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Conversations With Myself: On Undertale's Universal Appeal

It's a bit like Don Quixote...

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Undertale [official site] is a brilliant game and I want everyone to play it. I worry that people will think it’s so deeply rooted in nostalgia that they’ll need a degree in RPGs to enjoy it, or that it’s a series of quirky in-jokes. It isn’t but I don’t want to tell you precisely what it is – I want you to see for yourself. To that end, I’ve had a big conversation with myself to answer some doubts concerns that those of you who haven’t yet played might be harbouring. There are no spoilers.

Even though I spend parts of my working life trying to explain why some things are superior to other things, I rarely persist if somebody isn’t enjoying a thing I recommended. For many of us, there are more games available than ever before, and many of them are available cheaply and almost immediately thanks to the magic of the internet. There was a time when I’d persevere with a terrible game because it was the only one I was likely to own for the next few months – a birthday present judged for its cover rather than its content.

Whenever I find myself longing for the days when I had more free time than expendable income, I force myself to remember that I spent three months playing vampire cyberpunk adventure BloodNet because it had sucked up all of my spending money. Hell, I completed movie-themed Amiga platformer Oscar at least five times and managed to convince myself the titular character was cooler than Zool (note: nobody before or since has been cooler than Zool).

Nowadays, there’s little point in persisting with something that isn’t immediately appealing. Sure, that appeal might be in the promise of pleasures to come – few people pick up a complex strategy game and has the time of their life before learning the ropes – but if something isn’t for you that’s fine. Walk away and play one of the other million things available. Like the inhabitants of a seaside tearoom, we all have our own cuppa and that’s just fine.

Except when it isn’t. Undertale, which is our game of the month, is one of my favourite things of recent times. I want everyone to play it but I’ve already met several people who’ve been dissuaded from picking it up for various reasons. Here, without spoiling a damn thing, I’d like to address some of the wariness I’ve heard from people who think this marvelous, beautiful game isn’t for them.

Because I think it is. I think it’s for all of you.

All of you: Well, you’re definitely wrong, it isn’t for me because just look at that retro pixel art. Eugh! It’s like a NES did a sick on my monitor and it’s certainly not what I bought this leaning tower of PC for.

The apparent simplicity of the art serves two purposes, as far as I can tell. First of all, it does appear to be self-consciously old-fashioned but that’s not for the sake of tickling your nostalgia-glands – rather it’s a reflection of the naivety that is the topmost layer of the game’s world. This is Naïve art, or an approximation of it, rather than what I tend to think of as pixel art. It is young rather than old.

If the fact that they serve as a perfect costume for the world that is wearing them isn’t a good enough reason to appreciate – or at least accept – the graphics, then here’s another good reason. As you move through the game, unusual effects come into play. A zoom on a certain character or a playful bit of lighting might not sound unusual but the lack of high fidelity trickery makes these moments dramatic, hilarious and touching. Undertale is a perfect lesson in making small gestures count for a great deal.

All of you: Ugh. Fine. But it does do that annoying random combat thing, doesn’t it? I’ll be walking around and suddenly an enemy I couldn’t see will attack me and the music will get all excited while I’m getting all bored because I have to repeat the same fight again and again and again.

Well, yes, but the combat is really good fun. The interface looks like a standard JRPG type of thing, where you choose to attack, use an item special ability or flee. The key to Undertale is learning about your enemies though rather than just bashing them into bits. So you can look at them to see how they’re feeling or what they’re planning to do. Then you might want to cheer them up if they’re down in the dumps, or flirt with them if that seems appropriate. Combat is made up of two mini-games, essentially, and the first is in those choices of action, learning how to pacify, befriend, weaken or frighten an opponent.

The other mini-game is a tiny bullet hell shooter that takes place in a little box below the enemy portrait. I say ‘shooter’ but it’s a ‘dodger’ really. The enemy’s attack is shown as a series of projectiles and if you manage to avoid them for a few seconds, the round ends. If one hits, you lose HP. The beauty of the system is that the pattern of the attacks fits the personality and mood of the enemy, and it’ll change as you interact with them. On top of that sometimes the attacks aren’t attacks at all – they’re gags or messages that seamlessly fit into that little box as if they were intended to be something else entirely.

