Undertale, released Sept. 15, 2015, has had an undeniably massive impact on the indie gaming industry — games made by individuals or small teams — not to mention video games as a whole. It has made significant ripples in “mainstream” (the word here is used lightly) culture: the endless Megalovania remixes and assorted memes; Sans (an immensely beloved Undertale character) appearing in Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers; and MatPat (of the Game Theory YouTube channel) gifting an Undertale copy to Pope Francis. This game, with its unprecedented success (garnering its creator Toby Fox a cool $26.7 million off of Steam sales alone), has cleared a path for subsequent indie game darlings like Among Us, Hotline Miami, Untitled Goose Game, Celeste, Cuphead and Night in the Woods. Of course, Undertale is not directly responsible for their successes and credit should go to their talented developers, but its release proved that indie games could make just as much money and be just as popular as big-budget triple-A titles. So, what’s with the hype?
What made Undertale such a classic? We can start by looking at its themes — two of them, precisely: that of choice and responsibility, and that of humanity and monstrosity.
You play as a human child, fallen from the surface world into the Underground, a space divided into various themed zones and entirely populated by monsters. Your goal is simple: to escape and return home. This seems fairly standard, until one factors in the intricate worldbuilding and the immense reactivity Undertale has to player choice. The game has three “main” endings: Pacifist, Genocide and Neutral — which itself has so many permutations that fans have made flowcharts documenting all the possibilities. In the setting of Undertale, humans are in the antagonistic role, having trapped monsters underground after a destructive war. Monsters are defined by their compassion and are explicitly said to be weaker than humans — a striking reversal of the usual depiction of monster-human dynamics in most fiction. As a human, many of your most important choices relate to whether or not you act like the humans from the monsters’ past: killing and rampaging your way to freedom without mercy. Or you could act as a “monster” with kindness and a drive to befriend and help the residents of the Underground. These themes reinforce each other; the choice/responsibility theme works so well because the game “humanizes” the monsters to the point where, after feeling guilty when killing a generic enemy, a significant portion of players actually reload saves to erase the game’s memory.
The quality that elevates Undertale above the rest of the pack is the complexity with which its themes are expressed through mechanics unique to the video game medium. No parts of Undertale feel superficial or without purpose. This is made all the more striking considering how Undertale — with simplistic pixelated graphics — is remarkably low-budget. Countless RPG Maker games out there have useless mechanics (who even uses the “Flee” button?) and shallow implementations of core gameplay necessities like saving or combat. Not in Undertale. Every fight features bullet hell patterns that reflect the personality of your opponent, and — with one exception — every fight can be resolved without either you or the monster dying. The act of leveling up gains surprising and sinister significance, and even simply gaining new equipment lends important insight into the past of the world.
And besides its subversions of video game norms, Undertale has a quirky sense of humor, diverse and well-written characters with nuanced interrelationships and a heartfelt soundtrack. If, after reading this, you’re not interested in the game, please just listen to the soundtrack for free on YouTube. You’ll thank me.
Still, is Undertale relevant in 2020? Yes. Too many games guilt-trip you for killing (VAMPYR, Far Cry 5, etc.) but are in fact absolutely unplayable without resorting to deadly violence. This contradiction is even more egregious when the game only remembers to shame the player for killing when it comes to “bosses” (special characters) but does not acknowledge the hundreds of regular enemies a player will eliminate over the course of a single playthrough. Seriously, if my character is willing to take out an army, why would she stop at the general? Is there a reason why players crave violence, and why developers continue to indulge them to this extent? What does it say about the industry that mainstream video games continue to focus on killing, killing, killing — especially when most real-life conflicts are solved by talking, running away or even knocking someone out. Undertale asks these questions.
All in all, Undertale has come to define indie game success, and it remains highly influential when it comes to game design post-2015. Although it does not have DLCs (add-ons) or updates, Toby Fox continues to create Undertale-related content, such as the Undertale Winter Dialogue (meant to be released as part of a cancelled Undertale Alarm Clock app). Without its existence, we wouldn’t just miss out on Sans Undertale memes, but a beautiful world that dared to imagine beyond conventional video game norms.
Claire Fang | firstname.lastname@example.org