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Andrew in Steamland: Undertale

(or: In Which Andrew is Unfunny)

cave story

Anyone who’s been on the internet in the last few months can’t help but have heard of Undertale, the latest indie darling to win accolades for its unconventionality. Owing to its underdeveloped visual design masquerading as retro aesthetics, minimally challenging gameplay, and a story built around mawkishly asking “what do videogames really mean?” it’s gained a special cachet with the kind of crowd that loves Gone Home and would prefer if combat in games were skippable. Especially praised is its innovation of allowing players to do a pacifist run (possible in Iji, Postal 2, Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 4, Planescape: Torment, and more), its charming characters (up to personal taste, but I’ll let it go for now), its music (I’ll give them that one), and its blend of RPG and SHMUP gameplay (leaving both under-developed and devoid of challenge). The praise for it has been so universal that it almost instantly became the highest-ranked game on Metacritic. It’s since sunk in the rankings and is “only” in the top 20 PC games of all time – incidentally, both Fez and Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth rank in the top 100, to give you an idea of what kind of game merits “best ever” status. So, I’m perfectly aware that harshly criticizing it is going to invite accusations of contrarianism, and I can’t even say they’d be entirely wrong. All I can do is speak my mind, try to lay out a case for why I think the game’s positive qualities have been vastly overstated. There will be spoilers, I guess, for anyone who cares about that sort of thing.

First: the gameplay, for me the most important part of a game. Subpar or notably flawed gameplay can be salvaged by great atmosphere and writing, but I much prefer for there to be something engaging about the way I interact with a game, and at the very least it has to function. And the gameplay in Undertale does meet my baseline criteria; it works, but I can’t help but feel that it’s largely by dint of its simplicity. For sake of comparison, here’s the Undertale battle screen and a randomly selected screenshot from Crimzon Clover: World Ignition.

undertale

touhou

The most important – and most notable – difference is the amount of navigable space given to the player. Both games sharply limit the amount of room the player has to maneuver, but Undertale does so by creating a small box covering about one-eleventh of the screen. I can think of a couple reasons this was done: to give more prominence to enemy sprites during fights in mimicry of RPG fight screens, to greatly simplify the bullet patterns used in the game by allowing Toby Fox to focus on the miniscule patch to which the player is confined, or maybe because a larger usable area would have infringed on speech bubbles and other elements Fox wanted to include in fight scenes. (It does change in size and shape for some fights, but is still postage stamp-sized for the great majority of the game, so I think my example screenshot is fairly representative.) Whatever the reason, it creates a sharp visual distinction with Crimzon Clover, in which the screen’s entire vertical space is available to the player. The sides are letterboxed, creating a funneling effect while still giving players room to maneuver. Just as importantly, the larger navigable area means that elaborate bullet patterns can be used and that, as seen in the screenshot above, the area available to the player can be pared down as needed to change the dynamics of a fight; in this case, the player is forced to the center of the screen, where they’re unable to freely attack the enemies behind and to the sides.

I’ll get this out here now: the gameplay in Undertale generally bores me. In getting the neutral and pacifist endings, I died to one boss, and that was before I equipped any armor. I don’t think it’s even possible to lose to the final bosses of either of those routes. The SHMUP elements of Undertale are about as sophisticated and challenging as the platforming in Fez, with only fractionally more imposing penalties for failure. For even a middling SHMUP player like me, the gameplay in Undertale doesn’t have much to offer outside of the “genocide” route, which has problems of its own – but more on that in a bit. There are some interesting concepts, like color-coded attacks that have to be dodged by either staying still or moving through, but the way they’re implemented gives the impression of a tutorial that never quite ends. The only movement-based mechanic is that sometimes free movement is taken away from the player, who then has to play the game like a platformer, an idea that’s used well in one boss and hardly at all in the rest of the game. Even then, these creative choices sometimes seem to have forced Fox into a corner; for example, most projectiles in the game are white, which I assume was a deliberate design choice made so as to not confuse players trying to dodge color-coded attacks. It’s a rational decision from a game balance perspective, but it means that most patterns look dull, even without taking into account how sparse the bullet placement typically is. Compare the following Touhou 9.5 screenshot to the Undertale battle screen above:

Touhou
(Again, compare the playing field to Undertale’s.)

