People don’t just like Undertale; they love it. This game is personal for them. It’s personal for me, too.
Undertale is a JRPG-inspired game (think Earthbound, more than Final Fantasy) where you don’t have to hurt anybody, unless you want to. You play as a kid who’s fallen into a world of monsters, and their king wants your soul. You’ve gotta find your way home. Or become friends with everyone. Or kill everyone. Whatever you want, really.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front:
OK, now to dive into what makes Undertale more than Just Another RPG, why—in the span of a month—it’s gone from underground no-name to perennial Steam top seller with a fanbase so rabid that the Internet has started putting up warning signs. Undertale is one of those games that’s attracted that kind of fanbase. If you tell them you haven’t played it or, god forbid, didn’t like it, they’ll reply, “WHAT? NO. YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS.” It’s some Doctor Who shit.
I can’t blame them.
Undertale is a game about choice.
The big hook is that you can choose to never (physically) harm anybody. Over the course of a playthrough’s 6-10 hour runtime, you’ll encounter plenty of battles (random or otherwise), but you don’t have to fight in any of them. You can always pick non-violent, contextual means of interacting with monsters—everything from petting dogs to initiating flexing contests with a douchebro horse man—and spare them in the end.
Here’s how that works:
Enemies attack in an almost shoot-’em-up bullet-hell-like fashion, and you avoid their attacks. Then you whittle away at them with interactions or attacks. Your call. Part of what makes Undertale so special is that these zany interpersonal puzzles are more fun than combat, which—especially in the case of boss fights—can actually be kinda tedious and, occasionally, inscrutable. The game has a way of teaching you certain reliable techniques (if dialogue keeps changing, you’re probably on the right track to solving the fight’s “puzzle”), only to subvert them in sometimes unintuitive ways. Two fights in particular, I probably wouldn’t have figured out without the Internet’s help. Granted, Undertale is at its best when it’s subverting itself. It just walks a very fine line between making you feel smart when you outsmart what is, essentially, the mechanical equivalent of an unreliable narrator and, well, kinda pissing you off.
But when the combat “puzzles” work (and they do, the majority of the time), they’re fantastic. They’re full of little gags you’ll inevitably stumble across through experimentation. They make every—well, almost every—random encounter unique. Some encounters are hilarious. Others are unusually touching. At one point you have the option to “stop picking on” a monster. Do so, and a tidal wave of relief washes across his face as he replies, “Finally, someone gets it.”
Undertale’s monsters are characters. Undertale’s monsters are people. Many will even become your friends, if you let them.
At the start of 2015, I decided to do something drastic and, if I’m being honest, a bit painful. I cut ties with a bunch of friends I’d made over the course of my time in San Francisco. Some of them, I realized, I didn’t really like and was just using for company—to avoid becoming some sort of apartment dryad, rooted to the ground by a tangle of controllers, systems, and wires. Others, I’d come to accept, were actively toxic to me, and I was toxic to them too.
These were people I’d spent the majority of the previous couple years hanging around. Drifting away from them wasn’t fun, but it was—I felt—a necessary step in becoming a better person, someone who wasn’t just going through the motions with people who I considered a step up from loneliness. Sometimes friendships are born of circumstance. When that circumstance changes, it’s time to part ways. It’s tempting to stick around for comfort, for a sense of routine and normalcy, but it’s not always healthy. I’d grown a lot since I arrived in San Francisco. So had my friends. We’d grown apart. It’s a regrettable thing, but it’s also, sometimes, natural.
Starting from square one, however, is lonely business. I thought I had the savvy (and the safety net of tenuous casual acquaintances) to handle it this time. However, to paraphrase my Hot Topic World of Warcraft hoodie from high school, I was not prepared.
Undertale is a game about loneliness.
The game takes place in a fragmented world. Monsters have been forcefully sequestered into what amounts to a hole in the ground known as “Monster World.” Few things are lonelier than being stuck at the bottom of a hole. On top of that rather tragic circumstance, each character—whether they’re an NPC, monster, or boss—is dealing with their own personal struggle.
Monster World is not an enormous place by most standards, so everybody kinda knows each other. Monsters you once face in battle (assuming you don’t kill them) might end up chilling out in a snowy town’s tavern. But, at least initially, everyone is kinda distant. Monsters are ensnared by problems that seem insurmountable. The world in their heads becomes bigger than the one right in front of their eyes.
I mean, check out Napstablook the depressed ghost here. Poor guy:
And then there’s Papyrus, who’s basically his polar opposite. He literally speaks in ALL-CAPS, ALL THE TIME. He’s relentlessly upbeat as he viking-yells anecdotes from his life as an aspiring member of the king’s guard—even as it becomes apparent that he doesn’t really have any friends and sucks at his job. At one point you see the house that belongs to Papyrus and his brother, Sans. Sans’ mailbox is overflowing with letters. Papyrus’ is so empty that it echoes.
Other monsters come off as representations of anxiety, anger, repressed feelings, and self-doubt. It’s hard to see at first—after all, everything’s so quirky and hahaha that skeleton does puns—but all of these characters are coping, both with the larger tragedy of their situation and individual issues nearer and dearer to their hearts.
