The more I heard about Undertale, the more I convinced myself I wasn’t going to buy the hype. A game about NOT killing things? It’s just a little too forward. There’s going to be some kind of message about what video games are, right? Some ham-fisted pot shots at the Call of Dutys of the world, that violence is bad, that video games can be something more. I’m not the kind of person who thinks video games should just be video games or they shouldn’t strive toward something better or greater, and certainly not someone who thinks gameplay is the exclusive feature through which games become that, but I was starting to feel sympathy for those who think that way.
Then I actually played the game.
Undertale is a game that challenges cynicism. It’s intentionally designed to provoke a reaction; the simple graphics, the heavy reliance on story, and of course the antithetical “pacifist combat” system come together as something that creator Toby Fox must have known would be contentious by its very nature. The gags go on forever, the puzzles are easily solved given enough time, and the less-than-subtle inclusion of prominent LGBT characters are all nitpicks that he must have understood would be dissected. And yet, in spite of this, it’s exactly that willingness not to censor that makes it a gaming experience like no other.
The premise is simple: you’re a human child who fell into an underground world of monsters, and you need to find your way out. The catch is, of course, there are multiple ways to do this. You can kill some, kill none, or attempt to kill them all in your quest to get home. The game is clear with the path it wants you to go: don’t kill anything. In addition to simply attacking, you can choose to “act,” which gives you situation-specific options in combat, or outright “spare,” where you do nothing but defend yourself. The path you choose – perhaps inadvertently – shapes every conversation you have from then on out. Killing a single creature changes multiple interactions throughout the game. Killing many turns the entire experience from a hero’s journey into something closer to psychological horror.
So why then do I bring up my bias? Critical consensus has already reached many people who, like me, have probably already made conclusions and/or preconceptions about how good the game is based on what they’ve seen and heard. I say this not because I believe you can’t dislike this game – as much as I can appreciate it, and personally thoroughly enjoyed it, this is definitely a singular and polarizing experience – but because the vast majority of criticism that I’ve seen relates to a perceived lack of substance beneath the idea. And the execution of that idea is essentially the draw of the game; the controls will feel familiar to anyone who’s played a JRPG, and as I said before, the aesthetic is fairly simplistic. If the main mechanic is poorly-implemented, you get exactly what I assumed might happen: reliance upon nostalgia to sugarcoat uninspired gameplay.
Instead, what you get is a game that weaves all of its best elements together; the story, gameplay, and user interaction (mostly in the form of breaking the fourth wall) not only work together, but play off each other. People often talk about wanting games where your choices actually matter, and that’s exactly what it does. Though you’re given ample warning, it doesn’t hold your hand. It knows some people will get frustrated with puzzles and simply kill rather than try to figure it out. It knows that some people will kill just because they want to. It even anticipates that people will re-play the game to get all of the endings, and hand-crafts responses to each situation that significantly alter the course of the story, all for good reason: you’re a killer, and that can never change. Undertale plays with gaming conventions by putting you in a situation where the natural reaction is to kill something, despite many urges to do the contrary, and then holds you accountable for it. This extends as far as to affect subsequent playthroughs, with characters chiding you for “accidentally” killing something or questioning a large change in play-style.
If that were the only thing Undertale achieves, it would be a worthwhile experience, but the creativity of the dialogue and memorability of the characters and plot accentuates the sheer amount of content the game has, driving you to try out different things just to see how the game reacts. Whether it’s light and you’re in a play with a killer robot, or heavy and discussing why you, the player, are choosing to continue to kill everyone over and over again, it’s always compelling. If you’re looking for something more mechanic-based, as simple as the defense system starts (just a heart dodging white bullets), the game becomes increasingly difficult to the point of becoming a bullet hell in certain instances. Whichever path you choose, each enemy type and character has a specific battle mechanic that gives diversity to something that might otherwise be banal. Undertale might suggest that you play nice, but it works hard to keep you invested no matter how you play.
Undertale achieves what games like The Stanley Parable attempt in the most complete way possible. It makes commentary on the state of game design by actively challenging the player’s expectations, but rather than doing this at the expense of its story or mechanics, it manages to make them all work together seamlessly. By giving the player’s actions substance and treating the player as an equal participant in the experience, Undertale succeeds where many others fall short. Arguably its strongest point, however, is its story, rife with some of the funniest and most morbidly curious sequences gaming has to offer. Clearly, thought was put into every interaction, as well as many possible player reactions. Undertale is a deceptively simple, thoughtful experience, challenging players intellectually and mechanically without being obtrusive or forceful. It might not be for everyone, but everyone ought to try it.