So, for those of you who don’t know, Undertale is a video game on Steam developed and made by one person, Toby Fox. It is the story of your character falling into an underground world where monsters have been trapped for a very long time. Your goal: make it to the barrier and escape.
Now, it is certainly nothing new to say that this is a great game. The characters are fully fleshed out and quirky, the gameplay is crisp and a fun mix of turn-based rpg and bullet hell mechanics, the story is engaging, and its world imaginative. Obvious 9 out of 10 or even 10 out of 10.
However, I would like to add my thoughts as to why players such as myself can grow so attached to the game and why, despite loving the game, some of us can never bring ourselves to play it on our own computers again.
In Undertale, you can either kill everyone (genocide route), kill no one (pacifist route), or kill only a few people (neutral route). There are like a dozen neutral routes, but that doesn’t matter right now.
Now, in a most games, you would try out one of the paths, see which ending you get, then restart the game and try out one of the other oaths. Wash, rinse, repeat. But you can’t do that in Undertale because of how its programmed. See, Undertale remembers all of your restarts and incorporates them into the story.
So let’s say you try out the genocide route, get sad at the ending and want to try out the pacifist route to get a better ending. Well, you can’t. Sure you could basically do a kill free run, but certain characters will remember that you killed them and won’t let you forget it. And when you finally reach the better ending, there’s a terrible surprise waiting for you.
This, as many have pointed out before, is masterful use of video games as a storytelling medium.
I did the pacifist run during my one and only play through because I like playing action games where you can succeed without killing people. I like being given the choice. But since there is only one save file slot, I can’t bring myself to ruin the happy ending.
But why do I care? Is it just because of the game’s ability to recall my previous play-throughs?
I don’t think so, and I would like to posit that the reason the game draws you so thoroughly into its world is because the mechanics of the game are also mechanics of the universe of Undertale.
In most games, you’ll get tutorial prompts sometimes or a tutorial level, but these are things that are rarely acknowledged by anyone else in the game world. To the NPCs (Non-Player Characters) of the world, a turn-based fight would appear as a real time brawl. But this is not so for the denizens of Undertale’s universe.
The functions of the game are constantly referenced by every character in the game. When you see the fight screen, you are led to believe that every other character engages in a fight in this exact same way. They too have fight screens, and different command buttons, and have to take their turn.
Yet, just as these rules are acknowledged, so too are they played with. Your fight screen is altered, your game can be purposefully closed by certain end game events, saving and respawning are a power unique to your player, but it wasn’t always and won’t always be.
Now, you might call this, “breaking the fourth wall.” But that implies that a firm standard for a fourth wall exists. To this universe, fight screens are just a thing that exists. In this way the fourth wall isn’t broken, but integrated.
And it is this integration that draws you in.
It makes you feel like you are a part of the world because the characters are talking about the world just like you would. They seemingly talk to YOU, not just your character avatar.
When you finally get the characters their happy ending, it is hard fought and joyous. But the player is nothing more than a traveler from this perspective. Someone who can only glimpse and influence this moment in time. Thus, the game gives you the ultimate choice: delete your save file and replay the game to experience it all again while trying to ignore the reminders that you yanked the characters out of their happy ending for your own amusement, or let the characters have their happy ending and never touch your save file again. The final choice of the game can be completed by never playing it again.
Perhaps this sounds too sappy, perhaps you don’t think these pixelated pictures are anything more than programs in a machine and that they don’t really matter. But that’s the point of Undertale. It’s designed to make you think about what your actions mean, both inside and outside the game.
You could look at humans as nothing more than bags of meat piloted by neurons firing in a centralized glob of fat in our head designed to keep us alive and amused. In that sense, we are nothing more than the characters in our games, just more complex. And that’s what Undertale reminds us all. That we should always question our actions and the nature of what it means to have a soul.
I am determined to never play Undertale on my computer again because it would be a betrayal of all the friends in the game I made along the way and it would be a betrayal of my belief in love and kindness towards others. I will watch others journey through the game and learn of the other endings through them. But my game is over, my game is complete, my characters are happy, and I won’t ruin that for my own curiosity.
Thank you everybody for reading my gushing praise of Undertale. Remember to Stay Determined and Keep it Reel!