Open The Door: How a PlayStation RPG Helped Inspire Undertale

Moon, Undertale, and transcending the limitations of games

Open The Door: How a PlayStation RPG Helped Inspire Undertale
Source: Author.

Most people even tangentially involved in the gaming community have by now heard of Toby Fox’s Undertale. From lovable skeleton plush dolls to online concerts performed by overseas orchestras, Undertale has established its presence as a modern classic in the eyes of fans and developers worldwide. Even industry legends like Nintendo’s Masahiro Sakurai, Nier creator Yoko Taro, and Shigesato Itoi of Earthbound fame have shared their praise for Undertale — something unprecedented and unthinkable for a western indie title made by a small development team.

Toby Fox did not conjure Undertale from thin air, however. If it is indeed a modern classic, it owes many of its ideas to a lineage of previous classics tackling complex themes of mental health, interpersonal relationships, and the metatextual. Fox’s Earthbound influence is widely known, for one. But what of the others?

Tweet thread written by Toby Fox in 2017.

On Twitter, Fox described how Moon: Remix RPG Adventure for the original PlayStation inspired his work in Undertale. In moon, Fox explains, “the ‘Hero’ broke into people’s houses and ransacked their cupboards without asking, killed innocent monsters without abandon, and left the world in disarray... doing what a normal RPG ‘Hero’ does.”

After singing the game’s praises in 2017, Fox was later able to chat with Moon’s lead designer (one of the three main creative forces, along with Kenichi Nishii and Taro Kudo), Yoshio Kimura of Onion Games. Their conversation inspired Kimura to pursue an English localization, something many fan translators have tried and failed to accomplish in the 23 years since its original release. For the first time, audiences overseas could fully appreciate the quirky, metatextual adventure of moon on the Nintendo Switch, as translated by game developer and journalist Tim Rogers.

“But wait, dear author! What does it mean to be a ‘remix RPG adventure’?” Glad you asked! The key strength of Moon is that it is effectively an anti-RPG, where the Hero is ironically something of a villain. As the game’s protagonist, the player is tasked with stopping the Hero’s mad rampage and mending the broken world around them. Players must accumulate LV in order to progress, an abbreviation of LOVE — this LOVE is obtained by doing good deeds.

Author's Screenshot.

Moon, like Undertale, has a distinct idea of what it means to do a “good deed". Throughout the game, the player is tasked with rescuing the souls of colorful, googly-eyed, claymation-esque Animals, slain by the Hero in his ransacking of the realm. Rescuing an Animal is in itself a complex puzzle with multiple steps — some are easier than others, but the weirder the solution, the more fun it can be to succeed.

I’m personally fond of Sadmile, a being “shrouded in mystery… theorized [to have] evolved from a simple conch”. In order to rescue Sadmile’s soul, players must watch birds flying overhead in a given area; if a blackbird is among them, the player must then wait on the bridge nearby until nighttime, where Sadmile’s soul “shall creep up from the depths of heck”. Other Animals have similarly ludicrous requirements, including but not limited to locating the correct hallway in a haunted mansion at 2:00 AM, standing on a cactus at sunset, and catching a flying booger-beast as it flies at Mach 5 across the screen.

Good deeds can also be carried out in the town where our protagonist lives. Many main story instances and side quests involve talking to residents and helping them solve their problems. I highly advise prospective players to complete the Baker’s side story — it is emblematic of the humorous absurdity in titles from Love-De-Lic and Onion Games. Say hello to Florence in the Mushroom Forest for me, too. Help him get all those fungi sorted.

These acts of kindness stand in ironic contrast to the Hero’s journey. Though supposedly the realm’s savior, the Hero mostly commits acts of violence in his quest to slay a dragon and quell a rumored calamity on the verge of destroying the planet. He doesn’t save the Animals, he just kills them. He doesn’t help the townspeople, just robs them. The game later implies that this calamity the Hero must vanquish may not even exist; it is perhaps a paranoid representation of the human impulse to destroy the “other” to protect the understood.