That isn’t a cherry-picked secret extra boss on the highest difficulty or anything like that, either. It’s just an unremarkable mid-game boss. And in case anyone thinks I’m pulling some sleight of hand by comparing it to Undertale’s tutorial boss, I invite anyone reading this to stop, go watch a couple Undertale boss fights (try Undyne or Mettaton for a couple of the more mechanically complex encounters in the game) and then look at that Touhou screenshot again. Undertale’s bosses are devoid of color and visual flair in general. This can’t even be excused under the general pretense of Undertale being retro. It isn’t. It’s the variety of Hong Kong bootleg retro (retraux, let’s call it) that indie gaming enthusiasts can’t seem to get enough of, which is to say it lacks the artistry and overall creative vision of classic sprite-based games like MegaMan, Sonic, Metal Slug, or Undertale’s own primary inspiration, Earthbound. Those games look better despite their creators operating within vastly more restrictive technical limitations than Toby Fox. And lest anyone think “but it’s the best he could do, he didn’t have a big team or a lot of money to make the game!” remember that Undertale’s visuals still don’t stack up against many indie titles – say, for example, Cave Story, which was made by one man without the benefit of any Kickstarter funding, and was released for free, to boot.

The RPG elements are similarly cursory. Players can count on finding one new armor and weapon for free in each area, and each is a straight upgrade over the previous one. The overworld is composed of a series of narrow hallways with a handful of branches leading to dead ends. It works well enough if the player goes straight forward from event to event, but backtracking makes the world feel empty and oddly static, like walking backstage after a play. It’s possible to flee from Undyne across multiple screens, walk up to the final showdown with her, and just walk off-screen. Go back to the starting town if you want, she’ll be standing on that mountain, waiting. Undertale is a linear game, and Fox’s attention to detail only serves to cover up so much of that. The turn-based nature of fights further trivializes the SHMUP elements by allowing the player to focus completely on dodging instead of also having to maneuver to attack enemies. Inventory size is 8 by default, and while this cuts down on tedious menu navigation, there’s also a corresponding lack of item diversity. The whole game is streamlined to the point that a full playthrough will take 3-4 hours, which is fine if repeat playthroughs are worth it. Bringing me to the game’s central conceit: mercy.

One of the selling points of Undertale is that it’s possible to resolve every fight non-violently. By trying different options in an Act menu instead of attacking, players can convince enemies to leave peacefully, and therefore pacifistic players never accrue experience. It would be a good idea for adding challenge: killing enemies is incentivized by gameplay rewards, but the best ending is unobtainable to players who don’t spare their foes; additionally, merciful players would have to spend time figuring out how to spare a boss, while combat would be the direct, easy way out. In practice, the pacifistic route is the easy one. Peaceful players have access to the best armor, and genocidal ones have to face harder bosses, so in practice there is no incentive to kill enemies other than to see a different ending. Killing just a few opponents gives the player enough HP to survive anything while only forfeiting the best ending, since the majority of the game is balanced around Level 1, a level found trivially easy. So why not get in touch with my inner Hitler and show no mercy? Because the genocide route is deliberately tedious, requiring the player depopulate every area and kill every boss. It’s supposed to be a meta-commentary on grinding, but a game designed to not be fun still isn’t fun.

