Published on December 11th, 2015 | by silent brotagonist0
Undertale [Be Kind, don’t Rewind]
Undertale has been a popular release this summer, and I was convinced to play it for myself. A successful Kickstarter project from 2013, Undertale is an RPG by Toby Fox where you play as an ambiguous squinting child in a world of monsters that borrows visual influence from the NES, and actual game play from SHMUPs. Any kind of review or discussion of this game has to involve spoilers to be interesting on any level. Consider yourself warned. If you’re still here anyway, skip to the last paragraph and decide if you want to play it for yourself.
Let’s get started: Undertale is inherently meta. First, Toby Fox tries to re-contextualize the player’s ability to access and use a save file into the game, and secondly the central point of the game play is a critique of what he believes to be typical of the genre. Contextualizing the player’s ability to replay, or even save and reload in a video game often ends up being some pedestrian narrative. While people can go on forever about clones, alternate timelines, or whatever, I have never quite seen anything as fitting as comparing game play to theatre. You are rehearsing you ability to live up to the expectations of the player character, and can spin in your own interpretation of the character however you see fit. At first, what Toby does with Undertale is par for the course, there is awareness of time-travel and the player’s seeming ability to do so, even a vague awareness of other completed game cycles as separate timelines. Normally, this would be rather unremarkable.
What Undertale does that is special is to program and use a separate persistent “save” file, that can keep track of player actions outside of the traditional save file. The demo/introduction area shows this off well, your actions with the fight at the end of the demo area are saved and still affect dialogue even if you reload your save in a panic. You quite easily find out at this point that Flowey is one of the central characters who are aware of what you do outside of your save file. It wasn’t mind blowing, but that extra programming and writing involved shows admirable commitment to the concept. While this game does not quite concern itself with the idea of player choice as much as something like the Stanley Parable, it is an interesting technical experiment in player guilt.
Undertale is supposedly a critique of Toby Fox’s vision of a typical RPG, which brings up a few odd points as well. The game starts off with Flowey trying to trick you about the definition of genre staples: player level and experience, while also checking if you’ve seen any kind of marketing material from Steam page before you have even started playing. (I mean, who is that first Flowey gag meant to fool?) Undertale is first a mechanical criticism of “generic” Role Playing Games. The goal of the game is for you to unlearn the reflex to grind for levels and money by burning through enemy encounters. While you can still grind for money, by the end of the game you are shown that in the world of Undertale the urge to “level up” has horrifying consequences: you gain Execution Points to increase your Level of Violence. It’s interesting, if a bit heavy-handed. The unlearning process is broader than that, as when you face boss characters, a blind player might be frustrated when they don’t see the ques that their pacifism actually does progress the encounter, but what is more frustrating is when one boss quite clearly “tells” you that running from the encounter is the only way to beat her, and you stubbornly don’t get the hint. The “dates” that you can go on play into this too, though they were too saccharine for my tastes.
Throughout the game you have the opportunities to go on “dates” with up to three characters, but there is the same punchline all three times: they all reject you, as they are either interested in another character or think this is just a social obligation they have to indulge to be polite. I should love this joke, I very much appreciate the punchline trying to penetrate popular awareness; Player social gratification is a toxic trope that grew in ‘obsessive fan’ media markets like Japan, and is an invasive element in any kind of popular media now that it’s crossed the Pacific. Textbook examples include the popular period of recent Persona games (that threatened to swallow up my pet series Shin Megami Tensei) and P Studio’s painfully obtuse “social link” mechanics, not to mention any contemporary Bioware game where “romance options” are the main selling-point. While the player character of Undertale is a both sexually and ethnically ambiguous child -clearly meant for a degree of self-insertion- it appears the characters in the world actually don’t exist just to be cheap gratification for the player.
Toby Fox is aware of old Shin Megami Tensei games, and that brings some criticism of my own. In an email conversation with Laura Hudson of Offworld Toby Fox mentions MegaTen: “It always interested me that you could talk to monsters to avoid conflicts, but the conversations were often kind of repetitive, and if you screwed them up, fighting became your only option. I wanted to create a system that satisfied my urge for talking to monsters, more or less.” From this, one of Toby’s goals with Undertale could be inferred, to create a system, and it becomes painfully clear that he might not have played SMT4. While the old Super Famicom games, even the intermediate Playstation 2 and Nintendo DS games, do fit his description exactly, the more recent SMT4 has far more diverse and developed conversation and non-combat interactions. More actions exist, those actions now offer an equivalent amount of experience, and fighting in battles no longer gave money which is further incentive for you to use conversation skills for fund-raising. In SMT4, a character could progress through the game talking, even to boss monsters– though you still have to kill those bosses. In Toby Fox’s defense, the game released about the same time as his Kickstarter campaign, after Toby likely started the meat of Undertale’s planning and development.
But Undertale doesn’t actually systematize or innovate on monster interaction. Most of the game play is just conversation options, dodging attacks, and waiting for seemingly scripted events to progress any encounter. Drawing on the comparison to Shin Megami Tensei, Toby Fox did make meaningfully unique conversation options for each creature that appears in the game. That is a huge step from SMT having only a handful of shared conversation topics that can be highly randomized to player frustration. While you always have to dodge attacks no matter which path you chose to play, survival is what plays a bigger role in conversing with some monsters, mostly bosses, which is incredibly disappointing. From your first confrontation with Toriel, to Papyrus, the only real tool in a conversational conclusion to those encounters is just dodging, and not any kind of new system. The characters just talk themselves out of fighting you while you stall for time. Some events are even scripted: while the Mettaton finale does have its own charming gimmick, events like his limbs falling off are tied to elapsed turns and not any player action.
