If you look at Undertale from the outside – especially now, years on from the original release, where a dedicated fanbase still persists with detailed theories and some impressive but often questionable fan art – it’s easy to make a few assumptions. The characters are jokes. The combat is simple and gimmicky. The dialogue is all quirky off-beat humour and one-liners with no real substance.
At least, those were my assumptions. And it may be that a lot of those came from my hipster-contrarian mindset that instantly shies away from critical darlings like this. So Undertale came up on my radar and left just as promptly. I had already made up my mind about it by my exposure to the fanbase alone, and had played plenty of pixel-art indie games already. What more could it possibly have to offer? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot more, and as someone who’s been reviewing games for about ten years now I’m frankly embarrassed that it took me as long to play it as it did.
Yes, the pixel art has been done before, and the combat is shallow if you’re playing it as a traditional turn based RPG. The characters may be exaggerated and one note at first glance, but they’re nuanced and clever in their own rights – all depending on how far under the player wants to go. In fact, that statement would definitely apply to the game as a whole. You can choose to run through Undertale without exploring a lot of entirely optional and missable stuff, and lose a lot of what makes it special.
Is that the fault of the player, then, or the fault of the game? I would argue for the former. I think the majority of games (and media in general) we consume have conditioned us. That we expect our hands to be held – for our stories to be spelled out for us. My time with Undertale has actually led me to draw parallels with Dark Souls and Bloodborne, oddly enough. There is overarching lore and hints at a deeper mystery – but you have to put the pieces together yourself through found information and develop your own interpretation. I think if you combine the deceptive appearance with that approach to storytelling, it’s all too easy to misconstrue the game’s depth.
The combat may be basic but it does a lot with the few tools it has. It asks questions with the monster encounters, subtle ones that encourage you to find alternate routes to killing indiscriminately. Toby Fox’s follow-up, Deltarune, beats you around the head with this message almost from the outset, but Undertale lets it burn slower, and you may not be aware just how much of a bad time you’re gonna have until it’s too late. Coming back to my initial point – if you have decided Undertale is not for you based on screenshots or other people’s opinions, you are denying yourself a truly unique gaming experience that conveys real humour and a vast spectrum of emotion with 2D sprites and talking skeletons.
The game’s individual parts form a much greater whole, accompanied by an honestly unforgettable soundtrack. It’s certainly not for everyone -few things are – but I’m sure there are quite a few people out there like me who have simply dismissed it due to surface appearances. Which, considering the game’s predominant themes, is either cruel irony or a stroke of meta-narrative genius. To that I say – just play the damn thing and make up your own mind. Forget that incredibly disturbing piece of fish woman fan art you saw once. Ignore the procession of YouTube comments left by ten year olds or overeager amateur theorists.
I feel like “play the game before you pass judgment” should be common sense anyway, but it rings especially true for Undertale. Don’t assume it’s just some quirky indie darling that gets by on kookiness and memeable moments. If you play any of the possible routes to the end, and take the time to follow up with the characters you meet, you’ll understand why people are still so invested in this world. Maybe you’ll play it once and never touch it again. Maybe you’ll play every route back to back and get a pixellated heart tattooed on your chest.
But whatever you do, you’ll have made up your own mind – and that was certainly the most valuable lesson I was able to take away from my time dating skeletons, eating pie and murdering my goat mother in cold blood. I assumed Undertale was something it wasn’t, and yet playing it was one of the richest gaming experiences I’ve had this year. I won’t make the same mistake again any time soon.
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