Monday, November 30, 2015

Undertale - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

It was an accident.

I mean, the game did instruct me on the right course of action, but I didn't want things to turn out this way—I was just trying to get Toriel down to low health so I could spare her. That's how I thought battles were supposed to go after all: just weaken them, and then let them flee. But then a sudden flash—a crit!?—and she was dead. Guilt dampened my mood as I marched forward, a flower lying in wait to taunt me with his grim face for what I've done. So instead of letting this misdeed persist, I reset.

And the game knew. Flowey mocked me for that as well, knowing that I had abused the ability to save. He warned me that he wanted that power back, and that's when I knew Toby Fox's Undertale certainly wasn't like any other "RPG" I had played before.

Well, that last statement isn't entirely true—Undertale is clearly inspired by Earthbound. From the quirky humor to the grim, 4th-wall breaking finale, Undertale takes many nods from the Nintendo classic... but never copies it. Sure, there's an emphasis on family and laughs, but the game treads its own ground by addressing what it means "kill" in an RPG. That concept is not a unique one to games, but tying certain aspects that are exclusive to the medium—like "leveling up", "saving", and "determination" (ie the will to keep playing a game)—so naturally into the narrative is a feat that has rarely been seen before. Undertale and The Beginner's Guide are the only titles released this year (that I've experienced) where their story cannot be separated from their gameplay by any means.

This inextricable link may appear subtle at first because of how innocuous the game seems. When you start off, you'll notice that the visuals are very... strange. While character models in shops are well animated, characters out in the world can range from "silly" to "downright ugly". There's a sterile, flat look to the combat that breaks the mold for the final encounters, but for the most part the enemies and attacks remain plain. It's obvious that the visuals are the game's low point—they're not offensive by any means, but they won't win any accolades.

Everything else in Undertale is absolutely captivating. The music bristles with energy and emotion, punctuating silly scenes with "Dogsong", invigorating the player with "ASGORE", and submerging you in a tidal wave of emotion with the title track. There's a huge amount of flexibility in the game's score, and I'd argue that it's one of the most memorable OSTs you'll hear all year. Seriously, how can you listen to this and not immediately hear that character's low-toned voice prattling off in your head?

The surprising variety of tunes are a herald of just how diverse Undertale is too. There's a lot of monster debating and bullet dodging to be had, but the ways in which these are constantly changed up leave the game feeling fresh over its six-hour journey. Areas don't drag on for too long, jokes don't overstay their welcome (besides the reoccurring anime ones), and the game always tries its best to entertain you, whether it be cooking with your mortal enemy or stumbling into an impromptu Final Fantasy VI opera.

Perhaps best of all is that the game is sharp with its humor too—it's witty without ever having to rely on base humor or forced "lol random!" jokes. It anticipates what the player is likely to do and plays with those expectations, constantly surprising you with tidbits you weren't expecting or completely forgot about (like the reuse of the tile "puzzle", meeting the rest of Snowdrake's family, and Napstablook coming to your rescue). The "dates" you go on in the game are some of my favorite moments, due to the sheer stupidity of the situations you'll find yourself in when making new friends.

As much as the game makes you laugh, there are plenty of shadows lurking underneath all the smiles. In a kind of twisted way, the characters are purposely lovable and goofy in order to illustrate just what a emotionless monster you'd have to be to attempt a genocide run. And this is where the story connects to the gameplay in an extraordinary way: do you attempt to level up by inflict harm on Undertale's naive populace, or brave fighting difficult enemies with a meager amount of HP? And if you do desire to level up, just how far are you willing to go?

The first time I played through the game I killed a couple of monsters (just enough to get me to 40 HP) and realized how strange it is that our first instinct upon entering a gaming space is to think about what to kill and destroy, rather than whom we'll meet and befriend. And I don't mean this in a "we should have more games with nonviolent options" way (though those are always welcome)—it's more about how peculiar it is that when approached with the option to be violent, players can and will be. This is especially true where saving and loading are concerned, as there's some kind of weird enjoyment to be had in playing with a system's boundaries (I can't be the only one that reloaded my game in Mass Effect to see what would happen if I shot Wrex). By extension, Flowey mirrors the player's gruesome curiosity during his final battle—which is extremely terrifying, by the way—showing you how deranged one can become when given the ability to exploit a given instance with unlimited power (which is further supported by his genocide route dialogue). It's horrible to see it given form within the context of the game, but difficult to recognize and parse when we're the ones behind the wheel.

I didn't fully understand the game's message the first time I played it, because... well, I killed Flowey. I thought Asgore deserved some retribution for what happened to him! Naturally I felt guilt for my impulsive decision while I was undertaking the Pacifist route. Having the game's outcome change so dynamically for that path was something I wasn't expecting too, and only further emphasized just how wondrously Undertale is designed. The true final battle is a bittersweet event that I'll have to discuss another time, but safe to say it's my favorite moment out of the whole game. And on top of that there's the Genocide route and its implications, which I didn't have the nerve to carry out myself (I watched it on youtube, shamefully). The way that vile path harangues you for your actions is great—it constantly asks if filling imaginary bars for the sake of "completion" is better than hurting the imaginary friends you were once happy to spend time with. It's kind of eerie to think that to some people it actually is, and I'm almost tempted to say that it says something about them.


Like the Last of UsUndertale is a game that gets a lot of love and high praise for a damn good reason. Its memetic influence may grate on people, especially as it continues to garner attention and rise in popularity, but the game was crafted with a wholesome spirit, one that desires nothing more than to tell an endearing tale. It's an extremely sentimental, honest, and imaginative experience that can only be told as a video game, using the strengths of the medium to drive home its thoughtful points. Undertale is an indie gem that will stand the test of time, because it—like its player—has heart.

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