This game is a near-masterpiece.
Under Undertale’s unassuming 8-bit exterior is an absolute triumph of design, narrative and theme, and undoubtedly one of the most emotionally affecting gaming experiences I’ve had in the past year, and on par with games like Life is Strange and The Witcher 3.
Undertale defies simple description. It is an old-school puzzler inspired by JRPGs like Earthbound. In its promotional materials, it advertises itself simply as an RPG in which you don’t have to kill anybody. But under that seemingly trite premise is an undeniably complex and multilayered game in terms of narrative and theme, one that subverts common tropes of videogame morality in a way few video games have ever been able to match.
Undertale subverts the common notion of morality paths in RPGs, in which playing as good or evil is a simple binary choice that one chooses for the purpose of seeing how both paths pan out. In Undertale, obtaining the moral, happy “True Pacifist” ending requires real determination and a certain sincere, reckless compassion on the part of the player. Conversely, the game punishes you – savagely – for going down the darker, evil “Genocide” path. Undertale posits the question of why anyone who claims to be a moral person would even want to follow the darker path if it meant destroying the gameworld out of a capricious desire just to see what would happen.
The special – and often frightening – thing about Undertale is that it remembers the player’s actions even after reloading the game. When the player reloads, that action is an inherent part of the narrative, a representation of the player’s ability to move across timelines. But the game, and certain characters within it, will remember what the player has done in previous timelines and in previous playthroughs of the game. In that sense, the player can’t escape the reality of the actions they committed in previous saves. In a word, the notion that you can save, try something horrible, and then reload back into ‘goody-two-shoes’ mode without consequences – all too common in video games – is smartly subverted. And if you undertake the Genocide run and then attempt the True Pacifist Run, the game remembers that, too, marring the seemingly perfect ending that results.
In a sense, then, the game engages us, as players, not as synonymous with our player avatar in the game, but as ourselves. It regards the players, who have the power to reload worlds, as akin to dangerous, bored amoral gods, playing with their games like a child at an ant colony with a magnifying glass. It dares us to challenge that gaming instinct to act upon that bored, curious desire to see what happens if I do this. It challenges the notion that we can be truly moral when doing the right thing is as simple and consequence-free as reloading a save file. Undertale’s message is that we have to be mindful and determined in order to be good.
And nowhere is this more apparent in the game’s combat system, which resembles a turn-based JRPG but is at once different. In Undertale, you can either fight monsters or spare them by acting in a way that makes them unwilling to fight you. The fight mechanic is a simple timing-based hit meter, and requires no thought to execute. But in order to spare the monsters without combat, the player must be mindful and observant of the monster’s traits and actions, and thereby acting in a manner that will cause the monster to cease its attacks. The Monsters of Undertale are not generic bullet fodder, but each is a character in his or her own right. Killing a single one prevents you from achieving the good ending. And it is up to the player to see that, even if it seems impossible to do anything but fight and kill. Finding ways to spare all the monsters demands a certain sense of reckless determination and a willingness to risk it all.
This is a game where the easy way out is to fight, but harder but more rewarding way is to empathize. And I cannot stress enough how important it is for a game to understand this quality in the video gaming landscape of today, in which games rely on unmitigated violence as their primary mechanics of fun.
But the game wouldn’t have half of the power it does without the characters and narrative to match. Undertale is such a triumph not merely because of its incisive commentary on video game morality, but because it is, at its heart, utterly humane in its depiction of the denizens of its gameworld. The characters of Undertale are drawn in simple and bold strokes, but with such sincerity and humanity that it’s hard not to fall in love with them as compelling people in their own right. In many ways, it’s even more of an achievement because they’re just unvoiced sprites.
This game understands how to make compelling characters – by filling them with warmth and humor, relating to the player on a primal level. The first friendly character you encounter in Undertale is Toriel, a dragon-sheep hybrid who might be one of the best depictions of a maternal figure in videogaming. In the space of a few short interactions, she feels genuine, maternal, loving, and when you must finally leave her nurturing but confining sanctuary, it feels even more heartbreaking. Then there are the skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus (named after bad fonts), who are perhaps the game’s standout characters. Sans is the carefree, pun-loving sibling who is more complicated than he lets on, and Papyrus is an self-aggrandising goofball with a love of puzzles and cooking who craves recognition and friendship. Then there’s Napstablook, Undyne, Alphys, Asgore, Mettatron, each with their own stories, each their own hopes, dreams and fears, all relatable and able to be befriended, packed into a 6-hour narrative package.
The game solidifies its narrative through having beautiful, meditative moments in time. Sheltering an abandoned statue from rain and listening to its song, chilling with a ghost DJ on the floor of his house and experiencing the cosmos, going on “dates” with Papyrus, cooking at home with Undyne, listening to Toriel talk about snails, joining Sans on his work breaks – these are perfect narrative capsules that deliver needed character development and exposition. Undertale somehow, somehow, does this exceedingly well, and I’m frankly in awe of it.
The game’s writing is superb, full of comedic beats and sly jokes ranging from esoteric videogame references to more generally understood anecdotes. There is a fair bit of absurdist humor and whimsy as well, plus a droll self-awareness of the conventions of gaming (for example, a server at a burger restaurant will be bamboozled if you try to sell him something, in the expectation that you can always sell stuff to any vendor in a video game). And that humor is a big part of the reason why we love the characters – humor, within limits, is the most time-effective tool to humanize a person.
Then there’s the music, always spine-tinglingly apropos, always superb and always atmospheric, which gives the 8-bit environments and combat encounters a sense of emotional weight. Walking around in the various environments is its own reward, because it allows a meditative moment enjoy the music and to just take it all in.
The final reason I want to highlight about why Undertale is so special is that the game’s ability to run the gamut from twee, saccharine adventure to flat-out, pitch-black, existential horror. And man, when the game goes dark, it goes dark. Notwithstanding the Genocide path, the game’s universe is full of darker truths, and soulless creatures that lurk in the interstices between the game’s bright worlds. The final boss ending is a masterpiece of horror, as is a part of the Pacifist runthrough where the protagonist must explore a dark, haunted laboratory in order to save one of the game’s characters. Through bringing the player through all that horror, the game makes us earn the happy ending, and makes us appreciate the power of mindfulness in being a good person.
But the horror also shows that the happy endings are tenuous and fragile. Because the horror stems from the existence of a mechanism to switch timelines, and as such, the greatest horror of all is the player character himself, if he so chooses to erase that happy ending and play out the Genocide path. Because that would truly be the act of a player who isn’t truly acting morally, but, out of boredom, and out of a twisted sense of curiosity, subjugating themselves to the capricious videogame impulse to see what would happen.
In all, Undertale is a funny, often beautiful, emotionally vibrant journey through a strange and compelling world filled with great characters. But it is also, at a deeper level, a sober commentary about player agency and the stakes of acting morally in a video game world without consequences. Undertale doesn’t let us forget that being moral requires us to be mindful of an uncomfortable truth, that humans, in their capricious boredom, and given the requisite powers, have it in them to kill entire worlds.
I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 Glamburgers