Undertale is an incredibly successful independently developed role-playing game (RPG) which follows the adventure of a young androgynous human child named Frisk. After falling down a hole atop a mysterious mountain, Frisk finds themself stuck in a society filled with strange but friendly monsters. In their journey to get home to the surface, Frisk makes friends(or enemies) with a varied cast of different monsters, including the goat-like Toriel, the skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus, the nerdy lizard Alphys and her robotic creation Mettaton, the brutish fish-woman Undyne, and the goat-like monster king Asgore. Similar to a lot of RPGs, Undertale’s story changes depending on choices made by the player over the course of the game. However, unlike most RPGs, Undertale’s story changes with the slightest of actions. Killing a single enemy can drastically change the final outcome of the game.
Aesthetically, Undertale pays major homage to RPG games of the early 90s, particularly the humor and fighting style of the popular Super Nintendo title Earthbound. The game is done completely with old-school 8-bit graphics, but has controls similar to more modern titles, with the players using the W,A,S and D keys for movement and the ENTER button for interactions. Undertale even brings some of its humorous aesthetic into the user interface of the game, primarily with the characters of Sans and Papyrus, the skeleton brothers. Since the game features no voice-over dialogue, all dialogue is told through text. For comedic effect, the creators gave the two skeletons unique text font, with Sans speaking in comic sans and Papyrus speaking in papyrus. While the games artstyle harkens back to simpler gaming graphics, the real aesthetic masterpiece comes from creator Toby Fox’s masterful chip-tune soundtrack. Composed of over 100 unique songs, Undertale’s music only adds to the immersive nature of the world, with every main monster having its own unique fight theme which correlates with his/her personality. For instance, the fight theme for the dramatic drag-bot Mettaton is a bass heavy ballad which combines typical runway music with techno based sounds of an old computer, and is appropriately titled “Death by Glamour.” This coincides with his diva-like personality and TV personality motifs.
Although the indie smash hit boasts an incredible soundtrack and a gorgeous pixelized art style, the true beauty of the play is how the players interactions with the game affect the overall story. Depending on the player’s choices, the game can end in a variety of outcomes centered in three separate storylines. There is the “pacifist” storyline, which is achieved by making friends with every monster by sparing them all, the polar opposite “genocide” storyline, in which the player kills every single monster with no remorse, and the neutral storyline, which includes every possible outcome other than killing or sparing every monster. Although most games with a branching story structure usually change at key moments in the game, Undertale’s entire story can change after simply battling an enemy. In fact, the story of Undertale is primarily controlled through key game mechanics such as battling and saving the game.
The game’s turn-based combat system, which is similar to games such as the Nintendo 64 RPG Earthbound, is the primary deciding factor for how the story will unfold. During a battle, the player is presented with two main options; kill their opponent, or sparing them. By sparing a monster, the player moves closer to the pacifist ending of the game, and by killing them, the player leans towards a genocide ending. Most of the battles in the game are against minion-like non-playable characters (NPCs), but killing even one of them during a playthrough will make it impossible for the player to get the pacifist ending. While most battles don’t have much affect, the choices made during boss battles will have a greater effect on the final outcome. At the end of a neutral playthrough, the player will often receive an epilogue from one of the game’s boss characters. This dialogue will often change depending on which of the bosses are still alive by the end of the game. For many players, the best option for the game is the pacifist route. This is the longest story out of the possible outcomes, and it provides happy endings for every character. These factors, along with the game being advertised as “The RPG where nobody has to die,” lead many fans to believe that the pacifist run is the true way to play the game.
Further support can be found for this when completing the genocide run. Unlike the pacifist run, where the overall difficulty of the game is balanced among both normal battles and boss battles, the genocide runs difficulty is very unbalanced. Most of the genocide run is spent meticulously searching areas of the game for enemies to ensure that every single monster is dead, leading to less interaction between the player and the quirky non-playable characters, which leads to the overall game becoming pretty dull. Even a majority of the bosses die with one hit, with the exception being the final boss fight against Sans. Unlike almost every other fight in the genocide playthrough, Sans’ bossfight is incredibly long and frustratingly difficult. There’s even a point during the fight where he pretends to surrender, only to instantly kill the player and troll them for it. It is without a doubt the hardest boss in the game, and its part of the reason why many players avoid the genocide route altogether.
