Undertale is an extremely clever game.
Aesthetically, Undertale appears to inhabit the sort of campy retro territory that’s so popular these days, but in this case it isn’t just a pointless exercise in nostalgia – it’s actually a feint. The game is full of effects that go beyond its apparent technological level, and that contrast makes them all the more striking. Boss battles in particular are totally unconstrained by what appear to be the parameters of the battle system, making each one its own unique experience.
Similarly, while the game is extremely cartoonish, the writing is really good. There’s too much dialogue overall, but the characters are grounded in relatable traits that make them feel like real (albeit exaggerated) people. The downside is that the plot falls into the common video game trap of just throwing details around as opposed to actually telling a story. Most of the backstory is just posted on signs throughout the game (seriously, think about how little sense this makes), and by the end there are literally just monsters showing up out of nowhere just to exposit the remaining information at you.
A story isn’t just a collection of plot details; the way in which the information is presented to the player matters. For example, there’s a log entry (motherfuckers love log entries for some reason) late in the game that just reads “no no no no NO,” which is obviously supposed to convey that something has gone horribly wrong. But this doesn’t make any sense: under what circumstances would somebody actually write something like that down? Things like this are just a cheap way of establishing a generic, recognizable situation. While they succeed at conveying the basic details of the plot, they lack the verisimilitude required to make the player feel something about it.
Relatedly, Undertale is a comedy that has a serious ending, which is something you can do, but in this case the pacing is completely backwards. It starts off relatively serious and then suddenly becomes completely zany, and it keeps piling on the zaniness as you progress. This has the unfortunate consequence that, as the boss battles become more complex and interesting, they also become less relevant to the story, making the clever mechanics feel like pointless flash. In the end, the game suddenly swerves back into seriousness just in time for the final conflict, making the drama of the ending feel largely unearned.
The reason Undertale matters is that it’s an RPG where you never have to kill anything. It’s deeply sad that this sort of thing is still notable, but it’s really important: the set of stories that you can tell by wandering around and killing things is very limited, and few of them are stories that are going to matter to anyone.
The game pretends to have normal random battles, but there’s a set of nonviolent actions you can perform related to each enemy, and finding the correct combination of actions will allow you to resolve the conflict peacefully. For example, if you’re being attacked by a dog monster, you can play fetch with it and then pet it to calm it down. Also, there’s one battle you can resolve by getting two bros to admit that they’re gay for each other, so that’s pretty great. Resolving battles peacefully earns you money but no levels, which means you can buy the healing items you’ll need but you’ll remain a Level 1 weakling for the entire game.
The problem with the battle mechanics is that they’re completely shallow. Instead of clicking “attack,” you click “hug,” and the battle’s over just as easily. In fact, while Undertale looks like an RPG, that’s really just the framework; you don’t have any abilities or anything, so there’s no actual RPG gameplay. Instead, enemy attacks are represented as shoot-em-up-like bullet patterns that you have to avoid by moving around. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; the fact that you have to sit there and weather the enemy’s attacks while trying to convince them not to fight is a pretty decent representation of what doing pacifism is like. Boss battles in particular force you to endure wave after wave of complex attacks, making them feel like real ordeals.
The part that’s a problem is the fact that you’re never making any real choices. While you do technically have the choice to kill each enemy you meet, there’s no reason to ever consider doing so. Because winning nonviolently is so easy, and because committing to nonviolence never prevents you from doing anything, the choice has no weight. There are a lot of things that could have been done about this. There could be paths you can’t take or items that you can’t get without fighting. There could be battles where you have to sacrifice something to avoid violence. There could be enemies that are too strong for you to handle – even nonviolently – if you haven’t already leveled up by fighting.
Thus, while Undertale finds a number of clever ways to portray nonviolent conflict resolution, it doesn’t find any that are actually interesting. This is where old-fashioned RPG mechanics could really have helped. If Undertale had the sort of complex array of interlocking abilities that a normal RPG about killing things has, it could have made nonviolent gameplay interesting. Instead, all it offers is a mere choice: select either Use Violence or Don’t Use Violence from the menu.
This isn’t just a point about game mechanics, because Undertale‘s story is ultimately just as shallow as its gameplay. This is not a coincidence. Putting the required effort into making the mechanics of nonviolence deep rather than cute would have required thinking about how nonviolence actually works (or doesn’t), which would have allowed for a story that was similarly deep. Instead, we get a completely generic happy ending where the villain-with-a-tragic-backstory is defeated/redeemed by Magical Friendship Power, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
As a matter of fact, the final battle is ripped more-or-less directly from Earthbound, and the result is that the ending is just as hokey as Earthbound‘s. The problem is that, in Earthbound, that was the point; Earthbound was a weird sort of kids’ game. Undertale, however, has a dramatic backstory that it expects you to take seriously, and the development of this story seems to be leading up to a cynical conclusion about the limits of nonviolence. Indeed, the final conflict begins out of sheer necessity: the way things are set up, either you or the last boss has to die, even though neither of you wants to fight.
Undertale even ups the ante with some pretty extreme fourth-wall breaking, implying not only that an easy resolution is impossible, but that you, the player, are a fool for expecting that everything will work out just because you meant well and tried your best. Immediately after this, the final battle happens on autopilot and you win. Thus, it’s specifically the game’s cleverness that makes it feel fake; the game self-awarely taunts you for expecting a “happy ending,” and then gives you one that has no complications.
