You Must Play This Game!
This is going to be a looong post, so, get comfortable…
This blog is dedicated to the notion that stories enrich human lives, and I’m not ashamed to praise the ones that have enriched my life. Every child, whether it’s through Aesop’s fables or the Harry Potter series, grows up hearing about a big wide world that they can’t wait to explore. They encourage kids to chase the horizon, or see what’s on the other end of that rainbow. For thousands of years, stories were shared person to person around a camp fire, and later, through written words. From this, we advanced to radio and were able to “listen in” as the action takes place. Then television came along, giving us visual representations of the things we’d heard about, where you can see the story unfolding in real time.
Video games, in my opinion, are the last great evolutionary step in story-telling. You aren’t just hearing the story, reading it, or even watching it. You are experiencing it, and I think that’s the crux of any game review. When people say a game was too hard, or boring, what are they really getting at? The experience wasn’t good enough, for whatever reason. There was a time when I couldn’t get enough of video games or television. My summer trips to grandma’s house involved a lot of binge watching. I craved games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy because they satisfied my desire to go out and be the strong, brave hero who got to see the world (which I could only dream of as a kid suffering with JRA). I craved shows like Dragonball and Mobile Suit Gundam because they offered dramatic tension, something that Loony Toons couldn’t match.
Then, I grew up and discovered a love of books. Today, I don’t play a lot of video games. I don’t have the money for console titles, and I choose to invest my time in other things that are much more satisfying.
Ever so often a game will catch my attention and my curiosity gets the better of me. This has happened three times. The first time was a game called Limbo, a very eerie puzzle/platformer with no real story to speak of but great aesthetics. The next one was Cave Story, an action platformer with a much better narrative and some RPG elements. Both of these games were a lot of fun and I played them several times. Go try them out for yourself.
But you know what they say…three time’s the charm.
The game we’re going to talk about today REALLY puts on the charm. But this post is a bit of a challenge. How do I sell you on a game that came out in September 2015 without revealing all of the juicy bits that made it so endearing to me? How can I convey this game’s timelessness by typing words and not using recorded footage, like so many other reviewers?
I guess I could start by saying it’s for Mac and PC, only $10…
Ok, fine, I won’t reveal anything beyond what you’d learn in the demo version.
The game has a simple premise:
Long ago, humans and monsters lived in peace. Then, after a terrible war, the humans used their magic to seal the monsters in a subterranean realm called the Underworld. Legend says that humans who venture too close to Mt. Ebott never return. You, the player, control a human child who does just that, falling through one of the last cracks between the two worlds. Trapped in the realm of monsters, your objective is to get back home.
If only it were that simple…
Right from the get go, this game messes with your head. The first creature you encounter is a talking flower named…Flowey. He welcomes you and offers to explain the game’s combat system. EXP means “experience points,” LV means “level,” etc. He then offers to share some power with you in the form of dancing white pellets so you won’t be so weak. Ok, I’ve heard this before. Tutorials. Yawn. Let’s get on wit…
If you play this game like me, a total moron, and take the pellets without a second thought, you’ll be horrified to see Flowey’s face contort in a demonic smile. He mocks your naivety and then moves in for the kill. BUT, you’re saved in the nick of time by the game’s real mentor. Toriel is the caretaker of the Ruins and offers to guide you through them. During this process, you learn how to ward off hostile monsters and solve puzzles blocking your way. Flowey is a character I hated from the start, but Toriel is one I loved from the start. She’s so darn attentive and motherly! I dare you not to like her.
After making it back to her house, you poke around and learn that Asgore, king of the monsters, wants to use the power of your soul to wage war on humanity. She then reveals that she plans to keep you as a companion, trapped in the Ruins, despite your ultimate desire to return home. You confront her as she’s about to destroy the only exit and thus, you have your first boss fight.
Right here, only a few minutes in, you learn the game’s first lesson:
1. Appearances are Deceiving.
You take one look at Flowey and think, “Hm, this must be my sidekick for the game. Kinda like Roll from the Mega Man franchise, or Navi from Ocarina of Time. A plucky companion who’ll be my friend and give me hints along the way.” NOPE. Flowey’s just a heartless killer who’s out to get you. You look at Toriel and think. “Ah, here’s my real companion. She will tell me everything I need to know.” NOPE. Toriel is a mother who wants to keep you safe from the outside world by denying you any real knowledge of it, and even goes as far as to fight you to keep you with her.
During your fight with Toriel, you have three options: attack, spare her life, or flee.
“Spare her life”?
Most RPGs have tutorial boss fights against a mentor or a conveniently placed monster. In the case of the former, you aren’t allowed to inflict any serious harm on the mentor because, hey, you’re just a pup and he/she is the master. Often times you wear down their health until they call it quits and extoll you for proving yourself and that you’ll probably be able to succeed if…
I killed her. The very first time I played, I killed her. Not as in “I beat her” or “got her HP down to zero.” I mean “She’s bleeding on the ground, chokes out a few last words, her body dissolves to ash, and her heart shatters into a thousand pieces” DEAD.
