I wrote a brief post about Toby Fox’s Undertale a month or so ago. It was difficult as I was really trying to remain spoiler-free while, at the same time, attempting to actually say something relevant about the game itself. But now that I’ve had some time to think, and talk, about Undertale there are some more things about it that I would like to write about.
You are now in the Spoiler Bone Zone. Please either play the game first, as it is excellent, or don’t upon your own risk. As always, you have been warned.
Mechanically speaking, the game is a work of pure genius. For the most part it feels like an RPG with some very elementary, archetypal cartoon aesthetics. On the surface, it is a combination of turn-based battles and puzzles. But then there are some interesting aspects to the conflict portions of the game: interactive gameplay elements that will really affect the plot as you go on. And, believe me, you will see these effects almost immediately.
The fact that you have the option to either Fight and kill, or Act and Mercy enemies is not a spoiler in and of itself. Acting actually gives you many options as to how to deal with monsters as people: each one having their own likes and dislikes.
When you interact with them through the Act option long enough, you can Spare them and continue onward: sometimes gaining money, but no EXP. Or, you can kill them and they disintegrate into dust.
The battles, or if you want to get more technical, the Encounters are structured in an interesting fashion. While they are turn-based, allowing you time to heal with items or choose other options on your screen, the monsters’ turns are mostly bullet-hell mini-games. You play as a small red heart in a box, and the object of those games, on the turn of your opponent, is to avoid their attacks until it’s your turn again. Generally, you can move all around the box but then … sometimes … Toby Fox will change the game dynamic.
The way that Fox changes the game dynamic in encounters often ties into the Special Attacks of particular monsters. For instance, there are at least a few situations where a bullet-hell can become a platforming or even a shooter mini-game. Having mini-games in an overall game is nothing new, of course, but these different games — turned into specific dynamics or interactions with characters — provides the skeleton (if you pardon the pun, which is ironic as there are two Skeletons that love and detest puns respectively, with their own encounters) of Undertale as a game.
Of course, I’m probably not saying anything at this point that no one has heard before. The game itself, like many contemporary and independently created interactive narratives, is fairly self-referential and — a jargony word — intertextual. It is a game that spiritually and mechanically knows its a game to the point of fourth-wall breaking and is aware of other games. Even the plot of the game is fairly straightforward at first glance: where you play a silent protagonist child character who is trying to escape from an Underground realm ruled by Monsters that were banished there by humans during an ancient war from long ago.
But aspect from the Pacifist options of being able to Act and Spare in encounters, Undertale has two more unique characteristics that can either make, or break, a good game.
These two elements play into each other well. The first is that Toby Fox creates archetypal and relatable characters. You very clearly know who they are from their brilliant musical leitmotifs and their cartoon aesthetics. And the best part is that a majority of all the other characters are Monsters. That’s right. They could be your enemies and Toby Fox goes out of his way to make sure that they are people who have their own hobbies, likes, dislikes, families, and friends. They are not nameless creatures that you kill to gain EXP. And some even befriend you on their own.
Fox manages to blend enough self-awareness, humour, and far-reaching emotional resonance into your interactions to make you seriously look at what you’re doing in the Underground and what you are willing to do while you are there.
Just think about it. That Woshua that just wants to clean you and might not be aware that they are hurting you until you Act with it, could be a Monster that you just kill. Or that Froggit that comes at you in all ignorance, that could have given you some advice in the beginning, could be your unintended victim.
But you see, you can’t really kill by accident. Well, not exactly. Because there is also the other element of Undertale to consider: the moral structure of the game itself.
And here lies the rub. There will be times, especially in the beginning, when you don’t know how to Spare a Monster if they won’t Act with you. In my experience, what happened was that without knowing what to do, I reverted back to my old time and tested gamer routine: I tried to damage an opponent to the point where I hoped they would ask me to Spare them, or give me the option to do so.
It didn’t work. And they died. They died because of my own actions.
I was horrified. That was not what I intended to do, and yet in retrospect I realized how flawed that idea was. I mean, when you meet someone sympathetic in real life and they get in your way, do you beat them within an inch of their life to get past them? To get what you want? Just what kind of person does that? What kind of person does that make you?
And so, I decided to reset, to Load my Save because I knew there was another way to deal with it without killing them: this character whom I’d grown to care about, to relate to, and made me feel conflict when they opposed me. But even when I figured that out, the game itself … remembered what I did in my last Save. It didn’t let me forget.
The game still forgave, then, but it didn’t forget.
Undertale’s moral structure acts like something of a stereotypical gamer deterrent. It punishes you for gaining Levels, for grinding for Levels, for resolving issues with “Solo shooting first violence” and even for the extreme end of Determination: for seeking to do something just because you know that you can.
This is the spirit of Undertale. It is more than one of those games that have consequences for every action of the player. It is the child of a popular idea in various parts of the independent game-making scene: the notion of deconstructing violence as a normal interaction in games and creating alternatives. And some of those alternatives branch into consequences and elements of diversity and representation. What I love about Undertale is that these aspects do not lead into places of heavy-headed preaching or messages. Rather, your actions are reflected in what happens to the characters whom you’ve grown to relate towards: even and especially if they are different from you.
In a way Undertale can also represent the idea of a ludic society: of a social order and community operating on interactions of “playfulness” or games. The Underground literally has a tradition of puzzle games to confound and challenge humans and outsiders. These puzzles are how the denizens of the Underground interact with each other and the player: and they notable because they are generally non-lethal. Even befriending certain characters triggers parodies of dating sims mini-games.
