Undertale is a game that a lot of people don’t like because a lot of people do. Its rabid fanbase poured free from the boundaries of Tumblr and /r/undertale and into mainstream social media. Undertale is everywhere, with memes made out of its most famous lines and moments adapted to other games and aspects of pop culture. If you weren’t yet a fan of Undertale in the months following its release in September 2015, you probably had a bad time.
I played Undertale sometime around the turn of March, after the initial hype died down. Before that, I heard it all. How Undertale, despite its apparent Earthbound-esque simplicity, is deceptively complex and clever. How it subverts traditional role-playing game tropes, manipulating player expectations of what an RPG should be. How it uses its gameplay systems, primarily combat, to further its theme and story. Characters supposedly develop just as much as they do through overworld text as they do through their attacks and actions in battle.
Let me be clear. Subversion is nothing new in video games. In a world with releases like The Stanley Parable, Spec Ops: The Line and the more recent Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terrible Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, subversion is almost expected from darling indie releases. What makes Undertale special is that it operates on an interactive level. It is effective in the same ways as The Stanley Parable: you have the freedom of choice. It doesn’t seem heavy handed when the game isn’t making you do anything you don’t want to do.
It’s safe to say that all of the above is true. As I played Undertale for the first time, I found myself smiling as my expectations were swept away. Nothing was safe and I eventually realized that Undertale is a game that is smarter than me. It knows more about its medium than I thought I did before playing it and actually doing so is an educational experience. It uses what games were and have been to show you what they can be. Super Bunnyhop says it best: had it come out before Earthbound, it would have been just as strong an influence as Earthbound.
It helps that all of this is attached to some of the wittiest writing, strongest characters and coherent theming in recent memory. Skeleton puns, anime and pasta have never been funnier. Well paced humor keeps the game fresh while you navigate its locales and increasingly emotional plot.
Undertale reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. After disarming its players with a campy plot, lame jokes and a cast of likable characters, the emotional moments hit heavier than they have any right to. Both stories swell into several miniature climaxes with subsequent periods of quiet that allow the player to contemplate what just transpired. Like MGS3’s ending, Undertale is just unfair. It’s not morally right for a game to do what it does to a person.
Above all, what’s most special about Undertale is its honesty and self-assurance. It knows exactly the kind of game it wants to be. It comes with a striking sense of confidence that the greatest games achieve. Undertale teaches us that, yes, there are a whole lot of monsters out there. But there’s a whole lot of humanity too. It isn’t just one of my favorite games. It’s one of my favorite artistic experiences.
I can’t gush enough. Almost two months after, I can’t get it out of my head. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t hum its music or laugh about a line I remember. It’s the kind of game that sticks with you, that wiggles its way into the core of your psyche. With such infectious delight, it’s no wonder this game has such a fervent fanbase. Knowing that there are games like this out there fills me with determination. Determination to work harder, do better and, be excited about games again.
It’s as though Undertale was built for people cynical about games. It is the perfect refresher on what makes them special. Don’t let its childlike demeanor fool you. It is unbelievably quirky and brave. It reminds me of Pixar movies and this quote by Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book. In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness… The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them.
Contemporary, big budget titles ignore the story at the center of their game, choosing instead to focus on bigger spectacles and more complicated systems. Often, this works. Some aspect of the game makes up for the rest of its mediocrity. This good game supplies a story and respects it as a critical component. Undertale handles it all so delicately to craft one of the best indie delights in recent memory.
I was careful to not mention any spoilers or specifics, as this is a game that should be experienced unspoiled. I say that a lot lately. That’s because we’re lucky to live in a time with so many great releases like this one. And while that’s true, I still can’t remember the last game that made me feel this way, that meant this much to me.
Oh, wait. Yes I do: