’s son absorbed the soul of the human and passed through the barrier to carry their now-lifeless body to the flowers.

Golden Flowers

Undertale: Golden Flowers

While the son held the human though, other villagers witnessed the dead human in the arms of a monster, and assumed he had killed them. The humans mauled Asgore’s son nearly to death, but had enough strength left to straggle back into the Underground and die on a bed of buttercups. Due to the war to force the monsters out of the Overworld and this event, monsters were persistently seen by the humans as purely malevolent creatures and would be killed on sight, like in almost all other MMORPGs.

This idea was interesting to me because in all other games, I simply accepted that the monsters were “bad” and killed them because they hurt me. I never considered that it could be a world where the monsters were forced off of their rightful territory and killed due to their resistance, a surprising connection between MMORPGs and European history.

Christopher Columbus arrives on the San Salvador peninsula, Bahamas, 1492. (John Vanderlyn)

Now here’s the twist:

In Undertale, I had mentioned you can be kind and spare all of the monsters, but there’s another path as well. You can choose to fight and kill every monster you encounter, even the ones that would have become your friend and are the main characters. You can walk around and discover monsters (much like Pokémon), then kill them all, until instead of encountering a monster, only a dialog pops up on the screen reading, “But nobody came.”

Undertale Hit Gif
Undertale: Fighting
Nobody Came
Undertale: But Nobody Came

Killing all of the monsters in every area takes quite a while to accomplish, and the player is met with sad lines with each kill, such as:

“Froggit is trying to run away.”

“Lesser Dog tucks its tail between its legs.”

“Whimsalot’s flying stutters.”

However, the effect on the player diminishes after many monster kills. I have watched many, many playthroughs online on Youtube of players who first completed the “Pacifist Route”, where they made friends with and spared all of the monsters, and then started the “Genocide Route”, what killing every single monster in the game is called. They all initially felt that killing the monsters was wrong, but cared less and less about the monsters after each kill. Not too long afterwards, they treated it more like a chore to sit through and kill each of them.

When the player continues on the Genocide Route, all of the previous map puzzles are gone, the dialog between boss monsters and the player is altered, and notably, the player’s LV rises. After the player kills every monster in the game up until the Last Corridor, their LV reaches 19.

Undertale: LV 19 Stat Panel in Hallway
Last Corridor
Undertale: Last Corridor

Once the player reaches the hallway to Asgore’s chamber room, they are unexpectedly met with Sans standing at the end of it. This hallway is named the Last Corridor. He speaks to the player and if they are on the Genocide Route, says the following:

Sans Talk Genocide
Undertale: Sans Genocide Speech

“heya. you’ve been busy, huh? … so, i’ve got a question for ya. do you think even the worst person can change…? that everyone can be a good person, if they just try?”


Oh, by the way, if you’ve assumed that I meant “level” up to now by LV, you should now know that it actually stands for LOVE, or Level of Violence… which explains why it rises with every kill. Attack also rises because for each Level of Violence you gain, you feel less and less sympathy for them and are able to do more damage.

Reflecting on this, it made me think about how Sans had really believed in the human to change and make the right choice not to kill everything and everyone completely. It made me think about the outside world, and how even people who have done terrible, terrible things have realized their faults and mistakes, then changed to become a better person. However, in this game on this route, the player cannot decide otherwise at this point. After Sans finishes saying this, the player sprite moves forward at him involuntarily. The player is now locked in on True Genocide and must fight Sans. He is, hands down, the hardest boss fight in the entire game.

Sans Fight Gif
Undertale: Sans Fight

This is because Sans is trying to stop you, the monster, from destroying the entire world outside of the Underground too. At this point, you are no longer the protagonist, but the antagonist, and this fight against you can be compared to a typical player fighting the end boss of a video-game, stereotypically, the “one who is going to destroy the world”.

Grinding mobs? Check.

Gaining higher stats? Check.

Obtaining and using better gear to do damage? Check.

Super-ultra-difficult boss fight that you will eventually attempt over and over to beat?



