Narrative in Video Games #13: Undertale

In mid-2013, up-and-coming indie developer Toby Fox launched a modest Kickstarter campaign for “a traditional role-playing game where no one has to get hurt.” With the genre typically defined by mowing down every enemy in your path for gold and experience points, the concept of a pacifist RPG was intriguing to say the least. The campaign easily raised ten times its funding goal and Undertale was finally released two years later to critical acclaim. It’s already become a cult classic, but how does it hold up to the uninitiated?

Undertale tells the story of an unnamed child as he ventures through the Underground to find his way home. This simple plot serves as more of a backdrop for the game’s numerous side characters who frequently steal the show with their well-written jokes, dialogue, backstories, and characterization. I won’t go into too much more detail because the game is best experienced with little to no foreknowledge, but special mention goes to the fourth wall breaks that manage to be both comedic and occasionally dramatic.

The gameplay of Undertale can best be described as a hybrid of Earthbound and a bullet hell shooter. On defense the player controls a heart avoiding enemy bullets, while on offense the player has the options to attack, perform a contextual action such as petting dog enemies, or show mercy by sparing foes or fleeing from battle. At first glance it seems rather standard, but closer inspection reveals the thematic through line: pacifism. The player literally avoids conflict by dodging attacks, and is then encouraged to avoid reciprocating with a plethora of non-violent responses. Nobody has to die in any encounter, and this atypical enemy/player relationship serves as the cornerstone upon which the entire game is built.

For as easy as the gameplay can be at times, Undertale is a bit difficult to talk about. What you get out of the game is largely tantamount to what you put in, and some choices can’t be undone. If you’re looking for a deconstruction of standard RPG tropes, few options are as interesting or effective as Undertale.

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