‘Undertale’ proves to be masterfully-crafted

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I finished my first playthrough of Undertale in stunned silence. It’s a game that I’ve been reluctant to play for a couple of years because of its childish tones and artstyle. But after one of my friends praised it for being the best game that they’ve ever played, I decided to give it a shot. My journey began with dumb puns and silly puzzles, as expected, but the end affected me in a way I never expected. That’s kind of Undertale’s specialty — playing with our expectations of what an RPG should be, subverting them and using them to drive a story unique to what games can do. Its strong writing, integration of gameplay with storytelling and acute understanding of its audience all build to something that surprises at every turn.

As a lone human fallen into an underground world that serves as a prison for monsters, I had my journey laid out for me, as most RPG protagonists do. For my first playthrough I took a pacifist approach, being as kind and merciful as possible as I searched for a way back to the surface. This showcases a unique characteristic about Undertale. No one has to get hurt  to beat the game. But I made a mistake: I accidentally killed a monster in the beginning. So I restarted without saving, as I would in any other game when I needed a do-over. Except things were different this time. Dialogue had changed to reflect that I’d seen her die. Then Flowey, Undertale’s chaotic evil, the fourth wall-breaking flower, tore into me for having the nerve to abuse the power of the save state.

Undertale expected me to have played RPGs before and played with those conventions in unexpected ways. That first berating from Flowey shaped the rest of my experience — I learned I couldn’t bank on a soft reset, so I had to tread carefully. Everything I did mattered. That clever manipulation of gameplay mechanics adds weight to a story that couldn’t have been told in any other way or medium. Undertale has to be a game, and that’s the key to its brilliance.

Its dodging-based combat minigames especially rely on that concept. Boss battles consistently subverted my expectations, even after I thought I’d figured everything out. But even run-of-the-mill random encounters are closely intertwined with storytelling and worldbuilding. Every enemy has a unique personality expressed both through combat and non-combative options. In my pacifist run I ended up talking to a lot of monsters, giving out hugs and even flirting with them to avoid killing them. In order to spare a monster that wanted to flirt but didn’t want to admit it, I had to “get close but not too close.” That option changed the rules of combat so that I had to narrowly dodge incoming projectiles until the monster blushed so much that it stopped fighting.

There are tons of jokes that appeal to internet nerds, and I often felt like Undertale was talking directly to me, like it knew what I was thinking. I especially love its humor when it has something to say, however subtle. I entered a snail race (called Thundersnail) and was told to press Z repeatedly to encourage my snail to win. I spammed Z until she burst into flames, and the Thundersnail organizer told me that “all that pressure to succeed really got to her.” It was, like many of Undertale’s one-off jokes, extremely relatable — and knowing and predicting its audience is one of Undertale’s biggest strengths.

Undertale’s writing is consistently funny, but it can also be touching. Small, semi-hidden notes and dialogue enrich the world and build on an already compelling story of humanity and morality. A favorite was a series of “echo flowers” in a beautiful, ethereal hallway that repeated snippets of an overhead conversation. A monster didn’t want to share her greatest wish — that one day she would climb the mountain that traps all the monsters underground and look out at the world — for fear of being laughed at, and although her friend promised they wouldn’t, the friend ended up laughing anyway. It was silly, until the last flower repeated: “Sorry, it’s just funny… That’s my wish too.”

Experiencing the depth of the monsters’ hopes and dreams is crucial to Undertale’s exploration of morality, personhood and conflict. Different monsters talk about each other in front of you, so, once I met them, I got to discover who they actually were, as opposed to what their looks suggested. Most of the main characters were also very well developed with consistent personalities across different dialogue and story routes. It made it hard for me to summon the aggression to attack any of them — and that’s precisely the point. When I was trying to go for a more violent run, fighting monsters I’d once flirted with made Undertale’s message about humanity hit even harder.

It’s hard to express just how much I adore Undertale without spoiling anything significant, but that’s what I love about it. It tells its story in such a dynamic way and with such a great understanding of the RPG player’s mindset, that it couldn’t have been told in any other way. It’s a masterfully-crafted experience that I won’t forget any time soon.

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