Video Game Review: Undertale

Written by Christopher Diggins

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Video games have a problem with violence. Now, I don’t mean this in an alarmist, “video games are teaching kids to be violent” sort of way. I don’t think they’re a significant factor in violent crimes or anything like that. But it is an indisputable fact that most games center their core mechanics around violence of some kind. It could be as direct as shooting people in Call of Duty or as whimsical as Mario stomping on a Goomba’s head and poofing it out of existence. Even in games that offer non-violent options, like the Fallout series, it often comes down to simply selecting some dialogue options or putting points in different skills, and you mostly just feel like you’re missing out on something. It seems like violence is an inseparable part of video games.

But does it have to be?

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Enter Undertale, a Kickstarter-funded indie RPG by Toby Fox. Undertale is the story of a young child who falls down into the subterranean world of the monsters, where they had been banished and sealed after a great human-monster war a long time ago. Filled with determination, the child sets out to walk across the kingdom of the monsters and find his way home. The game features some pretty fun puzzles out in the overworld (though nothing particularly incredible in that regard) as well as a unique blend of Earthbound-style RPG mechanics and top-down shooters. You attack fairly normally, but enemy attacks are represented by a series of bullets flying at you that must be dodged. It plays like a friendlier, less intense bullet hell shooter (minus the shooting, that is), and it really livens up the gameplay.

The world of Undertale is incredibly charming. It’s filled with memorable NPCs that leave a far greater impression than their single line and stationary life would normally allow. And the characters that serve a larger role in the story are correspondingly more delightful, inspired, and just plain fun, from an incompetent but supremely self-confident skeleton guard to a chameleon scientist who just wants to watch her anime. The whole game is filled with a goofball sense of humor that is not just really funny, but sets the tone perfectly for such a vibrant world and lovable cast. It’s hard not to smile while you play the game, and that feeling is as integral to the world Toby Fox is creating as anything else.

But the real thing that makes this game so wonderfully unique is the addition of what the game terms the “Mercy” mechanic. Undertale functions like most RPGs, with random battles and boss fights galore. There are many different monsters out in the world who wish you ill. But the thing is, you don’t have to hurt anyone. With careful use of the “Act” command, you can talk to, hug, sing to, or any number of other things every monster that stands in your path. And if you figure out just the right combination of things to do, those monsters won’t really want to fight you anymore. That’s when you can use the “Spare” command to peacefully end the fight, everyone still whole and healthy.

Sound simple? Well, it can be. But often, especially with bosses, it’s far from it. They will throw out pattern after pattern of bullets at you as you try to figure out the right way to make them stand down, getting increasingly difficult as time goes on. And it is this very difficulty that makes Undertale so revolutionary. As said earlier, pacifism in games is usually a perfunctory option in a dialogue tree, an afterthought at best. No one really thinks you’ll go the whole game without fighting anything, and even if you do, they won’t particularly challenge you for it. Not so here.

Pacifism in Undertale is by far the more difficult option. You won’t gain any levels, stuck with your pitiful starting health all game. Enemies will attack you regardless of your non-violent ways. You have to really try to avoid hurting anybody. You have to dodge wave after wave of bullets as you search through every command, trying to figure out what this random enemy needs. You have to reach out, past any fear or anger directed at you, and try to connect to the monsters who want to hurt you. You have to really want not to hurt them. You, the player, have to genuinely care about them.

This kind of humanity, this sheer compassion, is so rare in anything, let alone video games. The whole game, from the mechanics to the world to the story, is built around the question: is it okay to hurt people to get what you want? And through that question, it explores the violent underpinnings of video games in a way that nothing else has ever achieved. It isn’t the obligatory pacifism of other games, or the joyless artistry of previous endeavors. It is a fun, charming, and highly entertaining game that just so happens to be one of the most effective statements on kindness and compassion I have ever seen. It is, simply put, a masterpiece.

I got to experience Undertale thanks to the incredible generosity of someone on Twitter, who offered to buy it for anyone who promised to play it. Unfortunately, I don’t have the funds for that, so allow me to simply offer this heartfelt plea: please play Undertale. It’s fairly short and very fun, and it just might affect you very deeply, as it has me. Whatever the outcome, I promise you won’t regret it.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Undertale is available for purchase on STEAM