By slowly reversing the roles in the Genocide Route, making the player feel nothing while killing their former friends, Undertale has successfully mimicked the layout of a typical RPG while conveying the opposite message. I was completely enthralled at how Undertale managed to make me feel so many different emotions regarding a game style that I had played for years upon years, and never gave a second thought to. My childhood consisted of another popular MMORPG at the time, named Maplestory, but I had never considered the cute, pixelated monsters as anything else besides bags of cash and items to wear.

It really made me think about forced points of view within games… and within societies in general. At war, your own country or your own “team” always seem like the Humans, and the opposing side always seem like the Monsters, but there are two sides to the coin and there are always two different stories.


Who considers your Humans, their Monsters?

 – Vivian Li

By The Way

Choices (Don’t) Matter

I never knew how to raise a family.

Back in 4th grade, I was introduced to video games for the first time. My initiation into this inescapable obsession began with The Sims 2.


The layout of The Sims 2’s game screen

Games in The Sims franchise belong to a genre called “life-simulation” where you create virtual characters called “Sims” and control them to literally play out their lives. But it is not that simple: every Sim has its own “Wants” and “Fears” just like normal human beings, as well as basic human needs like hunger, hygiene, social interactions, etc… not to mention some hidden interactions between Sims with different character traits and horoscope signs, as well as unforeseen consequences for any actions taken. My 4-year-old self who created a family of four had no idea how to effectively manage that household and frantically scrambled around the house, switching from one Sim to another and trying to keep them all alive. However, my futile efforts led to the father being hospitalized from not having enough sleep and two children failing all of their classes.

In video games, the player’s choices are absolutely vital to the gaming experience. The Sims 2 serves as one prime example: how the player chooses to control their Sims directly affects the state of the household they’re managing. Every single action has a small influence on Sims, and as the player queues up actions after actions, they’re slowing changing the outcome of the household. The power of the player’s choices also applies to other game genres. In real-time strategy games where players build their army to battle each other, one single miscalculated move can cost you the whole game. Professional players from famous strategy games like Warcraft or Starcraft all design for themselves specific game plans that they follow with pinpoint precision. If they somehow make even just a single mistake, their opponents are very likely to take advantage of it and gain the upperhand. In some role-playing games like Skyrim, your choices can grant your character more powers and stats or conversely, harm your character. In The Witcher series, where more recent games remember and import data from previous titles (supposing the player has already played those), the player’s choices are even more significant, since it gives them the power to alter the storyline throughout the whole franchise (It’s interesting to note that, just The Witcher 2 alone has 16 different endings, depending on your deeds and decisions throughout the game.)


And then of course, when talking about players’ choices, we have to take into account interactive, narrative-oriented games. I find these games especially interesting, more so than game of other genres, since players most often have to put themselves in the circumstances of the characters and see the situation from their point of view.


(An example of the dialogue options in a scene from The Walking Dead: The Game)

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, based on the comic series of the same name, presents to its players a breathtaking immersive story that includes countless decisions that the player has to make. Dialogue choices as well as player’s actions during quick time events (when one has to choose, for instance, who to save, or what direction to proceed) affect how the story plays out and affects the relationships between characters in the cast. The game forces you to actively question yourself: “What would I do if I were him/her? What would be the best choice in this situation?” in order to get through many challenges and obstacles. However, it’s not always that easy – the game is filled with moral dilemmas and you never really know the consequences of your choices until the story continues, so sometimes what seems to be the right thing to do turns out to be a disastrous decision to make. The player is constantly put on the edge of their seats, wondering whether they have paved the way to a better future or pushed their favorite character to their doom.


An honorable mention here would be the Japanese type of game called visual novel that was mentioned in Ethan’s blog post. In most cases, there is almost no gameplay mechanics in these visual novels, although you do ‘play’ them by making your decisions at certain plot points. The focus is all on the story and character development, and you are subjected to an even more complicated network of chocies and consequences. It’s super obscure and in certain titles you can almost never know how to proceed the story in the direction you want to just because of the sheer number of possibilities the developers have prepared for the plot.


This is just one example of how convoluted the choice system in visual novels is

After all these years, I’ve taken quite a liking to games like these. I am fascinated with seeing how my choices alter the storyline and the fact that with every playthrough, I am presented with a whole unique, different experience from the last. I had the same mindset when I came across Emily Is Away (free on Steam, and spoilers ahead!)


