So, I have this friend. We’ll call her ‘Lauren’, because, well, that’s what her name is. She plays a lot of video games, and plays a lot of music from a lot of video games, and is generally very enthusiastic about them to a degree that borders upon indescribable. She tends to criticize video game plots and characterization and themes because let’s face it, no matter how far video games have come in the past couple years, there have been just as many steps backwards. And besides, if one loves a thing, one should criticize it in the interests of making it better. I guess what I’m saying is, when Lauren recommends a game, I tend to listen to her because she puts a great deal of thought behind her recommendations. So, when she recommended that I play a little indie game by the name of Undertale, I paid attention.
I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to write about games that were popular and that everyone already knew about. And here I am, writing about a game that everyone has at least heard something about in the past couple of months. But here we are.
The thing is, though, sometimes there are actual reasons for a game to be popular. If a great many people like something, there must be something in it worth liking, correct? I mean, I’m probably going to be the five hundred thousandth person to write about Undertale in the couple of months since its release, so even on that front I’m not being entirely original by liking it. There are a lot of things I could write about, like how the characters are endearing (they are, sometimes), how the music is completely on point (it is, all the time), or how the sense of humor seems to be specifically designed to appeal to me, in particular (I love bad puns). What it comes down to is that I’m pretty sure that Undertale is popular not because it wants to appeal to as many people as possible, but rather because it tries to have something in it that can appeal to people on a personal level. There’s a subtle difference there. It’s the difference between broad appeal and massive individual appeal.
For those who have heard of the game but still don’t really know anything about it, here’s the basic rundown. In Undertale, you play as a child of somewhat indeterminate age who has, for whatever reason, climbed a cursed mountain and fallen through a gateway into a world of monsters. These monsters have been sealed away behind the gateway due to losing a war to the humans in the past, and ever since then they have all been looking for a way out. You are immediately told in no uncertain terms that the world that you have fallen into is a cruel, merciless place in which the strong survive and the weak perish.
If it just left off with that, the game wouldn’t be that much different from, well, any other RPG, really. Monsters attack you in random encounters, and you obviously have the choice to fight them in order to get stronger. But.. you also have the choice to not. You can run away, or you can talk to them in the style of a Shin Megami Tensei game. Sure, you don’t get stronger by talking enemies into leaving you alone, but you’re able to resolve the situation just the same.
See, Undertale is a game about choices and consequences, which is a thing that I have written about before, if you recall. Here, though, the idea of choice is present not just in specific parts of the game or in a few dialogue or branching level choices. In Undertale, the choices you make are present in the very game mechanics themselves. If every fight is a choice between fighting or talking, then which choices you make are what defines your character as a person. And it’s something that gets reinforced (or contradicted) repeatedly throughout the game, instead of just having one-off decisions that end up having little lasting consequence.
In the game I was writing about in my last article about choice, Spec Ops: The Line, I criticized the game for removing choice from the hands of the player at key narrative moments in order to force the plot in a certain direction. In that game, you are given the choice to do violence or to save lives, unless it’s in a situation that is central to the plot of the game. In Undertale, though, every single act of violence is a choice that is made by the player. There are very few situations that you can’t get through if you just refuse to fight, and there are definitely no situations that you can’t get through if you refuse to kill. This puts a lot of agency in the hands of the player. Spec Ops was a statement about violence framed in a violent game where the rules were that you have to be violent in order to proceed. Here, in Undertale, the statement about violence is framed in a game where the rules permit the player to choose to not commit violent acts at all.
The other criticism I had against Spec Ops and its narrative and thematic choices is its insistence in daring the player to make the choice to not play. In that case, I said that I absolutely do not care for that style of meta-narrative, because the game (or book, or whatever) does not simply stop existing just because the player (or reader) chooses not to complete it. Upon playing Undertale, I realized what my main argument was against that angle. In most media, even most games, the player is not part of the narrative. Sure, the player controls the character and can make choices, but the plot of a game rarely ever acknowledges that the player exists at all. Books and movies, being even more ‘static’ media than games, are even more restrictive. If a reader chooses to close a book and not finish it, that is an act that is so completely outside of the narrative that it cannot be part of the narrative at all.
What Undertale does is different. By the end of the game, the player is a part of the narrative to such an extent that even the act of turning on the game to begin with is treated as a choice that the player makes within the context of the game. Before playing Undertale, I didn’t think that there was any elegant way to even account for this choice at all, but now I can’t imagine why it hasn’t been done before. In Spec Ops, I felt that removing any choice from the player at a key point in the narrative was so disrespectful to the player that it completely broke what the game was trying to accomplish. Undertale fixes that problem by making the choice not to play a valid narrative and thematic choice. Simply put, if the player is always treated as part of the narrative structure of the game, then the choice to not play is valid within the story structure.
All this is to say that if the only winning move is to not play, then Undertale treats the choice to not play as a valid one and respects the player for it.
So what did I think of Undertale? The experience grew on me. The game is mechanically solid, but above and beyond that, it’s something that will stick with you after the end. It’ll make you think, in a way that I don’t think many games do. And even so, a lot of games that attempt to be ‘thought provoking’ go for the ‘shock and awe’ method of presenting disturbing imagery (I’m looking at you, Metal Gear Solid). In contrast, Undertale is far more subtle than that, partially due to its low-fidelity graphical style and partially due to, well, not really wanting to disturb the player so much as uplift and empower the player.
In a narrative that references determination and player agency so much, it’s that empowerment that makes Undertale stand out most of all. The choice to play, after all, is always in your hands, and it’s about time that we got a game that truly respects that choice.