End Roll

End Roll is a free RPGMaker horror game which can be found here. It’s… OK, I guess?

You play as Russell, a fourteen-year-old boy sentenced to death on account of being a serial killer. Instead of awaiting his execution, however, he agrees to participate in rehabilitation program Happy Dream, in which some form of drug is used to enhance his dreams, turning them into a coherent world where he can live and be confronted with metaphorical representations of his misdeeds, from which he is supposed to learn guilt for what he’s done.

Gameplay-wise the game is very rote. You gather your party character by character, go into a dungeon of some sort, get random encounters every X seconds, sometimes solve a puzzle or two, then fight a boss. The game uses the standard RPGMaker fight system, which I swear is designed to be as boring as possible.Most of the early battles are resolved by hitting the enemies until they die and occasionally using healing items to not die. Once you level up a bit and get more skills, the fights are resolved by hitting the enemies with your strongest skills (preferably the ones that affect all enemies unless you fight a single opponent), occasionally using healing spells to not die and using items to replenish mana supplies.

This game doesn’t even try to liven it up like, say, the Logomancer attempted with its constantly-changing enemy status forcing you to switch characters’ roles in combat. The only halfway-original thing in End Roll when it comes to combat is that most characters have two types of weapon, the second changing their stat layout (turning a healer into a warrior, for example) and unlocking certain skills. But then, it’s a simple choice between two builds that you’re probably going to make once and forget about it afterwards. Everything else should be familiar to you if you played RPGMaker games before.

At least dungeons are pretty small, so it remains tolerable, but still.

There is also the standard issue of characters leveling up only when they actively fight in your party, which means that if you like to explore the optional dungeons, some of the characters would have massively inflated levels compared to the ones you recruit afterwards, which may easily lock you into a particular party configuration.

Also also, in the post-Undertale world it’s very weird to see a game dealing with murder and guilt yet still unconditionally rewarding you for killing everyone who looks at you funny. There is actually explanation for this, since at one point you can meet a metaphorical representation of Russell which would tell you that he always wanted to visit a video game world where murder is natural and doesn’t provoke any reaction from other people. So it does make sense for his dream world to operate on RPG logic, but you’d expect it to change as his guilt level increases and the world begins to unravel, yet it never really challenged and murder remains the solution to all life’s problems.

Overall, the gameplay is not the worst I’ve ever seen in an RPGMaker game, but it’s not anything to write home about, either.

Plot-wise, the game does little better.

So, the way it works is that Russell’s dream functions as a small but complete world with people inside (who are all based on people Russell killed) mostly living their lives, even if they aren’t real. Russell himself is known to them as a new resident in town whom they welcome warmly. Each day, some new problem arises to plague the town, and Russell is dragged into solving it by one of the residents. That results in clearing one dungeon or another and facing a boss metaphorically representing something about the death of the focus resident. After the boss fight, Russell wraps up the mission for the day, goes home and gets some horror-themed mindfuck about the murder, which is supposed to foster guilt in him.

The problem here is that it’s very repetitive. Once you get what’s going on, there is little to keep your attention since you already know how it’s going to go. I suppose that the death scenarios are sufficiently different and imaginative, but most of them are presented to us in the same way, which rather undermines my interest in them. I blame gameplay for it, especially since when the game does break the formula in two scenarios and focuses first on puzzle-solving and later have you chase the enemy around and fight with an incomplete party rather than doing the usual dungeon, it becomes much more enjoyable.

Now, onto the characters. The only real character there is Russell himself. He is the only one who has a character arc and changes over the course of the story, though it’s mostly seen through a special location where you can find Russell’s reflection telling you about how he sees himself and through other characters’ reactions at him since he remains a silent protagonist throughout the game. Other characters are pretty static. They do have personalities, but they aren’t exactly well-rounded, plus the characters are actively prevented from learning about their own deaths or confront some other major issues, which rather limits the range of their potential reactions.

As for Russell, he starts as someone who utterly lacks any guilt, doesn’t quite comprehend his own emotions and doesn’t care much about anything. He killed because he felt like that at the moment, be it out of jealousy, anger or something else. It’s actually an interesting idea that I feel Nasu would have a field day with. How do you deal with someone who just doesn’t have any kind of remorse? It’s not even like he killed because he actively enjoys violence. Every murder was motivated by something, and when he killed his parents and didn’t know what else to do, he went to the police, confessed and agreed to do whatever they told him he should do. So, do you just lock him up and throw away the key? Kill him? Try to reason with him and teach morality intellectually? Hide among the politician so no one would notice?