Although choices during battle have great impact during the game, there are other functions that affect the story. In Undertale, the player is able to “reset” the game if they accidentally kill a character or miss an enemy. While in most games resetting would completely restore the game to its original condition, the characters of Undertale, in particular a soulless flower called Flowey, remember the player resetting the game, in some instances mocking them for their choice. In order to showcase this mechanic, the developers made it impossible for the player to obtain a full pacifist or genocide ending in their first attempt at the game. At the end of their first playthrough, the character will be told by Flowey that they either didn’t become friendly enough with a character or they forgot to kill somebody, meaning that the player will have to go through the whole game again to obtain his/her desired ending. However, resetting and fighting arent the only game functions which impact the story. The simple act of saving the players game file has impact on the story. At each checkpoint in the game, the player is given text telling him that he has been filled with “determination,” fully restoring his health and saving his location so he can pick up later. Later on in the game, its explained that “determination” is the energy that allows for the player to save, or in the games universe the ability to alter the course of events at will. There are also moments in which the game will force a crash to add dramatic effect, particularly when fighting against the neutral ending boss, a photoshop monstrosity called Omega Flowey. These are only a few instances of how the players’ every choice can change the game’s final outcome.
Apart from being a welcomed departure to the norms of the RPG genre, Undertale is also a departure from cultural norms, with some of the game’s characters being LGBT. Most notably, the player’s character, Frisk, is canon gender-neutral. While most RPGs give the player a choice of choosing a generic boy or girl to go on his adventure with, Undertale opted to go with a gender neutral character to stray from being another stereotypical RPG title, as well as to provide LGBT representation. Another instance of this representation can be found with the characters of Alphys and Undyne. During a side quest in the game, the player has to assist Alphys, a shy, nerdy, lizard-like scientist, in winning over the strong and menacing fish-woman Undyne. Their relationship, while a minor addition to the story, has major repercussions with Alphys’s personal story arc and with the game’s fanbase, which applauded the inclusion of a canon lesbian couple. Finally, there’s the dramatic robot Mettaton. In the middle portion of the game, there’s a section in which the player has to go up against Mettaton in a series of TV show-type challenges, including live news reports, cooking shows, a trivia challenge, and even a romantic drama, all of which are coverups for Mettaton’s true plan to try and kill the human. However, in the boss battle against Mettaton, the player accidentally flips a switch on Mettaton’s back, causing a transformation from a boxy light up robot into a tall, slender, robotic drag queen known as Mettaton EX. While it might seem to be a great visual gag with the character, it becomes fantastic representation considering there aren’t many representations of drag queens in media outside of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Thanks to its retro art style, gorgeous soundtrack, representation, and gameplay mechanics which define the overall story of the game, Undertale has quickly become one of the most praised video games ever made. Some have gone far enough to compare its greatness to Nintendo’s classic adventure The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game widely believed to be the best game ever made. While some don’t agree with this statement about the indie smash, it is easy to see why people make this comparison. At face value, the two are very different games, with one being a 2D turn-based RPG and the other being an open world 3D adventure. However, both games were revolutionary for their time, with Zelda being praised for its score and its open world style of gameplay with loose linearity. While Undertale is still a very linear game that follows a sequential series of events, it’s true revolution connects to the very ideal that defines videogames; the ability of choice. With a lot of modern games having deep story, gaming has begun to feel more and more like an interactive movie. The way the player interacts with the game dictates his experience with the game. For example, no two people will have the exact same experience with a game like Super Mario Bros. One will probably be casual with it while the other will think about every move and jump. Undertale takes this idea of choice and amplifies it tenfold. The game is driven by decision, with every interaction not only dictating their experience with the game, but how the rest of the game will progress. The game either ends with all of the monsters being saved, or all of them being killed. Frisk will either be seen as a friend to monsters, or a monster themself. Undertale is the textbook definition of what it means to truly experience a videogame.