If you follow these things, you may be aware that Undertale has some kind of big spooky skeleton secret hidden in it that nobody’s figured out yet. There was a recent update which appeared to be a trivial bugfix but which apparently contained a new hint to the mystery, and now everybody’s trying to figure out what it means, blah blah blah. This isn’t actually interesting. Whatever “theories” people come up with about this don’t amount to anything, because they’re guesses concerning what is probably about a tenth of a plot point in an already shallow story. I’ve got a better theory: Undertale is a honeytrap for nerds.
When I wrote about Undertale before, I mentioned that one of the great things about it is that, once you’re done with it, it encourages you to stop playing. This isn’t just cute, it’s important, because of circumstances. See, if you’re writing a book and you want to make it a page longer, you have to actually write another page. In a video game you don’t have to do that. You can make the game longer by just being like “go collect 5 platypus tails” and then the player has to go do that, even though you haven’t actually added anything to the gameplay (this is pretty much what’s going on whenever the words “procedurally generated” make an appearance). This possibility is a bad thing. The way books and also every other medium except games work is metaphysically superior: in order to occupy more of the audience’s time, you have to actually put something in that is at least potentially worth that time.
For this and other reasons, video games are generally not designed with the understanding that the player should get something out of them; on the contrary, they are largely concerned with occupying time. Undertale is not like this: it wastes a little bit of time on wandering around and solving dumb puzzles, but for the most part the stuff you do in the game is actually relevant to what the game is trying to be about. Of course, it’s far from alone in this regard, but it’s still a significant countermeasure against a very pervasive and very bad trend. As I explained in the other post, I don’t really feel that Undertale has all that much to offer, but it is designed such a way that what it does have to offer is presented to the player in a straightforward and non-time-wasting manner. All well and good.
What I didn’t mention before was the contradiction embedded in the present topic: Undertale also contains a bunch of goofy hidden easter egg nonsense with vaguely-implied quasi-significance to the plot. The details aren’t super important here, but basically Undertale keeps track of pretty much everything you do and makes certain subtle changes throughout the game in response. The funniest example is that, early in the game, you have the opportunity to both hit on a character and to refer to her as “Mom,” and if you do both she’ll call you out on it later. So mostly it’s just jokes like this in the dialogue, but there’s also apparently some sort of secret counter that causes certain NPCs and messages to show up, or something, I don’t really care. The point is that finding this stuff requires a huge amount of behind-the-scenes-ery and determined investigation into things that don’t appear to matter at all, and the implicit message that this is worth your time directly contradicts the explicit message that, once you’re done with the game, you should be done with it. But this is only the case if the same people are receiving both messages.
I played through Undertale twice in order to get the good ending, which I had to do because I fucked up the first time by not realizing you can avoid killing the first boss. This was clearly intended; the beginning of the game is actually very well-designed in this sense. You’re given the tools you need to resolve the encounter peacefully, but you don’t necessarily know how to use them yet, and the dialogue surrounding the encounter strongly implies that there’s no good way to handle it. As such, the most likely player behavior is that you’ll kill the boss while feeling uneasy about it, and thusly be resolved to get it right the next time around once you know for sure that it’s possible.
The reason this is important is that playing through Undertale a second time is super fucking boring. As previously explained, the game’s mechanics are as shallow as possible, and this is where it really hurts: the game’s only draw is its novelty. This is in addition to the fact that there’s just a stupid amount of dialogue that you have to page through on every screen. Thus, a second playthrough ends up having two effects. First, you’ll notice that some dialogue is slightly different based on some seemingly trivial choices you can make. This demonstrates that there’s a lot of very subtly hidden stuff in the game, but the fact that the game is still completely linear makes it clear that none of it actually affects anything. The second is that, by the time you finish, you’ll be super fucking sick of the game, so when it tells you that you’re done and you can stop playing, you’ll be more than happy to take it at its word.
Unless, that is, you’re the type of person who imbues trivial differences and vague hints with an undeserved level of significance, who determinedly mines for “content” and “completion” regardless of whether you’re actually getting anything out of it, who goes on message boards to look up instructions on how to do everything to avoid the unsettling feeling of having your own experience. In other words, if you’re a nerd.
Related to the problem of being able to artificially extend the play time of video games is the problem that you can hide things in them. In a book, for example, you can hide meaning in various ways, but you can’t hide the actual text. You can’t “lock” a chapter such that it can only be read if you flip through pages 26-45 in 55 seconds and then read page 12 backwards. In video games, you can do exactly this, and again, this is a bad thing: it prevents players from accessing what’s actually in the game. This has always bothered me: after going to the effort to put something in your game that you think is worthwhile, why would you then go and conceal it such that 99% of your audience will never have any idea it exists?
The only possible answer is that you think the search itself is significant. This could potentially be the case, but consider the type of thing we’re actually talking about here: the way you find secrets in games is generally not by experimenting with the mechanics but by obsessively poking every last thing until you find something. This is not really behavior to be encouraged. Undertale takes this problem well over the top, as the secret in question here is completely invisible in normal gameplay. You apparently have to edit the game files or something, which is about as close to a true waste of time as it gets.
If, however, we assume that the aforementioned contradiction is intentional, then this becomes the point. By keeping its secret bullshit partitioned away from the meat of the game, Undertale only wastes the time of those who are determined to have their time wasted. It’s no coincidence that the “secret” plot involves time travel and super science, while the real plot is about relationships, becoming a better person, and accepting reality. This same dynamic applies to the game’s violent route. As I originally complained, the game provides exactly zero motivation to go down the path of violence, which defangs it as a choice. But again, this becomes the point: because it’s so obviously evil, there’s no reason to go through with it other than “just to do it,” to make sure you’ve “completed” everything, to be the kind of nerd who values making numbers go up over morality. The game also has a hidden “hard mode” which turns out to be fake; it ends abruptly with the suggestion that you should find something better to do with your time, making the point that you’re not supposed to be doing this. In summary, Undertale gives each player what they deserve. The judgment you bring to the game becomes the way it judges you; the measure you mete is measured to you again.
Given the current situation, this particular bifurcation takes aim a crucial point. You may have heard that games are undergoing a bit of a “culture war” at the moment, and by “a bit” I mean it’s basically the saddest possible thing. There’s actually a question as to whether games ought to be things that are meaningful to people or piles of numbers and equations for nerds to masturbate over. Undertale responds to this sordid dilemma with a double move: the people who go into it looking for a significant experience don’t have their time wasted, while the babies looking for pointless trivia to obsess over get their bottles. (Again, the problem with this is that the “good” part of the story is completely facile, making it only a weak affirmation. I stand by my original point that Undertale is more clever than it is smart.)
It’s apparent that Undertale hasn’t quite succeeded here, as its popularity has caused the usual suspects to barf out the tiresome “not a real game” accusation. This is because it’s too simple; specifically, it lacks the tediousness and fake complexity that define a “real game.” The reason behind this recurring uproar is that nerds need this kind of thing to feel safe: fake engagement that makes them feel like they’re figuring things out and solving problems when they’re actually just pounding levers in a Skinner box and waiting for a random number generator to come up with the correct value. A game that actually tries to engage them on a personal level without hiding behind “complexity” scares them.
There’s an opportunity, then, for a full manifestation of this approach to deliver a long-awaited coup. By using the dark arts of game design to quarantine nerds within their own desired illusion, forward-looking games can drag this dire medium into the light without having to endure the bile of reactionaries. It’s not everything, but it might just be enough to finally fulfill the command of destiny: kill all gamers.