My dear audience, these kinds of articles are my favorite to write. That is because I love video games. It’s a storytelling medium that is capable of delivering the author’s message (or prompt one to create their own, depending on how you look at it) in a practical way, not just a theoretical one.
And while Dark Souls 3 remains my number 1 favorite game of all time due to the confluence of story and gameplay mechanics, no other game made such an emotional, long-lasting impact on me as Undertale. Many much smarter brains than mine talked at lengths about its various elements, but it is time for me to join in with the angelic chorus of voices singing this game’s eternal praise. I will, of course, try to outline the few and far between places the game falls short of course, but this, by and large, is a pure love letter. I have no idea if I can make it as honest and genuine as Undertale is, but I will try. From me to you Toby, you most annoying of doggos.
On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog – meme circa early 2000s
I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about the creator of the game himself, because frankly, I don’t think Toby would want that. Undertale certainly can stand on its own, without even mentioning Toby’s prior background. But nevertheless, I do want to mention that Toby Fox has extensive experience with RPG makers and has put that experience to good use, creating mods for Earthbound. He is also a music composer (the music of Undertale is something that has to be tackled separately). Most of the tracks in the game were made mostly by Toby or solely by Toby.
He also worked on the Homestuck comic, creating music that helped to enhance that weird idiosyncratic phenomenon of our memes-obsessed culture. Toby’s previous works have a reputation for being weird and edgy and he tried hard to distance himself from them. He wanted Undertale to be taken as a clean slate. And I want to do that, I really do, except… Undertale is not without its edgy side. An edgy side that, I think, works to Undertale’s advantage. It creates a sense of contrast that really changes the scope of the game. So I have to say, Undertale wouldn’t be what it is if not for that certain edginess Toby brought into development with him and I think that’s fine.
And that is everything I will say about Toby himself. The rest is me waxing pretentious about the story, gameplay mechanics, characters, music and the amazing meta-narrative of Undertale. Spoilers are of course inbound but much like Deltarune, this is primarily designed to be read by people who already played Undertale.
The hero’s journey.
A lot of the reasons why Undertale works really well circle back to this point. It’s a weird sort of experience that manages to build a lasting suspension of disbelief, by doing away with it completely. Allow me to explain. Undertale starts innocently enough with a simple, sepia-toned cinematic explaining the backstory of the setting and why you are where you are. Your character, a human child, wandered off into the mountains for reasons unknown and falls into the underground where monsters live sealed away with a magical barrier.
This is simple enough at face value and reminiscent of classic RPGs like, say, Planescape Torment. You’re landed immediately on your track and presented with a call to adventure that is very hard to refuse (impossible to refuse, if you want to see what the rest of the game is like). You then meet the very first character on your journey, Flowey the Flower, who shows you some basic mechanics. You’re initially led to believe this is going to be a silly and cheerful journey that maybe has a light moral at the end.
These expectations are then immediately shot to hell when Flowey, in no uncertain terms, attempts to murder you while cackling maniacally. At the last moment you are saved by Toriel, she who is known by the fandom as ‘the goat mom’. Toriel is one of the most important characters in the game and will guide you through a tutorial, teaching you various mechanics of the game, but in a way that a player, now on their toes after being almost killed, will spot some holes in.
She doesn’t teach you how to defend yourself, not really. She empathically explains that you should strive to talk things out with your opponents and when that proves impossible, run back to her so she can help you. And yet the UI allowing you to fight and kill monsters is right there, beckoning to be used. From now on everything has this… aura of uncertainty around itself. Things are implied in the background that put the naïve way you’re told to approach the game into question, always making you unsure whether there isn’t something much bigger going on.
Subverting the players’ expectations.
All of this is, of course, completely tonally backwards. Rule of thumb says that toying around with your player’s expectations like that will make them approach Undertale as a game and not as a story and thus break their immersion. And sure enough, the tutorial segment ends with a proverbial Refusal of the Call (to borrow Campbell’s terminology again) when you are confronted by Toriel who doesn’t want to let you outside into the dangerous underground, filled with monsters who might kill you.
During this first, real fight in the game, you have to put what you’ve learned so far to good use, but to an observant player, it’s clear that something’s off. Toriel just taught you that fighting isn’t the answer to your problems, that you CAN talk your way out of trouble. And yet she stands there, seemingly bent on hurting you, if it means keeping you safe.
And yet… she won’t hurt you. She literally CANNOT kill you. Her projectile attacks are hard-coded to miss you when your health is low. To a smart player, the solution manifests itself: this isn’t a battle of survival, it’s a war of moral attrition. You CAN spare Toriel and win this fight with no casualties. What is however vastly more likely, is that the player won’t take that much time to consider the implications of fighting Toriel. Not yet, at least. Maybe you think you can beat some sense into her, defeat her without killing her. It’s easy to assume, given what happened just before and Toriel’s incomplete guidance, that there are moments when fighting is necessary when you might even be forced to kill to achieve your goal.
