It’s an intimidating thing to write about Undertale. That’s an opening line I feel like I’ve used before, and if I have, I regret using it for any game that isn’t Undertale. It isn’t as if Undertale is some sort of monumental masterwork that freezes any would-be critic in her tracks, but rather that the game has such a wide fanbase, that you can almost be sure you’re not really bringing anything new to the table. Think of it like trying to get a new angle on Shakespeare 400 or 500 years down the line, but also in this instance, Shakespeare has a bunch of people writing their own fanfictions and coding their own plays about relationships between, like, Laertes and Horatio. I uh may be getting a bit far afield.
Undertale can be understood as a game and as a phenomenon, and if there’s one caveat to be gotten out of the way first off it’s that I’m interested in reading the game as a game, and not as a social happening. I find the response around Undertale interesting in its own right, and far be it for me to judge the personal glee that comes from imagining a future for the characters that are so well worked-out in the confines of the game itself, but it’s not really my bag. So, no bold pronouncements on shipping, fan art, or the culture of geek fandom to follow. At least not really focused ones anyway.
No, because ultimately what it is so rewarding about Undertale isn’t the emotions it produces, but its form and content. I think what is perhaps most fascinating about Undertale, in other words, is that behind the phenomenon, there is a game that is pretty masterfully constructed, but whose narrative flaws have been covered over bit by bit by a rabidly loyal fanbase. It isn’t like the game is badly written, either, but that it falls into much the same trap that a lot of retro gaming does in trying to reproduce emotions we’ve felt when we’ve played older games as kids, instead of trying to replicate the form that elicited those reactions in the first place.
To explain what I mean, it’s probably just best to dig into the game a bit. Undertale, as you probably know by now, is a top down RPG that follows an ambiguously gendered human who falls underground into the realm of monsters. As the opening screens and many monsters through the game tell you, monsters have been exiled underground after a war between them and the humans above ground. As the game continues, it becomes clear that your job as a player is to mend this relationship, either on the small scale interpersonal level, or on a grander scale by uniting the world of monsters with the human world (or by destroying both worlds).
In this spirit, you are given a couple of options in the game’s random and boss battles that are importantly different than most RPGs: you can fight (naturally) or you can try to mediate battles and end them non-violently. It’s clear from the game’s first interaction with the actually-fairly-terrifying Flowey that violence is not the appropriate response in-game, and that talking to monsters to try and remain non-violent is the preferred path to follow. As a result, the accepted game path is one that leads you to a united world of monsters against the villainous Flowey, who…well, look, the endgame peregrinations, as interesting as they are, aren’t really very useful for our analysis here. If you’ve played any large-scale JRPG since Final Fantasy VI, you’ll know that the movements of the end game are always a big hard to actually write down. Suffice it to say, the Flowey villain is very meta, very emotionally driven, and very much a mechanism to allow the player to keep making moral choices.
I almost said “difficult” moral choices above, but they really aren’t. Difficult, that is. It’s clear, aside from a few early encounters where you might fall back on traditional RPG logic of “kill the monster there” that the game wants you to go about the plotline in the most peaceful way possible. This is clear through the emotional cues alone, as Undertale is a game that starts off with you having to disappoint and then battle a disappointed surrogate mother (who, after the battle, will not answer any calls from you). It is, as I told twitter user @ingwit_, a game made for Roast Beef Kazenzakis. So, in the moment that it is obvious that the game probably doesn’t think it’s a normative path to kill your mom, the whole rest of the game kind of spools out in front of you — the point of Undertale isn’t to battle your way to the end, but to make friends with everyone instead.
Not that you can only do that, of course. There are three endings that Undertale offers — a neutral ending, a true pacifist ending, and a genocide ending. The Genocide ending involves killing everyone in-game, and it’s pretty grim; for its retro style, Undertale is remarkably adept at getting dark, even giving you an option to erase the entire “world” of the game, deleting humanity in a sort of data-as-material twist. But as the game’s whimsical tone makes all of its enemies friendly and every encounter either a bittersweet or farcical thing, there’s no real motivation other than sadistic experimentation or completionism to actually kill the major or minor enemies in game. Undertale’s revelation that XP stands for “execution points” and LOVE (a sort of stand in for “level”) stands for “level of violence” is jarring from a meta-gaming standpoint, but kind of obvious in game. Nowhere along the line does grinding for experience feel rewarding; it’s always fraught and ambiguous at best.
