Undertale – the game promoted as the friendly RPG where nobody has to die. It was developed over the course of roughly two-and-a-half years almost entirely by a single person: one Toby Fox. Mr. Fox already had an internet presence orchestrating music for Homestuck, a webcomic known for its complex plot and large following, but this was to be his first original creation.
The project saw its release in 2015 whereupon it received universal, widespread acclaim from numerous publications. This sentiment wasn’t limited to critics either; so profound was its resonance with the community surrounding the medium that, mere months later, its members voted it the best of all time on a certain site famous for providing walkthroughs on almost every game imaginable. A coalition of video game fans banding together to deem such a new title a superior effort to all that came before is an extraordinary display. It begs the question: what is it about this game that caused those who played it to declare it the best of the best?
Playing the Game
WARNING: I will mark major spoilers with tags as usual, but Undertale is best experienced with a completely fresh perspective. Skip to the conclusion and don’t read the comments if you want to go into this game blind.
As hinted by its tagline, Undertale is indeed an RPG game. Even though it is Western in origin, it adopts a style akin to a JRPG. Encounters are random with battles presented from a first-person perspective similar to Dragon Quest. It doesn’t exactly play like a typical game of its genre, however. For starters, you only ever control the actions of one character: the protagonist.
During the enemy’s battle phase, you must help your character, represented in these portions as a red heart within a white window, dodge all of their attacks. In the event that you face multiple monsters, they all attack simultaneously. These segments are comparable to Ikaruga and the Touhou Project series – all examples of bullet hell games, a subgenre of shoot ‘em ups that started gaining popularity, especially among the Eastern gaming crowd, in the late nineties. Naturally, the two main differences between those types of games and Undertale are the distinct lack of shooting back at your opponents coupled with the ability to take more than one hit without dying.
Successfully felling your opposition will award you with EXP and money. EXP works precisely as one would expect; once you’ve gained enough of it, your level will increase, making your character stronger.
Another clue you may have picked up from this game’s tagline is that you don’t necessarily have to defeat monsters in order to get past them. The “ACT” option allows you have decidedly unorthodox interactions with the monsters you face. So while you could decide to fight the monsters, you can also elect to simply strike up a conversation with them. Every monster has a different set of actions for you to choose. Depending on how you act, you can cause monsters to become peaceful. Once this has happened, you can spare them, ending the fight without violence. Although you can settle for an amicable solution where no one gets hurt, you will not receive any EXP for doing so. Victory is achieved when all of the monsters have left the field.
Needless to say, the gameplay of Undertale certainly is unique. When this game was released, I couldn’t think of any other bullet hell JRPGs. Mr. Fox has stated that Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga has one of his favorite combat systems, and I could tell it had a significant influence on his game’s development. Avoiding enemy attacks isn’t a matter of praying that the RNG is on your side; timing and good reflexes are required to survive in this game. The boss fights in particular stand out as where the gameplay in Undertale is the strongest. You are seamlessly introduced to new gimmicks with each one, making them both fun and memorable.
My favorite aspect about this game is the ability to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. These monsters are a lot more talkative than ones in your average RPG. Listening to what they have to say in between rounds and reading the flavor text plays a key part in learning how to deal with them. Because each monster has their own set of conditions in which they can be convinced to stand down, it could be argued that Undertale is actually a puzzle game masquerading as a JRPG.
In summary, Undertale is what the gaming scene desperately needed in the mid-2010s: an experience that provides a lot of novel ideas, yet is simple to the point where it never gets crushed by its own ambition. During this time, several creators in the AAA industry had the propensity to add superfluous features and mindless busywork so they could proudly advertise that their games boasted over one-hundred hours of gameplay. As a direct result, I grew increasingly more appreciative of creators whose campaigns could treat players to the same amount of meaningful content in a fraction of the time.
Analyzing the Story
In the distant past, a war broke out between humans and monsters: the two races that once ruled over Earth. This conflict ended with the humans’ victory. As for the monsters, they were sealed underground with a magical barrier. Many years later in the 2010s, a child was spotted near Mt. Ebott. Legends state that anyone who climbs this mountain is doomed to never return.
The protagonist must find their way through the monsters’ society and hopefully return to the surface world.
Mr. Fox was no stranger to the art of game development, having created a somewhat morbid version of Shigesato Itoi’s masterpiece, Earthbound, dubbed the Halloween Hack. It was largely a hodgepodge of legitimately interesting ideas weighed down by incredibly awful ones, such as forcing the player to rely on status condition spells to defeat enemies and making the game difficult to the point of absurdity.
