Originally published in The Declaration December 2015
Undertale at a glance looks a lot like a host of other indie games on the online market, utilizing the kind of primitive pixel graphics that many developers exploit for a cheap sense of nostalgia. It’s easy to be skeptical of the hype surrounding this particular title. How, after all, did a game made primarily by one person on a kickstarter budget achieve a higher review aggregate rating than Fallout 4, The Witcher III, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain?
The answer is through a charming cast of characters, whimsical design, and intelligent meta-criticism of video games, not to mention a truly impressive soundtrack. Undertale not only meets but also exceeds the hype around it in almost every way.
The game’s crowning achievement is the mercy mechanic. The player character is a human being fallen into a subterranean world of monsters, who must use their wits to survive and escape to the surface once again. The game follows in the footsteps of classic RPGs, incorporating random encounters and turn-based combat with monsters.
The twist is that this time, it’s possible to complete the game without killing a single enemy. What twists things even further is that doing so is the only way to achieve the “best” ending to the story. You can pet a guard dog instead of striking it, or pay a compliment to the frog monster you encounter, or try to cheer up the ghost who blocks your path forward, because he’s probably just feeling down. Killing remains an option, but violence has a permanent impact on the world of the game—and if you take this path, the game warns, “you’re gonna have a bad time.”
The RPG genre has a long history of gameplay mechanics that run counter to in-game messages. Final Fantasy VII, for example, asks you to care about ecological impact at the same time as it forces you into a world where nature is fraught with hostile monsters you must kill to gain experience and power. Undertale is extraordinary for the way it subverts these kinds of hypocrisies, characterizing the player who would strip a virtual world of its life and resources for the sake of maxing out statistics as nothing less than a monster himself.
Toby Fox, the game’s creator, previously composed music for Homestuck, a webcomic with similar commentaries on video games and the culture that surrounds them. He also created a hacked version of the SNES cult classic Earthbound, a game with a spirit and a sense of humor that is foundational to Undertale.
The success of this, his first original production, changes the paradigm for video games as a medium and an art form. In an industry that gives most of its attention to annually released franchises with Hollywood budgets and massive development teams, it serves as a reminder of what really makes a game great. For Undertale, it’s meaningful choices, strong story and character writing, and a heart of pure gold under its unassuming exterior.