What Undertale actually does right, as a criticism of Shin Megami Tensei and even other “generic” games, is to make a world where the characters will yield, where the conflict is meaningful but people have the decency to quit and compromise. This is probably the central conceit of the game, and why is well received. That also brings up the very clear ‘moral imperative’ of Undertale. From the beginning with Toriel’s overbearing tutorial, to the fact that most of the enemies are never really a threat to you, there is a clear moral imperative in the game. The game wants you to do a pacifist run. But so much of this seems to be buried under layers of mistakes that Toby Fox wants to trick you into making if you are, somehow, playing the game blind.
First of all, that level of minute, specific, spoiler-sensitive material in a game is incredibly vulnerable to media coverage in the Youtube age. It’s almost bold-faced hypocrisy when a Youtuber streams the game or makes a video covering the game while still telling people to play it blind and unspoiled. Undertale’s ‘moral imperative’ isn’t esoteric though. Like I said, there are cues that you can pick up on, and Toby Fox’s little tricks mostly seem to catch the ignorant, unobservant, or rushed player. By the end of the ‘No Mercy’ run of the game, the morality as game design seems to fall apart though. Like I said, the cues in the game all try to lead you to the Pacifist ending, even the stupid marketing tagline does this before you even play the game (being able to spare monsters is not novel, nor is Undertale the first or best game to have that as a system, that tagline only means something to casual players who don’t know about alternative RPGs, and it even undersells what Undertale does well), but during the ‘No Mercy’ fight with Sans he accuses you of being violent “just because you think you can. and because you ‘can’… you ‘have to’.” This is a very incomplete criticism of player motivation.
First of all, it’s the Pacifist route where the player would have any sense that they “have to” do anything. Being guilt-tripped by Flowey and Sans whenever you kill a character and try to undo it, makes that quite clear. Beyond that there are two versions of how the concept Dramatic Tension translates into video game media. While dramatic tension keeps an audience motivated in a book or television show, it can take one of two overlapping forms in video games: the promise of more content, and the promise of more challenge. Quite often they both do overlap: going back to MegaTen the motivation to play a neutral run comes from the promise of more bosses, and possibly more difficult bosses compared to a run favoring one alignment or another. In Undertale, they are separate. In addition to the clear moral imperative of the game, the pacifist run promises more content, but the ‘no mercy’ run promises more challenge. Both motivations are legitimate. In addition to the promise of challenge, the ‘no-mercy’ involves a willful and thorough rebellion against the game’s established imperative: the ‘no-mercy’ isn’t activated by killing encountered monsters, it is activated by intentionally hunting down every possible monster and killing them before progressing past an area. In terms of what it would supposedly offer the player, the ‘no mercy’ run would seem like a real choice for the player to consider, not some quota on a checklist as Sans, and by extension Toby, seem to believe. It’s the neutral run that a player does devoid of any passion or intention, killing monsters and being oblivious to the subtext of the game just because they can. I mean, shit, if anything, there were stretches of the Pacifist run that I did just because I felt that I had to.
The rest of the game is charming. The game starts out with more of an NES vibe, making comparisons to Mother 1 more appropriate than comparisons to Earthbound. The soundtrack is great: while the some of it didn’t quite get my attention or my tastes, it still had the polish one would expect from Toby Fox’s music background, and I thoroughly enjoyed the tracks that grabbed my attention. Undertale even does one important tactic well, that games like Spec Ops: The Line actually fumbled- while the concept is thrown around a few times, the meaningful appeal for the player to stop playing the game comes after the resolution. You aren’t given some misguided guilt trip in the middle of the game, oblivious that such a conclusion would invalidate the game as a narrative, any kind of emotional investment, and as a product. Instead, the game pleads with you to let the world of Undertale live its happy ending undisturbed, after you’ve finished your run and resolved the story.
The atmosphere does vary, but hits some really high peaks in areas that seem to channel the best aspects of games like Yume Nikki. The only thing that bugs me is that while the Flowey fight was an incredible spectacle and quite possibly what makes the game more memorable than Earthbound and Giygas, Toby Fox should have practiced a lot more brevity in that fight than he did. For everything that Toby Fox did better for his “Giygas 2.0”, the original monster knew when to shut up and let the despair sink in.
What might go over some heads, or likely rub some people a bit wrong is that the subtext of Undertale is very much influenced by the internet, which should be no real surprise for anyone who knows about Toby Fox’s Homestuck connection. Undertale is a microcosm where people can practice being civil and humane to all of the “monsters” you might find on the internet, no matter how obnoxious they can be.
If you’ve read this far, I’ve ruined the game for you anyway. You can still play it, it’s cute and interesting and only about $10 dollars. If you’ve ever stuck your toe into the “clever, artistic RPGmaker game” genre, you owe it to yourself to see this game in action. If you’re someone with a video game sweet tooth, you are Undertale’s primary demographic anyway. It may be flawed and my enjoyment of it might be conditional, but Undertale as an experiment, and as a game, fully justifies its existence and legitimacy in the medium. Though, I really don’t see it as a “10/10”. I would recommend buying the game through Toby’s site, he gets more of the money, and you still get your Steam key and the Humble Bundle hosted DRM-free download link.