Emily is Away is the same kind of narrative-based, story-driven game (albeit much, much shorter than The Walking Dead) In the game you are taken back to the 2000s and chat with your friend and potential love interest through the AOL messaging system. Occasionally you are presented with 3 options to reply to Emily’s messages, and apparently your choices are supposed influence how Emily feels about you. So I went into the game carefully selecting my dialogue so that I could woo Emily, and I really thought I made the best choices.

But in the end, Emily just drifted away.

So I tried again, and again, and again, until I made sure to even try the most nefarious responses. That was when it hit me that in this game, choices don’t matter. No matter what you decide to reply to Emily, the end result would always be the same: you will never be able to get Emily.

This gives me a fresh perspective into yet another way of presenting the narrative in video games. In Emily is Away, to portray the distance between people who have grown apart and use online messaging to converse, the developer puts in an unchangeable ending to emphasize that feeling of futility in players – it’s certainly very disheartening to know that despite all of your efforts, you can never achieve your goal.

To wrap up, I think that the way developers present choices to gamers and how players interact with these choices is absolutely one of the most fascinating aspects of video games. Whether in the case of meaningful choices that influence the story, or choices and don’t really matter at all, the player would always have an unique, memorable experience with the game’s narrative.



Learning the Ropes about Tropes

ENGL 3726 - Gone Home

Spoiler alert for Gone Home — Don’t read further if you want to avoid spoilers.

Just say the word “western,” and I can immediately visualize a high noon showdown, as if I were hiding behind a barrel on the porch of a saloon. Say “sci-fi,” and now we’re zipping by the stars at light speed and shooting lasers at corrupt galactic empire forces. I played a game called Gone Home recently, and everything about it was telling me “mystery” and “horror,” so you can well imagine my thoughts as I stepped into the dimly lit, sparse mansion in the middle of a forest on a dark and stormy night.

Turns out, it’s not horror — your character, Katie, is just trying to figure out why the house is empty on the night of your return from abroad. The reasons are dramatic, rich with complexity, but totally benign of anything supernatural.

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Why was I so scared, though? Why were my immediate thoughts upon entering my family’s new home, “Something horrible has happened here”? Granted, I scare fairly easily, but I think there was more than my lack of fortitude at work. I’d like to say a word about tropes, how they’re used in Gone Home, and how mystery and horror tropes were perfect for this game.

trope is an easy way to make the participant feel standard things: just like I described at the top of the post, they provide a framework for thinking about setting and emotions. I’ve definitely been one to harp on tropes in the past, but really, they’re crucial to storytelling. Without some expectation for what’s about to happen, there can be no surprises, no twists, no novel deviations — the things that are more beloved of a story. Tropes may be a heavy-handed way of establishing the expectations, but they can be incredibly important when used right!

All that said, I think Gone Home uses tropes expertly. In Gone Home, even the title screen, with its silhouettes, secluded look, and one light eerily lit, is a trope of horror, and it immediately makes you feel jittery. I even used the word “eerily” just now, and I’ve already played the game and know it’s not horror! Throughout the game there are a number of tangible cues that make you feel like something in the house is amiss: the house is called “The Psycho House”; the lights flicker constantly; your father has an obsession with conspiracies; the list goes on. My favorite example is the upstairs bathroom stained with red, but you find out it’s just hair dye.

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You might now be thinking, “So what? Why does it matter that Gone Home uses these tropes?” Well, if you think about it, this game desperately needs to rely on them. You are the only player in the game, and you have only one environment to explore. Without the notion of mystery and horror, you would have very little incentive to explore the house — actually, you would have no incentive to explore. This and many other games relies on the assurance that the player, when confronted with a mystery (Sam saying, “Don’t try to find out what happened”), will promptly disobey and begin to search. The trope of flickering and dim lights, secret passages, and a paper trail are tediously common, but they draw you in so the true story can unfold. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get across: the tropes do not make the game; they create the tension players need to discover the game.

