Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Undertale is the Greatest Story Ever Told About Monsters.
Unless these are the first words I've ever written that you're reading, you probably know that I practically breathe, bleed, eat and excrete monsters from more orifices than a human is supposed to have. Making and even merely writing about monsters is more or less my self-made career. The only things I spend as much time contemplating as monsters are various animals, and what are animals anyway, but nature's monsters?
So, when I say a game is the greatest story about monsters I've encountered in my life, I'm not being hyperbolic. Nor am I talking out of my ass when I call it one of the greatest games of my lifetime. I've been playing video games almost literally since I was a baby, mashing my chubby hands on a hand-me-down Atari 2600 controller by two years of age back in the 1980's. I was there for the birth of the Super Mario Brothers franchise, the release of the first-ever Zelda title, the shocking reveal that Samus Aran was a woman, the death of Aeris, the discovey of Mew, the once seemingly irreversible shift in focus to 3-d graphics and the entire rise and fall of Nintendo Power. Video games have meant as much, if not probably quite a bit more to me as they do to anyone professionally complaining about them from under a sweat-stained trilby, and I am telling you with the most dire sincerity that I have never experienced a game as emotionally touching, lovable and compelling as Undertale.
There are those who see the explosive popularity of a title like this, the mountains of fan-art, the whirlwind of in-jokes and the seas of custom user avatars, and they see nothing but another vapid, trendy flavor of the week, but that is because they are contrarians with cold, lifeless inner children. Few people who really experience Undertale can find it in them to speak ill of it. It's a game just so sweet, a game that wants so much to have fun and tell a great story, that the worst reviews I've ever seen boiled down to little worse than "not my cup of tea, but a nice effort."
The basic plot of Undertale seems simple enough. A human child of non-specific background accidentally tumbles into an underground realm inhabited by slimes, ghosts, skeletons, elementals and other dungeon-crawling denizens, ruled by a monstrous-sounding king who requires human souls to break the barrier between our worlds, exterminate our kind and reclaim the surface.
It sounds like a story we've all heard a thousand times, and it's supposed to, because it's going to spend the rest of your play time picking apart every trope familiar to its setup.
How many virtual creatures and even people has the average gamer "killed" in their lifetime? How many ever question the fact that even the cutest, most colorful children's games are usually going to revolve around violence and death? When we see a virtual non-human roaming a game world, whether moaning for our brains or bumbling about its own business, our very first instinct is often that we're supposed to destroy it, and by the end of a given adventure, a character as inoccuous as Luigi might have the blood of thousands on their hands.
Like everyone else, I always just accepted that this was the natural order of video gaming, even if the very monsters I had to massacre were all I really came to see. Enamored with these electronic worlds and their inhabitants, I positively delighted in those rare moments when a gelatinous martian or ectoplasmic phantasm could boast any role in a game other than an obstacle to be eradicated. Not only in video games, but in films, books and cartoon shows, I felt an endless desire to see monsters as protagonists or even simply harmless, neutral civilians, to see their "otherness" embraced and celebrated more than demonized, and I pretty much took whatever I could get. I thought it refreshing enough when a weird monster got a shot at being a shopkeeper, and a real thrill when one snagged the coveted title of a playable party member, but those same games still centered heavily on mowing down vast numbers of non-humans everywhere you went, all to raise your levels, line your pockets and earn the capacity to kill even more, to achieve whatever noble quest you're supposed to be on atop an uncountable mountain of murdered ghouls, salamanders and mimics.
...And you can play Undertale that way. You can just kill every monster you encounter, gain experience points and increase your stats, but if you go in blind and you think that's exactly what you're supposed to be doing, things quickly take a disturbing turn. You'll fast discover that these monsters mourn their dead, that they despise you for what you've been doing, that towns evacuate ahead of you, and that your power increases so quickly that the game will soon become a boring, tedious chore as one boss after another crumbles under your first strike. Battling, as in every other RPG, is fast reduced to a matter of simply pressing a button and watching the HP fly, and your adventure is reduced to a lonely, dreary, empty massacre.
As it happens, we learn that the soul of a human is vastly more powerful than that of any monster, and only the human soul can survive and reincarnate outside of its body, i.e. start again from its last save point. Worse still, the sheer killing intent of a human can weaken a monster to the point that its deadliest weapons barely graze the unstoppable hominid. We always wondered how video game protagonists could possibly endure what they do, and now we know. Now we know just how terrifying and cruel characters like Link, Ness and Cloud always really are, from a certain perspective, when they step into a dungeon. It's something players have joked about and sometimes more seriously speculated upon all along, but it took until almost 2015 for an entire game to truly explore the darker ramifications of grinding.