It makes sense, too, that one of the funniest games I’ve played in ages is steeped in a simpering sorrow. Comedy is the ultimate coping mechanism. There’s a tradition of pioneering comedy emerging from oppressed or otherwise distraught cultures and communities. What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.
Many monsters fight in pairs, but their teamwork quickly falters if you engage them on their own terms. More than anything, they want to be heard. Even surrounded by friends, they feel alone—like nobody quite understands what they’re going through, even as many characters struggle with similar issues. Loneliness is chronic. It breeds more loneliness. In Undertale, you win by understanding—by listening, learning, and empathizing.
It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re not close to that many people.
Your point of view narrows. You get tunnel vision. The few remaining people you regularly interact with become disproportionately important. As a human being—a social creature who, left to your own devices, will likely start talking to cats or malfunctioning technology or the plants you keep forgetting to water (or all of the above, like your good friend Nathan)—you have two options: give those people too much, or give them too little. On the one hand, you’re a complex creature with a lot to vent about. Existing is hard! Shit is always happening. Commiseration is tempting. But on the other hand, you only have a few people. What if you overburden them? What if they decide they’re tired of your crap? WHAT IF THEY LEAVE.
So, earlier this year, I ended up withdrawing a lot. I kept telling my few remaining friends, “No, no, I’m fine! Really!” while quietly wishing they’d see the invisible thundercloud over my head and be like, “No, you’re not. Also, I have infinite patience and will not get tired or angry if you lean on me during tough times. Here is your favorite kind of burrito.” But—even on the off-chance that they did, on some level, feel that way—I didn’t want to inconvenience them. They had their own stuff to deal with. Big stuff, societal stuff, life stuff! I’m just some silly dude who creates a lot of his own problems. It’s hard not to feel like my issues are lesser, like they shouldn’t even be issues at all.
So then, like ya do, I started resenting my remaining friends for not being psychic and just, sort of, intuitively knowing all of this. I lost a lot of faith in people in general. I became cynical and judgmental—aloof and sardonic when meeting new people. I mean, what’s the point, right? Why even have friends if you can’t count on them?
I became kind of an asshole, is what I’m saying.
Undertale is a game about consequences.
The story can be markedly different, depending on how you choose to act. If you play Undertale as someone who seeks to understand and befriend monsters (well, most monsters; there’s room to kill a few without being branded Hitler H. Hitlerson), you’ll get a tale of light piercing through darkness, one interspersed with some fantastic jokes and gags. There’s a full spectrum of “neutral” endings based on specific choices you made, some of which I think are better and more interesting than the (still wonderful) “best” ending.
If, however, you walk the loner’s path—jam to “Kill ‘Em All” by Metallica while doing your best internet edgelord impression—the game changes entirely. You gain immense power. You can one-shot most bosses. Towns are abandoned when you arrive, because everyone’s afraid you’ll hack them to ribbons. You can walk into shops and just take all the money. The traditional RPG menu is still there, but no one’s behind the counter.
It’s shockingly bleak. The soundtrack—usually peppy, full of drive and determination—becomes distorted, muddy, strained. Undertale becomes a horror game, and you’re the monster.
And yet, some characters still try to help. Instead of monologuing like stereotypical video game villains, they worry about you out loud. They warn you that you’re going down a dark path. They insist that, despite everything, they still believe you can be better. And I think they mean it. They’re good folks, those monsters.
In addition to being a clear subversion of JRPG tropes (acquiring power =/= just and heroic), it’s also a disarmingly frank take on what happens a person rejects everyone around them, especially those who aren’t exactly like them. In Undertale, you are a human being confronted with difference, but the gap between yourself and monsters is hardly insurmountable. Reaching out is a choice. It doesn’t always work. Some monsters will rebuff you. Others will let you down. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s a walking dumpster with squirmy beetle legs for feet (although I would not be surprised if one of those existed in the Undertale canon). It just means that somebody did their thing, and their thing and your thing didn’t quite align. You’ve gotta to be mindful of that, no matter how many times it happens. You’ve gotta keep looking. You’ve gotta stay determined.
Because if you don’t, there will be consequences. And consequences? They have a way of reverberating, echoing into the future in ways you simply can’t predict. Undertale remembers everything, even beyond who you killed and who you spared. It keeps track between playthroughs, too. Some decisions, you never entirely get away from—even if you reload your save or start a whole new game. You can move on from the past, but you can’t bury it.
Making new friends is hard.
I mean, it’s not all that hard to find people. For instance, if you were to go outside and throw a rock, odds are it would hit a person, their home, or their pet, and then you would get arrested. My point is, people are around. They’re abundant. You can find them in parks and at bars and beneath the photic zone of the sea (wait, no, that might be anglerfish).
Recently, I’ve started making a concerted effort to find new friends. I’ve been going out more, chatting up random strangers (even though it is unequivocally TERRIFYING). I’ve met some cool people. It’s been nice.
