Undertale by Toby Fox easily falls into my top five games of 2015; which is quite an achievement in a year that included Triple-A titles like Fallout 4, Star Wars Battlefront, Tomb Raider, Rainbow Six Siege, and Metal Gear Solid V:The Phantom Pain. And I’m not the single delusional soul feeling this way, so many people are in love with Undertale; and I think it deserves all the love it can get. Just a warning, this is going to get pretty spoiler heavy.
Undertale is a 16-bit style linear game, with random monster encounters and a kick-ass soundtrack. One of the aspects that makes Undertale so interesting is the existence a Pacifist route, where you can go through the whole game without ever fighting by ending each encounter just by talking to the creature.
On the flip side, it’s also possible to k i l l e v e r y o n e.
Everyone includes your friends, your adoptive mum, all the towns folk and any poor creature you see along the way; this is the Genocide route.
The Pacifist and Genocide routes are by far the most common two ways to play, even though neither of these are explicitly stated as possibilities; so why are these two routes so popular?
Going Pacifist is hard. Like really hard. Undertale doesn’t reward you for doing whats right. Every time you “Act”, your opponent will still attack you; their attack system is a ‘bullet hell’ set up, Bullet Hell is the system used in games like the Binding of Isaac where you have to dodge a group of missiles that fly towards you. What makes this especially difficult is that you aren’t technically defeating anyone, so your health doesn’t increase beyond 20 (with each bullet you fail to dodge taking away 5). But all the frustration (and there is a hell of a lot of that) is worth it, so you can see all the characters you’ve helped and grown to love be given a happy ending.
With this happy ending comes a rather ominous message, its a warning to never play Undertale again. Why would a game not want to be played? Because if you play this game again, you reset everyone to their original places before you came along, effectively denying them their perfect ending.
This is where the meta-narrative starts to slip in. Because whats the special power of the main antagonist, Flowey? Well, that would be Flowey’s ability to reset the world when he gets bored. He says that at first he gave everyone their perfect ending, every time something bad would happen he would just reset and try again. This was until he got bored of the same responses every time. So he tried killing them; and he tells the player that they’ll probably try killing everyone too.
And he’s right, who hasn’t done a cheeky save in Skyrim or Fallout before slaughtering all the NPCs with some overpowered weapon, and then reloading like nothing happened. The thing is, you can try that in Undertale, but when you go back to your save, the game remembers what you’ve done. The above gif is what Flowey says to you as soon as you try to restart after killing the first boss (your adoptive mum), he goes on to say that he knows that you’ve killed her. Another character, Sans, will actually keep count of how many ‘deaths’ you’ve had and mock you for it.
As youtuber GamerFox24601 discusses, this kind of emotional manipulation can actually be potentially damaging to the player. By drawing direct parallels between the main antagonist and the player, the player is made to feel guilty for wanting to play again, and spend more time with characters that you’ve grown to care about.
Beyond this is the Genocide route, to achieve it you need to kill everything in every area; which, surprisingly, is actually possible since there are a limited number of encounters and therefore a limited number of people in world for you to find and grind through. If the emotions created by wanting to restart the game weren’t painful enough, the Genocide route just throws more and more at you.
Taking on the Genocide route, the first thing you notice is that its really easy. You quickly get a bunch of experience and cash off the dead creatures. I found it extremely disappointing to encounter bosses like Mettaton, which I spent hours on in the Pacifist route, and see them go down after one hit in Genocide. Sans, one of the only two characters that directly call out the player, comments on this further into the game.
Another thing you’ll notice in the Genocide route is the loss of control of your character. In scenes that your sprite is not capable of movement, your character will actually move towards sprites of characters it wants to defeat in order to skip dialogue; characters like Papyrus will comment on how creepy and rude you’re being. Taking this route means that the background music is heavily slowed, all the characters in towns disappear and shops are left unmanned (so if you want anything, you have to steal it). Red text will start to appear when you interact with objects; the red text is always disturbing or murderous thoughts, but it is always first person so you feel like it’s coming from you. You truly are made to feel like a villain.
Undertale is such an emotional journey no matter how you play it. I think this is the reason it has become so popular so fast; it makes you responsible for your actions, and makes you work in order to do the right thing.
The humor and music is pretty amazing too. I highly recommend you get acquainted with it.