Computer Game Review: Undertale

By Nick Cabuy

When a new medium is born, it first has to embark on a long and arduous journey towards self-discovery. Its first steps are usually marked by imitation of existing art forms. The early motion pictures took to emulating the theatre, their point of view static and unchanging. Then filmmakers realised that movement of the camera was one of the medium’s unique strengths and began to experiment with the technique.

Ever since the dawn of gaming, cutscenes have played an instrumental role in conveying a narrative. We have all got used to gameplay being interrupted by a short burst of storytelling delivered in the guise of a fragmented movie. It’s hard to imagine a series such as Uncharted without its elaborately crafted cinematic interludes.

But recently developers have begun to question this modus operandi, recognising it as ultimately derivative of the cinema. What is it instead that only games can do? The answer is interactivity, the single most distinguishing feature of the medium. Rather than break up the player’s interactive experience and replace it with an antithetically passive sequence, why not make player agency part of the storytelling?

One example of this revolutionary new wave of titles is Undertale. Published last September to little fanfare among the pandemonium of daily Steam releases, this indie is at first glance an unassuming little role playing game with a curiously old fashioned aesthetic that draws heavy inspiration from Nintendo’s SNES cult classic Earthbound. Originally crowdfunded by a small yet devoted audience and almost single-handedly created by 24-year-old American college student Toby Fox, Undertale has managed to garner the love and affection of just about the entire gaming world, from enamoured critics to a dedicated following of fans who are busily producing mountains of fan-art and lively discussions.

The premise is deceptively simple. After a long war between humans and monsters, the latter have been banished and sealed beneath the earth’s surface. You are a human child who has fallen down a mountain side and into the world of monsters. But what sounds like the markings of about a thousand RPGs that have come before quickly turns out of be a decisively clever subversion of everything you think you know.

In Undertale you don’t have to kill anyone. The monsters – an assortment of wacky, offbeat characters ranging from sassy carrots reminding you to eat your greens to wistful sunflowers in search of life’s meaning – are anything but frightening. When one appears you are presented with three options: fight, act and mercy. Every monster is equipped with its own unique strategy that you’ll need to decipher in order to talk your way out of the conflict. If you can convince the monster to lay down its arms, you may choose the third option in order to spare it. Alternatively you may fight with and ultimately kill your foe, picking up sticks and stones or similar makeshift weaponry.

This is where Undertale tests you. While the sound of the word ‘monster’ or indeed the sight of an enemy NPC might send many a gamer straight into a combat stance out of sheer habit, the game’s fight mode, in which you simply time a button press on a sliding scale to deliver maximum damage, intentionally poses little challenge. As the tone and the story of the entire experience starts to shift dramatically in accordance with your actions (music turning sombre and mournful, inhabitants of towns fleeing at your sight), you are made to understand the gravity of your actions.

At one point early in the game I resorted to fighting because I couldn’t figure out a way to resolve the situation peacefully. Naively thinking that the enemy before me might be an exception that the game expected me to fight, I thrust my dagger into her chest. But when I witnessed the dying monster’s pixelated heart break into two, I felt awful. So I did what many a gamer would do in this situation. I reloaded a previous save. But when I faced the character again, my character suddenly murmured something about whether I should tell her that I’ve seen her die. I froze. The game knew. It knew what I had done. In fact, Undertale never forgets. You will meet both characters aware of your secret time travelling powers and even some sharing them.

By turning saving your in-game progress into a means of influencing the story, the game directly acknowledges the player’s presence and agency within the narrative world whilst shattering the fourth wall in an almost Brechtian fashion.

Undertale demolishes time-tested video game conventions. It understands how to convey emotion not through cutscenes, but gameplay. By using its mechanics, something inherent to the medium, for the purpose of storytelling, it asks the kind of existential questions that once elevated the cinema from merely borrowing other media’s techniques to conceiving its own.