As is evidenced by my review – in which I gave Toby Fox’s Undertale probably the highest score I’ve given any game ever – I absolutely love Undertale. I think it’s emotional, unsettling, immersive, subversive…all those pretentious, hoity-toity words we like to use to talk about great games. I strongly suggest you check out my review here before reading further, particularly if you haven’t finished the game.
Caution: minor, a few moderate, and one potentially-major spoiler follow. I’ll do my best not to mention specific characters or events in the story except in very vague terms but the thesis of this whole article could be perceived as spoilery…though my whole point is that it isn’t. Still, if you’re afraid of possibly having something spoiled from one of the best games of the year, please, read no further. Close the browser, open Steam and buy Undertale. Seriously, you can beat it in two or three sittings and you will not be disappointed.
Ye be warned.
I loved Undertale – as if that wasn’t clear by my unabashed praise of it – and I have a strong feeling I will be nominating it for as many “Game of the Year” categories as I can (and that I won’t be the only one). But there is one thing I regret about the game, one mistake that I feel it makes, and that is to spoil its own subversiveness explicitly early on rather than letting there be a slow, dawning realization as the game progresses.
To put it bluntly: the game basically tells you how to get the “good” ending within the first 10 minutes of playing and, in doing so, it spoils a majority of what makes the game unique and special. Not ruins it, mind you, as it still does an excellent job of capitalizing on those things that make it unique and special, and to be fair, there are mechanics in place that mitigate this “spoiler” somewhat, but I feel like it could have been so much more powerful if it had withheld at least the most explicit of instructions.
Basically, very early on, a character named Toriel – or, as I (and many others) affectionately call her, Goat Mom – encourages you to not harm any enemy you fight, strongly implying that the “good” ending of the game, the “good” path to take, is the one in which you kill no one.
Now you may be saying, “well of course that’s the ‘good path.’ Hurting people is bad!” And of course I agree in real life…but one of the things Undertale does best is to subvert our expectations. And one of those expectations is that this is a video game (an RPG specifically) and in video games, we fight enemies, we get experience, we get gold, we become stronger, we kill everything. That is the expectation we all would naturally have going into the game…but that expectation is shattered almost immediately by our beloved Goat Mom (still love you, Goat Mom!) when it should have been cracked and worn away gradually over the course of the game.
To put it another way: by putting the idea in your head immediately in your first playthrough that you can – and even should – try to spare every monster, it explicitly told you in that something was different rather than letting the game imply it slowly over time. And since it’s mechanically impossible to get the “best” ending (the pacifist ending) in your first playthrough, the game would have been better off letting us learn this lesson the hard way since we’re basically expected to run the game multiple times for the best ending(s?) anyways.
The strength of Undertale is that its subversion, the things it does to erode away at our expectations, are subtle. Just playing the game is enough to know that something’s different. It tells you in clever, even insidious ways as you play that just mowing through your enemies is probably not morally justified, even though it’s kind of the mentality we have coming into an RPG like this and we don’t think we need moral justification because of it. Of course you’re going to get random encounters and of course you’re going to fight the enemies and of course you’re going to farm experience and gold to get stronger. That’s just how it’s done.
But in Undertale, you’re made to feel guilty for doing this – particularly if you follow the “bad” path. And one of the most delicious things is, I could see someone inadvertently following the “bad” path without even realizing it.
One of the prerequisites to get the (delightfully horrifying) “bad” ending is that you wipe out every enemy in each area, which you do by fighting enemies over and over again…which seems an awful lot like “farming” in a traditional RPG. But the thing is, this is pretty easy to do early in the game, particularly before you’re fully aware that this is a game that challenges you to be a pacifist. And it would completely blindside you.
If someone stopped to “farm” enemies for gold or experience in the first few areas, they might accidentally kill too many monsters and be treated with this screen instead of a normal battle.
How incredibly unsettling would that be? Imagine expecting a fight and only getting…this. We’ve never seen anything like this before in an RPG! But maybe it’s a good thing. After all, monsters are bad, right…?
