The Dog is A Bomb

This post contains spoilers for Undertale from the outset. It also features mild peril and gratuitous alliteration.

A skeleton is asking me why I killed his brother. It could be a surprising moment of poignancy, challenging me for what seemed like arbitrary and capricious violence…

TEG: What’s next after UNDERTALE? Do you see yourself working more on games, music, or something else entirely?
TF: Beats me.

(Toby Fox, creator of Undertale — interview with The Existential Gamer)

Undertale is an affectionately parodic ode to Earthbound, itself a thoroughly post-modern RPG. Characters are witty and knowing; the flavour text can be acerbic or whimsical, occasionally lampshading cliches or trilling a comedic grace note. Everything, from the sound design to the quirky pixel art, tries to dance on a thin line between naivety and sophistication. It’s a game that can rejoice in an abysmal pun one moment and then quote obscure Japanese literature the next.

Creator Toby Fox is an ambitious one-man band: he soars above the limits of his technical ability with creative verve at every turn. The much-lauded music, for example, displays some flashes of melodic brilliance but also stays very firmly in lo-fi “fakebit” mode, requiring nothing more than rudimentary mixing and sound choices to get its point across. It’s not pretty but it works.

Combat design follows suit. The player’s turn is a timing-based swing bar that modulates stat-based damage output; the enemy’s attack takes the form of a brief bullet-hell assault that must be dodged. Dialogue options can occasionally be used to mitigate things or avoid combat altogether. This gang bang of Golf, gabbing and Galaga is far from elegant design, but again, it works.

Undertale is simultaneously iconoclastic and earnestly sentimental: it depicts a capricious and unfair game world bound by laughable rules, but also pervaded by the vital forces of attraction and love. It’s nihilistic one moment and saccharine the next; sassy and sanctimonious.

Undertale isn’t just the latest teenage craze: it is a teenager.

Michael Lutz has explored the game’s narrative and morality extensively:

in the end you are either someone who did their best to “listen” to what the game was telling you and get the “best” ending, or you’re someone who decided to be a homicidal jerk and somehow, in the process, got the fullest sense of the game’s narrative possible. i have no idea why these outcomes are counterpoised.

Jake Muncy highlights how annoying it is to “do the right thing”:

There is, of course, a way to do this without killing Toriel, but it’s incredibly counterintuitive. The player has to choose the Spare option a number of times, with no assurance that it will work until, eventually, it just… does, like flicking a mystery switch in your apartment with the hopes that eventually a light will turn on. I didn’t know this. I tried the Spare option: nothing happened. I tried to talk to Toriel: nothing happened. So I read the situation the game laid before me. The only efficacious option was to fight. So I did. I killed Toriel. I don’t think Undertale approved.

In Undertale, as with many teenagers, everything is either obviously binary or composed of irreducible complexity.

At the outset, we seem to be told the following:

  • We need to escape the cloying comfort of our surroundings and figure out the truth
  • It’s probably always possible to show mercy and tolerance
  • It’s good to do those things
  • Sometimes it’s very hard to figure out how

The Toriel fight could either be functioning as a metaphor for those moral points or it could equally just be over-designed. Sure, it’s cool that someone else might need to whisper “hey, did you know you can spare Toriel?”, but as this is such a fundamental choice which affects the rest of the game that kind of mechanic seems totally misplaced.

There’s a third possibility: the player is entirely expected to kill Toriel on their first playthrough, believing there was no alternative, and then spend the rest of the time dealing with their guilt. Again, this seems heavy-handed and over-simplistic.

Dishonored, a game with a strong theme of temptation and guilt, handled this with a great deal more nuance…and this was a title which added rats to the environment when the player was “bad”.

Metaphorically, or mechanically, Undertale has got itself in a tangle here. Either it’s a didactic clanger of a moral lesson or just an irritating mess: Tycho’s “Double Reverse Irony” or Gabe’s “videogame equivalent of the nonsense symbols crazy people draw on their walls with shit”.

In general though, I find it falls quite neatly between those two polls: like most teenagers, it genuinely has a lot to say but it’s not quite sure how to fully express it. Sometimes that manifests as an execrable sliding block puzzle, sometimes it comes out as brilliant humour.

Michael Lutz summed up my own personal experience:

the game hid answers to my questions behind something i had no interest in doing. it’s not clear what it was trying to communicate to me in doing this.

While Lutz is discussing a “no mercy” run here, I could equally apply this statement to combat. The game initially seemed to be poking fun at the absurdity of trad-RPG combat: a largely self-contained system jury-rigged to the metagame by thin threads of tedious stat-juggling or else some other inelegant minigame contrivance. I’m the opposite of Tycho — that sort of gameplay has never gelled with me — so I loved the way that dialogue options could be used to subvert it.

As you progress further into the game, however, you’re confronted with compulsory fights which force you to engage very heavily with the system. This seems at odds with the entire ethos up to that point, but again either this is a heavy-handed metaphor about avoiding conflict or just a nasty bottleneck in terms of pacing and player choice. Either way, if you happen to not enjoy ancient golf games or minimalistic bullet-hell, you’re going to be stuck at this point. You’ll be forced onto the well-worn RPG path, backtracking to the nearest town to buy the food which enables you to survive: you’ll become bored and boring, a hypocritical phony cliche yourself.

For a game which is predicated on the avoidance of combat, but was built around a combat system, it’s appropriately confused.

Commercially — and culturally — this confusion is a strength rather than a weakness. The game has thrived on word-of-mouth: its very real design and narrative problems just provide challenges and fun ambiguities to be explored; it apes the experience of messing around with an ancient, inscrutable JRPG then discovering a forum full of easter eggs. Fox has no interest in breaking the spell, as his taciturn, dismissive interviews indicate:

TMS: Outside of Undertale’s popularity, have fans reacted to anything about the game in a way that you totally weren’t expecting?
Toby: Seems like standard fandom stuff to me.
TMS: Did you hear about Undertale’s mention on The 700 Club where a mother found a picture of Sans on her child’s phone and wrote in describing it as demonic? Any reaction to the irony of the host advising the mom to look for games with less violence and brutality?
Toby: …
TEG: Romance was one of the most interesting aspects of the game. In some situations there are sexual undertones in the dialogue, but these quickly give way to absurdity. Why did you choose to include flirting as a mechanism, and what role does sexuality play in a world like Undertale’s, where the storyline centers around the polar opposites of violence and non-violence?
TF: Skip

We’re asking Undertale too many questions, and that seems to have come about because of its burgeoning popularity. Very popular things, especially those predicated on humour, tend to fade rapidly under analysis.

So let’s leave it alone: it’s perfect as it is. It’s perfect that I personally hate the combat, or that it’s ludicrous to intentionally design a game with a control scheme from a NES emulator, or that people on GameFAQ’s get annoyed with it winning a poll. Its wild oscillations make it fun: even if you’t “get” it, you can respect that at least.

I’d like to look that skeleton right in the eyesocket and say something meaningful about his brother’s death. Instead I’d have to tell him that I accidentally killed his brother because I couldn’t remember which of the Z and X buttons was “cancel”, and I wasn’t sure if the prompt about him “sparing” me was a joke or not.

Or, more succinctly, “beats me”.

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