Aside from abstract questions, it also provides an interesting perspective. Someone who can do most horrifying things motivated purely by situational whims and not feel much of anything afterwards is a character that is simply interesting to show and explore, and there aren’t many people like that in media, especially among the protagonists.

And it ties neatly with Russell perceiving the world of RPGs, where murder is common and unremarkable, as desirable. Even if you’re not actually a sociopath, that probably didn’t prevent you from, say, getting those kids in Fallout 2 to steal an explosion about to go off from your pocket (that never gets old). So, Russell’s characterization could have served as a nice way to go meta and explore the basic conventions of RPG genre.

Alas, the game isn’t particularly interested in all that. We quickly find out that Russell’s sociopathy is due to the abuse he suffered from his parents, and the goal of the game is actually to increase Russell’s guilt level to that of a normal person, which is accomplished by triggering guilt events in the game: usually some kind of mindfuck you get by visiting a certain location and learning more about Russell or continuation of a murder story from the previous day you get by revisiting a dungeon with an appropriate character in the party.

Aside from turning a potentially interesting idea into a cliche, the issue here is that rising guilt doesn’t particularly feel like an accomplishment. While some guilt events require your active participation, others are activated just by exploring the world, which makes it feel like Russell is improving without spending much effort on his part.

But alright, I’m willing to believe that, being free from past abuse and confronting the situation from a fresh start, he might have reflected on his life and find it lacking. Drugs probably helped, too.

However, his character arc ends in suicide. After going through seven days of treatment, confronting each of his murders anew and learning to feel remorse about them, he awakens for the last time, leaving disintegrating dream world behind and kills himself. And… I find that deeply unsatisfying narratively. It’s just to neat, too clear-cut and reminds me of what Farla talked about in her review of that comic with cannibal children about how people think that you can be tainted forever by certain actions and death would be then a mercy to you.

I mean, someone who was a monster for a better part of his life and then suddenly grew conscience is interesting. How would he deal with it? What path is he going to go down? Would he try to atone for his sins in any way he can? Leave them behind with some symbolic closure and move on? Wallow in remorse forever? And, of course, how would the society react to him? Some of his victims had friends, family, so what would they think about Russell’s successful rehabilitation? Would they accept it? Deny that such monster could ever change and demand justice to be done? Take the law into their own hands?

Those are interesting questions to ponder, perhaps more so than what to do with a person lacking remorse since these ones are closer to our lives. I mean, the goal of the justice system is supposed to be rehabilitation of criminals, turning them into law-abiding citizens, yet former prisoners often have problems finding a job and face other forms of persecution. The reasons of that are very understandable, since people feel anger at what those criminals have done or are simply disinclined to trust former crooks, but are they valid? When does justice become vengeance?

The game isn’t interested in exploring those questions. Instead, it provides a simple answer: people like Russell should die even if they’re truly remorseful. See, right before the suicide we get a message from the staff about how a life of speeches about his experience with the project and how it changed his life awaits him. The message is worded very sarcastically and derisively, indicating that the writer(s) didn’t think much about that option. No, clearly Russell should just kill himself instead of becoming someone who could promote the project and potentially help rehabilitate other criminals, turning them into productive members of society.

And, well, honestly, I find that message rather disturbing. I don’t know what should have happened to Russell, whether he deserved a good life or a lifetime of atonement for his crimes or what, but it’s clearly not that.

OK, moving on. Tone.

Tonally, the game is very jarring. First thing you see starting it is a recorded message playing on a monitor, which starts with “Good morning, deranged maniac” and continues in the same sarcastic flippant tone. That instantly made me think that the game was going to be dark humor, but the main storyline goes for more standard fantasy-ish plot (monsters appeared in the forest! You should do something about it!) that is subverted at the end of each day with a mindfuck about the death of your daily companion. That could have been effective (if not for the repetition), but coupled with the messages in the real world ends up jarring instead.

There are other things that don’t fit, mostly found in optional dungeons. Like, there is a location populated by sapient cats who are all addicted to catnip, which is very close to what I though the game was going to be: dark flippant humor with cats behaving by gangsters and drug addicts and burning their own when they go too far with the drugs so as to hide what’s going on from other people.