It is evident from his earlier effort that Mr. Fox is fond of Earthbound, and I could tell it left an indelible impression on him when reading his game’s dialogue. The humor in particular has a dry quality to it that embraces the conventions of the genre while subverting them at the same time. References to various classic games and even a few internet memes abound in this game, yet they’re not distracting to those who wouldn’t understand them, nor do they ruin immersion – both of which are common traps amateurish authors regularly fall victim to.
What’s also apparent is how much he matured as a writer between his initial forays in modding and his debut game. After having produced the Halloween Hack, he cast aside the notion of making a story dark for its own sake and instead took lessons from the very game that served as his primary inspiration. To wit, Undertale has dark moments, but for the most part, they’re lightly peppered throughout the work, making them that much more haunting when they occur. Considering how many artists still haven’t grown out of the conviction that you cannot achieve true greatness unless you pile on as much angst as possible, it’s refreshing playing a story-heavy title which openly defies the mentality.
Critics who sing praises of Undertale highlight its expertly written scenario, and in this instance, I’ll be joining them. What makes the plot of this game stand out from the rest? The answer is simple: very few games, mainstream or not, have woven game mechanics into the narrative to the extent of that this one does. I’ve always maintained that the best stories in video games use the medium in a clever way, enabling the author to treat the audience to an experience which cannot be replicated in any other format. All too often, many developers, especially AAA ones, miss the point by presenting their story through cutscenes. It’s enough to make one wonder why these creators don’t simply try their hand at directing films if they’re not going to account for the interactive element even the most linear of games possess.
Undertale, on the other hand, features a plot that necessitates the player’s input to even sustain itself. |The greatest example is the game’s battle system and its role in how the story develops; it secretly acts as a moral dilemma which runs throughout the entire game. Should you spare monsters and remain at your starting level or is it better to fight and gain EXP so you are then able to get past a boss that has been giving you a bad time? This game has a similar approach to morality as Papers, Please; it’s completely feasible to be a good person, but not without imposing a challenge upon oneself. The tone of the game changes drastically to reflect how bloodthirsty you are. If you opt not to kill anyone, Undertale becomes the Alice in Wonderland of its day with its protagonist exploring a strange, new world and interacting with the bizarre denizens. Should you surrender to your natural gaming instincts and slaughter everything you come across, your actions quickly transform what was once a lighthearted romp with some creepy moments into a horror show where the serial killer is you.| It’s because of this that I consider Undertale the JRPG equivalent of Planescape: Torment, as it manages to be a remarkably intelligent deconstruction of the genre |and makes you feel like an completely awful person should you walk down an evil path|.
Last but not least is its colorful cast of characters who add a lot of depth to an already well-crafted storyline. Taking into account that you only have one party member for the entire game, this is quite the laudable accomplishment. Then again, even the protagonist is well-fleshed out in their own right. Their personality has a subtle presence to be sure, but even without visible dialogue, it shines through if you pay attention. The further I got in the game, the more I was astonished how forward-looking Mr. Fox’s writing ended up being. It’s a little difficult to say how without the proper context, but I will say that it’s effectively progressive without drawing unnecessary attention to itself. The most readily apparent evidence of this would be none other than the ambiguity surrounding the protagonist’s design – such a small detail goes a long way in allowing a greater number of people to project themselves onto them and their fantastic journey.
Drawing a Conclusion
In the 2000s, the indie scene released a few interesting titles here and there, but it wasn’t until the following decade that it would blossom into a force capable of standing toe-to-toe with AAA efforts, surpassing them on an increasingly regular basis. If you want proof, look no further than Undertale, for it is one of the most profound, avant-garde statements in gaming history. Everything from the combat engine to the myriad ways you can deal with random encounters is brimming with originality and creativity. Moreover, the game mechanics and the narrative complement each other so well, I couldn’t imagine one entity without the other. This is the kind of storytelling future developers should be studying when trying to implement a plot that caters to its medium.
I highly recommend playing Undertale if you haven’t already. Before I played this game, I was worried that it would turn out to be yet another emotional roller coaster which invariably garners much popularity regardless of its true quality. Actually playing the game revealed that my initial reservations were ultimately unfounded. Critics and fans alike have gone on to call it one of the best works of the 2010s, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. Bravo, Mr. Fox. You’ve truly created something one of a kind.
Final Score: 10/10