Wow, it’s been a while since I had an excuse to post something here! WordPress looks super different now, what is this? It actually looks kinda nice. Well anyway. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the neutral and true pacifist endings! I might update this later with, that other ending too. Time to vomit some text onto a page! I’m not particularly caring for presentation right now, I just wanna type some thoughts out as they come to me, get it out of my system.
Undertale! It’s the game on everyone’s lips right now. I’m not really one to follow trends for the sake of it, but when I first saw it, I knew that this was the kind of game that appealed to me on so many levels. Lovable dialogue and characters, laugh out loud humour, thought-provoking story, charming pixel art, amazing soundtrack, tricky puzzles, action-packed gameplay (in a turn-based RPG even!), and numerous unique gameplay mechanics: the option to spare every enemy you see through dialogue puzzles, and the fact that the game remembers everything you’ve done on some level. And of course, there’s the way that it combines these narrative elements into the gameplay. It’s reminiscent of a few of the good Visual Novels I’ve played, and I can see the influences of games like Earthbound in the design, and I even get some Metal Gear Solid 2 vibes from the psychology behind it. Mhm, this is definitely an Aspirety game. I was hooked after the first hour!
So by now I’ve had the chance to play through the game as a pacifist, seeing the neutral ending and eventually the true ending, and I have to say, this game is freaking amazing. It delivered on just about everything I hoped for. But, that’s not to say that the game isn’t without its problems! No, the gameplay was pretty much perfect for me, as it managed to stay fresh with plenty of twists with each new encounter, and it presented a difficult yet fair challenge the entire time. I love the way that the game becomes much harder if you want to be a pacifist; it really makes you work for that happy ending. No, my biggest problems with this game are in the narrative.
Let’s start by looking at the prologue with Toriel. This is what really got me hooked on the game. Being confronted with a situation in which talking does no good, and at the time Mercy seems ineffective as well, and originally I accidentally ended up killing her. I had so much regret that I reset my game and started again, even if I knew this was cowardly, and found a way to save her. The way that the game develops this sense of agency in the player is amazing, but it also manipulates that by judging you for your every action. It starts from the moment Toriel scares you into acting independently by walking down the room on your own, until forcing her to confront her and decide what kind of future you’re going to lead once you step out. And then there’s Flowey, who knows what you did, even if you reset. But, there’s a problem here. The whole Determination concept is something which makes Undertale’s narrative so powerful and unique, but the issue is that if you go back and save Toriel, Flowey pretty much spoils the twist then and there. And, it IS a twist! Entering the game you don’t expect that going back and loading an old save to undo something you’ve done would have any permanent side effects, but more than that, very few people would imagine that the ability to save and load is incorporated into the narrative as an important plot point. That’s very clever, but it’s also perfectly suited to an amazing twist at the end of the game. “Oh my god, it was my determination that got me this far!” But if you save Toriel, the game robs you of that revelation because Flowey shoves it in your face. “So you have inherited the power to shape this world to your will, to save.” When I heard that I was just thinking, god dammit Flowey, you’re spoiling a plot twist! Maybe it’s my fault for going back like that, but I really wish that they saved this card until the very end. The game could’ve used that twist much more effectively than it did.
Another issue I have with the narrative is the bipolar tone of the game. Sure, I can get behind the duality of the genocide and pacifist paths, that’s clever. I can appreciate that sometimes the comic relief steps aside for some very serious twists and turns, I thought the normal ending was amazing, and really gave me this sense of overwhelming despair while fighting against Flowey, which I had to fight hard to overcome through my determination. But the one thing that really damaged my immersion was the sudden twist in the true pacifist ending. What do you get as a result of befriending everyone and making everyone happy? You get to see the true lab, where the game suddenly goes full horror out of nowhere and you have to confront these abominations of twisted science in a super creepy laboratory. I mean, this could’ve been okay, if it wasn’t for the fact that the situation is completely resolved by Alphys ‘telling the truth’ and sending all the amalgamations home to their families. I mean, what kind of a resolution was that? In the final goodbyes, you see all the amalgamations living happily with their families, and it’s just like, how? How did we go from existential horror to “and they all lived happily ever after” so easily? I can’t stomach it.
