When introducing this series of posts about my favorite 2018 games, I made the following statement:
“The games [that resonated] with me the most this year were digestible and bespoke experiences by smaller, independent studios. A lot of the kids that also bathed in CRT light from their parent’s laps are developing games of their own now, and have a lifetime of experience to know what tropes are well-worn and ripe for subversion. “
Perhaps no other game I talk about this week embodies this sentiment as clearly as Undertale, the cheeky debut from Toby Fox which made it’s way to the Switch this year.
I was initially attracted to Undertale due to it’s spiritual similarities to Earthbound, a game I beat some years back when it was ported to the Wii U. Upon beating it, I exclaimed that it was a game “I was honored to have experienced”, which was a statement my wife mocks me to this day about. Sure, it was a maudlin sentiment at the time, but it still feels true to this day.
Undertale and Earthbound both share aesthetically-diverse soundtracks and simple but evocative pixel art, however it’s their unabashed oddness that makes them feel like they share the same lineage. Undertale is a game where you navigate through a series of increasingly strange lands and interact with madcap characters ranging from a pair of bumbling Skeleton brothers, to an anime-obsessed dinosaur, to a force of Shiba Inu knights, none of which would have felt out of place in Ness’s quest.
Much like Earthbound, Undertale can be played like a traditional RPG where you kill every monster you come across. However, it also subverts traditional RPGs by also allowing you to “spare” every monster too. The game is unclear on the benefits of sparing an enemy since it doesn’t give you any EXP points, but it is presented as an option from the very beginng.
Because I’m a big doughy dad now, it didn’t take much thought for me to decide what it would be like to beat the game without killing a single enemy. It was this playthrough that betrayed the games greatest charms.
“Sparing” enemies is the heart of Undertale’s gameplay. In addition to your “Attack” function, you have the ability to take Actions which vary from enemy to enemy and can be used to eventually convince a monster to peacefully end a fight. These actions are tailored to each monster you encounter. Maybe you’ll encounter a deer, who is furious about the Christmas decorations that have been foisted on their antlers. Perhaps you’ll encounter an amorphous sea sponge that, disturbingly enough, just wants to be seduced by a human. Either way, by attempting to spare each monster instead of attacking them, you start to think of yourself less of a warrior and more of an armchair psychologist.
In between your attempts to dissuade a monster from attacking you, you’ll still need to dodge their attacks. Similar to the 9S hacking segments of Nier: Automata, this turns the “defense” portion of the game into bite-sized bullet-hell segments where you (represented by a tiny heart) bob and weave through a series of obstacles. Even though they technically hurt you, the attacks the monsters launch at your are often hilarious and tailored to each enemy, like a a vain musclebuilding monster throwing wave after wave of beefy bicep flexes at you to dodge.
The fact every monster has a different puzzle required to spare them, as well a unique array of attacks for your tiny heart to dodge, every encounter in the game feel bespoke in a way games rarely feel. Where most games have groan-inducing random encounters, I was always excited to see what new monster a random encounter would allow me to meet.
It isn’t long before you’ll start seeing monsters you’ve spared as characters just hanging out in the world as if you never had any beef in the first place. This is also a refreshing change for the genre. Most RPG’s treat monsters in the field as expendable meat grinder fodder for your party’s quest to Level 999. In Undertale though, monsters seem to actually exist in the world divorced from your character stumbling upon them in a random encounter.
Compounded with the fact that the “sparing” system requires you to get to know each monster in some capacity, seeing spared monsters in the field eventually starts to feel like running into an old friend. It begins to feel like they are all extras on a smoke break, and the original “fights” you had with them were all part of some elaborate stage play. This makes even the most trivial, random encounter in Undertale feel more memorable then some of the final bosses of most RPG’s I’ve played, thanks to the games consistently outstanding writing.
However, as I previously stated, a “pacifist” version of the game is just one of the many options Undertale gives you, and you can engage in the games combat whenever you want. Undertale’s combat system is fairly grindy, solely consisting of you landing well-timed button presses. Compared to trying to get to know each enemy and spare them, combating the enemies feels pretty tedious and doesn’t seem to evolve throughout the game. After all, you can roughly kill anything in the exact same way
Whereas combat is generally the selling point of most RPG’s, Undertale seems to make combat a repetitive chore by design. It feels like a commentary by the creator on how much butchery you do in most RPG’s without thinking about it. Undertale is a game that makes murder mindless, where you must get increasingly numb to the act of doing it in service of rushing to the ending.
However, I don’t know much about the games trajectory when you engage in killing monsters from first-hand experience. I remember the night I beat Undertale, I read on a fan Wiki about the differences in the game if you chose to kill every monster instead of sparing them. It all sounds like a fucking horror show.
All of the charming NPC’s that color your adventure are systematically removed by you, making the world increasingly empty. “EXP points” become presented as “Execution Points”, a much darker interpretation of a well-worn RPG trope. A kill counter starts to appear in each new area alerting you how many monsters you need to eliminate to have eradicated them all. The generally optimistic soundtrack starts to get pitch-distorted into something that sounds just a little “off”.
Even as I type up this list of things I’ve only read about but never experienced, a chill is crawling up my spine. It’s remarkable and a little unnerving that something so dour is lingering beneath the surface of the version of the game I experienced. It feels especially subversive compared to Earthbound. Whereas Ness’s journey to take down Giygas in Earthbound was fairly static hero’s journey, Undertale doesn’t guarantee that by going along for the ride however you want, you will necessarily be the hero.
In conclusion, Undertale is an achievement because it directly challenges the assumptions that have been programmed into gamers by the thousands of RPG’s before it. By challenging core assumptions about RPG’s like the consequences of combat and an assuredly noble main character, Undertale teaches an interesting lesson as to what RPG’s can be. I’m thrilled this game found such a rabid fanbase, because it will be exciting to see what Toby Fox comes up with next.