Indie Wonderland: Undertale

A few hours in

Okay, so. I went back into Undertale. And then I finished it.

Yes, almost immediately after. No, not because it’s a short game or anything! It took me something like six or seven hours of play to get to the end. I just… kept playing, I guess. I can’t have played it for more than two or three times, but… well, you get where I’m going.

And after I finished Undertale, I went back in and beat it again. For real, this time.

As evidenced here.

I could do it again, if I wanted to. I know there’s a third play path I haven’t touched yet. But I can tell you now that I will never ever go back to that. Maybe I’ll even tell you why, later.

For now… I’m left with a tricky conundrum. You see, I loved Undertale. I loved Undertale. I was legit fighting back tears at the second set of ending cutscenes.

But how can I explain to you why it’s so great?

Good suggestion, buddy! Let’s call that plan B.

Undertale is a difficult beast to explain.

Mechanically, it’s honestly not all that much to write home about. A combination JRPG and puzzle adventure. You, the player, make your way through 2D environments, solving simple puzzles and encountering monsters. If you’ve ever played any JRPG-type game before, particularly from the late NES era, you’re picturing a very particular style of play right now. And you’re mostly right.

Add some silly puns for taste.

The puzzles are, by and large, variations on the ‘find a key or a switch to open a door’ mechanic. There’s only so much you can do in a top-down 2D space, after all. And on the surface, battles are your standard turn-based JRPG affair. You can either attack enemies, using a simple rhythm minigame, or you can use certain actions to sap their will to fight. The former gets you EXP and gold; the latter, if you spare them, only gold.

Enemies, for their part, attack back with varied, interesting bullet hell-style attacks. Every enemy has their own attacks and patterns; most of the time, this boils down to ‘dodge the scary-looking things’.

This isn’t always as easy as it looks.

Boss characters get a little more involved, unsurprisingly.

Yes, this is a spider lady trying to feed you to her pet monster cupcake.

It’s all entertaining, sure, but also often rather simple. Undertale does a few really cute things with this fighting mechanic, but by and large, this alone wouldn’t be enough to allow it to out-Metacritic MGSV for a while.

It helps that Undertale is absolutely gorgeous. The background art presented in this game is NES-era pixel art at its absolute finest.

Presented without comment.

And the audio, too. If you’re a fan of MIDI-style chiptunes, then boy, do I have some good news. And if you’re not a fan? Don’t worry; you will be, soon enough.

The character writing and world building in Undertale is also really very good. We’re slowly reaching the higher regions of praise, here. If you’ve been exposed to Undertale on social media before, it was probably by way of the skeleton brothers, Sans and Papyrus. They’re excellent examples of Undertale‘s character writing works: funny, tongue-in-cheek, and borderline absurdist, but without getting too full of themselves.

Plus, you know, their visual character designs are great.

But these two boneheads are far from the only good characters. All major characters are excellently written. Soft-spoken momma Toriel, who’s afraid you let you go; Undyne the Legendary Warrior, armored fish woman who approaches EVERYTHING SHE DOES with BURNING INTENSITY; Dr. Alphys, Royal Scientist and total nerd whose thought and actions I think strike more than a little home for a lot of players. They’re all fun to read and interact with, but more importantly, they’re all well-written characters with clear and consistent goals, drives, and motivations.

There’s also this guy.

The same writing attitude is visible in Undertale‘s world building. An underground world of many-shaped monsters, everything you encounter is at once both absurdist, and internally logical.

For instance, one of the earlier Undertale images to make the social media rounds was this one. In the first monster town, a bear you can talk to tells you that “we don’t have a mayor here”.

“Thaaaat’s politics!”

Obviously, the gut-reaction joke here is that this is nonsense. But what you don’t know yet, first time around, is that this is also totally true. It’s absurd, but it’s also completely how this world works. You actually get to see the process in action a little while later:

Mild Undyne spoilers: she’s a fish lady.

Undertale builds its world out of logical absurdity, and I adore it for that. It’s just so clever.

But what really reels me in is not Undertale‘s world-building cleverness with regard to its lore. It’s Undertale‘s world-building cleverness with regard to its systems.

“Wait, Jarenth, what? You were calling Undertale‘s gameplay systems ‘straightforward’ and ‘simple’ just now!” I did, reader, that’s right! And good for you, calling me out on that. Like Heats Flamesman, I’ll always remember that you remembered.

What really dazzles me about Undertale is how well it weaves its gameplay systems into its lore and story. It’s some of the finest ludonarrative harmony I’ve ever seen. It presents itself as a ‘straightforward’ puzzle adventure JRPG at the start, but then wastes no time at all commenting on, and playing with, and joking about all your expectations, all the strange system interactions we take for granted, and every way the ‘game’ nature of the world conflicts with the ‘world’ nature of it.

Sometimes, this is played for laughs. You can’t sell surplus items at most stores, for instance. MMO and RPG shopkeepers and their infinite inventory of diseased animal guts are a popular subject of jokes, but Undertale takes that conceit to its logical conclusion. No, you can’t sell stuff at the counter of a fast-food burger joint.

‘Buddy’.

There’s healthy doses of absurdity here, too. At one point, you can solve an optional puzzle to access a ‘legendary artifact’. On trying to grab it, though, the game will tell you ‘you are carrying too many dogs’. Check your inventory, and hey: there’s a dog in there. Do you remember picking that up? Well, no matter. You just select the dog and hit the DROP command…

…at which point the dog appears on the ground before you. Because that’s where you dropped it. And then it nabs the artifact and runs off.

Yes, Alphys. Cross my heart.