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Moreover, I find the implications of the horror tropes in this game fascinating. How many times have you awakened in the wee hours, gone to the bathroom, and then the floor creaks in just the wrong way, making you complete your mission a little too early? Certainly in such circumstances, we have the very same tropes of horror in mind, but we can still recognize they’re just fiction, right? I think Gone Home recreates the very same effect we experience in real life. There is absolutely no danger in the game, but good grief it just feels like something is going to get you!

I’ll leave you thinking about that — is a trope really something you feel just in a book, a movie, a game? Or is it something you carry with you and project? Gone Home wrestles with these questions and blurs the lines between virtual and real experience. It makes an ordinary home come alive with mystery, mythos, and the thrill of discovery. Isn’t that what we all want, a way to make the unremarkable, unforgettable? If that’s the case for you, I have a great game to recommend.

Thanks for reading!


You Can’t Beat Video Games

You know you’ve finished a book when you read the last page; you know you’ve finished a movie when the credits roll. But how do you know when you’ve finished a video game?


I’ve finished the main story line of a handful of video games: Mass Effect, Portal 1&2, Skyrim, all the Bioshock Games, Arkham City, Until Dawn, Tomb Raider and a few others. I’ve seen the final cutscenes and the end credits on all those games, but I don’t feel as though I’ve beaten or finished any of them. Sure, I may have played out the narratives, but in Until Dawn I’ve only achieved one of the possible final outcomes and earned 20% of achievements. In Mass Effect I’ve only maxed out one of the romance options and I never even started acquiring the in-game collectibles. In Bioshock I’ve never gotten around to finding all of the audio diaries, and the list goes on.


Despite all this, I consider myself a completionist. That is not to say that I am prone to completing all side quests, finding all collectibles, and completing the main storyline on all difficulties (as I’ve mentioned, there’s no game in which I’ve done this). I do, however, imbue those aspects of video games with immense value. If I put a game down before I achieve completion according to every possible metric, I feel like a quitter. I don’t feel like I can say I played the game anymore than I could say I’ve read a book that I never finished.  


(Though I’ve completed the main story line of Batman Arkham City, I’ve only completed 57% of the game)


Check the global stats for any game, however, and you’ll see that most people don’t complete anywhere near 100% of the achievements, and in many games most players don’t even earn all the achievements related to main story completion. People don’t often “complete” games, and in most games true completion is nigh on impossible. Games differ from novels and film in that they aren’t designed for everyone to stop at the same point; there isn’t always a clear end or a point of victory. Because of the numerous metrics of accomplishment built into video games, of which main story completion is only one, the definition for the “end” of a game based artistic medium is far more fluid than the end of a written work, film, musical work, etc.


(The Last Laugh achievement indicates that you’ve completed the main storyline; only 19.5% of players earn that achievement)

Take, for instance, the Pokemon games. When I was young I thought I’d beaten  Pokemon Fire Red because I defeated the “Elite Four,” who serve as a final trial for aspiring Pokemon Masters, and signify the end of the main story line. But I realized my friend had cataloged more Pokemon in his Pokedex, so suddenly I was playing the game again trying to catch up. I collected nearly every creature in the game, but eventually, due to some difficulties acquiring Golem and Machamp, I stopped. Even if I had collected all of the Pokemon would I have beaten the game? The answer is simply no. The main story and the Pokedex are only two of a potentially infinite number of metrics for success. The game lays out level and stats as metrics of success as well, so maxing out all of those values would be necessary for the game to be truly completed. Additionally, the Pokemon games include incredibly rare algorithmically generated “shiny” Pokemon with alternate colorations. Collecting all of these shinies creates still another metric of completion. Even if every metric within the game was fulfilled (which would require thousands upon thousands of hours of grinding and spec training) there are countless player created metrics, such as the famous nuzlocke challenge, that could be used to paradoxically complete the game more.


Increasingly such functions are incorporated into games by the developers themselves. The “new game plus” feature has become more and more common; once you’ve completed a game, you can complete it again with increased difficulty and all the abilities you may have earned in the principal game. Furthermore, achievements and trophies (awards granted out-of-game to individuals who complete certain tasks) have created a game within a game. In video games, most actions are considered positive or negative based on the in-game effects they produce. For instance, in one game, firing a rocket directly at your feet is considered a negative action because doing so heavily damages your character and yields no reward; in another game, it is considered a positive action because you take only a small amount of damage and launch yourself vertically to double your standard jump height.


