Once every few years a game come around that shakes the very nature of the medium. These rare gems are different, they’re trend setters, and they don’t play by the rules. More often than not they don’t just subvert genre tropes, but outright destroy them before reassembling the parts to create something greater. Undertale is one of those games.
At a glance, Undertale looks like any other 2D indie RPG that gets shoveled onto the Steam store every week. It uses a minimalistic style reminiscent of the old NES days, features some catchy chiptunes, and sports a UI that looks absolutely primal. This look is very important to the game. It tells you it’s a benign role-playing game inspired by the classics. It’s safe. You should know what to expect.
Except you don’t.
You start the game as a young child who has fallen into underground ruins which belongs to a diverse race of monsters. As you progress through this underworld, you learn more about the relationship between humans and monsters, as well as the cast of characters that inhabit it. The game is split between simplistic puzzles and fights with monsters that involve surviving increasingly complex minigames that are a fun spin turned based combat.
Undertale hinges on the fact that you can complete the game without killing a single enemy. Each encounter gives you the option to slay the monster in front of you, or take the time to understand it, which will allow you to spare it. This single mechanic is what elevates Undertale from literally every other RPG that has come before it. For the first time since Final Fantasy broke the genre wide open, we’re called to question how we handle conflicts within video games.
When I say the game hinges on this mechanic, I don’t mean that this is a half-thought out attempt to add a layer of morally grey complexity to the plot. Undertale is organic. Its characters, world, and the very nature of the game changes depending on if you spare or slay monsters. This isn’t a few alternate dialogue changes – this is the entire conceit of the game.
What’s even more impressive is that these different play styles don’t exist separately from one another. Undertale is fully aware when you’re replaying the game and approaching situations differently from before. In fact, to understand the game completely you’ll have to replay it three or four times. Where other games might bait players with alternate endings to expand play time, Undertale makes the experience fundamentally different. When you replay the game and attempt to spare everyone, it feel like you’re trying to make up for your previous sins.
This is thanks to the superb writing and engaging characters that give your choices real meaning, weight, and consequence. I’ve never played a game where the characters have felt so real.
Despite what Undertale achieves in terms of getting you to look at video games in a different light, it’s also just downright fun. Combat sections are all unique and challenging interactions that will have you dodging attacks bullet-hell style. The dialogue is sharp and witty, preying on traditional RPG tropes and exploiting them in good fun. I went on a date with a skeleton, was the guest of a deadly cooking show (hosted by a murderous robot), and got into frequent flexing competitions with a sea horse named Aaron.
All of these seemingly tangential elements are cohesively presented and fills out the world with every step you take. Each encounter, even regular enemies, encourage you to find non-lethal solutions. By putting the sword down and taking the time to understand these different personalities makes Undertale the best lesson in human empathy there could ever be. It goes beyond just seeing all the different endings. You want what’s best for everyone. You want the monsters to understand you as much as you seek to understand the monsters. This meta-contextualization elevates the mechanics into something that affects you, the player specifically, very deeply.
Charming, fun, and emotionally exhaustive, Undertale eschews the fundamental tenants of the genre in favor of crafting a story that could only be effectively told through a video game. It’s lessons on empathy are impactful and long lasting thanks to the tight writing and memorable characters. It’s the first game to truly bridge the gap between the player and the screen, allowing you to make decisions based on your emotions and receive logical, organic feedback from the characters.
Undertale is truly something special. It has my full recommendation and I hope big budget studios pay attention to the innovation put forth by such a small title. Videogames are capable of telling stories in a unique way that has a very real effect on the player, and Undertale takes complete advantage of its medium.
You’ll never look at video games the same way again.
Steve cried at the end of this one. Follow him on Twitter.