Therein lies one of the biggest problems in criticizing Undertale, though: it invites accusations of not getting it. It just isn’t possible that someone could fail to be charmed by the characters, could actually understand the story or premise and still dislike it. Well, I see what Toby Fox was going for and I don’t think it’s especially clever. The genocide route is a commentary about people who play games to make numbers go up, without any regard for the story or world or characters the game is trying to present. Completing the genocide route permanently alters the player’s save file so that even completing the pacifist route afterward only results in a bad ending. This punishes people who want to experience the full story (and there is a fair bit of story in the genocide route that lends context to the other routes), but does nothing to bother the kind of player it’s supposed to chastise. It also leaves me wondering what the intended reaction is: does Fox expect people to not want to see his work, or does he think that inaccessibility equates to intelligence? After all, he put hidden messages in the game’s files telling off data miners, saying things such as, “your impatience has REALLY damaged you, hasn’t it?” It feels like Fox is asking a loaded question, and the more players poke around for more information, the more he alters the scales to lean toward his preferred option.

If I were a game developer, I don’t think I’d tell off my customers as emotionally stunted and irresponsible for wanting to see what I made (and they bought). I wouldn’t be able to congratulate myself for the cleverness of my carefully crafted meta-narrative, but on the other hand, I’m not sure how bad I could expect someone to feel for reading something I myself wrote, sprited, coded, and sold for profit. In that scenario, maybe sole responsibility doesn’t rest with the consumer, who only possesses the agency the game grants them. But then, venomous messages directed at players is a running theme in Fox’s work, showing up prominently in the Halloween Hack (his initial claim to fame, before he worked on Homestuck), in which Dr. Andonuts addresses the player with an angry rant, capped off with “tl;dr: eat shit, faggots” for attacking him. The concept of the player as a malevolent entity who has to be punished for unjustly exercising their power over the game world is one that I think appeals to Fox, and is possibly the most important theme in Undertale; after the player obtains the best ending, opening the game defaults to a speech imploring them to leave the characters alone and not intrude on their happy ending. Toby Fox is trying to guilt-trip people into not playing his game. Naturally, the player has to reset the story to the beginning to continue playing because that’s how Fox made it: when playing a game, people have to choose from a carefully curated list of options, and he chose not to allow some kind of scene selection or New Game+ option in Undertale. This is a salient problem for games in general: because games are not passive entertainment like films, players expect to be in control and are easily frustrated when they feel it’s been taken away. Making a statement about player choice requires that players feel they have made a choice, that the scenario presented to them is valid, and this runs into rough ground in games like Spec Ops: The Line, when the illusion of freedom of action dissipates so the writers can railroad the player into doing what’s required for the story to progress. Just as the “proper” solution to Spec Ops’ conundrum is to turn the game off and leave, the key to a happy ending in Undertale is to beat it and then never play again.

As an aside, Undertale falls into the same trap as most games that have moral choices/systems as a selling point: nothing special happens in a neutral ending. To get extra boss fights requires sticking to either extreme and being either Mr. Rogers or Pol Pot. Otherwise, all that changes is a few concluding lines of dialog. Playing an evil character already isn’t satisfying, and being a nice guy in a neutral playthrough results in a message pushing the player toward a pacifist playthrough. In a way it’s unfortunate, because the end of the genocide route is where the writing and gameplay come together to effectively deliver a message. Just as the player showed no mercy throughout the playthrough, the final boss shows no mercy, circumventing normal gameplay mechanics to create a no-holds-barred brawl in which invincibility frames don’t exist and trying to ue the Mercy option results in swift death. It’s a perfect way of using game mechanics to drive home the idea that the player’s cruelty is being reciprocated, and is definitely more satisfying than having to wait on a blank screen for ten minutes before being able to access a save file after beating the game. If the rest of the game synthesized story and gameplay as effectively as the Sans fight, with a similarly appropriate level of challenge, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with Undertale.

