Undertale’s Secret Sauce
Gather ‘round, friends and neighbors, ’cause it’s time to talk about Undertale! In my judgment, Undertale is the single biggest milestone for storytelling in video games within the last five years; it looks on Deus Ex and Bioshock as peers. The graphics and gameplay are deceptively simple, but the game is expertly written and chock full of brilliant comedy and character writing. It released almost a year ago and it’s $10 on Steam. The game has proven tremendously popular, but I still know gamers who haven’t played it. Since I am better at writing than I am at speaking, this is where I’m putting my thoughts about what makes this game special and why everyone who’s interested in storytelling or video games should try it. I will try not to spoil too much of it in discussing that.
Undertale is great because it exemplifies what storytelling games are good at, namely enabling choice. This is what makes games unique as a storytelling medium. In a book or a movie, you can speculate about what would happen if the protagonist had chosen X instead of Y, but you can never know for sure. “Choices matter” games allow you that freedom — just reload an earlier save and find out!
(To be clear, not every game enables this level of choice — and not every game needs to. Games like Bioshock, Half-Life, and Portal have told excellent stories using linear storytelling. But games that allow the player real choice are charting new territory that has never been explored in the thousands of years we’ve been telling stories. The possibilities they enable are worth exploring, and that’s what I’m doing here.)
It’s useful to compare Undertale’s morality system with that of Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, you can choose to advance along the “Paragon” or the “Renegade” morality track. Paragon makes you a charismatic leader; Renegade makes you Dirty Harry In Space. One criticism of Mass Effect I’ve read from its fans is that Paragon and Renegade are not well-balanced; choosing the Paragon option is sometimes less immediately satisfying, but in almost every situation the Paragon choice is better for you in the long run. I suspect this is not a mistake, but a deliberate choice on the part of the developers, and part of the game’s message. Good and evil are opposite, but they are not equal; they are not balanced against each other, nor should they be.
Mass Effect is typical of choice games in that it lets the protagonist choose good or evil up to a certain point. Whether you choose Paragon or Renegade, you still save the galaxy. Your choice of morality matters, but it’s a choice of how you want to achieve your goal, not a choice of what that goal should be.
This is what makes Undertale unique: there are no limits to how good or evil the game’s narrative will allow you to become. You can complete the entire game — even the boss fights — without killing or harming a single creature…and if you want to kill every single living creature in the gameworld, you can do that too. Or you can do something in between. And these choices are not flavor — they are separate narrative branches with their own characters, their own boss fights, their own paths, and their own endings. Undertale takes the concept of “what kind of person do you want to become?” and treats it with the deadly gravitas it deserves.
This is achieved not through preaching but by an astonishingly well-written cast of characters whom you cannot help but grow attached to. Not only are the characters funny and charming, but an enormous amount of writing has gone into them, most of which you’ll never see unless you go looking. By way of example, the protagonist carries a cell phone with them throughout the game. As you befriend the various characters, they will give you their phone numbers. Thereafter, you can call many of those characters whenever you like and read the unique dialogue that has been written for each character for almost every single room in the game. You probably won’t read all of them, and that’s the point. The supply of dialogue available exceeds any reasonable demand, thereby substantiating the illusion that the Underground is full of real people instead of NPCs. Undertale did something to me that only a handful of games have ever done before: I stopped thinking of its characters as NPCs and started thinking of them as my friends.
Fun with game mechanics
The most powerful advantage players have has always been the ability to save and reload. Undertale is part of a very select group of games that treats this ability not as an out-of-game abstraction but as part of its universe and an important element of its worldbuilding. This is a world where, at all times, one person has the ability to roll back the world to a prior state whenever they want. When the game starts, that’s you, but you are not the first person to hold this power. At some point, you will meet the person who had it before you, and they will want it back.
Undertale does other things with genre conventions, but nothing I can say would match the ingenuity with which they are presented in-game, and I would spoil them by trying. It has taken assumptions about games that I have held since childhood and made me examine them from new directions, and it does this with a pure-hearted joy that counteracts cynicism rather than contributing to it. It has given me some new lenses and mental tools for dealing with life. Not bad for the asking price!