The Greatest Games: Undertale (2015)

Undertale (2015)
Developed by Toby Fox

Since its release, Undertale has become memetic to the point of oversaturation. It is difficult for me to assess how this experience hit others after this indie game had already blown up; can lines like “Despite everything, it’s still you” or Sans’s endgame speech leave as much impact if you know they’re coming? I was one of the lucky few to play this before it took off, and playing Undertale almost completely blind (all I knew was the existence of a moral element, not even how it was implemented) was one of the best experiences of my life.

Before I dive into the gameplay and narrative elements, I want to start off by drawing attention to Undertale’s soundtrack. 8-bit video games had to develop a new sound to accommodate for the limitations of the hardware. These chiptunes have maintained a certain popularity, and Undertale is a phenomenal take on the genre. From the peaceful title theme to the boss battle bangers, this is one of gaming’s best soundtracks.

Morality in video games is a hot issue, and few games do this as well as Undertale. Many games give rather cheap options. From Mass Effect to the Walking Dead, moral choice is a button you click and then the protagonist performs those good or bad deeds for you. Undertale takes the Metal Gear Solid approach – to find a peaceful solution, the player must work for it. And when the player finds a clean resolution, they fail to gain EXP, leaving them weaker for the next battle. In Undertale, being a little bit evil is the easy option. Being the better person in the face of adversity has always been a difficult task, and few games capture that feeling so honestly.

I recognized this idea immediately, so I went all in as a pacifist on my first playthrough. With its obvious inspirations including Earthbound, Undertale is an aesthetic oddity. But like Earthbound, there is emotional depth buried beneath its seemingly random design choices. Because the spare mechanic requires making peace with the enemy, even the minor enemies have some depth. People get so attached to these characters because they have to relate to them to win. Boss battles especially can be frustrating, but overcoming that frustration largely leads to deeper connection.

Undertale only works on this level due to its strong writing. Despite playing a silent protagonist, it’s clear how their presence is changing this world. The central bosses are all revealed to have hidden depths, with each having compelling scenes where you simply spend time together. This game gets quoted so much because the dialogue truly resonates. Sans especially stands out as an enigma – despite being there from almost the beginning, his true role seems evasive. Yet this mysterious nature does not stop him from stealing every scene which features his presence.

Despite featuring the aesthetic of an old school RPG, the gameplay is essentially a hybrid between dating simulators and traditional shooters. To ‘attack’ on the pacifist route, the player must choose between a handful of options until they find the right combination. Meanwhile, the enemy will counter by throwing the player into a micro-shooter level where they must simply avoid all objects for a few seconds. Toby Fox goes above and beyond in making each encounter unique, throwing out new concepts around every corner.

Even if one were to only play through the pacifist route, the mere knowledge of there being another option changes everything. Tons of games have cutesy characters bringing peace to a colorful world, and it was difficult for me to even imagine there being another way. Why would anyone choose to harm these characters, other than because they can?

What sets Undertale apart from other morality-based games is that there clearly is a ‘correct’ path to take. Many similar games simply offer a protagonist in a few similar flavors; Commander Shepard gets the same general job done either way. To find a peaceful conclusion here takes effort, and that effort is rewarded with an additional act and a powerful ending. The emotions of this true ending are built upon your refusal to give in to violent temptation – to have this proper ending work requires the option to falter, which necessitates alternatives. Most of these variants are mere reminders of how killing even a few people naturally devastates this world – a nudge to do better next time.

But Undertale also allows a total fall into depravity. The player can literally wipe out everything they encounter. This doesn’t simply involve choosing to fight in every battle, but going out of the way to kill every possible enemy in the location until they stop spawning. The narrative shifts gears entirely – people begin fleeing, and even most bosses are felled in a single blow. None of this is enjoyable, like playing through the early stages of an RPG at max level. Yet many will keep pushing forward, simply because we can. This isn’t like certain other games, where the veil is lifted and you realize the atrocities you have committed. Choosing to do this is entirely your own twisted decision to see what will happen (spoilers: a lot of lovely characters die because you are choosing to kill them). In the main path, fighting can sometimes be justified due to the enemies presenting a threat. After a certain point in the genocide route, it is the player who is being actively malicious. The player is ‘rewarded’ with the two most challenging bosses the game has to offer, but even those come off as the game actively begging you to stop. The final boss doesn’t feel so notoriously difficult because Toby Fox wants to challenge the player – it instead feels like a last ditch effort to convince the player to turn back and start over before it’s too late.

Undertale succeeds where other moral-based games largely fail because it understands the battle between good and evil as something greater than a choice. Goodness takes effort, while evil is a temptation which will both destroy the weak and find massive resistance from the strong. Too many games try to tell the exact same story with either a good or bad character, but this largely descends into a nice vs. rude dichotomy. Here, the genocide ending is the void-like antithesis to the true experience. The two extremes feed off one another, even if the player only engages with one. Becoming pals with Papyrus, Undyne, Alphys, and Sans carries so much more meaning by knowing this happy ending required steadfast determination.

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