A Thousand Words: Undertale

Undertale

It’s the 5th anniversary of Undertale , the cult classic indie RPG/homage to Earthbound. It’s hard to really explain, because in some ways it’s a victim of its own success. There was a yo-yo of crazed fandom and understandable backlash. People know the plot twists now.

When I first played, I didn’t, and I could appreciate what it delivered, and what’s been lost. So yeah, I know it’s a five year old game now and has been successful, but I’m going to be spoilering it all.

You control a deliberately androgynous-looking child (I thought the sprite looked more feminine) as they fall, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a sealed-off world of goofy monsters. The battle system is an action-RPG hybrid where you can move around on a screen to avoid attacks.

What works is how it works with the expectation of it being a normal RPG. Basically, I thought “You don’t have to destroy anything” was just a sardonic comment like Postal 2’s “only as violent as you are”. Flowey, the psychotic flower-beast, is basically a “lolmeta-lolgoofyIkillforfun”… at first. When I first battled Toriel, the overprotective monster-mother, I was convinced that reducing her to zero HP would just trigger some kind of cutscene, and that she’d be fine. (She wasn’t).

To date, one of my absolute best video game moments comes from fighting the dogs. Now, they’re portrayed as little more than normal enemies and not the most special, so I deal with them. Then I go into the town and they ask where the dogs were and how good they were and wonder what happened to them and I go…

“Oh.” (gulp)

That’s why I haven’t personally played the game since my one violent neutral route. In many way it’s still a short, cheap, simple indie game, and the magic just wouldn’t be there if I knew what was happening.

Even with the blind run, the game had some down parts. The Hotland area is execrably bad, being a combination of the same lame social media joke, an extremely annoying character, and puzzles just hard enough to annoying but not complex enough to be fun. I felt like I had to stagger through-then came the finale.

Even with full hindsight, I can say this-the finale, whatever route, is the highlight of the game. Part of this, I believe, is that it plays everything straight and goes for legitimate gravitas. The best fiction, even the kind that’s often silly, knows when to be earnest, and the conclusions of Undertale count as that.

It’s still good-the music and art are both excellent, and the mechanics, while simple, aren’t bad by any means. Undertale definitely deserves its success. It’s just that I think it was at its absolute best when you didn’t know what to expect-and I was fortunate enough to play it that way.

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