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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.