And, well, that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the game. And yeah, I know, dreams are weird, but that still doesn’t work in something with a coherent narrative (unlike, say, Yume Nikki).

The main storyline tries to be drama and horror, but it’s undermined by you being just so removed from what’s going on. Firstly, it’s a dream, not a real world, all people are just mental constructs that have no reality beyond what Russell gives them. Secondly, their prototypes are all dead already and you can’t change it. Thirdly, they don’t become deader. Even after you learn about how this or that character died, they don’t disappear from the dream world (which could have been emotionally effective). They’re sheltered from the truth, and while they may appear as grotesque corpses during mindfuck sentences, they’re going to be right back to normal the next day, which means that your actions have little immediate consequences in this world. Fourthly, we don’t even know how much they resemble their prototypes. Some of them Russell knew well enough that they behave at least similarly, but others he knew little, so for all we know they could have been completely different people from what we see about them in the dream.

Overall, it feels like the game doesn’t know what it wants to be, so it tries to be all of the things: character study and horror story and dark comedy and standard fantasy fair, and in the end it fully succeeds in none of that. Some sequences work pretty well and manage to provoke an emotional reaction, but other immediately undermine them. It is, in a word, a mess.

Which is a shame because I couldn’t say that the game is half-assed. A lot of LOVE and effort was clearly put into it, with characters having a lot of unique dialogue each day which changes depending on whether it’s day or night, whether you have the companion of the day in your party already or not and how far you are in your mission. Party members have unique dialogue for each dungeon’s safe room, there are unique scenes for specific party combinations on resort island, optional dungeons are clearly crafted with an aim to make them feel unique and entertaining, etc., etc.

The devs clearly tried their best in making this game, it just wasn’t enough.

So, overall, I found this game rather meh. The gameplay is rote, the plot is repetitive, the characters are flat except for Russell, the tone is inconsistent and the final message is either disturbing or thoughtless. There are elements that work and work well, there is some good design to be found, there are some cool ideas and creepy murder stories, but in the end the game is less than the sum of its parts.

I feel that a lot of problems here can be traced to the game being an RPG. It would have worked much better as a Yume Nikki clone where you would traverse various surreal landscapes, collect fragments of your memories to piece together murder stories, get guilt mindfucks and from time to time wander into some bugfuck location.

As it is, I can’t truly recommend this game unless you’re really into some aspect of it and are willing to tolerate the rest of it to enjoy the part you like.

In conclusion, go play .flow.

11 Comments

  1. soilofgenisis says:

    It’s actually an interesting idea that I feel Nasu would have a field day with.

    Actually, There is this character in Nasu’s AozakiNovel. Too bad since it’s just supposedly the first part of three, the main character actually only gets to know him at the end for a little bit, leaving everything woefully unexplored.

     

    Also the character seems to have a weird romantic history with Touko. (Which makes sense, since it’s Touko)

  2. Roarke says:

    There are a lot of things in Fallout 1/2 that never get old, despite being soaked to its eyeballs in pop culture.

    Lately, I’ve been getting through another run of Planescape: Torment, and I had this really weird thought that Chara and Coaxmetal would make a great pair.

    1. Roarke says:

      You know, now that we mention Fallout 2 and PS:T, it might be a good idea to see how many of Undertale’s elements existed back in the era of old-school CRPG’s. I mean, a lot of PS:T is about how much regret you feel (or don’t feel if you’re an asshole) about all the harm you’ve done in the game and its backstory. It was one of the first games that really focused on using dialogue instead of violence to solve conflicts.

      1. illhousen says:

        Well, if you look at the design documents for PTS, it’s plainly stated that the devs wanted to get away from genre conventions and subvert a lot of them, like how there are only three obligatory fights (though, of course, in reality it’s easier to kill mooks than trying to sneak past them or whatever). A lot of it is superficial, though: there is, like, one sword in the entire game instead of swords being the default weapon, rats are dangerous and powerful opponents instead of free exp, etc. Still, some overlap is inevitable.

        However, the prime difference between PTS and Undertale is that PTS subverts genre conventions while Undertale deconstructs them. PTS wanted to be its own thing, not like other RPGs, so at every turn it tried to go its own way, but it didn’t actively question certain ingrated genre elements, like unconditional reward for murder. Undertale, on the other hand, actively comments on other RPGs, and so resents and resembles them more strongly.