This also ties into my problems with the true ending. Yeah, I didn’t really like it that much! After you finish in the true lab, you get to the final confrontation with Asgore, which was originally my favourite part of the game, and then it’s just, HEY all your friends are here to stop this from happening, yaaaay friendship! But OH NO Flowey is back, but it’s okay because he’s fighting you because he loooves you! Not to say that ending didn’t have emotional impact, but it just felt really cheap compared to everything that came before. And the worst part is how it was ultimately resolved. The barrier is broken, and all the monsters return to the surface world, and they all lived happily ever after. Except, when you really think about it, that doesn’t make sense! We know that the humans and monsters were on bad enough terms to go to war and for the monsters to be banished underground, and that the last encounter the two races had was full of violence and spite. Why would they think that everything would be better once they escaped? I’m sure that leaving for the surface would invite many more problems! Without a massive political struggle, it’s hard to imagine that they could avoid persecution from the human races. They’d have to fight very hard to avoid a war, let alone secure their rights. I just find it a really difficult ending to stomach. It’s as if the writers knew the players wouldn’t be satisfied with the normal ending where everyone stays underground, and shoehorned this happy ending in without thought of the implications. While the rest of the game had some surprisingly adult themes, this ending felt like a children’s book, which I have difficulty accepting. I’m sure plenty of people will be satisfied with this ending, but it just felt way too ‘easy’ for me. This is another case of an “It’s not enough” ending damaging the overall narrative. That’s only a spoiler if you know what I’m talking about.
I’m writing this right now to draw attention to some of the glaring flaws in the game’s writing that I can’t ignore. As of now, my favourite ending has to be the normal ending, even if it wasn’t super conclusive. The true ending just left a bad taste in my mouth. All that said, this game is still a must-play. I’ve mentioned many of the merits of this game above, but the one thing that really stands out for me is the sense of agency this game instills in the player. This isn’t a FPS where you’re a pawn whose role is to shoot the enemy and progress through the game. This is a game where you are given tremendous freedom to decide how you’ll play the game, and what kind of result you’ll achieve through your actions. It’s very introspective, you have to put a lot of thought into your every action, because every action is judged. There are other games that do similar things, but this one still stands out amongst them. It’s a unique experience I’d recommend to anyone who appreciates unique and memorable experiences in gaming, or even as a story, despite its flaws.
Biggest highlight for me so far would have to be the final fight with Asgore in the normal ending. He’s such an amazing character. Through people’s conflicting descriptions of him, I was really curious how he could be thought of as a soft-hearted pushover and also a merciless warrior at the same time, and it turns out, he really was both. Kind and carefree to those under his rule, but still able to take innocent lives in cold blood for the sake of his people. Now THAT is a good villain. And so, I’d spent the entire game up to that point getting through without having to kill anyone, and when Asgore destroys your option to give mercy, it hit me hard. But still, I was determined to stop him without murder, I tried everything I could think of. The game dangled a tiny thread of hope before me once I died, as it acknowledged my deaths through the dialogue. The more deaths I accumulated, the reaction from Asgore would change, so I died 10 times to see if I could change anything. And then, that hope was stolen from me as the dialogue changed to “You tell him he’s killed you countless times before”, and I knew that then that I had no other option. Well, I at least considered the possibility that this was a trick to stop me from trying any more, and died one more time, but alas, nothing changed. It was at that point that I knew that the game knew exactly what I was trying to do, and manipulated me with this bait of hope, before forcing me to do something I desperately wanted to avoid. In the end it turned out okay, but the process that lead to that point, where the game and I were sharing this dance of predicting each other, that was an amazing experience I’ll never forget. The fact that the game can generate these unique emotional experiences for me is worthy of endless praise. This is what the video game medium is truly capable of; genuine player investment.
So, how will I feel once I’ve experienced the Genocide run, where I have to put aside my own wants and values for the sake of unseen content? Where I have to drive the stake through my allies and become a villain? I’m kind of terrified, and that makes me excited.