Undertale

A game by Toby Fox

There’s a lot of talk in video game analysis about game designers’ overwhelming reliance on violence as a mechanic, and the culture that it encourages. There are, of course, reasons why violent video games are so popular; they allow players a relatively harmless outlet for negative emotions, for one. Certain kinds of violent games also encourage ideas about masculine power and the perceived link between “manliness” and violence, letting men fantasize about shooting people without having to deal with the real-life consequences of doing so. And of course, making characters you only interact with through murderation is a lot easier, development-wise, than letting you have, like, a meaningful conversation with them.

There’s a lot to critique there, and an increasing number of developers who make games that are a critique of that culture of violence. Some of them, like Off, condemn your violent actions, but don’t allow you to make nonviolent choices in the first place, making their condemnation frustrating and meaningless. Toby Fox’s Undertale is appealing to me primarily because of the everpresent ability to make that choice.

You’ve probably read lines very much like that in any discussion of Undertale – it’s a ubiquitous analysis, and I’m not the first or the best to say it. But it bears repeating indefinitely, at least until people start making more games like it.

Undertale is a game where you control a nonbinary child (not “ambiguously-gendered”, sorry cis commentators, you’re wrong) who falls into an underground cavern where all the world’s monsters are trapped. Your quest to get home is plagued by attacks from various monsters who want to use the power of your human soul to destroy the magic barrier that keeps them imprisoned.

The results of repeatedly using the "pet" action on Lesser Dog.
The results of repeatedly using the “pet” action on Lesser Dog.

And this is where Undertale differs from other RPGs: in every fight, you are offered a number of choices; you can attack your assailants with violence, or you can take various other actions that may make them stop wanting to fight. The nonviolent options are typically funny or cute, and you can advance in the game without killing a single monster. There are three distinct endings to the game, depending on whether you choose to spare everyone, kill everyone, or kill some and spare others. I only played the “pacifist” route, and that’s the only route I’ll be talking about, and honestly the only one I’m interested in. It’s also generally considered the “true” and “good” ending, given the consequences you face in the long term for taking lives.

Undyne.
Undyne.

For years, I’ve been waiting for this game to be made: a game where you can befriend the monsters instead of killing them. And it’s truly rewarding to do so; Toby Fox clearly put a lot of effort into making extra, optional scenes that allow you to deepen your friendship with certain monsters you meet along your journey. And what friendship! The dialogue is hilarious, the characters are engaging and often relatable, and their scenes and commentary add levity to the progressively darkening tone of the game. Undyne, Sans, Papyrus, Alphys, Napstablook, Mettaton – these are the highlights of the game for me. I frequently disturbed the people around me by laughing uncontrolably, shrieking with delight, or openly weeping while interacting with these characters.

Oh my god?
Oh my god?

The gameplay, too, is fun, inventive, and often hilarious – although the difficulty level is high for players like me who have bad reflexes. Enemy attacks take the form of a bullet-hell survival mode, where you must dodge fanciful and thematic flying hazards to avoid damage. Bosses often have their own mechanical gimmick that complicates things, such as forcing you to jump against gravity or immobilizing you but giving you a shield to block with. It’s fun, but not knowing what to expect or how to react can make a first-time playthrough more difficult.

Each save point has its own little flavor text.
Each save point has its own little flavor text.

Fortunately, the player has a power called “determination” that lets them reload their most recent save upon death (or by quitting and restarting the program). Yep, the game-saving mechanic is actually referenced in the story; the game contains multiple strange meta elements like that, but they’re incorporated in a way that serves the story well, not in an irritating 4th-wall breaking way. But due to its status as a plot element, determination won’t save you from everything.

Ok, there is SOME hand-holding.
Ok, there is SOME hand-holding.

Undertale’s learning curve is based primarily on trial and error. Different enemies present you with different “ACT” options, but only some actions, or a specific combination or sequence of actions, will convince the monster to stop fighting. This can be interesting and fun, another aspect of the exploration and puzzle solving that Undertale offers without holding your hand. But when the consequences for mistakes are as steep as they are in the long term of this game, it becomes a lot more important for a developer to make it clear what the player has to do to avoid those consequences! The trial-and-error approach becomes a frustrating guessing game if errors are punished harshly.

Here's my protip: try everything else before you try using the FIGHT menu.
Here’s my protip: try everything else before you try using the FIGHT menu.

Case in point: in the early game, I got some advice from an NPC about how to get enemies to give up. One way was using actions, and the other way was fighting them to submission. So when I got to the first boss, and the available actions clearly did nothing, I assumed I was supposed to fight, which, big surprise! led to me accidentally killing them. I felt crushed at the realization I’d killed a character I liked, and quickly reloaded my save. But when I did, the game still remembered that I had killed them. There was new dialogue (“You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”) and after I ended the battle (peacefully this time) I was accosted by another character who accused me of exactly what I had done: killing someone and reloading. I couldn’t escape my mistake, even though I’d made it because of confusing instructions from the game itself. It was more than a little upsetting.

