Undertale - Critique

Author: Erwan Lafleuriel
Date: 2020-03-02 20:08:44
Translated from the English by IGN France. Watch out for a few small spoilers.

I finished my first part of Undertale in heavy silence. My journey started with silly puns and somewhat simplistic puzzles, but the end affected me in a way I never imagined. This is also a bit of a specialty of Undertale: playing with our expectations of what an RPG should be, perverting them, and using them to lead a unique story in video games. Its convincing writing, the integration of the gameplay with the story, and a fine understanding of its audience make it something surprising from start to finish.

Embodying a lonely human fallen in an underground world which serves as a prison for monsters, my journey was all mapped out, like for most of the protagonists of RPG. For my first part, I took a pacifist approach, being as kind and lenient as possible, while trying to find a way to the surface.

But I made a mistake: I accidentally killed a monster at first. So I started again without saving, as I would have done in another game. Except that ... things happened differently this time. The dialogues have changed to reflect the fact that I saw him die. So Flowey, the chaotic evil of Undertale, the flower that breaks the fourth wall by addressing the player directly, berated me for having dared to abuse the power of backup.

Playing with the system

Undertale assumed that I had already played an RPG before, and used these conventions unexpectedly. This first reprimand from Flowey shaped the rest of my experience. I learned that I couldn't rely on going backwards, so I had to move carefully. Everything I did counted. This intelligent manipulation of the gameplay added weight to a story that could not have been told in another way or in another context. Undertale had to be a game, and that's the key to his genius.

His dodge mini-games are based on this concept. The battles against the bosses also turned my expectations upside down, even after having understood how the game works. Even the basic encounters are closely mixed with the narration and the construction of the universe. Each enemy has a unique personality, transcribed as much in combat as out of combat. During my pacifist journey, I ended up talking to a lot of monsters, offering hugs, and even (and above all) flirting with some to avoid killing them. For example, in order to spare a monster who wanted to be seduced without wanting to admit it, I had to be close, without being too much. This option completely changed the combat rules: I narrowly avoided the projectiles until the monster was so embarrassed that it stopped fighting by itself.

There are tons of jokes that speak to Internet enthusiasts, and I have often had the impression that Undertale was speaking directly to me, as if he knew what I was thinking. The "selfie" of a character in love with anime, for example, is actually the photo of a trash can with pink stars all around (and from experience, it's very realistic). I particularly liked the humor of Undertale when he had a message to convey, however subtle it was. I took part in a snail race (called Thundersnail), and I had to press Z repeatedly to encourage it. I spammed Z until my snail caught fire, and the race organizer told me that "all this pressure really set him on fire." This joke, like some of Undertale's exceptional jokes, allows us to identify with it. And knowing and predicting your audience is one of Undertale's greatest strengths.

Monsters are people too

Undertale's writing is endlessly funny, but it can also be touching. Small, half-hidden notes and dialogues enrich the universe and reinforce an undeniably human and moral history. One of my favorite passages was the meeting with a series of "Fleur Echos", in a superb ethereal celestial hall where they repeated snatches of an old conversation (hence their name). A monster did not want to share his greatest wish: that of one day being able to climb the mountain which traps all the monsters underground and to admire the world. She didn't want to reveal it for fear of being laughed at, and although her friend promised she would not make fun of her, she ended up laughing. It was a little silly, until the last flower repeated: "Sorry, it's so funny ... it's also my wish".

Knowing the monsters' hopes and dreams in detail is crucial in exploring morality, individuality, and conflict in Undertale. The different monsters talk about each other even in your presence, so that once I had met them, I could get an idea of who they really were in relation to their reputation. Most of the main characters are also very well developed with rich personalities, throughout the dialogues and choices of the story. It made it difficult for me when I had to find the strength to attack them, and that is precisely the goal. When I was trying to play a more violent game, fighting the monsters I had previously been friendly with made the message from Undertale on humanity even more scathing.

Determination

Some fights can be frustrating or even painful, at least at first. During an aggressive run, I had to repeat many fights to obtain certain prerequisites of the history, and that tires me after a while. Fighting enemy after enemy, however, replaced the puzzles of my peaceful part, and the exchange gave me the impression of being very balanced and ultimately significant in the scenario. I also found myself having to painfully cross again some areas that I had already cleaned, just to be able to beat a boss or get an object, and although it was totally worth it, it was not fun either. At one point, I found myself without gold when I needed to buy care items, and the only store that would have agreed to buy my inventory was ten minutes walk (the other merchants do not buy objects because they don't want your dirt).

That said, I don't regret any of these moments because they allowed me to discover things like the Thundersnail race and the Echo Flowers. It's these little details that make Undertale so special, and I wanted to see them all. Each of them gives the impression of being thought through. There are long dialogs at the start and some fights may seem slow, but they are necessary in order to present the characters in a unique way to the video game. In a different game, very disadvantaged boss fights have become distressing because of what knockouts in one go involve in this universe. It was this permanent and immersive approach to determination in Undertale that made me play and replay again.

While the graphics aren't always pretty - they're often ugly - Undertale is an incredibly expressive game from start to finish, making up for its visual limitations with great music and charming animations. The game is also linked to gender and sexuality in a very real and notable way. The smallest of details reveals an intimate understanding of its audience, and it is essential to make Undertale's comments on the status of the person so effective.