Second Opinion: Undertale’s Long Year

Did you love? Were you kind?

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

Hi, everybody. Doctor I Coleman here, PhD in having a bad time. Now this show gets a lot of requests for games – it’s one of the things I love about doing it. And no single game has gotten more requests than Undertale. The very first of these requests came from Aidan Owen-Jones who asked for my thoughts on Undertale on the second ever episode of Second Opinion, which was about Day of the Tentacle, so thank you to Aidan and everyone else who asked for this. Unfortunately, most of you wanted me to rip into Undertale, really tear it to shreds like I did with Grim Fandango or Overwatch and…well, I’m not gonna do that. I can’t do that, in fact. But just because I’m not gonna go totally against the grain doesn’t mean it’s not time to give the game a very much-needed Second Opinion.

Here’s the thing. The premise of the show isn’t playing Devil’s Advocate – I don’t just take a game that’s popular or a game that everyone hates and decide to talk about the opposite of whatever people think. What I do here is re-evaluate games that are buried in a particular narrative and see whether that opinion holds up. In Undertale’s case, there’s really two narratives at play. The first is the one everyone wants me to tear down, the one that says it’s a modern masterpiece. This was the opinion espoused by much of the gaming press, many of the game’s fans (especially early on), and such notable gaming luminaries as me, since Undertale was the second game I ever covered professionally.

The second narrative is the one people want me to defend, the narrative that rose up as a counterargument to the first: that Undertale is overhyped, that it’s boring, that mechanically it does nothing interesting or innovative. In short: what’s the big deal? Well, here’s the thing: not to sound like some pansy neoliberal moderate, but – why can’t both sides be right?

I’m gonna bring up a concept I haven’t talked about in depth since the first Second Opinion episode, and that’s the idea that games can only be either good or bad. We’ve seen this a lot on the show. When really, a more nuanced approach sees four different alternatives. There’s something that’s made for you and good, something that’s made for you and bad, something that’s not made for you but made well, and something that’s not made for you and made poorly. So for example, I don’t like fighting games at all – other than Smash and maybe a couple others I find they’re just not something I enjoy very much. But I don’t go around saying that Mortal Kombat X is a terrible game just because I don’t enjoy it, because I can respect that it’s well-made and that fans of the series got (more or less) what they wanted with that product. On the other hand, I will call Street Fighter V a terrible, broken mess at launch, because it was a terrible, broken mess at launch, and even fans of the series couldn’t defend what was essentially a glorified pre alpha build.

Undertale has fallen prey to the same sort of binary thinking. Fans of the series think that Undertale is good and Undertale has gameplay, therefore Undertale has good gameplay. But that’s not entirely true. There’s some vague hinting at RPG mechanics, but there’s none of the actual strategy of deciding which items to take into combat – you’re just gonna want to take whatever the latest items you got were. And the combat itself is bullet hell projectile-dodging that really only comes in two modes: stupidly easy or impossibly unfairly hard, depending on what type of run you’re doing. Even the boss that’s designed to seem as scary and difficult as possible on Neutral or Pacifist runs – oh, by the way, did I mention this feature’s gonna get into MAJOR SPOILERS? Anyway, even Omega Flowey, who’s supposed to feel like this ultimate terrifying force of evil, can be beaten pretty easily on the first try, especially by people who have had previous experience with either of the genres Undertale’s ripping off.

And that’s to say nothing of the dull, boring, un-fun, easy, repetitive, boring, dull, boring, boring puzzle sections.

On the other hand, the game’s detractors believe that because Undertale is a bad RPG, Undertale is a bad game. And that’s also not true, because Undertale is a game that’s supposed to be a bad RPG.

Let me explain. Undertale should be thought of less as a real roleplaying game and more as a walking simulator along the lines of Stanley Parable or The Beginner’s Guide. Maybe point-and-click adventures are a better example here – the point is, Undertale has gameplay, but it’s only important in that it services the story. Fighting the bosses in the genocide run isn’t fun because it’s not supposed to be fun, it’s part of the story the game is telling you at that point, which is that you’re a monster who shouldn’t be doing this. If the game was telling that everything you were doing was horrible and you should feel bad for it, but you were having fun doing it, the message would feel undermined somewhat, or at worst, hypocritical. Besides, the whole point is that as you continue along this path the roles become reversed, so that the player is essentially the final boss that the monsters have to fight. And just like when you fight the final boss of any other RPG, they cheat, savescum, and fight as hard as they possibly can to succeed.

Huh. That sounds like a pretty neat twist for a game to pull off, doesn’t it? Well, no matter what run you do, that sort of thing is what Undertale’s really about. It’s not an RPG, it’s a story about RPGs, and its primary purpose is to question the things that RPGs have taken for granted since the genre’s invention. Things like: how moral is it to walk into a village, steal everything that isn’t nailed down, and kill all the monsters therein? Or: would every NPC and shopkeeper you come across really be that interested in talking to some random stranger? Sure, the puzzles in the beginning are boring and repetitive, but that’s because Papyrus, the character who made them, is kind of an idiot, and not as good at making puzzles as he thinks he is.