(damage taken+no gain=negative action)


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(little damage taken+double jump=positive action)


Achievements bypass this evaluative frame by encouraging actions which often have no discernible effect on the gameplay (such as the Transmission Received achievement in Portal). Developers can direct players to accomplish tasks which outline an underlying component of the game not apparent in an achievement free play through of the game. Thus, a subtextual game within the principal game can be established by achievements, and this subtextual game can often be no less important than the principal game itself. This introduction of additional material to the game via achievements results in games that very few people actually complete. The numerous metrics of success in every game allow the player to decide which metric indicates that he or she has beaten the game, and when that metric is fulfilled the player will either quit or establish a secondary metric to pursue. This process can repeat itself a potentially infinite number of times, as there is no finite number of metrics in any game.


The only potential exception to this is pure progression based games, such as Until Dawn and those made by Telltale Games, in which the primary gameplay mechanic is decision making. In these games you can in fact attain all permutations of the game in a relatively low number of playthroughs and achieve something as close to completion as possible. It is that fact, along with their lack of endgame, which aligns such platforms with novels and movies, which, as I mentioned at the outset, have a clear beginning and end. With nearly every game outside of this genre, however, the player is essentially unable to “complete,” he or she can only decide when to quit. This is an element of video games which imbues them with a realism absent from most artistic mediums; as in real life, there’s always more you could have done, and how far you go is determined by the difficulty of the challenge and your own desire to keep fulfilling the metrics of success.

Evolution of a Franchise with New Media

SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Grand Order ahead.

Note: As there are too many spin-offs in the Fate franchise, I will be focusing on the main works related to “Fate/Stay Night.”

The Fate franchise is one I have followed since experiencing the first work in the franchise, “Fate/Stay Night.” Now one of the globally top-grossing Japanese franchises, “Fate/Stay Night” was originally humbly released in 2004 as a standalone work, a Bildungsroman in the ‘visual novel’ format, just prior to the widespread popularization of the genre of PC game software in Japan. A ‘visual novel’ is a form of mixed media, a kind of remediation of multiple genres, where the player of the game reads the text of a novel, sees events and reactions as depicted by static or animated character sprites on computer graphic backgrounds, hears the speech of characters as well as sound effects of events while background music changes in the background, and can make different choices – sometimes a large number of choices, sometimes a small number of choices – in order to change the direction of the story, called a “route,” much like the path the player, the protagonist, chooses to reach the ending, much like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, or a video game. In addition, players can save and load at different decisions should they make the wrong decision and reach a ‘bad end,’ or perhaps would prefer to pursue the story from a different direction. It is also possible for players to clear the novel selectively, e.g. progressing through one story route but not the others, or completing every route, including all bad ends. This allocates a large amount of freedom to the player, and allows for a multitude of ways and orders the stories can be told, as it offers an all-around immersion with the simultaneous experience of the visual stimulation of characters and actions on the screen along with the text to be read and animations for actions, aural stimulation as characters speak, events play out, and music plays, causes the players to think about which choices to make and when they should save, and more.


Sample choices in the visual novel, Fate/Stay Night.

In “Fate/Stay Night”, the player is thrust into the position of an inexperienced magus who is suddenly thrust into a battle of seven mages for the Holy Grail, eponymously named the ‘Holy Grail War.’ Equipped with a ‘Servant,’ the spirit of a heroic warrior from legends, he must fight for the Holy Grail in order to make a single, omnipotent wish. Depending on the choices the player makes, the story ultimately takes us through three big arcs representative of different facets of the protagonist’s growth, with the primary route ‘Fate’ displaying the slanted ideals of the protagonist with the theme of “Oneself as an ideal,” the second route ‘Unlimited Blade Works’ which shows us the protagonist’s resolve with the theme of “Struggling with oneself as an ideal,” and the third route ‘Heaven’s Feel’ displaying the protagonist’s resolution of his previous issues with the theme of “The Friction between the real and the ideal.” Due to this format, it is possible to interpret the events of the story in different ways, which results in different people receiving a divergent message from the content they have played through.


