I don’t know what I would say about Undertale if I was a video game reviewer. I have mixed feelings about the procedure of playing the game, as many of the puzzles aren’t very interesting and there are an awful lot of long walks with nothing happening through faux-retro 8-bit scenery. As a fun little diversion, the crunch of this game served its purpose but wasn’t any more exciting than Hook. I picked up that game for what I expect is the same reason most of its users did: I was browsing the free section of Steam, not finding anything interesting, then decided to see if there was anything they had that was available for almost free. It is a lovely minimalist puzzle game that took me about three hours from start to finish (including breaks). It’s a fun diversion, but makes no pretence about having a plot or making any commentary. If you’re into puzzle games and low prices, Hook may be a good buy for you. If you act within the next two days (until July 4, 2016), it is 10% off on Steam. That will save you the princely sum of $0.11 CAD. Get to it before that hot deal is gone!
Back to Undertale: after starting the game with a bizarre interaction with a flower who turns out to be a supreme asshole, I was introduced to Toriel. She is the NPC who goes out of her way to tell the protagonist to not to go on an adventure instead of delivering the standard but thou must speech. It was at this early stage that I could see for myself that Undertale wasn’t going to be a standard dungeon crawl. Whatever was to come in terms of combat encounters and puzzle games to reward me with the key to the next room, I knew that Undertale was created for reasons other than passing the time with challenges and rewards. It’s not just a matter of overcoming the enemies, solving the puzzle, advancing the plot, and winning a title (with or without a “score” number) at the end.
Undertale is, in addition to being a game, social commentary about gaming and that’s why I find it interesting and worthwhile. Undertale’s visual style reminds us of the games of the 80’s and 90’s that usually railroaded the player into combat. For example, Konami’s 1991 arcade brawler The Simpsons puts the player into a setting that does not lend itself to wanton violence and then steers the player into fighting a mass mob of goons as an archetypal suburban American family from a TV sitcom. This might have made more sense if it was a Treehouse of Horror game, but the Springfield that most people know outside of the Halloween episodes is a generally peaceful place. Why fight there? Because The Simpsons was a massively popular TV series, video games were an emerging market, and so it made sense to make a Simpsons video game. And in 1991, making a video game meant either making a sports game or making a fighting game. A game set in Springfield where nobody had to be beaten in a contest or in a fight would have been inconceivable at the time, but turning The Simpsons into a fighting game was par for the course.
So, in Undertale we are quickly introduced to an 8-bit underground dungeon full of monsters. Anyone who has played a video game that looks like this is going to be expecting some hack and slash if nothing else. When faced with an enemy the character is presented the expected options of attacking with a weapon, using items, and trying to run away. This is very normal for a game about escaping from the spooky underground ruins. But Undertale also offers the player the act and mercy buttons. The one action almost always available during a fight is check, which hopefully reveals something about which of the other actions might have a desirable effect. The other actions are entirely context-dependent based on the target. For example, Froggit is the only enemy that can be complimented or threatened.
There is usually some kind of hint that can be gleaned from checking an enemy as to which actions will affect it the most. Many enemies can be rendered uninterested in continuing the fight, which opens up an option when you hit the mercy button. There are only two things available in Mercy: flee, and spare. The latter usually only works after sufficiently pacifying the enemy through some combination of low hit points (from attacking it) or lack of willingness to fight (choosing the right type of action). You can try it at any time, but that may just earn your enemy a free attack. Even if you are determined not to hurt anything, you can’t get through the game by doing nothing but fleeing. Unlike games where dialogue and non-combat actions are secondary to the play of the game itself, Undertale puts them front and centre.
Games can be used for social good and to understand ourselves. Not all games are very good at that, whether they are a peaceful and serene recreational experience (Hook) or a logic-defying rampage (The Simpsons). Undertale is amazing at this because both violence and pacifism are available options, and the choices the player makes are important. By the end of the game, the player is explicitly asked to evaluate their own choices they made with respect to violence. In general, we are socialized to reject violence and murder as methods of solving problems and getting our way except where all other options have been exhausted and it becomes a matter of preserving life. We expect armies and police forces to make room for diplomacy or talk down a gunman if they can, and social unrest ensues if there is even the perception that they didn’t do enough to prevent violence. In games, especially dungeon crawling video games where you encounter monsters, the expectation is to kill things and be rewarded for that killing with experience points and in-game goods and/or money. There is a dissonance there, and Undertale boldly shoves it right into the player’s face. It proves that games can be made to challenge us to see gaming in a different way, and to examine how that affects our lives. That’s what I hope to be able to do in any game-related creative pursuits I engage in. Playing through Undertale for the first time did involve some tedious puzzles and corny dialogue, but it also made me think and filled me with determination.