This nonexistent calamity, however, is more than an allegory for senseless destruction. It is the weight and burden of prophecy — the classic game construct where your princess is in another castle, where your kingdom is once again under siege by a reincarnated evil, where the remnants of a lost society hold the key to destroying a parasitic, intergalactic threat to all life. This false fortune is a stand-in for gaming conventions themselves, and the player is rewarded for breaking out of that context into something new.

Moon urges players to consider what they take for granted in games. The quirky ensemble of creatures the player rescues are very intentionally described as Animals in lieu of “monsters". NPCs will comment on the Hero’s reckless inclination to barge into their houses and steal their bras. Moon is both an homage to and clever satire of games as an artistic medium, challenging us to step beyond the threshold of convention and venture into the unknown.

Perhaps the most direct representation of convention-defiance in Moon is the presence of physical “prophecy tablets” known as Rumroms. Rumroms are gray square slabs meant to evoke the ROM chips in an old-school game cartridge.

Source: Gamespot.

These ROM chips contained all of a game’s data — its entire world, population of characters, and internal logic. That the inhabitants of Moon’s world are governed by these chips is a direct statement about the limitations of existing in a game world. The only way to transcend those limitations is to take the ideas from the game and carry them with you into your life.

Toby Fox carried Moon with him, and created Undertale; he continues this legacy of creating and surpassing limitations today, now working on Deltarune. Both of Fox’s titles demonstrate a visceral mastery of the ludonarrative, and weaponize it along the axis of choice. Undertale is all about player agency and the responsibility that comes with choice, while Deltarune, thus far, has centered its narrative on the near-total absence of choice, carving out a darker response to its predecessor. Moon approaches player agency in similar ways — it’s no surprise that playing it feels like unlocking the key to both of Fox’s stories, enabling players to appreciate all three games on a deeper level.

As genre-breaking titles, both Moon and Undertale invite different forms of uncharitable critique. Undertale has been criticized for “shaming” players who choose to play the Kill-All Route; this criticism, while understandable, is more symptomatic of an inability to speak the game’s language. The emphasis on choice in Undertale is an intentional means of confronting the player, prompting them to consider the convention of casual killing in the large majority of games. Undertale does not forbid players from attacking monsters, but rather awakens them to the weight of those choices — it depicts a realistic outcome in which characters will openly despise you for harming their loved ones and destroying their home. The question of whether or not we are justified in our actions as game protagonists is the answer in itself. Quoth Fray, key character in Final Fantasy XIV’s Dark Knight quest line, “do not seek forgiveness, for it will not ease the burden. It weighs as it should.”

Meeting with the King. Source: Vidyasur - Medium.

Alternatively, Moon is occasionally framed as having an “anti-gaming" message due to its ending. This, too, is a failure to meet the game on its level (hah). To “open the door” is not to disavow games as a valuable form of art — rather, it is a call for games themselves to grow beyond their limits. When we share the experiences we have in games with others, they take on new life. A story that we keep telling will never truly end, so long as people exist to hear and interpret it.

The end credits segment of the game represents this by superimposing characters from the in-universe game over scenery from “real life". Whether the characters’ migration to reality is literal or figurative is for players to decide, but the key takeaway is that they exist somewhere beyond the bounds of their code: in our collective imagination.

Both Moon and Undertale speak to the history of games themselves in poignant allegory and pastiche. They pick at what players might take for granted in the context of sixty years of video game history, daring to make us confused, awed, uncomfortable, and inspired. Games are entering an era where they have awakened to themselves; the conversation moon started in 1993 has taken off in the past five years with more and more titles featuring meta-narratives and commentary.

As games develop their consciousness, we develop our imaginations — whether you love or hate Moon and Undertale, their strength lies in the shared message of their respective metatextual commentaries: games can and will continue to transcend their conventional limits alongside us, so long as we keep creating them.


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