Treat or Trap: Toby Fox’s Undertale

In honour of Halloween, tonight’s quick and dirty Mythic Bios article will be a video game review appropriate to the season at hand.

It is a fine game to play on an autumn afternoon or Halloween night. Imagine taking Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and combining it with Abby Howard’s The Last Halloween, apparently some Earthbound and some subversive turn-based RPG mechanics and what you might get is Toby Fox’s Undertale. And this description doesn’t do the game any justice.

Undertale

In Undertale, you play as a child who has climbed up Mount Ebott and found themselves in the Underground: the site of which the race of monsters was banished ages ago in an ancient war with humankind. Now, there are two ways you can play this game. However before I go on, I want to reiterate something. A long time ago, I mentioned that a friend of mine truly appreciates “games with consequences.”

So imagine the phrase “games with consequences” existing in a Dictionary somewhere. If you can do that, think of the picture right beside the entry. That picture would be Undertale.

The first way you can play this game is to utilize one of its unique mechanics. This Path is called the Pacifist Run. That’s right. You can play through the game by killing absolutely no one. But what fun is that, you might ask? Well, imagine a child’s world. Think of a child coming across an Underground world of monsters: each one with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. Consider how scared children can be, but also how curious they often become, and then think about how they might handle a situation with a strange and eccentric being compared to how an adult might — or might not — do so.

Ironically, in a lot of ways the Pacifist route is a lot harder than its … opposite. But if you play it right: if you get to know the monsters and realize they are not different from you — and if you pay very close attention to details — you will be well rewarded.

And then you have the other … route. The alternative isn’t that hard to figure out if you are a long-time gamer. Basically, when you encounter monsters you consider them enemies and you essentially kill them all. You kill them and take their EXP. You level up. You will also learn a lot about this world, but your lessons — for all the ease of killing and staying to the tried, tested, and true mentality of being a gamer — will ultimately be harder ones.

It might be all the difference between an epic fantasy adventure … and a personal horror game.

I’m not going to go into much more detail beyond any of this, I’m afraid. To be honest, I’m just not feeling it. Toby Fox and his team create an excellent archetypal world of almost cartoonish beings, but with a lot of heart and serious subject matter amid some silliness verging into the profound. Also … they play with the form of the medium and genres that they are working with: a lot.

I really appreciate the story and the surface level simpleness of the game belying its true complexities. It is a game filled, literally, with heart but also secrets, and mysteries: some of which have still not even been solved to this very day. The music and graphics hearken back to the 8-bit nostalgia prevalent in much of the independent game scene.

But if I had one major quibble with Undertale, it’s ironically with the core of what it is: that actions have consequences. I will tell you right now: as with real life, if you are not at all careful your actions will leave a permanent mark on your gaming experience. And no amount of Saving or Restarting will ever change this. In fact, you can count on Saving or Restarting to have consequences of their own.

It is amazing to see a game that is so moralistic to the point of being both forgiving at times, and completely unforgiving: while also not being particularly all that preachy. Sometimes, it will give you just a few opportunities to see something wonderful but if you’re slow or you don’t pay attention, you will miss it. Yet what’s worse is that you will not get the entire story through one playthrough. It’s just not possible. You will miss details if you only have one playthrough. But the Catch 22 of another playthrough is, well that …

Consequences will be on you.

I’m just going to say this: this game is a self-aware completionist’s bane. Perhaps the best way to explain this without spoilers is to talk about two other games. Gaming Pixie created her own RPG: She Who Fights Monsters. At the very end, depending on your choices — even those made in the blink of an eye — and how much you pay attention to details, you will have only a few chances to get a particular ending. Your actions will colour what you get.

At the same time, there is also the lesson inherent in Gaming Pixie’s Shadow of a Soul. Sometimes, the only way to play a game is to not play that particular game at all. Either way, I hope that you will play Toby Fox’s Undertale and that no matter what you do you will stay determined.

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About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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