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As much as I have been obsessed with the artistic potential in video games, there have been very few experiences that felt like they could be recommended to a more general audience in the same way that a great film, novel or album could be. Even the classic contenders for the “Best Games of All Time” are steep time investments that make them a hard sell to a less committed audience.
The most prominent titles this year focused on providing hours and hours of content, or using their multi-million dollar budgets to perpetuate the clumsy additions of “cinematic storytelling.” Yet a small Kickstarter-backed game made by director and composer Toby Fox stands out as not only the clear winner for best game of 2015, it may very well have a shot for one of the greatest, and most important games of the modern era. Regardless of whether or not you have dabbled in the medium before, you have to experience the fantastical and complex world of Undertale.
On the surface, Undertale is a relatively straightforward, five-hour, turn-based role playing game, developed using Game Maker: Studio, a free engine. You assume the control of a nameless child, who has fallen into an underground world of monsters, and must encounter its strange residents, solve puzzles, and explore a variety of different environments in their journey home.
Yet, unlike the traditional role-playing game, Undertale allows the player to complete the entire game without killing a single enemy. Almost every character interaction and plot point is changed heavily depending on whether or not the player has chosen to kill or show mercy: to play as a pacifist, or to kill every single character in the game.
The world within Undertale is whimsical, humorous, and as charming as it is deeply moving. It is reminiscent of some of my own favourite works of fantasy, that blend a humorous cast of characters with just the right amount of dark undertones subtly found throughout the plot. Every monster you encounter, though potentially violent at first, are never purely malicious, and it can be just as addicting to flirt with slime monsters, pet a Great Dog knight, or “unhug” a monster and respect their boundaries. The potential interactions during random encounters and boss battles make the pacifist route much more rewarding than traditional turn-based combat.
Undertale really punishes players in emotional form just as it does in terms of difficulty when one chooses the genocide route, and Fox does so by forcing players to consider the weight of their actions on this fictional world. There is no sense of heroism or justification in the genocide path, the game itself acknowledges that the player is really only doing it because they can. Monsters who would otherwise be the best of friends will desperately try to defend their loved ones against you, and their deaths are gruesome as they are desperate.
While the strong cast of characters, writing, and tight battle-system would make a great title in its own right, Undertale’s commentary on some of the inherent traits of the video game medium is what pushes it to masterpiece status. Undertale acknowledges the absolute power the player has over the game itself, and in the face of that, begs and pleads that he/she shows mercy to its charming characters and world. Yet, while Fox actively encourages the player to follow the path of the pacifist, the world and characters that he created actively acknowledge that the player will eventually choose a genocide run out of some morbid curiosity, some “completionist” impulse or at the very least, watch the violent playthrough on YouTube.
Yes, one of the characters will call out those who choose to watch a genocide run on YouTube. That same character will acknowledge your attempts to reset and undo some of your accidental killings, and many more recognize that certain situations feel “nostalgic” after you decided to reset and play the game again. A genocide run followed by a pacifist playthrough will permanently prevent the player from getting the true, happy ending that typically follows the Pacifist run. The characters themselves will even can even beg the player not to reset the game following its completion, as it would undo the happy ending in their world. There are no true resets, and no true reloads.
A small Kickstarter-backed game made by director and composer Toby Fox stands out as not only the clear winner for best game of 2015, it may very well have a shot for one of the greatest, and most important games of the modern era.
Breaking the fourth wall is not just a novel gimmick in Undertale. It is a critical part of the in-game story, and it is more importantly an open acknowledgement of the absolute power players have over video games themselves. This is a critical part of Undertale’s spirit, and what is arguably the most important aspect of its presentation. The ability to save, load, reset, manipulate files and even share these experiences online is an intrinsic part of the medium, and the game uses these components as a more powerful form of storytelling than any of this year’s cinematic attempts. Undertale is one of a kind, in that the relationship between the player and the game is allowed to go beyond the experiences directly within the game, and its exploration of the relationship that the player can have with the game itself is a radical new world for game developers to explore in future titles.