So the game has a sense of kindness built in that emulates the feeling of camaraderie of, say, a Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII, a distilled feeling of what everyone (certainly not just me ha ha ha) feels when they hear Akira’s Kaneda say “What’s wrong with trying to help a buddy?!” But Undertale overreaches when it tries to summon this feeling casually throughout. I have nothing but admiration for the inclusive nature of Undertale, from queer relationships to nods to anti-anxiety and mental health cognizance, but in some ways, the game imagines that these fan-friendly moments can substitute for the emotional surge of formative childhood memory. Indeed, even the references to early games — the strikingly Zelda-y sigil of the monsters for instance — are fun but not really resonant in the way that people describe. So where’s the emotion about Undertale coming from?
Well, in large part, I think the emotion is coming from people who are experiencing the game as their first real foray into the form. Personal taste here and no specific Hussie-directed critique here, I noted and was repelled by Undertale’s very Homestuck-y aesthetic from afar, only to find that it really wasn’t that much like Homestuck in practice. All of that aesthetic was really a fan intervention after the fact, combining two beloved franchises. And the fan interventions seem to come from a younger crowd, a crowd actually connecting with this game on its merits as a game, as opposed to as the referential echo I think it’s more likely to be seen as by older players. And actually, even the game’s designer Toby Fox, who being born in 1991 makes me feel like a horrible ancient gnarled piece of garbage, is probably viewing the game through the lens of nostalgia, as he was coming of age during that run of golden era PSX RPGs and re-releases. Whether or not a nostalgic reference-heavy piece is Fox’s intention, Undertale fits that bill in many ways, and in that format, it isn’t especially successful — as I’ve alluded to above, telling someone to remember an important emotion isn’t really the same as them experiencing that emotion organically. But Undertale, remarkably enough, produces genuine emotional investment in and of itself in the very moments it is most earnest and, dare I say it, game-y.
The last moments of the game are reminiscent of the classic RPG endings, in which all of the members of your party join together in triumph to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s a story as old as anime VHS distribution rights, but for whatever reason when your friends help you beat Flowey at the end of both the Neutral and “True” pacifist endings, there is some of the old emotion there. Perhaps it’s because the game is so earnest in its expression of unity that it works so well. Or perhaps it’s because the game’s mechanics are so perfectly balanced between difficulty and fun, and that the world itself is so embedded into the logic of video gaming and so precarious and strange, that the final montage feels so hard earned and tearful. Regardless of the reason, while I appreciated but wasn’t moved by the rest of Undertale’s plot, I actually found myself emotionally caught off guard by that last scene; and I expect that’s where a lot of the new enthusiasm for the game comes from.
In the end, it might be thanks to the pristine formal qualities of Undertale and the excellence of its writing that the few emotional payoffs work. The structure of battle and the balance of mediation and combat is tremendous, to the point at which even trying to get out of a fight feels as fun as the fight itself. The bullet hell structure of combat is effective and fun and does more to get RPGs away from boring turn based ruts than any of the last, I dunno, seven Final Fantasies have done. And the game is legitimately funny, as much as internet memes and enthusiasm might have distilled that. The characters are well drawn, fleshed out individuals, and they have consistent motivations and complex emotions. Through its gameplay and narrative, then, Undertale forces its player to make an investment in it, to the point that (as twitter friend @lavosxii pointed out to me) players delved through code, tweaking the game to discover the secrets of its universe. That these players found Easter eggs but no real explanation to the mysterious totality of the world strengthens the game’s sense of immersion. The game invites you in to a fully worked out world, and it’s that world that encourages investment by the very fact that it feels real, lived in, and larger than its frame.
So more than the moments at which the game tells you its politics or its influences, the frustration and awe at the completed world of Undertale is what prompts the commitment that produces its finer moments. The game’s attempt to elicit emotion is, to my mind, fairly unsuccessful, but in its sincerest moments as a game, it produces a new font of those emotions for new gamers who do not have the references that we all consider as lode stones if we’ve played videogames long enough. Undertale doesn’t recontextualize Zelda in other words — it cannot for all its success summon the feelings the game created in nine year old me — but by the end of trying to do so, it makes its own Zelda. This might explain why there is so much enthusiasm for this quirky RPG, and why even 2000 words barely scratch the surface — Undertale is not just more than the sum of its politics and references, it is its own reference. In this way, the game is representative of contemporary problems of representation, in which the world of the book or the film or the videogame is exceeded by the totality of the real world. But if Undertale can begin to represent the feeling of totality in a limited frame, it is an important piece outside of any debates of its provenance, its fandom, or its place in the history of games.