It wasn't this boss.
It wasn’t this boss.

That wasn’t the only time Undertale’s expectations were poorly telegraphed, either. I got stuck for a while on a mid-game boss, unable to get them to give up. Little did I know, they would never give up – my only option was to repeatedly flee from the battle until I could outrun them to a safe place. I’d still be stuck there if it weren’t for others who had played already helping me. And that, in my opinion, reflects bad design: players should be able to figure out what they’re supposed to do from game cues, tutorial levels, NPC instructions, anything, anything but outside info.

This isn't a line I expected to be... right.
This isn’t a line I expected to be… right.

My other major complaint is that Undertale’s message about violence is ultimately too simplistic; pacifism is a nice idea, but there are situations in real life where violence is necessary. Even killing can be merciful, and despite the game’s mechanical and thematic emphasis on showing MERCY, you’re not given the option to kill the one character who should – and wants to – be put out of their misery.

I started this game by going on a date with a goofy skeleton, what the hell happened?
I started this game by going on a date with a goofy skeleton, what the hell happened?

Simplistic messages aren’t always bad! Sometimes it’s nice to fantasize about a world where nonviolence can solve every problem, especially in media directed at kids. But I wouldn’t intuitively classify Undertale as a game for kids, and its feel-good message is lost in the contrast with the extremely heavy elements in the third act of the game. Accepting the game’s oversimplified take on violence ought to at least reward the player with an uncomplicatedly happy ending, but it doesn’t, instead presenting a series of unsettling twists, each darker than the last. In the last level before the final boss, Undertale turns into a horror game – and while it’s definitely an effective and scary chapter to play, it’s starkly at odds with the tone of the rest of the story. The tonal shift at the ending is jarring, but more jarring is the idea that we’re still expected to accept an uncomplicated message about pacifism: the one problem that can only be solved with killing is left unsolved, a tragically dangling loose end that the game won’t permit you to tie up. It feels like the message and the story diverge in a conspicuous way, and it sucks.

Oh hi there Extremely Relatable Gender Feels, I didn't expect to see you here.
Oh hi there Extremely Relatable Gender Feels, I didn’t expect to see you here.

On the other hand, there is one message in the game that I appreciate, and its so understated that a lot of people probably missed it: the gender politics of Undertale are spot-on. Besides having a nonbinary protagonist, a number of nonbinary side characters, and at least one character implied to be trans, Toby’s writing never drifts into misogynist territory, never relies on bad gender tropes, and contains a whopping zero macho het dudebros. (There are a couple non-het dudebros but they’re pretty chill.) Undertale doesn’t merely eschew violence, it also rejects the culture of masculinity that loves and demands that violence. The male characters are various flavors of goofy sweetheart (except Mettaton, whose transfeminine presentation is always uplifted and never ridiculed) and when videogames in general are plagued by Cullens, Warrens, and other unbearable (and unavoidable) dudes, that’s something worth noting. At the same time, the female characters are treated with a respect and complexity rarely seen in video game writing. And one of my favorite little things: the game anticipates moments where you might unconsciously gender a character as male and goes out of its way to specifically gender them otherwise, challenging your expectations, like meeting Napstablook, or the hulking ice-throwing wolf-monster in Snowdin.

This line still blows me away.
This line still blows me away.

Undertale has been raising a lot of fuss, and for good reason: there’s never been a game like this, where the writing, the environments, the gameplay, and even the soundtrack combine to form such a transcendent emotional experience, without needing to harm a soul. It’s not perfect, but I hope that it’s the first of many, many more games to explore these themes.

(And hey, I’d love to talk about the specifics of the game that I did and didn’t like, but instead of posting spoilers in the comments, why not hit me up in my contact form so I can reply to you privately?)

Final verdict: If you’re here to kill monsters, be prepared to have a bad time. But if you want a game where you can make cute friendships and solve problems without violence, Undertale is the game you’ve been waiting for. Just get some protips from a friend, and be prepared to cry.

8 comments on “Undertale

  1. Having gotten the ‘pacifist’ ending finally, I would like to say a few (non-spoiler) things to address Undertale. Firstly, the tone-shift is I believe a callback to EarthBound, which is one of the inspirations of Undertale. A lot of EarthBound-like games have a creeping horror aspect to them, though Undertale does lay it on pretty quick once you’re going for one of the ‘true’ endings.

