The Late Gamer: Undertale
I'm not the type of gamer who plays new release games, I'm not even the type of gamer who waits for the end of the year sales to pick the best releases at half price. I'm the type of gamer who realizes they haven't played that one game they meant to three years later and then decides to catch up. I'm like that for a number of reasons, I refuse to play games in story-based series without having played the ones leading up to it, and I spend quite a few of my gaming hours trying to finish the ridiculously long RPGs I often play. It all means that I end up playing games years after everyone else has after the hype has significantly died down. This series aims to compare my playing experience to the hype around each game at the height of its popularity and see whether it still holds up.
I've known I wanted to play Undertale once it started featuring on the gaming sites I frequent in the lead up to its release, but it's been a low priority for me. There were just so many other things I wanted to play that it kind of slipped out of my mind. It wasn't until I was compiling a list of things to buy and play through for my blog that I remembered that I still hadn't got around to it, but once I remembered it became a high priority.
Undertale tells the story of a child who falls beneath the earth's surface into the world of monsters. Before they can attempt to find their way back to the surface they are met by a kindly monster, Toriel. Toriel tells the child that there are two ways to go about approaching the monsters they encounter; fighting them or talking to them and resolving their problems. The idea of having a choice of whether to react to monsters violently or compassionately was considered revolutionary by both gamers and games media alike and the game went on to be widely critically acclaimed, including winning several Game of the Year Awards.
The acclaim definitely feels well deserved, having a game that subverts such a huge part of gaming was certainly a big part of what fascinated me about Undertale. Even quite a few years later, no other game seems to have provided the commentary on the medium it has. From using experience points as something exclusively gained through violence to having characters comment on the likelihood of player to quit or take an easier path when the game feels too difficult, Undertale definitely feels like a game with a moral purpose. It draws attention to the inherently violent undertones of many games, particularly those set in similarly fantastical universes. Toby Fox, the game's creator, said in an interview with the Escapist, “If you think about it basically all monsters in RPGs like Final Fantasy are the same, save for the graphics. They attack you, you heal, you attack them, they die. There’s no meaning to that.” In Undertale, if a player chooses to take the life of a particular monster it is most definitely their choice to do so, rather than simply being a mechanic of the game, and in doing this the audience is asked a really interesting question.
The question for me comes back to the idea of taking the easy route in games. I often find it very difficult to be anything other than good in games that give me choice, although I do occasionally take a more morally ambiguous or renegade option. I don't like causing pain to others, so I often choose the stereotypical saviour role, even when arguably more interesting decisions are available. One of the reasons I love games that don't make those options so clear, like The Witcher series or Life is Strange, is I feel I am able to play as a more rounded character, a character who stumbles through life trying to do the right thing but not necessarily succeeding. But Undertale’s commentary on good and evil is of a different kind altogether. It makes being a pacifist difficult, far more difficult than being violent. If you choose to be a pacifist and try and help the monsters you come across, most of them will still attack you and take chunks of your health (unless you are way better at playing the fighting minigame than I am). Many of the boss fights have found me backtracking to spend all my money on health potions for that one fight in order to not hurt a monster who is kicking the stuffing out of me. It's incredibly frustrating but it does make an interesting point: doing the right thing is rarely easy.
It's certainly an interesting idea to make the player struggle to stay on a pacifist route; it's a great commentary on a medium that has become inherently violent in many ways, but I'm not sure it works for me. One of the things I appreciate the most about RPGs is the ability to become the character, to be completely absorbed in what I'm playing but I found it almost impossible to be absorbed into the world of Undertale. It felt like every time I wanted to make a particular decision I was given a choice to either push through a difficult encounter that would be the right thing to do or to take the easy and violent path. Initially, I was so interested in what the game was doing with subverting tropes that I didn't mind the slog to reveal more of it, but as I continued playing I grew tired of a choice that didn't feel like a choice.
In the end, not being able to play how I wanted to, and constantly being reminded that doing what's right is more difficult and takes more patience ended up ruining my enjoyment of the game. I think a lot of my problem was because I predominantly play games as a form of escapism. What I want most out of them is to enjoy my experience. While I do enjoy games that make me question moral decisions, I'd prefer that not to be the main component of the game. For me at least, Undertale felt like most of the game was about this message, and everything else was secondary to that. I can definitely understand other people enjoying that type of thing, and why it was (and continues to be) a revolutionary approach to gaming, but ultimately not for me. Having said that, the fact that it isn't certainly made me think about what that means about me, so maybe Undertale has achieved its goal after all.