At other times, though, the commentary gets deeper, more serious. It’s here that Undertale stops making jokes, and starts asking actual questions.

For instance: why do you fight?

No, not you, Pyrope. You be you. I’m talking to the reader.

As mentioned, you encounter random monsters in this game. You can fight them, and kill them, and gain EXP and gold. And if you’re an old hand at the JRPG genre, that may be all the justification you need. They’re monsters, and they’re there, so why wouldn’t you fight them? Besides, if you don’t get any EXP, you won’t be strong enough for the later fights. Right?

But why do you fight? Momma Toriel and her Froggit friends make pretty clear, at the start of the game, that you don’t actually have to fight. You can always try to talk to monsters, befriend them or help them, and every monster is its own interesting puzzle to solve. And even if you can’t figure someone out, you can always try to flee! There’s no need for bloodshed.

So why do you fight?

Is it because of the power? There’s no denying that the thrill of powering up, of gaining EXP and increasing in LOVE, is as present in Undertale as it is anywhere else. And as I’ve said, it can be tricky, difficult, and time-consuming to ‘figure out’ monsters. This goes strongly for the boss encounters, all of which present their own variations on combat. Papyrus shifts your movement powers, Undyne forces you to block, Mettaton flips your heart into a laser cannon.

All for the ratings, darling. You understand, don’t you?

You can spend the time and the energy to figure these things out. Or you can fight. It’s simple, straightforward, and direct. And remember: you only get EXP when you kill.

So is that why you fight? Because it’s easy? And because it gets you power?

And have you considered what it does to you?

Killing takes a toll on the soul.

Once you lose that empathy, it might not ever come back.

You can fight at any time, if you want. The option is always there. You may even feel like you don’t have a choice, sometimes. I didn’t, back when… And Undertale, for its part, very rarely explicitly scolds you for it. You can still have a fun, lovely, friend-filled story, even if you commit a few murders here and there.

The game will remember, though.

“Oh, but I’ll just load my save! Or delete this run and start a new one! I’ll have some fun this time around, and then I’ll do a ‘good’ run for my happy end.”

Yeah, very clever. I’m aware you could do that.

So is Undertale.

Remember this segment?

Undertale remembers.

In fact, Undertale‘s whole relation with its save system is…

I’m sorry, I’m sorry. This is getting to a part where I can’t talk about what I love here without getting into experience-ruining spoilers. Let’s just say that some of the save-related stuff Undertale pulls at the endings had me both laughing, gasping, and cursing.

Undertale is incredibly clever in talking about its mechanics. Insightful, and pointed, without being overbearing. It very rarely explicitly moralizes at you; rather, it’s content to let you take your actions and make your choices, and then confront you with the reality of it. It reminds me a lot of Spec Ops: The Line, in that regard.

In fact, let me make that explicit: I think Undertale does for JRPG game mechanics what Spec Ops: The Line did for FPS mechanics. This is not exaggeration or hyperbole: I 100% believe this, without reservation.

And if that doesn’t sound like the strongest possible recommendation I could give, I don’t know what else to tell you.

Final thoughts

Two of my favourite (online) authors, in an admittedly long list of ‘favourite authors’, are Scott Kurtz of PvP fame and Brian Clevinger of 8-Bit Theater, Atomic Robo, and a whole bunch more. Both have written extensively on the nature of sequential storytelling; and particularly, on the fact that stories need to be allowed to change and end. Scott Kurtz puts this into clear practice in PvP, an otherwise gag-a-day webcomic that still has situations and characters change significantly over time. And Brian Clevinger’s essays on the marriage and ‘death’ of Superman are still some of the strongest writing I can recall on the topic.

These things are what come to mind when I think about Undertale. After beating the game for the second time, I briefly considered ‘going back’: checking some things I missed, maybe, or possibly going down a different path? But when I booted the game back up, the single most unlikely character for the role appeared to ask me — no, implore me — to please just let good enough be good enough. I’d achieved my goals, I’d gotten the best ending. Everyone was happy. The only thing that could ruin that happiness, they told me, was me: only I had the power to erase all that progress, to set the world back to step one — merely to satiate some perverse sense of curiosity.

They were right. Stories need to end. Undertale needs to end. And it’s ended for me. I’m out, I’m done, it’s over.

Would I say Undertale is flawless? No. Mechanically, there’s certainly things to remark on. Your character’s slow movement speed, for instance, really impedes and frustrates exploration and backtracking. It takes a lot of time to mosey through the entire world! And the random battles can definitely get tiring, after a while. Even with Undertale‘s clever systems and approach, ‘random overworld encounters’ are just a flawed system at heart.

But was that on my mind while playing? No. What was on my mind while playing were questions like: how can an NES-level one-man project of this magnitude be this clever and engaging? How does a game about punning skeletons and shitty dogs manage to be more funny and confusing and meaningful and dramatic and emotionally influential than any ten AAA games I’ve played this decade? And what’s that weird stuff in my eye?

Papyrus is a national treasure.

Buy Undertale. I’m not usually this blatant about it, but for the love of God. If you’ve ever joked about the disconnect between RPG mechanics and game world, buy this game. If you’ve ever complained that games nowadays are all flash and style and no meaning and substance, buy this game. If you can’t remember the last time a game left you emotionally destroyed with a smile on your face, buy this game.

For only the second week in a row, my review game ends in a hug and a smile.

Really really really buy and play this game. If you’ve ever taken any of recommendations, make it this one. I promise you, you don’t want to miss out on Undertale.

And if you do miss out on it? And then get it spoiled for you, and miss all the impact, and then come here to tell me you don’t get what all the fuss is about? I swear to Frisk I will drop-kick you into the nearest save point.

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