A few months ago I finally gave in to peer pressure and bought & played Undertale.
In September 2015, Undertale seemed to appear out of nowhere. Suddenly on Twitter and Facebook, everyone seemed to be talking about this mysterious new game (at the time, I didn’t realize that it had actually been a big Kickstarter success two years earlier). “Don’t read anything about it,” they said. “Just play it. You’ll be glad.” Unfortunately, at the time I was getting acclimated to a new job, writing several pieces of music, and trying to maintain a social life with at least my wife. And then by the time I had a bit more time, I had just bought a Playstation 4 along with several games for that, soooooo yeah.
I unfortunately had the plot explained to me by a student’s paper in my Survey of Video Game Music course at WWU, but it only made me want to play it more. I finally got my hands on it in February, I think, and played it every day until I finished it.
It has quickly become one of my favorite games of all time.
Of course, it’s not without its faults; although the battle system did have its fair share of interesting and fun bits and framed a lot of the game’s funniest gags, the “bullet-hell”-esque system frequently became more obnoxious than fun. A few aspects of the game, however, push it above and beyond what few setbacks it has had and into the realm of ~Important Games~.
The game is hilarious. It sets up expectations and turns them on their heads in fantastically clever ways. Within the first moments of the game, you meet a little flower who tells you about how one of the game’s systems works, only to turn its helpful smile into a horrific cackle and attempt to kill you. Characters have their own often-hysterically-stilted dialogue-progression sounds. And, without giving too much away, one of the final bosses completely throws away the entire game’s aesthetic in the most absurd and over-the-top fashion.
The game’s sense of humor reminds me a little of Rick and Morty or Bojack Horseman. Although Undertale is certainly more kid-friendly, it shares its sense of rapidly juxtaposing absurd situations with touching, tender moments, sometimes more subtly than others. It makes for an emotional roller-coaster that would put any Roller-Coaster Tycoon player to shame.
Like much of the game’s aesthetics, the music borrows freely from all sorts of retro sources, namely from SNES/Genesis-era games, especially Earthbound and Chrono Trigger. This sort wavetable synthesis aesthetic melds with more “traditional” chiptune sounds, but also with fairly straightforward orchestral, rock, and pop sounds into some kind of lovely, post-chiptune palette.
With this palette, creator/writer/designer/composer Toby Fox masterfully weaves a web of melodic motifs that reoccur all throughout the game in various forms, tugging on the heartstrings of the player. The music itself is often fairly simple and straightforward, and sometimes its implementation is just a tad bit janky, but it’s exactly what it needs to be. There are rough edges around many aspects of the game, and somehow it makes it even more endearing all around. The game is innocent, playful, and unafraid.
My favorite part of this game, though, is how it truly, uncompromisingly promotes a path of peace. As you would expect in any regular JRPG, the game gives you the option to fight and kill the monsters you encounter. However, this changes the entire game on a fundamental level, turning you into a destroyer of worlds, into the real monster. It makes you know and forces you to acknowledge that these are beings whose souls you are literally crushing. Should you instead choose the more honorable path, the game’s entire essence becomes a journey of making new friends, of forgiveness, of empathy, of learning to see the good in others even when they are trying to hurt you. It becomes a game about, against all odds, standing up for peace and harmony.
And what’s more, this is a game that is accessible to people of all ages. This means, of course, that it’s attracted some fans that can be, well… a bit immature (or even obnoxious) should they be encountered online, but the fact that it has had the opportunity to so profoundly touch the hearts of so many people and teach such important lessons is wonderful.
Yes, there are other games that have had, against the norms of the medium, had mechanics that didn’t involve violence, and there are other stories in other media that have, probably more elegantly, demonstrated this point. However, this is the first game with which I’m familiar that has given the player this level of choice in the matter, and that has made love such a huge part of its essence.
So, have you played Undertale? What did you think? Have the vast fan theories turned you off from it? Do you think it’s the Bestest Game Ever Like Oh My God? Is it Teh Suxorz? Do you find yourself humming “Dating Start!” while walking down the street? Let me know!