Except, if you do that… You’d have killed the only character so far who showed you genuine compassion. Hell, she baked you a pie. Killing Toriel here feels like a tragedy. So a thoughtful player, striving for the best possible ending, as we often do, will likely load their save and try again, this time succeeding to spare Toriel. After doing so, you’re approached by Flowey again who says… that he knows you killed goat mom. He knows you reloaded the game. He’s not even addressing the character, he’s addressing the player directly. He knows…
BOOM. Fourth wall completely broken like it was a Kool-Aid commercial, suspension of disbelief obliterated, first maybe 20 minutes of the game! So that’s it, right? Immersion is now impossible, how can you get involved in a story if you’re so dramatically pulled right out of it?
A Gift form the Goddess or as I like to call it, dating a skeleton.
Fascinatingly, Undertale manages to keep the audience invested in the story despite removing the player from it and at times reinforcing their position as a passive observer. The secret to this is a confluence of factors, the primary of which is the amazingly endearing cast of characters in Undertale. From the dynamic duo of the skeleton brothers, through the quirky, anime-loving recluse of a scientist Alphys and her flamboyant trans friend Mettaton to the somber king Asgore, these characters have so much personality and charm, it’s impossible not to fall in love with them.
This is mostly due to how well they’re written. Toby Fox is a real wordsmith, his dialogues and various descriptions of things you find in the world are filled with all sorts of puns and references that you just ‘get’ on a very emotional level. There’s a point in the game where you approach a potted cactus and the displayed description reads “it’s not like this cactus was waiting for you to come back or anything”. Yes, there’s a tsundere cactus in Undertale. All of it is just so… charming.
It is a testament to their greatness that the wonderful fandom of Undertale made hundreds of thousands of pages of fanfiction about their various untold adventures, created tons of art and even just silly memes about recognizable elements from the game. They are all weird and bizarre and they interact with each other in this believable web of connections. They all have mysteries that want to be discovered and they pull you in with their various little stories.
Megalovania starts playing.
Another aspect of this ability to immerse the player is the fantastic music of Undertale, perfectly fitting every situation you find yourself in.
Even the background music playing as a theme for various locations, from the Christmassy, cheery tunes of Snowden, to the industrial noises of Hotland, there is this sense of the world of Undertale being a cohesive whole, despite its weird aesthetics. And that is before we mention the boss music, my god the boss music. The various soundtracks became a staple of the game, often used by other creators (sometimes with Toby’s permission, while unfortunately often without it). They also inspired a wave of artists paying homage to these tracks with mash-ups or completely new songs.
The beautiful thing about the boss tracks is that they greatly enhance the presence of characters themselves. It’s impossible to think of Papyrus and not have the silly, up-beat Bonetrousle start playing in your head. Or conversely, think of Sans and not get the shivers down your spine when you remember Undertale’s most famous track, one that was given the most attention by the fans, Megalovania. Pumping you up with pure adrenaline as you remember all the sins of your entire journey, this song judges your actions no less than Sans himself.
What story-gameplay segregation?
Finally, the last thing also contributing to that lasting sense of immersion is the gameplay of Undertale itself. Gameplay-story segregation is a term used to describe video game propensity to present narrative elements via one medium and the player interacting with the game by another. This is very common in story-heavy games. For example BioWare games are notorious for giving players the tools to do certain things in the game and then breaking the gameplay segments up with cut-scenes that seem to work independently of whatever the player could actually do in the game (Mass Effect’s recurring Avenger assault rifle, ubiquitous in cut-scenes even if none of your characters carries one, comes to mind).
Undertale doesn’t have that. Like, at all. While the various encounters operate within their own special field and rules, these are not set in stone, you can be damaged outside of battles. If you attempt to flee from an encounter, the heart symbolizing your life-force will spout legs and leave the battle screen. The elements of the UI can be interacted with by characters, such as when Asgore breaks your Mercy prompt to disable your ability to spare him. Even your total number of levels gained with EXP is a quantifiable thing in-universe, not some model of character progression.
Strangely, because Undertale is intensely aware that it’s a game and treats itself as such, it functions as a single chunk of storytelling and in that way, becomes more immersive. Now, with all that said, let’s talk more about that game-y aspect of Undertale. How, by breaking the 4th wall, it becomes more than a program on your computer.
The meta-narrative of Undertale.
As I’ve said before, through Toriel, Undertale is trying to sell you the idea that you can complete the game in a non-violent way and you are strongly led to believe that this will indeed lead to the best possible ending. And that’s not a lie: if you strive to be as much of a pacifist as you can, you will, in fact, reach the most satisfying of all endings (the climax of which left me bawling like a child). However… there’s a flipside to that. In a meta-narrative sense, achieving the best possible ending requires a certain degree of obsessiveness. It is actually impossible on your first playthrough, you’re going to have to return to your latest save-point after beating the game once in order to do that.