But, fighting isn’t not how it’s supposed to be done in Undertale. The game’s a lot like Spec Ops: The Line in that way. There’s even a couple characters late in the “bad” playthrough that basically speaks directly to you, the player, in the same way that Spec Ops: The Line does.
“I know your type. You’re, uh, very determined, aren’t you? You’ll never give up, even if there’s, uh…absolute(ly) NO benefit to persevering whatsoever. If I can make that clear. No matter what, you’ll just keep going. Not out of any desire for good or evil…but just because you think you can. And because you ‘can’… …you ‘have to.’”
Make no mistake. He’s not talking to your character. He’s talking to you. The you that is fighting enemies because that’s “just how you play the game.” Can you imagine getting through the game, playing it like a regular JRPG, fighting for experience and levels because, hey, it’s a game and that’s what you do in a game…only to be faced with this character, and the grim realization of what you had done? Can you even imagine how powerful that would have been?
And the game does a brilliant job otherwise discouraging the pacifist route from a mechanical standpoint too. If you kill an enemy, you get EXP and LV. Spoiler alert…those don’t stand for experience and levels. You find out what they actually stand for later in the game and it’s another one of those moments that Undertale politely slaps your expectations and tells them to sit down and shut up. But whatever they stand for, they still make you stronger, like you’d expect. Meanwhile, sparing enemies gives you gold…but nothing else, keeping your relatively weak starting stats stagnant.
From a mechanical standpoint, this is a brilliant deterrence from the pacifist route. Because it can start to get really tough (though never impossible) to even survive fights later in the game, let alone win them. So most of us, in a vacuum, would stop to farm up some levels just to make ourselves stronger so we can proceed in the game. Because hey, that’s what you do in an RPG.
But unfortunately, the game tells us early on that we should strive to spare all the enemies we can instead of letting us weigh that decision of whether we want to try and do the “morally” right thing (whether out of some insertion of moral decency or just to see what the game has to offer or some sort of personal mechanical challenge) or just play an RPG.
And the worst part is, Undertale already has some great tools in place to deliver on more subtle hints already. I played through the game the first time knowing full well that the “best” ending was and attempted to spare every monster. Because Goat Mom told me to. And we must never disobey Goat Mom.
However, you can’t actually get the best ending in the game in your first playthrough (which is also brilliant). And besides that, I wasn’t quite able to do it. I couldn’t spare everyone. There were two fights in particular that the game seemed to say “hey, you can’t not kill these guys.” It was a bit like the “unwinnable fights” you see in some RPGs, the kind where the game, for narrative reasons, forces you to lose (or, in this case, to kill). So I killed them. And it was gut wrenching both times. Because I wanted to spare them. Not just because Goat Mom told me to but because at that point, the narrative had started to shift enough organically that I felt bad killing anyone.
In my second playthrough – an attempt to actually get that “best” ending – I noticed so many little hints as to what I did wrong the first time. Hints that were’t there the first time, things the game tells you because it knows you’ve beaten it already and it knows the mistakes you made.
During one battle with one of those characters that I firmly believed that I had to kill, the game hinted that there was, in fact, a way to spare them, though it still left it up to me to figure it out. My first time through, I thought for sure the game was forcing me to kill this character. But my second time, I realized that there was, in fact, another way, even though it was a little arcane.
It would have been far more effective if Undertale relied more on these subtle hints and corrective clues rather than an outright exposition from our beloved Goat Mom telling us how we’re supposed to act. Sure, there are plenty of characters that seem hell-bent on violence and one character that seems to be presented as a direct counterpoint to Goat Mom telling me that the opposite is true – that it is, in fact, kill or be killed – but Goat Mom is a completely sympathetic and relatable character that it is completely impossible to not love if you have a functioning soul and her counterpart is…well, not. So why would I listen to him?
