Undertale is an RPG where you can talk your way out of every battle. It’s amazing. And yet, that might be the least remarkable thing about it.
(Warning: BIG spoilers for Undertale follow. I’m not gonna spoil everything, though. Rather than discussing each specific secret, which would be terrible of me, I’m gonna talk more about the brilliant ways in which the game constructs its labyrinth of surprises. That said, there are still a fair number of plot/character spoilers. You have been warned.)
(Also, if you haven’t played the game, I really recommend doing that before reading this! This stuff is just so interesting that I couldn’t not write about it.)
Undertale is, initially, very good at hiding its secrets. It seems like a relatively straightforward JRPG-style adventure, albeit an insanely clever and heartfelt (and oftentimes just insane) one. But, as I’ve peeled back its layers over the past week, I’ve figured out three ways in which the game is way, way, way, way more than meets the eye (socket).
I’m not just talking individual decisions (though it does keep track of every last one of those); Undertale gets super meta about it. If you’ve died and reloaded from a save point, the game knows and will often reference it.
Eventually, it becomes part of the game’s plot. You aren’t just some random human. You travel through time and transcend death. Nothing can stop you, all because you have the fabled godlike powers of “save” and “load.”
But that’s not the craziest part of Undertale’s meticulous book-keeping of your save files. Here’s the big one: it also knows when you start the whole game over. Many characters even remember your prior escapades—some faintly, others with perfect clarity and the benefit of hindsight. It quickly becomes devastating.
Case in point: remember my story about how I dealt with Toriel on my first playthrough of the game? Yeah, well, I started over, and things somehow got even more heartbreaking.
When we first met (or “first,” I should say), she told me she felt like she knew me from somewhere. SHE EVEN REMEMBERED MY PREFERRED PIE FLAVOR.
But... but I killed you. And I still feel awful about it.
Then she dropped a bombshell: apparently, she feels this way every time a human falls down into the monsters’ pit prison of a civilization, implying that every previous human could have just been a different me.
Now, you’ll remember that last time I met Toriel, I ended up killing her because, well, I thought I had no choice. I thought she was trying to teach me a lesson in cutthroat ruthlessness while also, perhaps, giving in to her own grief. And maybe she was, but you can talk her out of it. So I went for it, but the game never let me forget my abhorrent act from before. Not even for a second. I tried talking to her and it said, “You consider telling Toriel that you’ve seen her die,” but...”
And then, even after I spared her, this happened:
I have pressed many games’ buttons over the years. Never have I encountered one that’s so good at pressing back.
That wasn’t the end of it. Not to spoil any more, but characters kept remembering me and my previous choices for my whole playthrough:
I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d spent my previous run murdering everyone. Speaking of...
If you play Undertale the way I did my first... er, second time, it’s a tale that finds inspiration—the ability to persevere, smile, and even laugh—in the face of pervasive sorrow. Everyone—every NPC you talk to, every monster you fight—is coping in some way or another, whether with the larger monsters vs humans tragedy that (literally) engulfed their world or their own crippling insecurities. Undertale can be a game about talking your way out of every fight—and that’s rad!—but you do so through understanding rather than silver-tongued turns of phrase. More than anything, everyone just wants to be understood. The story is sometimes bittersweet and a little melancholy, but ultimately, you make a bunch of weird-as-fuck friends and leave them in a slightly better place than they were before.
Or you can just K I L L E V E R Y O N E Y O U M E E T.
It’s a JRPG-like game. They’re monsters. As the hero, slaying these things is usually your whole gig. NBD, right? Wrong. It is a very BD. (Big deal. Not Blu-ray disc.)
At that point, Undertale becomes a story about alienation—ostracization of others because they seem different, or because you think life should be about getting yours while you can, others be damned—and the dark path that can send somebody down. This isn’t like in games with illusory “moral” choices where party members and some major characters react to you slightly differently, but the overall game is similar. If you take the violent route, Undertale slowly transforms—scrunching its sunny face until you can hardly recognize it—into a horror game, and you’re the monster.
What makes you monstrous is not your capacity to cause physical harm (though certainly, that leads to a handful of horrifying moments), but rather the fact that you end up carving a swath through people who only want two things: 1) to protect their friends, and 2) to see you blossom into a better person. And despite all the darkness that follows, I feel like a “genocide run,” as the community has taken to calling it, gives some characters even more indicative moments than a pacifist approach.