And my reaction was something akin to…
“WHY? Why didn’t the game tell me that was possible?? I liked her! Go back! Go back! Redo!”
So, I did. Fortunately, I had saved right before the battle. The second time, I spared her life (you have to click that option a lot before she finally relents). After a few parting words and a tender embrace, she lets you pass. *whew* Glad I fixed that. Now I’ll just leave the Ruins and…
He meets you outside, right before the final gate. What he says will change depending on your actions up to this point. But what he said to me was…
“Clever. Very clever. Down here, it’s kill or be killed. But you chose to play by your own rules. You must think you’re pretty slick. But I know what you did. YOU MURDERED HER. And then you went back because you regretted it! You think you’re the only one with the power to “save”? You think you can play God with other people’s lives?”
I’ll be perfectly honest with you, this is the ONLY time a game has scared me.
Forget demons, zombies, psychos, monsters, sharks, aliens, giant spiders, and cheap jump-scares.
THIS, a tiny little flower (with a hideous laugh) scared me. Know why?
The game touched on something we all deal with.
The game prodded one of the darkest corners of the human psyche.
The game hit me with a six syllable word.
THE GAME CALLED MY BLUFF.
The game knew I did something horrible, something I didn’t want to or mean to, but did because I was reckless. It also knew that I tried to cover it up by backtracking and then called me out on it. It’s that sick, twisted-gut feeling when your parents find out you ate the last cookie, or hit your sibling, or lied about something and they’ve cornered you in your room. It’s probably what Cain felt when God came to him and said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the Earth.”
You can’t get out. You can’t escape. You have to face the music, which brings me to the game’s next lesson.
2. Don’t Assume Anything. Your Choices Have REAL Consequences.
Most RPGs are about fighting through hordes of bad guys and saving the world. Undertale, however, is about saving the world without fighting. You can choose to kill monsters and get stronger (you almost have to on your first time through, more on that later), but certain characters will chastise you for it. In a game about repercussions, violence is condemned. You can spare Toriel’s life, but you can also spare the lives of the monsters you encounter by feeling out their personalities and befriending them, which is a radical departure from the norm. You, as the outsider to this world, have to alter your perspective and see the “monsters” for what they are: fellow living creatures. You won’t get stronger, but you can still earn gold to buy items later on.
What Comes Next?
This stuff blew my dadgum MIND the first time through. After completing the demo, I just had to get the full version (And thankfully, whatever choices you made in the demo don’t carry over to the full version. Clean slate!). Shut up and take my money! I promised not to reveal anything major, but here’s a little more to entice you to play it yourself.
There are three ways to complete the game:
This is the default game mode. Kill a little, spare a little. Middle of the ground. A grey area. After you beat the final boss, Flowey appears and challenges you to try again without killing a single enemy. He even reminds you of “our deal” when you meet him for the first time after rebooting the game!
Gandhi once said, “Peace is not just a way, peace is THE way.” Very true, and this game is no exception. In fact, it exceeds expectations. Often times, games with multiple endings don’t give you a ton of variety. There are a few changes depending on your actions, but whether it’s Bioshock or Infamous, the endings never stuck with me. It was just something to explore if you were into completing a game 100%. Undertale, however, rewards you in ways I never thought a game could. If you’re somehow satisfied with the Neutral ending, you’re a lost cause. The Pacifist ending takes every little plot detail, wraps it up in a pretty bow, and then ships it to you overnight for free with a bonus puppy tucked away. THAT’s how good the closure is. And after doing this version, I learned that I STILL missed some fun side quests.
Let me put it to you this way: I’ve only cried twice from a story’s emotional impact. The first time was the scene in HBO’s John Adams when Abigail dies. The second time was the ending of Undertale.
However, there is a third path…
At the end of the Pacifist ending, should you choose to reset the game, you can go to the other extreme. Kill everything. Every random creature. Every boss. Not only do you end up destroying the world, but, according to what I’ve read, you rewrite the game’s programming code. That means if you regret being a homicidal maniac, it’s too late. You can try to do a Pacifist run to make amends, but the ending won’t be as good because you were so rotten that you took away everyone’s happiness for your own amusement on the first go round. You broke the world so much it can never be fixed, and in the end, even you, the player, dies when your own power is turned against you.
I didn’t bother playing this way. Couldn’t stomach the thought of it after the utter bliss of the Pacifist ending. If you’re that curious, Google it.
The creator of the game, Toby Fox, has said he’ll probably never make a sequel. I can respect that. Not every story needs a follow up. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. After the Pacifist ending, there’s nowhere else to go, but I hope Mr. Fox will make more games in the future. If he could pull off a masterpiece like Undertale with a simple Kickstarter campaign, then I’d like to see what he could do with a major development studio.
I’ve got a few final words on how I feel about the game.
A ghost story
A symphony (seriously, the soundtrack is awesome)
A love story
It’s been a long time since a game drew me in hook, line, and sinker. It’s the kind of experience I’m still dreaming about even though it’s over. Tolstoy said that his magnum opus, War and Peace, was more than a novel. I think Undertale is more than a mere game.
A bit melodramatic?
Power to the pen, and the human imagination it channels.