Fortunately, you don't have to be the bad guy in Undertale. The game's first and foremost selling point is that "nobody has to die," and it's true. It will try its best to fool you, to make you think that this time, you're really just up against a bloodthirsty, murderous ghoul, that this time it's either you or your opponent, but no matter how frightening, no matter how alien, there's really, truly not a single thing in the game that you need to kill, even when you finally find yourself facing something that might seem to emanate nothing but pure, sadistic hate. There is always another way, and you just have to use your head to find it.
Of course, by not killing anything, your level and your low, low health bar will remain static, and if Undertale worked like any other RPG, it would be over fairly fast. Fortunately, even when it comes to gameplay, Undertale offers a welcome change of pace from the cookie-cutter turn-based battles of the RPG genre. While it's not necessarily a whole new idea, the enemy attacks in undertale each play out as a sort of on-screen mini-game. Controlling your own soul - represented by a heart - in four directions, you'll have to dodge weapons and projectiles unique to every single creature the game if you want to survive, which may seem simple and straightforward at first, but the mechanic grows increasingly challenging and inventive as the game goes on. Every new monster poses new patterns to figure out on the fly, their attacks change according to their mood, and some special attacks can even change the basic rules of this system entirely.
For a good grasp of how this works, just watch the battle against Muffet, here, and for a good grasp on how amazingly cool this humble feature can get, wait at least until the four minute mark, when a cupcake-spider hybrid starts tearing up the screen!
Between rounds of these fast-paced little dodging games, you have an opportunity to retaliate either violently or non-violently, selecting commands like "talk," "flirt" or "tell a joke." Every enemy presents a different set of options, and you'll need to pay attention to the creature's reactions in order to figure out the correct course of action and end the fight on friendly terms. You'll usually know when you've chosen the right command, as the text, animations, and even attacks may change as your adversary warms up to you. Again, it sounds simple, but this "mercy" system, the dodging system, the battle text and even story context all play into one another as more of an interactive puzzle-solving than combat-based experience.
Play Undertale as a pacifist, and you will be rewarded. You will become best friends with talking reptiles and walking corpses. You'll get to hang out with them in their adorable little houses, help them out with their relationships, listen to their stories and jokes, and even call them up on your phone for unique new dialog on every. Single. Screen. The sheer volume of story content and the richness of Undertale's characterizations, given its somewhat short length, are remarkable even by the standards of the heavily plot-driven RPG genre, as though there's always one more thing you can learn about almost any given creature, whether a major NPC or only a shopkeeper.
Of course, you obviously aren't forced to approach Undertale in black and white terms. You don't have to kill either everything or nothing, and this is where the game's level of detail and thought starts to get almost overwhelming. What if you only kill some monsters? Dialog and events will change, obviously, and you'll be neither widely beloved nor widely hated, but even that's not so simple as just a third, neutral play mode, because some of those monsters are kind of important. Some of them have stories of their own that impact the course of your adventure. Some of them are part of a whole complicated web of relationships with one another. You can, if you have the stomach for it, strike down just one particular boss or two and completely transform the rest of the script. You can end the game beloved by some and hated by others, in more possible combinations than I care to count.
Every RPG title has these moments that alter your standing with other NPC's, but Undertale is one of the first I've ever seen in which the outcome of every single plot-relevant boss fight will add its own impact, and if that's not impressive enough, try starting a new game and select characters will remember bits and pieces of your behavior from your previous run. Even if you uninstall the whole thing and try to start fresh.
Undertale earns a solid place in our usual Halloween content for obvious reasons. Its world is populated by skeletons, sheet ghosts, giant spiders, jellies, demons, goblins and by far one of the most frightening, most monstrous "villains" ever burned into the data of a video game...but Undertale is only a "horror" title if your thirst for violence makes it one. This is a game entirely built on how rewarding it is to respect and celebrate our differences. You "win" this game by putting yourself in your enemy's shoes, considering their feelings, and sympathizing with them no matter how foreign their appearance or mentality.
As many times as we've all seen this "humans are the real monsters" narrative, Undertale feels like the first really thought-provoking exploration of the idea in a video game, the first time it was absolutely central to the theme and storyline from start to finish rather than some subtle, final twist or symbolic undertone, and also the first time the narrative went on to suggest that, even if us humans are monstrous, maybe even we deserve some understanding for it. Without giving away too much more, Undertale eventually confronts players with the difficult realization that no matter how cruel, hateful, prejudiced and utterly devoid of compassion someone or something might appear, there can still be a part of them, somewhere, that never wanted to be that way; a part of them that might only be confused, alone, and afraid.
This damn game made me cry, like, ten times.
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