    The other disagreement I have is with respect to violence and mercy. I think that violence, while always an option open to people, is never a good option. Violence in any form causes pain, and a dedication to non-violence brings greater change than violent struggle (See Martin Luther King, Jr. , Mohandas Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, etc). I do not think that killing is ever necessary – to me, life is one of the most precious things in the universe, and if I were faced with a situation where I would be forced to take the life of another person, I would try my hardest not to take that option.

    Non-violence is a hard pill to swallow for people who have been repeatedly trampled upon and oppressed, but ultimately it brings greater and longer-lasting change than violence. Addressing someone you hate or someone who has hurt you with kindness is hard, but I think that nobody will ever change if they feel like they are under attack. It is through trying to reconcile the fact that someone you hate is treating you with respect and kindness that people change their minds.

    Just my two cents.

    1. “Non-violence is a hard pill to swallow for people who have been repeatedly trampled upon and oppressed, but ultimately it brings greater and longer-lasting change than violence. Addressing someone you hate or someone who has hurt you with kindness is hard, but I think that nobody will ever change if they feel like they are under attack. It is through trying to reconcile the fact that someone you hate is treating you with respect and kindness that people change their minds. ”

      Untrue! People may respond to empathy, but institutions respond to power and perception. As such, radical action, including violent action, has an important place in the fight against oppression. As an example it’s low-hanging fruit (and to be fair, the queer rights movement didn’t start with it like some people seem to think), but the Stonewall Riots continue to show this to be true.

      1. I am not saying that radical action is unnecessary. I will dispute however the assumption that nonviolent action is necessarily not radical. Being against Apartheid was a radical action, but it was negotiation, not a violent overthrow of the South African government, which ended that system of oppression. The Stonewall riots may have contributed to the LGBT rights movement, but gains in civil rights have been made through the courts and by the relentless efforts of queer organizations, not armed or violent struggle. I will admit that violence is sometimes a necessary action – Stonewall did much to increase queer consciousness – but violence is a tool that should be used sparingly and with great forethought. It is a sledgehammer; you will not need violence for most situations, but there are a few in which it works very well.

        1. I agree with all that, actually. I just dispute your claim that non-violence will bring greater and longer-lasting change, because the two are so frequently intermingled across historical arcs that you can’t really look at history and judge which one is “better”. They’re both tools, which are applicable to different scenarios and contexts, so I think the best a skilled eye can do is judge which will be more productive, for a certain end goal + for a certain context.

  2. “My other major complaint is that Undertale’s message about violence is ultimately too simplistic; pacifism is a nice idea, but there are situations in real life where violence is necessary.”

    It’s not quite as simplistic as ‘pacifism is good always’. When you think about it, if you’re doing a No Mercy run, the monsters you fight are fighting you in order to protect themselves and/or others. As they should.

  3. I tried (tried so hard) to play Undertale myself… but I just could not keep up with the part where I actually needed to be somewhat competent at video games. The mechanics are a little messy in places and the morals are a bit unrealistic, but I love to indulge my big gay heart in the ideals it puts forth.
    Also, Undertale has generated some really superb fanart, and the soundtrack is a blast. My favorite part of playing (or watching others play) was looking up how to get the good ending and all the secrets on the wiki.

  4. I have to say that I seriously disagree with your attitude towards how the game handles pacifism, to the point that I feel like you’re being a *bit* condescending, but I think there’s some middle ground here in that the game itself acknowledges that its model of non-violent resistance is idealised, both in the form of the tiny handful of conflicts towards the end where fighting (but not killing) is necessary to set the last stage of the Pacifist run into motion and a certain bittersweet little exchange at the end of said run: “Be careful in the outside world, OK? Despite what everyone thinks, it’s not as nice as it is here … not everything can be resolved by just being nice.” I would say that this is one of the game’s key themes: That being kind is hard, and not always an available option, but we must strive for it.

    As for “bad design” in the two fights you mention, I would argue the opposite: Both are seemingly counterintuitive because they rely not on game-type assumptions, but on understanding the characters and paying attention to narrative cues. One requires faith that you will not be hurt by a certain character, and plays on their regret and guilt; the other is all about the character’s refusal to give up, and provoking them until they are pushed too far and forced into an emotional stalemate. The game does a lot with those sorts of reversals.

    Speaking of which, the darkness is definitely foreshadowed way, way early in the story. Now, there is a rather alarming emotional pivot late in the story where, with the exception of a few very funny moments, things get extremely heavy and the bottom just keeps dropping out (“You should be smiling.” *cries forever*), but I feel like that shift is built to with each hint we are given beforehand about the real story. There is a horrible tragedy at the heart of the game, and the whole narrative revolves around this community coping with its repercussions and how it has made each of them who they are, and you only realise this as you get to know each of them.

    On that note, Undertale may have one of the best antagonists in the medium, but any discussion of why will wind up spoiling just how wild and sad and uncomfortably relatable this game gets.

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