Example of a Computer-Generated Graphic depicting a battle in Fate/Stay Night.

While “Fate/Stay Night” was meant to be a standalone project, its immense popularity spawned a large number of follow-up works, including sequels and prequels. One of those such works is “Fate/Hollow Ataraxia,” which is a visual novel sequel of “Fate/Stay Night.” Ataraxia’s continuation of the story of Stay Night proved to be difficult due to the divergence of the routes and the varying results in each of the timelines. However, the story for the visual novel focuses on what appears to be the protagonist from Stay Night, and the story ‘encompasses the endings of all of the routes, while not being any of them.’ However, as there is an end to the story in the visual novel and following events; hence, it was stated that the novel continued out of the ending of a certain rate of Stay Night, but also stated that readers should not think too much about it. Being a visual novel with a similar format as the first novel, the presentation and experience of the player remained about the same in this sequel. Around that time, Stay Night was also adapted into a graphic novel (manga), and an animated television series (anime). These two adaptations, while having the liberty of being in a different format, suffered from the adaptation into a format restrained by time, and thus covered a slightly altered version of the story, with an amalgamation of events from all three routes, but ending with a single route. However, soon after, a prequel novel series, “Fate/Zero” was released, and was also later adapted into an anime.


Cover of a novel in the Fate/Zero series.

               “Fate/Zero” explored the many events that occurred ten years before the events of Stay Night, events which would eventually shape the circumstances surrounding Stay Night. Being written in a more expository format that detailed the previous Holy Grail war instead of focusing on a single character’s development, Zero followed a chronological set of events, swapping back and forth between different factions while establishing backstories for various characters. This was later easily adapted into an animated series, with the perspectives and orders of events already being set in paper, and being provided with an ample timeframe of episodes so that the plot could be properly told without being rushed. However, while Zero was adapted very well, a movie for the second route, “Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works” was released, and as constrained by the movie format, was 105 minutes long, not ample enough to exposit the full contents of the route.


Comparison of Fate/Zero anime (above) and the Unlimited Blade Works movie (below).

               Due to this, ‘Unlimited Blade Works’ was re-adapted into a longer animated television series, much as Zero was. Given this ample timeframe, the route was adapted in a slower-paced way that allowed for proper exposition and depiction of the protagonist, crucial to its themes as a Bildungsroman. With proper character development and depiction of the struggles the protagonist faces, as well as with flashier battle sequences than the visual novel could hope to provide, the anime series was a fantastic adaptation of the source material that allowed one to enjoy the work regardless of experience with the series, but was altogether more enjoyable if one were familiar with the series, as with any other series continuity. A few years later, in 2017, a movie release of the first part of the third route, ‘Heaven’s Feel’ followed. Regarding the time constraints of the movie format, this route was split into a trilogy of movies. With this format, the movie sought to split the movie into three major parts of the character’s realizations to segue into another. Additionally, time is saved by the omission of heavy explanations of every detail, with certain parts that are expected to be known in the beginning are shown as a shot-by-shot exposition. The producers behind the movie stated that the wanted to have multiple levels of immersion with the movie: the movie would still be enjoyable if you were not familiar with the series, but the more depth and knowledge one had of the franchise would serve to increase the enjoyment of the movie, scene by scene, and detail by detail. By drawing on the rich history of source material, the allowances today’s technology makes, and expanding the time, it was possible to go from a movie that was commercial bust to one that was very lucrative and popular.


Unlimited Blade Works anime (top) and Heaven’s Feel movie (bottom).