And maybe I’d be inclined to be more forgiving, but I wasn’t as charmed by the characters as the game’s fans are. I couldn’t help but notice a divide between how the characters are treated and what’s expected of the player. Killing even one monster, even in self-defense, locks the player out of the best ending. The monsters the player can befriend, on the other hand, are responsible for:

1. Kidnapping children
2. Murdering children
3. Attempting to murder the player character
4. Turning their own kind into shoggoths
5. Trying to destroy the world
6. Inventing snail pie

The only characters who express remorse for any of this are the two most pathetic ones, one of whom is suicidally depressed anyway. The player is expected to forgive and forget no matter what. Fine, if Fox wants to deliver a pseudo-Christian message about turning the other cheek, then I’m willing to see where it goes. However, there is one character who breaks the message by being pure evil, and who can’t be redeemed no matter what. Farcically, said character is a rosy-cheeked happy child. I find it hard to see a little kid as a world-destroying force of ultimate evil, especially when the culmination of the player’s interaction with this character is a cheap jump-scare.

sans

Is it just me? Am I crazy? Am I the only one who sees it?

Undertale loves its references. There are so many that I’m honestly not sure what’s deliberate homage and what’s coincidental. Papyrus wearing a Starman’s chest emblem is an obvious Earthbound shoutout, but take the screenshot above. Sans and Ballos are both optional, hidden final bosses that are widely considered the hardest enemy in their respective games. Each is a bald, grinning, barrel-bodied man with magical heterochromia. Each character opens his boss battle with a similar arm gesture. Both use attacks that damage the player with bones. The final phase of the Ballos fight has a skull motif. Both were originally kind-hearted until torture drove them to desperation and revenge. There are notable parallels, but I won’t say Sans is a ripoff of Ballos. There are differences, and for all I know I’m just seeing what I want to. Maybe W. D. Gaster isn’t an intentional reference to Uboa from Yume Nikki. Maybe Tsunderplane’s bonnet isn’t a Touhou reference. The protagonist shouting ORA in a fight may or may not be a reference to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Mettaton’s opera- actually, yeah, that one’s a blatant Final Fantasy VI reference. I could go on, but the point is that there are a lot of little things that individually don’t mean anything, but taken together become distracting. In the course of playing Undertale, I was constantly reminded of things I’d rather be watching or playing. Fox even uses a Touhou sound font (or an extremely close approximation) for parts of the soundtrack.

I wouldn’t mind the references that much if he weren’t so insufferable about people noticing them. In response to people comparing his music to Touhou’s, Fox made a Tumblr post in which he improvised his own imitation Touhou music, with running commentary about how all Touhou music sounds the same and is too Japanese, and taking potshots at the games’ writing along the way. It’s delightfully ironic considering how liberally he borrowed from the games both for bullet patterns and musical themes (compare the Asriel battle to the Marisa fight in Imperishable Night for the gameplay similarities; and to hear how Touhou informed Undertale’s musical style, I suggest listening to Battle Against a True Hero, then checking out Plain Asia, Suwa Forgotten Field, Wind God Girl, or, hell, just about any randomly selected Touhou theme), and his snide dismissal of his own influences really comes across as unconvincing posturing. There’s always the possibility that he’s just being coy, in which case I just don’t get the next-level humor of imitating Touhou in response to people claiming he imitates Touhou. Yes, and…? What’s the point?

I had fun with parts of Undertale. Individual aspects of it are well-designed. But as a complete package, I’m not particularly impressed. This isn’t “best game ever” material; it isn’t even Top 20 caliber. It’s riddled with half-realized ideas and writing that alternates between self-importance and attempts to turn up the wacky charm (I hope you like cringe humor, because that’s Fox’s go-to for establishing that a character is supposed to be likeable). Its status as a first effort – discounting the Halloween Hack, based on Earthbound assets as it was – shows. I can see Toby Fox making something really impressive down the road, if he has a larger team to temper some of his idiosyncrasies as a content creator. Undertale is definitely better than the Halloween Hack and I’d like to think he isn’t finished improving. Contrary to the impression I may have given in these columns, I actually like playing good games and want to see more of them released.

The music is outstanding, though. The only complaint I have on that front is that there are leitmotifs in every track that are recycled throughout the soundtrack. It strikes me as somewhat gratuitous and diminishes the impact of important musical callbacks like Asriel’s theme echoing Flowey’s. Still, the music is good and I would absolutely like to see Toby Fox working on more games as a composer.

Now go play Cave Story.