What this means is that if you’re invested in the story, you’re gonna enjoy the gameplay because it’s designed to perfectly complement said story. But if you don’t like the story, then the game’s gonna be super boring. And yes, Undertale fans – not liking the story is a perfectly valid reaction to have, because even though it’s incredibly well-written and well-told, not everyone likes the same kind of stories. Some people might feel like pointing out the illogical nature of videogame logic is overplayed simply because they’ve heard friends or read articles or comics that make those same points already. Some people might be interested in something that has a deeper meaning than just “people are generally nice once you get to know them” and “murdering people is bad.” And some people might just not like the story, that’s fine – I know I’ve experienced games with objectively excellent stories that I can’t find fault with from a critical angle but which just didn’t resonate with me.

Not liking Undertale doesn’t automatically make you a horrible person. That said, if your sole problem with Undertale is that it’s too “SJW” because it has two lesbian characters, multiple characters who use they/them pronouns and dares to suggest that you shouldn’t murder everybody you disagree with, then yeah, you are a horrible person. But it’s not because you don’t like Undertale.

Anyway, back to the game. If Undertale just told a clever story, I don’t think that would be enough to call it a masterpiece. What really makes the game great, and something that’s worth talking about even if you don’t like the game is the amazing way it responds to the player’s choices. It’s been over a year now since its release, and there’s still nothing else that comes close. While Telltale’s patting themselves on the back because The Walking Dead Season 2 had a whole three endings, Undertale has…well, it’s basically impossible to count, because it depends on how exactly you define an “ending” and how you separate them. Plus, we still may not have found all of them. There’s at least twenty, though – pretty much everyone can agree on that.

See, this is what makes Undertale so great, though. It has basically infinite variation. It’s not just that doing X leads to Y, it’s that doing X and Y but not Z after doing Q has a different result than if you do all of that but not P after doing A. That made no sense, but it actually expresses what I’m trying to say pretty well – Undertale doesn’t just respond to your choices, but to variations on your choices so subtle that until you go online and really take the time to look at all the possibilities you might never know that you only got that one line of dialogue because of something weird you did at the beginning of the tutorial. There’s no hugely telegraphed “THIS IS A CHOICE” moments, just a game that fluidly pays attention to everything you do.

And this, too, ties into the story, because the way that the characters know what you’ve done is used to make them feel more real. Usually it’s not just something like, “Oh, that’s funny – this character totally made a reference to this thing I did”, although when the game does do that it’s always to brilliant comedic effect. Again, it’s so much more subtle than detractors give the game credit for. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Undertale is one of the most smartly written games of all time, and I think everyone who wants to write for games, particularly those who want to include consequences for player choices, needs to study Undertale if they want to know how to do it right. I’m about to use possibly the most clichéd example in games criticism history, but it’s kinda like how every filmmaker should at least be aware of Citizen Kane, what it did for the medium, and what can be learned from it, even though nobody on Earth has ever actually enjoyed watching Citizen Kane.

But now, to close, I gotta give one more point to the people who say Undertale is kinda overhyped. Because yeah, the Undertale fandom got way, way out of hand. Now I think in large part this is because the game has a near-universal popularity, especially with people that aren’t that big into games (something which I think is a huge point in the game’s favor, by the way – I love that I’ve been able to introduce non-gaming friends to gaming using Undertale). But the result of this was that a LOT of the fans of the game were children and teenagers, and, well, children and teenagers do cringy things. I know that I did, said, and believed things in middle and high school I’d much rather forget, and as such, when I see kids doing or saying embarrassing things on tumblr my attitude is to ignore, rather than to criticize. But then you have things like MatPat giving a copy of the game to the Pope, and just…holy crap, guys, the game’s good, but it’s not a freaking religious experience. You literally gave the Pope, a man who does not own a laptop, a ten dollar Steam code. You couldn’t at least have gotten him something more expensive, like all the Train Simulator DLC? I mean I guess it’s exactly the sort of tone deaf move I’d expect from a guy who makes his living taking popular media and trying to look at them from some completely different angle just to sound smarter and edgier than…

…wait a minute.

Undertale is an ugly game with not very fun combat and puzzle mechanics. Undertale is one of the best written games of all time, and the gold standard for responding to player choice. I can believe both of these things simultaneously, because that’s the power of nuanced opinion. But to conclude this episode, I’d like to quote from someone else’s review of the game. Ahem.Undertale about an 8/10, niche RPG game. If you like the characters and the humor, you’ll probably like it, and forgive it for its flaws. If you don’t, you’ll probably hate it… But, the game became very popular. Unavoidable, even. At the height of its popularity, “not liking the game” felt like a cardinal sin to many fans online. In reaction to these circumstances, others began [to] actively hate the game, creating an endless whirlwind of discourse.”

Who wrote that? Why, that would be a Mr. Toby Fox. The creator of Undertale. And that’s his professional opinion.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct with years of experience writing for and about games.

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