And the game is going to be quite obscure in telling you how to get the best ending. It forms an encounter with Asgore in the form of a conundrum: how do you spare an opponent who is not interested in your mercy? It is actually quite likely that you’ll have to resort to using guides on the internet to figure out how to complete the game. You’ll have to be heavily invested in the game to reach the ultimate ending. But… obsession has a dark side to itself, which Undertale knows quite well.
The Genocide Run.
The best ending of Undertale can only be achieved by never resorting to violence, not hurting, even by an accident, even a single denizen of the underground. But what if… you don’t care about that?
It is possible to start killing at any point in the game. Every single character can be killed. There’s absolutely no incentive for you to do so, except rising your LOVE, which will only make subsequent fights easier and ultimately less challenging. Genocide Run is the flipside of the coin. It is accomplished by killing EVERY SINGLE MONSTER in every area of the game. Because the game works on the basis of random encounters, it’s not enough to kill whoever attacks you.
At a certain point, you have to start walking around actively seeking monsters to kill in what the fans dubbed the “Undertale’s Dance of Death” until there’s nothing more to kill, signaled by the prompt saying “… but nobody came”. There’s no reason to do this. Genocide run is not fun, save for a total of two new boss-fights it seems pointless and frustrating. It’s time-consuming and doesn’t return on its promise. Even if you do not care for the characters at all and have no ethical compunctions about killing them, it gives you NOTHING. And all of that is by design.
The only possible reason to even attempt the Genocide run is… obsession. Obsession with seeing the other end of the rabbit hole, to see everything the game has to offer. The kind of faux-scientific, perverted sentimentality that will not be satisfied until you hear the fat lady singing. Well, that’s not exactly true. The other possible reason is attention. Genocide Run is something that many YouTubers did, purely because their audiences wanted them to. Now there’s a hot take for you. It’s fascinating to me, the lengths to which people will go to satisfy their audience’s desires. Regardless, the game spells it out for you in the climax of the Genocide Run. You do it because you can, and because you ‘can’, you feel you ‘have to’.
The greater impact of Undertale.
That core contradiction lies at the very heart of Undertale. A degree of obsessiveness is a good thing, great even! Undertale explores this aspect even more through the character of Alphys and her relationship with Undyne. Passion is a wonderful thing, and the cultural impact the game had wouldn’t be possible without passionate people of all sorts being heavily invested in Undertale. It is a game about many things, about trying to resolve conflict non-violently, about forming relationships, about getting over the loss.
But more than anything, it’s about caring. Perhaps caring a little bit too much even. It’s been 3 years since I finished Undertale. When I reached the ending of the True Pacifist run I closed the game and promptly uninstalled it (after I was done crying). I did it because Undertale was over. It would have been disrespectful to the story to keep playing. I had some good grub with friends, I shared a few bad laughs and that was that. I never tried the Genocide run and never will.
But the funny thing is? I wasn’t done. I came back to explore Undertale subreddits, to listen to tracks from the OST I missed (famously, Megalovania only plays in the Genocide run) and tracks created by fans. I watched videos and memes and Undertale never really left me. It stayed with me. Because of passion compounds. And passionate people seek each other. Fandom is a feedback loop of people not being able to let a beloved story die. And this need not be a bad thing, so long as the story keeps evolving. Memes never really die, they just transmute into new things, combine and recombine with other memes as fandoms intersect and form one grand thing we call culture.
So… Deltarune, right?
Which brings me to Toby Fox’s new creation, sort-of-but-not-really a sequel to Undertale, Deltarune. It’s a new game the developer is working on and it’s a… strange thing. The first chapter is available free for everyone, but you certainly want to first finish Undertale before checking out Deltarune (yes, it’s an anagram. Yes, it’s important).
Toby himself described it as a project he’s so obsessed with, it makes him wake up during the night. Which again, that’s maybe even a little bit sad, because Undertale taught us how destructive an unhealthy obsession can be. At the same time, while Deltarune is quite obviously tackling similar themes as Undertale, it’s a different project. Unlike Undertale it will not have multiple endings so that meta-commentary about obsession is no longer a possibility.
It also seems much darker from the very start, dealing with potential themes child of abuse and neglect, depression and, as suggested by one of the creators in the greater fandom, PTSD. I encourage you to try it… but you do it at your own risk. Personally, I had compunctions about starting the game, because it’s reopening a chapter that should be closed. And the game certainly has this weird quality about itself where it makes the player feel like they’re doing something wrong just by playing it.
This makes a lot of us ask the difficult question, what is going to be the end to Deltarune? If it’s fixed and not up to us… how can we make it good? And perhaps we can’t. Maybe the only winning move is not to play. Or perhaps much like Undertale, Deltarune is trying to escape the confines of the video game world and the bigger game takes place between players trying to reach out to Toby, through their engagement in the fandom, and influence the game in a completely meta way? I have no idea. Whatever it is, it’s a game I know I will be a part of. And I can only hope to not become so obsessed as to disregard the warning signs.
As for you? Well, that’s your choice. But I thank you for hearing out this long but honest dissertation on what makes this game so fantastic.