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Undertale: A Game of Characters, Not Choices

By Leo Powell

What you think of Undertale is probably affected by whether or not you are a fan of old Japanese role playing games.

It is undeniably the wry, cheeky offspring of the likes of Earthbound, and in some ways could even be interpreted as a bit of a dig at the genre. The humour is often subtle yet clear, and it never misses a beat when backhanding the tropes of yore.

If, however, your life has been void of JRPGs up until this point, then the humour will surely morph the game into even greater levels of surreality. Everything from the tile-sets to the music is either going to appear strange or knowing. Thankfully, what makes the game compelling to play is that “topsy turvy” design ethos, and it can draw you in no matter what your previous outlook is.

The combat is by far the most prominent feature. You are afforded, in hindsight, the obvious option of “talking” to your enemies, and “vanquishing” them with mere words, instead of just murdering everything with physical violence. Why this is largely absent from the slow, turn based, text-heavy nature of JRPGs is beyond our ken. But how does it work in practice?

It is a joy to experiment with the needs of the “monsters” that you come across in Undertale; prodding and dodging their sensibilities and emotions until you appease them. Between bouts of chatter, the monsters tend to lash out at you, and you essentially engage in a rapid, skill-based dodging game. We should really stop there for a second, however, and question what those actions actually amount to. Despite such an innovation, it could be arguably said that you are killing the monsters in all but name. The text is mightier than the sword, but what is the actual difference in gameplay when the result is the same? The monsters disappear either way.

For a start, we can obviously read more meaning into each encounter, as each monster has a micro-backstory of sorts – but spend more than 10 minutes in the game and you’ll find that you begin to fatigue with the choice. It is ultimately easier to just whack most monsters with a stick. Like most “random encounter” RPGs, you begin to long for an encounter-free area. They become a nuisance, and the gameplay isn’t fed back into the game in an intelligent way. It just is a boring pain. For every obvious “on screen” monster (not a random encounter), you can bet that a conversation is more rewarding, interesting, and beneficial. However I can’t help but think that the game makes me into a bit of a sociopath, drastically trying to discern the murderous monster’s whims and desires.

Having said that, the way in which you are rewarded for killing things is interesting: killing monsters gains you levels, which means extra health. This means that, every time you get bored and murder a flippant, annoying little creature (some just like to dance for you and waste your time), you are rewarded with an increased aptitude in murder. Solving things with violence made me feel guilty and lazy, and that is an obvious achievement when most games reward violence.

The other key element to understanding Undertale is the humour: how many comedies-as-games do you know of? Humour resonates throughout, from design to dialogue. Jokes range from the blunt “hit you with white stuff to make you feel the love” to the subtle: Papyrus the skeleton talks in Papyrus font. When someone laughs, the “ha ha ha” is typed out at a pace that makes the bloops and blips of the “speech sound” into a phoneme for a laugh itself. It’s so very clever.

Graphically, the game is often confusing, and I suppose you could argue that it’s meant to be, to mirror the general flippant confusion that the game imbues. However, such flippancy can leave you feeling pretty cold. At times, the disparity between visual styles can make you jaded, almost as if the game doesn’t care enough to be consistent – it makes it harder to invest in. That sounds harsh, but it’s a double edged sword: the way in which the first “dungeon” is a hideous, overly-simple pink affair is also funny due to its shitness. The monster battle screen is Commodorian, which doesn’t technically gel with the initial NES-like graphics, and the music is much the same, wafting in and out of 8-bit/16-bit/CD quality styles.

The music itself of course being nothing short of masterfully crafted, and full of ideas. It takes into consideration the current wealth of options for today’s game music composers, and picks and chooses delightfully from the tools and contexts at our disposal. By all accounts the wealth of disparity is every pedant’s wet dream, but for others, it is wonderfully postmodern. It’s arguably a postmodern game, which is yet another quality which makes it stand out.

The key point is this: you will be interested in playing the game just to experience the many layered jokes, sounds, actions, atmospheres and graphics that the game has to offer. It might not always be easy or fun. Sometimes it will be boring. Like anything postmodern, it doesn’t always consistently aim to entertain, and you wouldn’t be blamed for putting it down – but you will pick it up again, and you will discover something lovely and fulfilling.

Or, in the language of Undertale:

You come across Undertale. What will you do?

Whack with a stick or flatter? >> Flatter! ….Undertale gives a cheeky wink!

Undertale is available digitally on PC via Steam.