The reason this matters is that it’s not how things work in real life. The idea that you can follow a simple set of rules and then just sit around hoping for a happy ending is the exact opposite of how reality works. It is actually possible to overcome things that are stronger than you, but doing so isn’t a matter of purity, it’s a matter of complexity. You have to figure out complicated situations and take specific actions in order to make things happen; whether you’re a “good person” isn’t relevant to the operation of the universe. This is exactly the sort of thing that games should be able to express through mechanics, and yet all we ever get are these fake final battles where you keep selecting “hope” from the menu until you automatically win.
Despite this, there is one place where Undertale‘s self-awareness gets interesting. If you want to play again after getting the real ending, the game will actually discourage you from doing so, on the grounds that you’d be “resetting” the happy ending for your own enjoyment, which was the specific motivation of the game’s villain. This is significant because it’s an implication that basically no other video game has: rather than encouraging you to obsessively waste your time playing the game over and over again, courting every minor secret and making every possible choice just to see what happens, Undertale suggests that it’s better to do the right thing once and then leave well enough alone.
The downside to this is that, y’know, games aren’t real. It doesn’t actually matter whether a bunch of fictional characters get a happy ending or not. What makes a game (or anything else) matter is whether you, the person who experienced it, got anything out of it; whether you’re a different person after experiencing it. And if the only thing the game has to say is that nonviolence is nice and the only thing it ultimately has to offer is a facile happy ending, then the unavoidable implication is that you didn’t, and you’re not.
The problem with cleverness is that it makes you feel like you’ve hit on something important, regardless of whether you actually have. The jolt of insight it gives you is easily mistaken for significance, when it might be nothing more than noticing a reference. Undertale offers a very clear example of this problem that pervades the entire game. In the intro area, the game appears to be parodying the standard video game progression mechanic of walking in a straight line and occasionally solving an arbitrary puzzle. There’s one part where merely walking down a long hallway is comically presented as a challenge, and another where a character literally holds your hand through a trivially easy puzzle. After the intro area, having established all of this, you then progress through the rest of the game by . . . walking in a straight line and occasionally solving an arbitrary puzzle. The only difference is that you, as the player, now feel like you’re in on the joke. The game is clever enough to make fun of this, but not smart enough to come up with anything better.
This is the same problem that the mechanics have. The problem with standard violent game mechanics isn’t just that they make light of killing (though that is obviously a serious problem), it’s that they’re banal. RPGs in particular rarely require much more than just selecting the “Attack” command over and over and occasionally healing. The fact that you have a bunch of different fancy attacks – as well as the mere fact that you have to select the commands yourself – makes you feel like you’re making decisions and doing something, when you’re really just acting out a very simple script. And in this regard, Undertale is no better than what it’s reacting to. The fact that the commands you’re selecting have different names that amount to cute little jokes doesn’t change the fact that playing the game requires very little thought. The cleverness of the presentation masks the hollowness of the actual mechanics.
Finally, this is also the problem that the story’s theme of nonviolence has. With all of its jokes and twists and fourth-wall breaking, as well as the fact that it’s presenting an obvious alternative to standard RPG gameplay that has somehow not been seriously pursued in 30 years, Undertale seems like it has something of significance to say. But when it comes down to it, when it’s the final battle and everything’s on the line, the game has nothing to offer but the same trite conclusion we’ve seen countless times before. During the epilogue, someone does point out that “not everything can be resolved by just being nice.” That seems like it would have some pretty big implications for the choice of whether or not to use violence, right? And yet, other than this one line of dialogue, nothing that acknowledges this very basic point is actually in the game. For all of its cleverness, Undertale has nothing to say about violence.
As just one idea, imagine if the final boss were implacably violent and you had to kill it no matter what (and that Magical Friendship Power was not an option). Imagine you went though the entire game at Level 1, feeling proud of yourself for being such a good person and not hurting anything, only to discover that being such a weak loser makes it impossible for you to win. Imagine you then had to go through the game again, making hard decisions about where to earn the minimum amount of experience needed to beat the last boss, agonizing over every decision about who to spare and who to kill. And, of course, the more you leveled, the easier the last boss would become, giving you an actual motive to use violence that you would actually have to resist. A framework like this (again, just one example) would have allowed the game to require real thought on the part of the player, and to have a point.
There’s one instance where Undertale goes beyond being simplistic and becomes offensively bad. Towards the end of the game, a character appears out of nowhere to give you a big didactic speech about how the standard RPG concepts of “experience” and “levels” actually represent your capacity for violence. This explained in pretty much the stupidest way possible: by making the terms acronyms that stand for bad things. In addition to the obvious fact that making up an acronym does not amount to making an argument, this sort of thing is exactly why the “show, don’t tell” rule exists. The entire game was available to show you how the ability to use violence can tempt you into making bad choices, but no such thing ever happens. There’s nothing that even mildly dissuades you from just picking the nonviolent option from the menu in every encounter. Really, the problem is that the entire game is ultimately just a better-presented version of this speech. In that sense, it’s actually kind of nice that this bit is included, because it’s a crystal clear example of how you can be clever while also being spectacularly dumb.
The reason this is all so disappointing is because Undertale, for just a moment, made me genuinely nervous. When the game got to the point where it appeared to be subverting its own banal message, I was actually worried that I might end up having to make a hard choice, and that I might fuck something up. But I had nothing to worry about. The game wasn’t challenging me or putting anything on the line. It was just being clever.
The thing about all of this is that Undertale is a really good game. The problem is not that it “could be better”; the problem is precisely that it seems to have done the best it could. And given the way that its limitations are a direct result of its idolization of its predecessors, it would seem that the whole enhanced-retro aesthetic isn’t so harmless after all.
The good news is that there are other options besides making clever updates to 20-year-old games. There is, in fact, a well-established alternative with a pretty good track record. Kill yr idols.