ASIA CHOUDHRY reviews the 2015 video game Undertale.

 I warily approach the sunflower, and as it beams at me I feel at ease. As I click happily through the dialogue, the sunflower tells me that I am in a place where everyone shares ‘LOVE’. It then tells me it will share its LOVE with me, and as I move towards it with a childlike naïveté, I realise that I have been played. The sunflower’s face distorts into a nightmarish vision, and I scream out loud as my newly born character dies before my eyes.

Safe to say, this is one of the best video game opening scenes that I have played (or rather, been played by) in a long time. Initially, I didn’t want to play Undertale: despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews, I was put off by its retro aesthetic, and by the fact that one of the main aspects of the gameplay is a turn-based ‘bullet hell’. Essentially, you and the computer take it in turns to choose actions during combat, and if you or the monster decide to fight, this activates an onslaught of bullets which you must avoid. Yet as soon as I was duped by a chaotic, evil sunflower, I began to fall in love with this game.

Undertale was released in 2015, but I heard about it only recently through the December 2020 edition of Edge, a video game magazine. Edge was analysing the games that defined the last generation, and Undertale was named. I have always been a huge video game fan, but since Covid-19, my appetite for escapism has skyrocketed, as it has for many of us. The game felt like a perfect cure: we play as a human child who falls through a magical barrier out of our own world into one of magic and monsters. Our aim is to escape this underworld, and we are led through a series of realms in which there are puzzles to solve and different characters to meet. I couldn’t imagine a better escape!

Bullet hell combat in Undertale. Image source: Wikipedia

The first thing that grabbed me was the soundtrack. From the opening menu onwards, I was stunned by how the music was so naturally entwined with each stage of the game. I felt uplifted and motivated by the track Ruins, I was comforted by Home, and I felt positively chilly listening to Snowy. I was shocked by the music’s power to move me, both emotionally and physically: listen to sans. if you want to dance, or Fallen Down if you want to feel nostalgic. One of the first things I did after playing the game was to save the soundtrack on Spotify.

Another engaging aspect of the game is its characters. Within seconds I was attached to the child I was controlling, often making them waddle around the screen just to watch them move. This is one of the first video games I have encountered with a genderless protagonist. As a woman I often find myself playing as a man, and this adds a layer of obscurity to any connection I can make with the character. The accessibility of the main character is therefore an attractive aspect of the game; anyone can play it, and anyone can feel like they are being represented on the screen.

Everything about the game feels so personal, and I felt a similar love for the monsters in the game. Undertale was mainly created by one man only, Toby Fox, who also composed the soundtrack. His script reaches out through the screen to the player, whether through the affectionate words of Toriel, our maternal guide at the beginning of the game, or the zany jokes of Sans, a skeleton we meet along the way.

sans the skeleton. image source:

Through both its music and characters, the game felt like it was made for me. This feeling intensified after the first boss battle. Initially unaware that the major nuance of Undertale is the sparing of monsters rather than slashing and slaughtering your way through, I chose to do something I instantly began to regret: I killed a monster who had been nothing but kind to me. So, to my intense shame, I quit and went back to my old save file to begin again – and the game knew it. Its commentary on my decision to take back my choice and change the in-game world at whim made a major theme of the game stand out to me. It embodies notions of self-scrutiny, free will and choice. It asks us to make small decisions which resound across the whole game, decisions which make us reconsider how we play and who we are. What makes this all the more outstanding is its subtle, humble, and funny way of doing so. For example, in the early stages of the game, you may choose to donate a small amount of gold to a spider bake sale, to raise money for spiders living in poverty (yes, you read that correctly). You worked hard for this gold, and could spend it on more useful things; the decision rests upon you, to donate or not to donate. Later, you’ll learn that your choice directly affects how easily you can pass later stages of the game. So the game asks you to be generous, to share your gold, and to prioritise helping others. If you choose not to share, then your selfishness comes at a price. 

I am a huge fan of choice-driven role-playing games, but none of them have charmed me as much as Undertale. Detroit: Become Human, for example, is an incredible game; I played it all in twelve hours straight. Yet it is ostentatious in its delivery, overly aware of the lofty themes which play out. Undertale is a delightful change of pace; it imparts its profundity with a lightness of heart that endears us almost immediately, and makes us laugh again and again.

All this personal engagement with the player made me realise, by the end of my first playthrough, that Undertale isn’t as pure a form of escapism as I originally thought. The constant breaking of the fourth wall is a glaring reminder that we are above the game, controlling it, deciding the characters’ fates – something we do daily for ourselves. The last nine months of living in such a changed world have forced me to think about how I live and interact with others; Undertale helped me to cope with and think through this relentless self-reflection, while also helping me escape to another realm. And considering the number of endings that the player can unlock, depending on their in-game choices, I am planning on spending many more hours there. 

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