Games of 2015: Undertale

Let’s get this one out of the way first. Undertale has reached that point of utter saturation that places it in a similar place as Breaking Bad: It’s a great game, but the more you tell people that it’s a great game, the less they want to play it because they’re sick to death of everyone telling them what a great game it is.

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 19.24.25There are two things that make it hard to write about Undertale, and this is one of them. You’re either preaching to the choir or just adding to the noise that only serves to drive people away from the game.

That all said, Undertale is a game that just begs to be talked about. It arrived out of left-field and took the Internet by storm, quickly developing its own subculture, dominating and/or rigging online polls (depending on who you ask), and generally just being omnipresent in all forms of gaming media. So, why?

Well, this is the other difficult thing relating to writing about Undertale: Saying damn-near anything about the game is a spoiler and will ruin some of the fun, surprise and discovery you get from playing it by yourself. However, as I mentioned, at this point everyone has either played the game or never wants to hear about it again, so everything past this point is a spoiler and you have been warned.

Personally, I loved Undertale because of how damn meta it is.

An early section of the game has you learning the basics with Toriel, your well-meaning but thoroughly overbearing surrogate mother for the first 30 minutes of gameplay. She teaches you the basics of the game: talking to monsters to end combat, solving puzzles, baking pies. At the end of the tutorial, you’re forced into a choice: stay in the underground forever with Toriel, or engage her in battle to show that you’re strong enough to proceed in spite of her warnings.

And that’s what I did. Toriel dies, you proceed, and the game serves up a long stretch of forest to walk through while you think about what you did . At this point, I was troubled. I knew it was possible to beat the game without killing, but I’d just killed a major character. Talking had gotten me nowhere, but perhaps there was something I’d overlooked? So I did what most players would do wen faced with the prospect of living with a choice they’d made incorrectly.

I reset the game and reloaded.

Second time around, I found a way to save Toriel, only to be chided in the next room specifically for having killed Toriel and reloaded to absolve my guilty conscience. This was where I learned the first rule of Undertale and fell in love – the game has two saves. The first is the traditional game progress save system, updated when you manually save at save points. The second save is a persistent, automatically saved log of certain actions you’ve taken so that the game can subtly tweak encounters and dialogue depending on actions taken even when you didn’t save, reloaded or even restarted the game entirely.

This duality is a key theme of Undertale. On the surface, you have a simple story of a child trying to get home. Underneath is a carefully told meta-narrative about characters who are aware, on some level, that they’re in a video game and subject to being saved and reloaded entirely at the player’s whim. All this culminates in a final boss fight where the enemy crashes the game entirely multiple times (actual, genuine crashes that require the game to be relaunched) and intentionally save-scums the player if things don’t go his way.

Beneath that, there’s even more. There’s one extra, deeply hidden layer of narrative only vaguely hinted at during the main game. By modifying the game’s ini files, you can find traces of unused and unfinished content that hint at the existence of a character that, while researching the underlying mechanics of the game itself, was somehow banished from existence entirely. Again, this is just beautifully meta.

This is all, frankly, mind-blowing and a big part of why I utterly loved Undertale. The game treats the player with a huge amount of respect when it comes to the story, without falling into the same trap of awful, cryptic pretension that games like Braid fell into. Each of the game’s three endings stands firmly by itself, but all compliment each other and reveal new aspects of the plot. Several aspects are left open to interpretation, some are only apparent through small clues that are easily missed on your first run through. Some are so deeply buried that, if not for the strong community that built up around the game, they may never have even been discovered.

There’s always been a long-running debate on games as an art form, that always seems to hinge on comparing video games to other mediums. Frankly, games will likely never tell a story like a film. They’ll never develop characters like a TV show, or analyse and deconstruct the world their worlds as effectively as a comic book. But with Undertale, it’s possible to see how games can compete on their own level, playing to the strengths and weaknesses of the medium to tell a story that couldn’t have been told any other way.