        PTS does explore morality, but it’s entirely in-universe morality. It’s never suggested that, when you do bad stuff, you do it just to see what would happen or because you’re bored. The Practical Incarnation, the embodiment of everything you should not be if you want to be a decent person, certainly had a specific goal in mind and worked towards it rather than doing random shit to amuse himself. He just had zero limits on what he was willing to do to accomplish it.

        1. Roarke says:

          Yeah, you’re right. PS:T wasn’t meta enough to comment on game conventions themselves. And for that, I give praise and laud it as my #1 favorite game ever.

          I do think, though, that as with any good exploration of morality in a game or other fiction, that it serves well as a way to explore morality in real life. A lot of the cruelties and kindesses of PS:T are really normal ones taken to their logical extremes. And, incidentally, the least fun way to play PS:T is to play it like a normal murderhobo rampage.

          Like, one of the ways Undertale ultimately fell flat for me was when I finally did a Genocide Run. Undertale did unconditionally reward me for murder by letting my fight Undyne and Sans. They were super fun! No matter how hard Undertale shits on you narratively for it, mechanically it was really rewarding. 

          In that way, I’d actually say that PS:T was better, though that might be an unintentional side-effect of the Infinity Engine. There are a ton of cool and clever ways to resolve the last boss fight. Actually fighting him is really flat in comparison.

          1. illhousen says:

            Hm, I don’t know. Undyne and Sans’ fights are rewards only when you like super-hard boss fights, and I’m not actually a big fan of that. Plus, the rest of the route is rendered super-boring: most monsters die in one punch, so you don’t get to play the mini-game, puzzles are disabled, most bosses also die in one punch, you’re required to go back and forth for like five minutes to get the last monster, not to mention all the monsters before it, money is not an issue…

            I mean, it could be considered a reward for really dedicated fans who want to see everything this world has to offer before moving on to the next, but on its own merits, as a game, the Genocide route is pretty bad, and that’s a point. Your bad time starts long before you meet Sans.

            As for fighting the Transcendent One, well, if you fight him, your party members stay dead (except for Morte, I guess, since he’s just pretending), so there is a direct reward for resolving the conflict with words.

            1. Roarke says:

              Your bad time starts long before you meet Sans.

              This is true, very good point. The good time starts when you hit Undyne. HOTLAND does frickin’ suck, that 40 (really 37) monster quota hurts.

              I don’t actually feel that killing the named characters in one blow was super unrewarding, since they all did get to chime in with something before dying. Either way, it was all worth it to fight Sans. I do in fact love super-hard boss fights.

              PS:T would have been better without those random ruffians. I’m glad the makers learned their lesson; in the spiritual sequel that is coming out in early 2017 can’t wait, there isn’t a single random fight. As for the Transcendent One, yeah, I forgot you can’t revive your pals unless you merge with him. Gotta remember that for later.

              Reply
  3. Kikikaka says:

    Greetings. It was a good read but I would like to provide a different point of view regarding this game.

    First of all I do not think there is an inconsistency in the game’s tone as the different elements you have mentioned either are somehow related or simply not the focus of the game. The sheer amount of dialogues for the npcs allow them to look more lively and makes Russell (and the player) somehow more reluctant to end the dream world. This is even more apparent in the bonus room where you can change your character into the npcs and interact with other characters. Even though fundamentally they are nothing but Russell’s imagination (or a bunch of 0 or 1 from the perspective of the player), they indeed are “alive” in that realm.

    As for your comment on the dark humor part, I think you just over-reacting a little bit. I find it hard to believe being called “deranged maniac” and seeing drug-addicted cats will bring any signs of dark humor. Rather, I would find them eerie and unpleasant. The world created by Russel’s dream deteriorated really quickly throughout the days and I would say the world has to be looked somewhat peaceful and fantasy at first in order for the player to feel desperation and hopeless overtime. The initially happy world indeed enhances the story-telling rather than crippling it. This is consistent to the inevitable demise of Russel in the endings.

    That being said the game’s plot itself is not without flaws. I find it difficult to relate to or sympathy Russell as the player. While Russell’s upbringing is problematic, I would say he still deserved to be executed considering the severity of his crimes. Think in this way, assuming his upbringing contributed to 95% of the murdering Russell has done, he still deserved either death sentence despite his 5% responsibility. Taking into account of his intent, the first few murders committed by Russell are extremely selfish and simply based on jealousy and blood lust (although somehow Russell’s later murders appear to be more justifiable). His remorse cannot resurrect the people he killed anyway, and showing the consequences of his hideous acts to the society is equally if not more important than justice. Of course in modern jurisdiction he is more likely to stay in prison  rather than being executed, but still you get the idea. Punishment is an end and death-sentence is just one of the many possible means.