               Now, the biggest part of the franchise is one of the more recent releases in the franchise, the mobile game “Fate/Grand Order,” which was launched in 2015. Currently available in seven global markets, including Japan, China, the United States, and Korea, the game is responsible for repeatedly single-handedly bringing Sony Music’s profits record highs. Being free-to-play, but offering a higher chance at premium content by purchasing in-game currency with microtransactions, Grand Order is the top-grossing app on multiple app stores across platforms around the world. The game features a mixture of features: one can collect different ‘Servants’ from different times and places, including characters such as Arjuna from the Mahabharata and Thomas Edison from America, features stories with these ‘Servants’ in a visual novel format, with scrolling text, character sprites, music, and choices to be made, and also a ‘game’ portion where the player can use the servants they have collected to battle epic enemies and obtain materials required for progression through the game. By mixing content and features of different kinds of media, the Fate franchise has proved to be successful, making a lot money and capturing the hearts of many fans. This kind of innovation continues to this day, with an animated series, a Virtual Reality demo, and an Arcade game released related to the series, with more content to come. By expanding the horizons with different media with differing approaches depending on the medium, authors can use different techniques to delivery various types of stories to better effect.


Screenshot of Grand Order


Revenue Ranking of Grand Order

New Adventures in Old VR (And Vice Versa)

The Adventure Science Center, located about an eight-minute drive from Vanderbilt University’s campus in Nashville, Tennessee, is an incredibly fun place to explore, learn, and, in my case, work for. I was an exhibit attendant and front desk operator for ASC for quite some time, and in my tenure, I was able to witness first-hand the effects of new media and technology on kids’ education.

One of my jobs was to maintain and run the Blue Max Flight Simulator, which was a two-person pod capable of recreating the flips and turns of a digital roller coaster, or the flight of a fighter jet. The concept was not new- arcades and play places had similar devices in my childhood, but this was the first time I was technologically familiar with the ride. The roller coasters were more like incredibly active movies, in which the viewer watched a tightly shot screen of a digital roller coaster and the pod moved to simulate the drops and flips. The roller coasters were not the most realistic things in the world (we had ones where you rode over space, or through a volcano), but even the ones simulating a realistic experience still gave away their simulation through graphic composition, or through the incredibly loud Red Hot Chili Peppers mix blaring through the speakers.

The fighter jet was user-controlled, with joysticks located on the sides of each seat, and again, the graphics left a lot to be desired. But, the kid’s sense of realism was more than fulfilled by having the pod respond to their joystick movement, actually putting them into a dive or repetitive barrel rolls. Physical movement, it seemed, made up for the pixellated images.

I spent a lot of time watching the rides in the Blue Max bay on the screen on the control panel, listening to the shrieks and swears of passengers, and the weirdest thing happened: it started to get old. I was bored of the standard rides and loops, could repeat the theme music for each ride, and became more concerned with how long it took for patrons to empty their pockets. A child was sitting at the desk next to me playing with the flight simulator that was identical to the one in the pod, the joysticks and buttons controlling a wide array of turns and data. He had figured out, all on his own, how to work the joysticks, shoot, and switch camera angles. And he couldn’t have been more than seven years old.

The ASC recently added a VR center for kids ages 13 and up, and currently has a program designed to put the kid directly in the center of the process of building a skyscraper in downtown Nashville. The equipment was clunky and hard to work with, and more than once, we found minor inconveniences could shut down an entire station. No one wanted to work at the VR station. It was boring. All you did was watch people hooked into a complicated system raise and lower their hands and turn around in a blank, empty space. But in the players’ eyes, they were lifting cross beams, choosing window styles, and directing cranes.

It is a strange feeling to work with VR, to see the detached human side of the virtual playground, and it is easy to get bored with it, like it is with any job. But, looking back, the extent to which VR incorporated itself as a normal part of our lives and work environment was disconcertingly quick (the new exhibit was installed in a month, we were trained for a week, and then it went live). It raises a lot of questions for me about the future of this sort of technology, and the ease with which we adapt to it. Where do we go from here?

Immersion across media

SPOILER ALERT: Minor House of Cards and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Spoilers Ahead

Immersion is that ever sought-after quality, the perpetual goal of any aspiring creator. Individual investment is a crucial component of any successful piece of media. Paintings evoke more emotion when the observer can project some aspect of his identity into the artwork. Nature documentaries are all the more fascinating when the videographer gets up close and personal with the subject(s) of the documentary, be it through swimming amidst humpback whales or trekking through the African safari in pursuit of a leopard. When an audience is absorbed in something, they generate more buzz, buy more merchandise, and become emotionally attached. All of these are within the creators’ best interests, thus this post aims to explore how just a few creators have tailored their product to best allow for audience immersion and investment.