I feel like in a way, the game didn’t respect us to figure this out ourselves that killing is bad or, perhaps, didn’t respect its own ability to hint at its true nature subtly but also in a way that we could pick up (even if we would pick up on it too late). But if Toby Fox wanted us to know that the peaceful approach to the game was the best one for our second, even third playthrough (as I said, you actually can’t get the best ending the first time), wouldn’t telling us nearer to the end of our first playthrough, or even into our second, have been a better option?
This is one reason why I really liked the “neutral” ending to the game. As I mentioned in my review, I consider this to be the “true” ending to the game because it’s the one you’ll probably get without following a walkthrough, because the “good” and “bad” endings have some pretty stringent requirements attached to them and sparing a few of the enemies can be a bit arcane if you don’t know what you’re doing (or maybe I’m just dense).
The “neutral” ending, however, allows you to make those mistakes, to say “this person is completely irredeemable and the world would be better off without them” (something that, to the game’s credit, doesn’t happen very often). It allows you to choose.
Removing the “surprise” of what the “good” ending is (or at least the path we need to take to get there..the actual good ending itself is still pretty surprising) removes our own choice from the equation. We’re going to make decisions on a meta level, based on the ending we want to get, not on a personal level, based on what we believe is right or wrong (or what we feel like the main character would have done).
To provide a counterpoint to my own argument, however, at no point does Goat Mom mention the “best ending” of the game – the game is subversive and breaks the fourth wall plenty, but not quite that much – and to be completely fair, she doesn’t even mention “sparing” the enemies. She simply encourages you to strike up a conversation with the enemies to buy time so she can save you, so in this way, it works very well as a tutorial for the game’s brilliant “ACT” mechanic. It’s also 100% possible I went into the game with my own set of expectations, having heard that you can win fights without killing enemies, and that I had imposed those expectations on my playthrough of the game…so perhaps this was all me.
But I still think the game would have been stronger if Toriel had just stepped in to save us without explicitly telling us that we should “strike up a conversation” with our enemies, perhaps allowing us, as the player, to make the mistake of killing a few foes without thinking. Hell, it would have been absolutely brilliant if she’d even encouraged us to “defend ourselves” until she could step in to save us.
Encouraging us to fight early on would have made us stronger, as killing enemies in RPGs does, and drilled home that notion that we’re playing an RPG, making the inevitable gut-punches later all the more powerful. They could have delivered a more subtle “ACT” tutorial later or – and this is the only time I will ever suggest this – omit the tutorial altogether, simply giving us this mysterious “ACT” option and letting us figure it out with only the cryptic message from a Froggit early on suggesting that we might be able to let monsters run away from combat if they want…but with no idea of how to get to that point or even why we would bother. Because this is a game that absolutely must be played multiple times.
Or, maybe Fox should have just made the violent ending the “good” ending, just to completely throw our expectations out of whack. But that’s a little bit out there.
I feel like by playing its hand too early, it softened the blow and diluted its own power somewhat. Undertale gave us what amounted to a spoiler very early on as to what to expect and it could have been so much more powerful if it had just allowed the slow, dawning realization that we’re doing the “wrong” thing, that we think we’re just “playing a game”…but there’s so much more on the line.
But when all’s said and done, the fact that I can even have this conversation about the game – and so many more conversations – really speaks volumes for how absolutely masterful it is. Undertale is brilliant and I don’t think this “mistake” (if you can call it that) ruins it in the least. It challenges us – mechanically, mentally and emotionally – in ways that few games do and its story is equal measures beautiful, heart-felt and soul-crushing.
You’re gonna have a bad time.
In the best way possible.
What do you think, DETERMINED readers? What do you think about Undertale? Do you think Undertale played its hand too early? Or do you like how they did things early on? Have you done all three endings? Personally, I couldn’t do the “genocide” route (or as Toby Fox prefers it to be called, the “no mercy” route), not necessarily because it was hard emotionally (it absolutely is) but because it’s so mechanically gruelling. What’s your favorite ending?