Also, there isn’t a great deal of random combat. You might find the first couple of areas a slog if you’re moving slowly and looking at everything but things calm down. Most areas of the game don’t punish you with invisible enemies every two seconds.

All of you: Great. But is it supposed to be funny? Because I played the demo and the only bit that made me laugh was that one bit with the rock that was confused about being part of a puzzle. There’s nothing more awkward than something trying to be funny right up in my face when I am just not laughing at all. Makes me feel uncomfortable and nauseous.

I hear you. A few years ago I went to a friend of a friend’s stand-up show one time and nearly had to flee in embarrassment.

There were loads of lines in Undertale’s demo that made me chuckle but it’s more likely to make you smile than laugh out loud. Its the kind of humour that you chew on, grinning all the while. The tone does change a few times though, targeting different parts of the funny-bone. While the early game has a tendency to poke fun at RPG mechanics, the later humour is more character-based with a smattering of (intentionally) groan-worthy puns and one-liners.

I made note of the fact that Undertale’s world is one in which characters are often trying to be funny rather than one in which everyone just so happens to be stoically witty at all times. People tell jokes or amusing anecdotes because they hope it’ll make them more acceptable. Everybody wants a friend, or a family.

All of you: Bloody hell. It sounds a bit worthy, this Undertale. Is it going to make me have what the kids call ‘the feels’? Because I’m telling you now, I cannot be arsed with that sort of rubbish. I’m not crying because a pixel is lonely.

If you don’t cry, you don’t have a soul. No, but seriously, Undertale is not a tear-jerker as such. And I’m not even sure any of us have souls or what a soul is (maybe just little unhappy ghosts that are trapped inside us?)

Remember To The Moon? You probably avoided that one as well but if you did play it you could fairly point out that it was emotionally manipulative – there are a couple of scenes in there that practically attach wild horses to your ducts and have them jerk the tears out of you.

Nowt wrong with that. I love having my emotions manipulated every once in a while. Undertale does something far more subtle though; its most devastating moments aren’t simply scripted events, you work toward them through your actions. They’re still these wonderfully written moments of shocking clarity and sadness but they wouldn’t even be happening if you hadn’t made certain choices – or, more insidious still, played the entire game with a different mindset.

Point being, Undertale might well make hit you somewhere between ‘openly sobbing’ and ‘pretending it’s just dust’, but it’ll never do so at the expense of telling this one weird funny strange interactive story that you’re caught up in.

All of you: What if – and stick with me here – what if I have no interest in RPGs, adventure games, retro games, nerd humour or fantasy dungeons and dragons bollocks.

First of all, it’s really weird that you’re even a voice on this website if you don’t like any of those things. But here’s the thing: Undertale is brilliant because it is its own thing. It’s a beautifully absurd comic story that has as much to do with old RPGs as Don Quixote as to do with chivalric Romance stories. That’s to say it’s shot through with the texture of those things and the more you know about them, the more you’ll get out of some of the particulars. But if you’re clueless? There are still plenty of jokes about poop, class, bravado, misadventure and odd couple relationships. And that goes for Don Quixote AND Undertale, I think. I’d have to double-check on the whole poop thing.

You can pick up Don Quixote and enjoy it even if you’re not familiar with the historical moment or works in the genre that it’s satirising. In the same way, Undertale might seem off-putting in those opening scenes when it’s deconstructing itself and poking you in the ribs to point out how droll that is, but there’s much more to the game than that. It thrives thanks to its allusions but is capable of surviving them.

Look, even if you hate everything else it’s actually impossible to dislike the music. And the whole thing is the perfect length to fit as a side course between main meals. Just don’t be surprised if you go back for a second helping, or find yourself thinking about it far more often than whatever 60 hour epic you’re burrowing through.

All of you: Someone told me it’s scary. Surely not?

There’s this flower, see…

I did find some of the events and implications deeply unnerving but it doesn’t pull an Eversion.

All of you: OK. Fine. But I won’t get it unless I’ve played that old Nintendo game about a sad boy with a fat head, will I?

If you mean Earthbound, don’t worry about it. I haven’t played Earthbound either. In fact, I’ve played the first half hour about twenty times but find it really boring and just find myself wondering if it’ll ever become interesting.

Oh god. Someone’s going to have to write one of these for me, about Earthbound aren’t they? It is the only way.

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Adam Smith

former Deputy Editor

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