It's the truism of our time: the internet will find a way to ruin everything you like. This has the same steadfast reliability to it as Rule 34 (the invented--but nonetheless utterly true--idea that, if something exists, there is smut dedicated to it). And it makes sense: the internet is vast and deep and, ultimately, if you stare into the void, something unpleasant will come bubbling to the surface. Or sometimes it's less subtle than that. (See: your fave is problematic)
For example, you: 1) play Portal; 2) think: "Oh man, this game is awesome;" and 3) decide to do a quick Google search about the game and BLAM, suddenly you're neck deep in "The Cake is a Lie" jokes that go on forever and ever. Inundated with so much garbage, it becomes easy to forgot why you liked the game in the first place. The subtleties are replaced with one joke repeated ad nauseum until the words don't even seem like words anymore.
I'd argue that the same thing happened to Undertale, a 2015 game put out by Toby Fox and lovingly styled after Japanese role-playing games ("JRPGs") like Earthbound. If you were curious about the game and decided to do a quick search on Tumblr, I'd guess that your reaction would be, "How did an 8-bit skeleton in slippers become a sex symbol?"
But, despite all the grey noise that now exists about it on the internet, there's a reason Undertale reached Portal levels of internet adoration: they're both unexpected things of beauty in the simplest of wrappings.
It's dangerous to go alone
But first, a story:
I picked up Undertale after a friend posted about it on social media. He said something along the lines of, "I'm one hour in to playing Undertale, and I've already had my heart broken." It was winter, and I was looking for something to occupy my time.
Playing through the first half hour, I wondered what my friend was talking about. It felt fairly typical: a nameless child falls into an underground land. The landscape is simple, a very specific throw-back to an 8-bit aesthetic. The narration explains that this underground land is full of monsters, who have been divided from the human world above by a magic barrier. The monsters are trapped below, and this fallen child now must find a way back to the surface despite being surrounded by enemies.
The nameless child (whom, of course, you name, and who is referred to with the pronouns "they" and "them" throughout the game) is welcomed to the underground by a sentient, joyfully-bouncing flower named Flowey. At first, Flowey is friendly. Flowey tells the child that, by defeating monsters in the underground, the child can gain EXP. The more EXP the child has, the higher their LV. More EXP means more hit-points, keeping the child relatively safer when facing enemies.
But after this brief tutorial on how the world works, it becomes apparent that Flowey is much more interested in hurting the child and taking their soul. With certain doom looming, the child is rescued by a kind goat-ish monster named Toriel. She takes the child by the hand and leads them through the cavernous below, easily sidestepping puzzles and traps. She is gentle and kind, and only asks for the child to stay safe.
There comes a moment when Toriel has to briefly leave. She asks the child to stay put, as the underground is full of monsters who, angry at and suspicious of humans, might attack. She explains that the monsters attack because they don't know better, but she also reminds the child that there is more than one way to end a fight. After this, Toriel leaves and the player is left alone.
With Toriel gone, I decided not to stay put, but instead to continue forward through the ruins of the underground.
Very soon after, I encountered my first monster. Undertale's battles are turn-based bullet hells: during the monster's turn in battle, they attack with a barrage of bullets that the player (represented by a red heart on the screen) must dodge. If hit too many times, the player dies and is returned to an earlier save point in the game to try again.
On the player's turn, you can either attack the monster or "act" to show friendliness and mercy. Attacking is relatively straight forward: time your attack properly, and you can do more damage. The mercy option is a bit more complicated: you often get a number of choices on how to show mercy ("tell a joke," "do a dance," "compliment their hat," being a few options for some monsters). If you show the right sort of mercy in the right order, the option to spare the monster is revealed.
However, if you spare the monster, you don't receive any EXP, meaning that you can't level up, meaning that your health remains low and the increasingly difficult bullet hells become longer slogs.
In short: you don't have to kill any monsters to complete the game, but killing monsters makes the game easier.
As I mentioned, the first half hour or so of Undertale wasn't incredibly captivating for me: I found patterns in the bullet hells that I could avoid and so chose to show mercy for all the monsters I encountered. The ruins had some puzzles to solve, but were otherwise pretty ho-hum. However, there was one moment that I realized things might take a turn: the player encounters a ghost pretending to sleep in the middle of a path. To get by, you have to challenge the ghost to a battle.
The normal turn-based system popped up. The ghost's first turn against me was a regular bullet-dodging session. But, during its second turn, the words, "REALLY NOT FEELING UP TO IT RIGHT NOW. SORRY" flashed across the screen. He wasn't attacking me. He was just sad.
I laughed. Then I said, "aw." 'Then I leaned in: Undertale seemed to have something up its sleeve that went beyond its first impressions.
It's here that I'm going to avoid talking about the plot in any more detail. As with most games of its ilk, Undertale is best gone into knowing as little about it as possible. I will say that I recommend playing through the ruins and to the main title screen. If you're still not into it, you probably won't like it down the road, either. However, if you're like me, there will come a very specific moment in the beginning that will make you feel like you're questioning everything that you learned to that point, that will challenge the lengths you'll go to show mercy, and you'll fall head over heels in love.
So, rather than focus on the story, I want to instead touch on an element that was brought up by Mike Rugnetta on PBS's Idea Channel: that Undertale is one of the most violent games out there.
The basic tenant of the argument is this: in many mainstream games, fighting/attacking/killing opponents is a crucial part of the action and, more than that, a crucial part of the storytelling. In many of these games, violent acts are absolutely critical in order to progress the action of the game. For example, you can't (really) play Bloodbourne without killing bosses. Often, "pacifist runs" (where you don't kill any opponents) are feats that are, as Rugnetta asserts, are analogous to speed runs in terms of technical game-playing prowess.
Meanwhile in Undertale, if you choose to kill a monster, you absolutely know that there was another option. Since killing monsters is not necessary to progress or even "win" the game, the choice to kill a monster is a deliberate, intentional action on the part of the player. You are choosing to be violent, even when you know that there is another path that you chose not to take.
You can watch Rugnetta's video below. If you want to avoid spoilers, you can watch up to about minute 8 and still get the gist of the argument:
the easy way out
At the beginning of Undertale, my choice was an easy one to make. Monster battles were relatively easy, so I could get by on showing mercy and pat myself on the back for all the monsters I spared.
However, as the game progressed and I didn't earn any EXP, as the battles became harder, I found myself dying far more often. I died a frustrating number of times. I already hate boss battles and stress. I remember one particularly difficult battle. I sat on my bed with my jaw clenched so tight that I game myself a tension headache. I was determined not to bow to attacking this boss, but the fight was going on FOREVER. None of my tactics to show mercy seemed to be working. I started to wonder if there wasn't an option for mercy; maybe this was a trick where I had to attack the boss in order to escape.
As the fight dragged on, I regretted being LV 1. I hated how low my health was. I had made a commitment, but it made things noticeably and increasingly more difficult for myself.
And I think this is the beauty of the game. Sure, the music is really pretty stellar. Sure, the story is great and manages to walk the line between irreverent tongue-in-cheek and Deep Feels. Sure, the characters were sweet and well-developed parts of the story. Sure, the game broke conventions and expectations in a way that felt new and astounding.
None of these are small feats, and, altogether, the above was enough to make me love the game.
But more than anything, I was deeply impressed with the feeling of vastness in choice that the game laid out in front of me. My choices not only felt like they mattered, but I could see the results of these choices echoing throughout Undertale. Just when I thought I knew the rules of the game, Undertale was one step ahead of me.
Play Undertale. Just don't look it up on Tumblr, maybe. Unless you're into skeletons.