    Nevertheless the game still succeed in presenting the feeling of “guilt” to me in a very unusual manner. Since none of Russell’s endings are actually “happy”, I feel like my effort to build up guilt and save the boy are nothing but “lies”. What I am doing is actually executing the boy either by letting his guilt overwhelming him or makes him so happy in dream that he does not want to leave. Although I believe his punishment is well-deserved, I still find it difficult to pull that off by my own hands.

    I actually find games like yume-nikki and .flow more inconsistent. The gameplay (or absense of) and the layout of maps seems to be promote a sense of isolation, loneliness, unsettling feelings which I truly appreciated. However these feelings generally doesn’t connect to the endings properly and the connection between different realms are either overly-subtle or non-existence. While some people may enjoy debating the purpose of these games I actually feel like the games are unfinished product. At least in “end roll” I would say the author successfully convey some form of message, and players are allowed to agree or disagree on that.

    Finally, as an additional thought unrelated to the game itself, assuming something like “end roll” happens in reality, and the victims’ family know the “happy dream” re-habitation. What will they think when they knew or saw their deceased family members lives on in the brains of the murderer? I honestly cannot imagine how they will act or feel at that moment. Pretty mind-blowing isn’t it?

    Sorry for wall-of-text. Probably lots of typos and grammar mistakes as they are just typed in a rush.

    1. illhousen says:

      As for your comment on the dark humor part, I think you just over-reacting a little bit. I find it hard to believe being called “deranged maniac” and seeing drug-addicted cats will bring any signs of dark humor. Rather, I would find them eerie and unpleasant.

      They’re way too blatant to be eerie, though. What would work in the first case is complete professional indiffirence: “Good morning, patient #… 16… You’re watching an instructional video for your treatment. Please, pay attention, as there will be no repeats…”

      For cats, what would have worked is making them seem cute and helpful at the start (and more like actual cats in form) and then reveal the drug addiction and violence and all that. Metaphorically destroying something good by revealing ugliness inside is a classic narrative trick.

      While Russell’s upbringing is problematic, I would say he still deserved to be executed considering the severity of his crimes. Think in this way, assuming his upbringing contributed to 95% of the murdering Russell has done, he still deserved either death sentence despite his 5% responsibility.

      Well, I’m not a big fan of capital punishment to begin with. Execution is used because often we lack the ability, resources or motivation to redeem people and can’t truly judge the success or lack thereof. The game, however, resolves all of those issues, so the only thing truly gained by his death is giving the loved ones of his victims some closure. Whether it’s worth a life of someone who could have become an OK person now is an interesting question, but not one the game is truly interested in exploring.

      I think that the suicide is here not so much as a reasoned statement as a way to tie up loose ends precisely so the game wouldn’t have to deal with what happens afterwards.

      I actually find games like yume-nikki and .flow more inconsistent.

      Oh, they are. What they have going for them is that they generally don’t try to tell a coherent narrative. They create surreal landscapes to explore with the sole purpose of creating atmosphere, and in that they’re successful. End Roll aspires to more, and so should be regarded with a more critical eye.

    2. Farla says:

      and showing the consequences of his hideous acts to the society is equally if not more important than justice. 

      Why? Is there anyone who says, “Gosh, I’d LIKE to kill someone in a moment of blackout rage, but knowing this specific level of punishment is a consequence makes me decide not to!” that we’re aiming this at? The only impact “showing consequences” has for the rest of society is it’s followed by an increase in violent crime for some reason and a bunch of bonus trauma for the people we make carry out the punishment.

      What’s more important than justice is pragmatism. If something just makes things worse for everyone involved, it’s a bad idea.

  4. inacontentedmood says:

    I played it years back and suddenly craved a replay, so searching it up on the web. I agree that the mechanics were a bit boring but it wasn’t that simple and was nice for its price (i.e. free). The story ran a bit dry with all the tonal clashes after awhile but it was a fun ride while it lasted. I just enjoyed the designs and the backdrop of edginess which I didn’t take too seriously either, it was more or less thrown in to give the game some emotional flair. If the game ventured into Crime and Punishment tier, the author could make everyone’s wallet really hurt.

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