It can also be seen to reflect another ideal in some of the independent game-making scene: of games being more than just entertainment, but art itself. But perhaps this potential Games studies look, with its possible influences on independent game-making night be reading a little too much into what Toby Fox might be intimating.
But these implications are good to discuss. Because Undertale does say something about a particular stereotype of a gamer that is hard to ignore. The way he does this is fascinating. At the beginning of the game you are told to name the character that you will, presumably, be playing. In addition, you will encounter your first enemy: who will continue to follow you around and offer “advice” throughout the entire game. It even fits well into the story.
As it turns out, you have a special power as a human called Determination. In your case, it allows you to control time to a limited extent. You can Load and Save your progress. You can even Reset the game: the very world in which you are interacting. Your enemy, if he is your enemy, also had this power once until you came along. He is, in a lot of ways, your shadow: your doppelganger. He represents what happens when you replay a game far too many times, when you commit all good and evil on each reset, when you become bored with your game, when you persevere to great and ridiculous lengths to gain an achievement … and he will question and mock you for everything you do: while sometimes helping you … for his own benefit.
But here is the thing that you need to understand. This first enemy of yours, as powerful and terrifying as he can become, may not really be your enemy at all. He represents something. And depending on what you do, this antagonist is just Player Two to the real enemy that can manifest in the game.
After all, there’s a reason why the mirrors in Undertale have dialogue boxes when you click on them.
Eventually — depending on what life choices you make — you realize that the person you named, early in your adventure, isn’t who your silent protagonist actually is. It turns out there was another human, long ago, who fell into the Underground. They are the person that you name. And if you choose what’s called the Genocide Route, namely going through the intense grinding motions of leveling up and killing every Monster in your way, they will manifest and you will lose control of the character.
In fact, the person you play as isn’t even your character. They have their own name. It is a revelation that through the grandiosity of the True Pacifist Ending actually took me out of my immersion with the game by sheer confusion. I named that character. Even if they were different from me, that was how I related to them. Naming was yet another assumption that gets subverted. It’s only when you play the Genocide Route, it is your murderous intentions, your capacity to kill, your lack of caring for puzzles or characters as people, your lack of fun, that will re-awaken someone or something else that will take control of the person you were supposed to guide. It is pretty clear what Undertale states through these actions, and the words of some characters towards the end, about certain kinds of gamers.
And it can be both unsettling and off-putting.
The truth is, you can’t accidentally play the Genocide Route. You have to painstakingly, numbingly, grind through all those Monsters with their own thoughts and feelings. You have to distance yourself from your emotions and capacity to feel relationships to kill and maim and take what you want. You will destroy people that you could have been friends with: that you could have loved. And you will encounter bullet-hells and platforming battles that are completely unforgiving: and the ending of the game will not be a pleasant one. You do not get rewarded for mass-murder.
In fact, your “reward” for doing this will ultimately be a jump-scare worthy of a creepypasta.
And it gets worse. If you play Genocide before Pacifism, it will taint every other playthrough that you make. It is at this point that the game does not forgive you. You deal with the consequences of your actions. And if you played Pacifist first, killing and tormenting your friends will feel like agony unless you have completely distanced yourself from these interactions as “just a game.”
This morality is Undertale‘s greatest strength. It can also, arguably, be considered a flaw. Genocide reveals other information about the story line that you would not have gotten in any other route. There are different interactions and sides to the characters that you will not see in any other way. And if you do this, you will be punished for it in all of the aforementioned ways. For the most part, it isn’t preachy but there are some moments where it feels like you are being punished for wanting the full experience of the entire game. It even goes as far as to castigate you if you watch the Genocide route on YouTube.
Obviously, this moral mechanic destroys Undertale‘s replay potential. You don’t want to go back and kill your friends. You also don’t want to obliterate their — or your character’s — happy ending if you have achieved the True Pacifist run. And so here is this game, with all heart, that when it’s over — if you think of these characters as people — you should just make sure it’s over. It is said that art is an imitation of life, and if Undertale subscribes to that ideal of being art instead of primarily entertainment — even through the microcosms of the puzzles that the Monsters make in their society — then there you are: that is your experience.
In fact, it’s not even your experience. It’s not supposed to be about you. The person you name isn’t even the protagonist and all of your aggressive gamer impulses, if you have them, are vilified … by you. And no matter what, whether you are Pacifist or have committed Genocide, the story becomes about someone else. And if you respect the flow and the rules of the game and its code, you will have to walk away.
The fact that Undertale feels like it is against replay value can be seen as a detriment and a punishment to that completionist mentality in a gamer, but the Catch 22 of the thing is that without it, this game would not be Undertale. It would not be special.
And there is the rub. Just like the foe you displaced by coming to this world of games, you are not the central character. How does it feel to actually know that you were always Player Two? And do you have the strength to play through it, to guide your character, to go for the best ending, to relate to others without hurting them, to walk away when your time is finally done with some grace? Will you need to alleviate that need to know more by “cowardly” viewing “other timelines” on YouTube or other recordings? Will you need to read and create fanfiction to make the emptiness of Undertale‘s completion go away? Or will you just grind on and become a Dirty Brother Killer?
In the end, I know what choice I made when I put my metaphorical controller down.