For instance, there’s Papyrus. He’s a doofy wannabe skeleton soldier who’s just way too nice. He’s also desperately lonely, even though he’ll never admit it. If you play pacifist, you can withstand his barrage of puzzles and “traps” (none of which effectively harm or deter you) and ultimately become his friend. Then you can go on a date with him and check out his sweet race car bed. Papyrus might be a little abrasive (HE TALKS IN CAPS ALL THE TIME AND IS WILLFULLY OBLIVIOUS), but it’s hard not to adore him and his strange off-brand of skele-charm. By the end of my pacifist playthrough, I was calling him on the phone every time I walked into a new area, just to get a couple extra lines of his goofy dialogue. It felt like I was traveling with a good friend.
But you can also just kill him the first time you meet him. You can barrel through his puzzles—breaking his heart a little more each time, because he loves puzzles more than just about anything—and ultimately lurch your way into a battle against him. When I was playing pacifist, I spared him because he was trying to capture (though not really harm) me. If you’re hell-bent on terrorizing monster land, he tries to spare you, right off the bat. And then, if you still decide kill him, he spends his final words wishing you the best.
Video courtesy of Leifon.
In a genocide run, you change, but these characters stay the same. They just reveal different sides of themselves. Poor Papyrus. He really was too damn nice.
But that’s nothing compared to where a genocide run ends up. Some characters do fight back—bare their fucking souls to you in the process—and give you the hardest boss fights in the entire game. This despite the fact that, because you keep leveling up, most enemies fall to you in a single blow. Everything distorts and contorts. Locations are abandoned. The soundtrack becomes warped and discordant. The game becomes legitimately scary. Because of you.
It just gets darker and darker, harder and harder to watch. The short version? You play someone’s total self-destruction, and you witness a slow, painful descent into a very modern brand of nihilism. I’ve seen people do this to themselves in real life, and I imagine you have too. Sometimes these people end up making headlines after they hurt others. It’s scary and upsetting, but perhaps even more than that, it’s sad.
Try messing around with your name at the start of the game. Fun things will happen. Oh, and when you encounter Lesser Dog, keep petting him. Pet him long past the point of reason. It will have further reaching consequences than you expect.
Also, it sure seems like Undertale is able to figure out when you’re recording a video or streaming it. Maybe I’m just reading between the lines too much on some dialogue, though. But, I mean...
There are countless permutations of Undertale—multiple ways to play (kill everyone, kill a few folks, kill nobody, befriend characters or turn them away, discover certain hidden characters and events, etc), with each playthrough affected by how you played previously. But those are still, ultimately, branching paths. They’re meant to be found, even if you’ve got to do a few laps before you find the one you want to take.
Now let’s go down a layer deeper. Because this whole time? We’ve only been hanging out on the cusp of the rabbit hole.
A group of players is collaborating to solve, as they call it, “Undertale’s last secret.” They think it centers around a character named Gaster, but they’re not sure exactly how just yet. What they’ve found, however, is a ton of strange, sometimes downright creepy stuff that is—oh man you just wait until you see what I’m about to do here—just beneath Undertale’s surface. Maybe it’s all connected, maybe it’s not. It’s definitely there, though.
There’s a Steam guide that chronicles everything they’ve uncovered so far, and you can peruse the whole thing if you want to un-sheath the Sword of Omens and give yourself SPOILERS BEYOND SPOILERS. But basically, by way of digging through Undertale’s files and messing with the save/load system at some very specific times, they’ve uncovered entire subplots, hidden scenes, weird-ass gray NPCs, and secret locations. Apparently Sans has a secret lab, there’s a “man who speaks in hands,” and there are clues sprinkled all throughout the main game’s plot about something larger, stranger. Maybe it’s scrapped stuff, maybe it’s a breadcrumb trail leading to more endings and the true nature of Undertale’s world. Maybe people are digging up bones, or perhaps they’re freeing a monster.
They’ve been at it pretty much since the game came out a couple weeks ago, though, and they keep uncovering more. Regardless of where they end up, their effort is truly nuts (in a good way). I suppose, though, that it’s really not all that surprising to see such a multi-layered game inspire people to doggedly hunt for more. I understand how they feel, to an extent. I really love Undertale, and—even though I’ve already beaten it—I’m not ready to leave.
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