I’ll admit that when I first heard of Undertale, I was intrigued. Pacifist play supported in a game with combat? Interesting! But then I saw the “retro” style graphics?” and thought, “Eh, probably garbage.” Now, I’m no graphics snob, but normally, I associate modern games with 32 bit graphics or less with a poor game design and marketing abilities. That’s my bias, for better or worse. For Undertale, it was certainly worse, but the game’s free demo gives it a huge advantage. Comments about what was and wasn’t possible in the demo is actually what reminded me that the game exists and has been released, so without reading spoilers, I jumped in and… well, I may never look at games in general the same way again.
For those who don’t know me from other websites I’ve written for, let me be upfront: I’m a huge Earthbound/Mother series fan. I like unique games and experiences. I avoid some of the AAA games because I’ve seen smaller teams do new and interesting things well before the big boys, except potentially with Nintendo. In fact, I’ve never played a Call of Duty Game, have only tried Assassin’s Creed at E3, and only play sports games if there are cartoon characters on the field, with the exception of NFL Blitz. I need more than solid gameplay. I need uniqueness, perspective, and above all, substance.
The hook of Undertale is all of that. You’re told you don’t have to fight by a mother like character who will literally, graphically, hold your hand and solve puzzles for you at first. You’re literally made a child and treated as one, both with positive and negative effects. That sounds heavy handed, but when you experience it graphically, it’s not “normal” but natural, like something you’d experience in real life. Of course, as a child, you selfishly push to get your way, but the response from Toriel, your “mom,” is quite severe. You live in a dangerous world where even flowers are highly suspect and not to be trusted. Your mother doesn’t take your questioning tone for independence well, and she will physically fight, even kill you. As the player, can you really kill your mom for trying to protect you?
That’s what hooked me and kept me going, even after I had a less-than-happy experience. Part of that is the game’s charm. The world’s very open, not just in options but in humor and audience inclusivness. You can kill or spare just about anyone at some point in the game. Yes, that’s right. The same game that lets you experience pacifist gameplay also allows you to kill (almost) anyone you want to. And it feels bad. I have to admit that I haven’t gone down this road much though. Part of that is because the game remembers what you’ve done.
I played through the game once, made a mistake, but did something that led to a hint on how to go back and “fix” my ending. I did so, and during my ending, one of the characters revealed the order I had asked questions to her that, well, was quite embarrassing. Something that, at the time, seemed natural since, as gamers, we often feel safe testing multiple options. Turns out my experimenting made me seem like a bit of a sexual deviant. That’s one thing that Undertale really does well. It plays with the player.
That’s why it’s also quite heart wrenching at times. I want to spare you some spoilers, but during someone else’s play though, where they’d beaten the game with a good ending and then wanted to see the bad one by killing everyone, certain characters would actually comment on how in “another life,” maybe they were friends. Maybe they were a good person. The character would plead for player to be that person again. It’s heartbreaking, and speaks to you as the player, breaking free of it’s digital prison.
During the demo, for example, you’ll meet a talking, moving, sassy rock that will hold down a switch for you. Not the usual kind that just get pushed around, but a sentient one that is actually trying to do it’s “job” like in every other game. Like Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis fight or certain moments in Earthbound, Undertale breaks the forth wall, both implicitly and explicitly. There will be times you think the game broke, or moments when, while watching someone else streaming the game, the game’s creator, Toby Fox, will play with you. It’s a thoroughly modern experience and expertly executed. It’s not like Deadpool, the Marvel character that chats with the audience. No, as a gamer, you are in control of the action, and it’s as the person who is doing something that the game engages you in a way other media can’t.
This makes Undertale almost a parody of JRPGs, giving yet another strong nod to the Earthbound series. For example, battles as a pacifist aren’t always (or even usually) serious, such as taking decorations off a highly decorated enemy to help it, giving compliments, literally dating an enemy, knocking on doors being pleasure received by those inside as a reason to not let you in… but that’s only the beginning. Instead of the usual turn based dice rolls, your attacks and attempts to survive involve mini-games and even platforming, as your “heart” tries to avoid obstacles that’ll damage it. The memorizing of not only the options you choose, but multiple play throughs with multiple endings remind me of Chrono Trigger as a kid, except, well, let’s just say that both stories start simple but have a lot of deeper, symbolic meaning for those who dig.
In the end, what saddens me the most is that this game is only for PC. I desperately wish it was multiplatform and published by a bigger company, or better yet, that I’d supported it and helped the original effort. I have played a lot of games, but Undertale might be the best single player game I’ve played in the past decade. The end left me an emotional mess, and a special message from the game has urged me to not needlessly allow my former friends to suffer. I’ll respect that, but I advice you, fellow players, to jump into the game and experiment. Love, hate, fight, make friends. Play with the game. It’ll actually play back.