But—and don’t tell anybody this, entire Internet—I’ve been imitating a video game the whole time. I’ve been making more of an effort to keep in touch with people outside of events and bars. I text them when I’m thinking about them, because that worked out really well in Undertale. I’ve adopted Papyrus’ almost overbearing positivity when people tell me about their doubts, because fuck it. People need encouragement. I invite people to things. I go out of my way to see them when it feels like It’s Been Too Long.
I’d be lying if I said Undertale was entirely responsible (restlessness and desperation are great motivators, let me tell ya), but it was a catalyst. A reminder.
Undertale is a game about community.
I’ve never played a game that so convincingly portrays a small-ish, tight-knit community. After a couple hours, you get the sense that everybody knows everybody—or that they’re all one infinitesimally small degree of separation apart. Monsters frequently reference each other in and out of battle. Certain characters hang out all the time. You even get a cellphone, and you can call two particular characters for friendly chit-chat that’s different in every location in the entire game.
There’s some squabbling. There’s some gossip. Some monsters don’t like each other so much. Others aren’t great at communicating. The douchebro horse guy I mentioned earlier kinda grosses some monsters out. But, above all else, there’s a sense of closeness. Monsters might sometimes feel distant from one another—stuck in their own heads, hopeless and lonely—but they’re united by countless commonalities. They’re on the cusp of real connection.
There are some fantastic relationships in this game, too. Characters like Papyrus and Sans—two brothers who also happen to be skeletons because why not—do all sorts of little things for each other. They have these larger-than-life, goofy personalities, but they slip in asides about mundane things they do to make each other feel better—to be, well, brotherly. Their humor isn’t dickish or ugly. It’s natural. Sometimes it’s downright heartwarming. All this despite the fact that there’s a lot they could hate about one another. Papyrus is annoying and oblivious. Sans is popular while Papyrus is alone. But despite those differences, they have each other’s backs.
In my experience, Undertale is a game that opens people up. When you see people talking about it on forums, discussions quickly go from “haha the cactus really is the most tsundere of all plants” to “This game helped me overcome depression” or “Sans reminds me of one of my best friends who passed away; I really miss him.”
People listen. They accept and support. They share feelings. They create hellllllla elaborate fan works. They discuss mistakes made inside the game and out. Undertale’s official forums, Tumblr and Deviantart tags, and subreddit exude good vibes (usually). Heck, the game even draws some tolerable YouTube comments. This is not the way the Internet usually operates.
I reconnected with old friends because of Undertale. Not the ones I parted ways with at the start of 2015—older ones than that. It gave me and an ex something to discuss on the regular. It gave me a reason to reach out to my sister, who I hardly ever talk to because—these days, at least—we don’t have all that much in common. She told me how she’s got an almost violently possessive crush on Sans (my sister is, um, kind of a character), how she met someone online because of an Undertale discussion, and they ended up hanging out in real life. Given that my sister is often reclusive to the point of not leaving the house for days on end, that was amazing to hear.
Life imitates art. Communities embody the spirit of the thing they form around. Undertale is a game about community that also forms communities. It creates bonds. It brings people together. With talking dogs, anime fish people, and cartoon skeletons.
Undertale is a game about reflection.
It puts you on a fairly straightforward path through its locations, but I recommend backtracking every once in a while. Every character in the game will say different things depending on when you talk to them. They’ll react to events in the world and your choices. It’s another one of those little details that makes the game so special.
The game contains a few fast travel points, but you’ve still got to do a fair amount of legwork to find old friends again. I won’t blame you if you find that annoying, but I actually like it a lot. First major area aside, Undertale’s random battles are relatively infrequent, so mostly you just get to walk and think. Seeing old locales again while you do puts how far you’ve come—how many characters you’ve met, changed, and been changed by—in perspective. Hearing what obscure NPCs have to say about it all is icing on the cake. I realized a lot of important things while walking around in Undertale.
I’ve noticed an interesting trend in my media consumption this year: I’ve been almost exclusively into stuff featuring characters who are really good at being friends. If there was a friendship competition—maybe like the Hunger Games, except you’re trying to make friends instead of kill people—they’d effortlessly take first place and then argue over who gets to keep the trophy, but in a really authentic, endearing way. There’d be tons of fun banter. It’d be great. Everyone would be like, “Oh, you two.”
Games like Tales from the Borderlands, books like The Lies of Locke Lamora (and its sequels), and shows like Orange is the New Black have become highlights of my days, centerpieces of my quaint little existence. I like the stories, and I really like the friendships they depict. I consume them little-by-little, so they can linger, become part of my routine. They are like, well, friends that I see at the end of a long day.
I actually really hated finishing all of those things, because that meant we were done. The friends who kept me company for days or weeks or months had to leave, just as I was getting used to having them around. All I could do was miss them.
I cried when I finished Undertale. Not because of what happened at the end, but because I knew I shouldn’t go back. I’d learned so much. It was time to go out and do something with it. The game’s characters—my friends—would be so disappointed if they knew I’d chosen to keep sitting still, to stagnate. I couldn’t let them down.
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