Specifically focusing on storytelling media, immersion manifests itself in various ways. The television show “House of Cards” immerses viewers in a rather unique fashion. Most of the show focuses on the machinations of Frank Underwood, a ruthless politician who rises to power in the US Government by systematically eliminating any who stand in his way. Occasionally, Frank turns to the camera and speaks directly to us, the viewers, proclaiming his ruthless motivations and Machiavellian intentions.

“There are two types of vice presidents: doormats and matadors. Which do you think I am?” –

Some might argue that this detracts from immersion. After all, these short asides draw attention away from the issue at hand and expect a sort of suspension of disbelief from the viewer that these statements don’t actually occur in reality, but in a sort of parallel situation to the events of the show. I would argue the opposite, however. Sometimes Frank’s motivations remain unclear to even the most astute viewers of the show. By inserting these short windows into Frank’s psyche, the director forges a seemingly intimate connection between the audience and Frank Underwood. Despite going against the grain and defying the norms of immersion by breaking the fourth wall, House of Cards presents a commendable example of how to effectively immerse a viewer using unconventional means.

Moving into the medium of gaming, immersion can present itself via multiple avenues. One route is through the implementation of nuanced consequences for the actions of the player. This route is exemplified in the video game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” The player has the option of adopting children from an orphanage. This in and of itself is a rather unique choice presented to the player, but the game goes further and introduces the player to Sissel, a young girl who is relentlessly abused by her father and bullied by her twin sister.

The face of a child who needs to be saved. –

This makeshift Cinderella story certainly tugs at the player’s heartstrings, and it would be remiss if the player were to witness this situation but be powerless to do anything about it. Luckily, the player does have power. One can secretly murder her father, thereby placing her in an orphanage provided the killing is done in secret. She can then be adopted as the player’s daughter at a later date, effectively liberating her from her hellish home life. On a moral level, this action can be questionable, but the fact that the player is even allowed to do this in the first place represents an overcoming of a traditional barrier of video gaming: the player’s “sphere of action.” This hypothetical sphere not only represents the actions a player can carry out within a certain game, but also represents the observed effects of those actions in the game world. For some games, the sphere only extends to the onscreen death of an enemy, and nothing more. Skyrim’s sphere, as evidenced by the Sissel side story, is far-reaching and expansive. The larger this sphere is, the greater influence the player has on the world, and the greater degree to which the gamer is immersed in the world.

Another method to increase immersion is through the controls themselves. How a developer chooses the player’s control over the game has massive implications for the player’s experience of the game. One primary example of this phenomenon can be seen in “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.” In this game, there are two movement modes for controlling one’s character: a default mode and an alternative mode. Both modes are generally identical, with a couple of exceptions.

giphy (1)

Notice the differences in movement. –

In the standard example, the character has weight to his movements. He obeys physical laws to a greater extent and can’t simply snap out of a deep lunge immediately. On the other hand, the alternative mode features much lighter movements, and the character fluidly frolics about with ease. The standard mode is more “realistic,” and thus feels more natural in a strictly objective sense. However, the alternative mode eliminates the clunkiness of the standard mode and makes the character much, much more responsive to the player’s input: commanding the character to move right will move him right instantly in the alternative control scheme, as opposing to waiting for him to stop his current movement then moving him as in the standard control scheme.

So which one is more immersive? The standard scheme can be construed as more lifelike, forcing the player to carefully decide how he or she will move the character so as not to waste time and lose potential battles by making unnecessary movements. However, the alternative scheme is more fluid, enabling the player to undergo a smoother and less frustrating experience. Neither answer is 100% correct, as this matter is often left up to personal preference. Nonetheless, Witcher 3 presents a fantastic example of how the controls of a video game can contribute to immersion in various ways.

There are countless other ways in which creators invite audience immersion, and this post explored only a few. As technology and audiences progress, creators continually search for more avenues through which they can entice audiences to invest themselves in their creations. There is no one best way to ensure a captive audience, but it certainly presents an exciting lens through which to view a work of art.

  • Sunny Chennupati