“Undertale” Creator Toby Fox on the Indie Computer Game that’s Become an Industry Darling
Toby Fox was twenty-three when he launched the Kickstarter campaign for Undertale with a modest goal of $5,000. The computer game, which would be almost entirely built, developed, and scored by Fox himself, had a relatively simple premise — a child falls through a hole in a cave and arrives in a fantastical underground world where monsters have been forced to reside after an epic battle with the human race. Its retro-style gameplay was inspired by classic role-playing games like 1994’s Earthbound and the Japanese RPG Shin Megami Tensei.
But Undertale had a singular — and singularly compelling — hook: you didn’t have to battle the monsters to win the game. In fact, you could play through Undertale without dispatching with a single foe. Each monster had a charmingly idiosyncratic personality that you could exploit to talk them out of fighting you — essentially, you could befriend your way out of a scuffle. But if you wanted to, you could also go on a bloody rampage, slaughtering every creature in your path. More fascinating still: how you played the game, what violent impulses you chose to indulge or ignore, would change the game’s outcome — and any subsequent play-throughs.
Fox’s Kickstarter campaign raised ten times its goal, with pledges coming from nearly 2,400 backers. And since the game’s debut in September 2015, it has become a cult favorite, netting rave reviews and narrative features exploring its intricate gameplay and inherent morality, and spawning a devoted fan community dedicated to probing the game’s deepest mysteries.
Undertale has also earned a slew of game awards nominations, including the Innovation Award, Best Debut, and Best Narrative at the Game Developers Choice Awards; the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Audio, and Excellence in Narrative at the Independent Games Festival Awards; and Game of the Year, Excellence in Gameplay, and Most Fulfilling Crowdfunded Game at the SXSW Gaming Awards, where it’s nominated alongside blockbuster games like Bloodborne, Fallout 4, and Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain.
Fox, now 24, hopes the game will speak for itself — but he gamely answered a few of our questions about Undertale. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
You developed, created, and published the game essentially by yourself, and composed the soundtrack. Why was it important for you to take on this huge project by yourself? What were you able to more easily achieve with that decision? What was more difficult?
Two of the reasons I wanted to [make] Undertale was to express myself and prove my own abilities. However, working by yourself, you are limited by your own abilities. It’s also really time-consuming to [develop] all aspects of the game. So I hired artists like Temmie Chang to help me draw some of the art. Don’t feel pressured to do things 100% by yourself. It just makes things harder on you.
What were the biggest challenges of running the Kickstarter campaign? What were the best surprises?
The best surprise was that I was overfunded. The biggest challenge is actually completing your product on time. There’s no way to know how long a game will take [to create] until you’re finished with it. Random things keep coming up eternally, and certain things you thought wouldn’t take time take way more time than expected. I passed my deadline and felt like I was on borrowed time for the rest of development. At least the backers said it was worth it in the end.
Undertale has a huge community of fans and has been nominated for many awards — some alongside games from major publishers. How did that feel? Were you expecting it?
It’s cool. Though in the case of IGF [Independent Games Festival], I wonder if being nominated for so many awards took away the spotlight from other games that may not have seen as much exposure.
People have had a really emotional response to this game. This Kotaku reviewer essentially says Undertale inspired him to be a better person! How do you feel about that?
It’s incredible it could impact people like that.
Undertale is nominated for five awards at the SXSW Gaming Awards on March 19, including Game of the Year, Excellence in Gameplay, and Most Fulfilling Crowdfunded Game. Learn more about Undertale at undertale.com.