Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. As with last year, we're running a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.
Undertale was my favorite game released in 2015 and, despite my best efforts and effusive recommendations to the rest of the staff, it failed to make our top 10 — heartbreakingly, it clocked in at #12. If I could chalk it up to a single reason, it would be that I work almost exclusively with no-taste clowns who love bad things.
If afforded a second reason, it would be this: Undertale is an easy game to assume you already know.
I was about two months late on the Undertale train for that very reason. After watching a single trailer, I filed it under the "Ironic Humor-Driven Turn-Based Indie RPG" folder in my brain, which made it difficult to compete with the folders labeled "Infinite Super Mario Levels Forever" and "Hey, Let's Do a Third Bloodborne Run Sometime This Year." It was only while stocking up for an international flight that I give Undertale a shot, despite the fact that I had already decided out of hand that I knew everything about it.
An hour in, I was pretty sure I knew some things about it.
Two hours in, I was mystified and head-over-heels.
The Quiet Moral Code
Undertale is a game in which you do not have to kill anything or anyone to reach its conclusion. It isn't, of course, the first game to allow that practice, but it is unique in how it nudges you in a nonviolent direction.
The first character you meet in Undertale provides a series of tutorials on how to survive in the subterranean, monster-filled labyrinth in which you've landed. In those instructions, you're never taught how to attack enemies — only how to pacify them until you can end a battle by showing mercy. Every enemy in the game has quirks, insecurities and other personality traits that you can try to diagnose and remedy nonviolently.
Undertale wants you to consider the implications of killing monsters in games
That idea bakes charm into every random encounter in the game, start to finish, and gives each creature you meet throughout the game an immense amount of character, regardless of the circumstances under which you meet them. There's virtually no distinction: In Undertale, enemies are just as much capital-C "Characters" as townspeople, shopkeepers and friends. That lack of dividing lines is my favorite thing about Undertale, and based on conversations I've had with folks with whom the game did not click, it is also very, very easy to miss.
Undertale wants you to consider the implications of killing monsters in games, but it doesn't beat you over the head with demands for peace. It's a subtle directive, and one that gets lost in the shuffle the instant you decide to play Undertale like any other game.
There's a breaking point early on — slight spoiler, here — where a former friend becomes a boss fight with seemingly no peaceful end. Attempting non-violent solutions appears to have no effect. Each attempt to talk or show mercy is met with a challenge to fight, to prove your strength. It's only by exhausting that boss by showing them mercy 26 times that can you find a peaceful resolution. The game, using this boss as proxy, asks that you play it like any other game, where you beat the first boss in order to move on. The pacifist solution only comes by believing in the game's first lesson — Be Nice — and trusting that there will always be a peaceful option, even when it's buried under 26 rounds of combat.
I can't imagine how many people killed that boss after a dozen or so rounds of fruitless negotiations. And once you do that, just once, the spell is broken — Undertale's just a game where you can decide to spare monsters sometimes, at your whim, if you want a good joke, or whatever. You miss what Undertale truly is: A game about recklessly believing in the nonviolent approach, even when — especially when — violence is the only obvious option.
It's subversive, and brilliant, and if the game beat you over the head with big glowing signs that said "DON'T KILL ANYTHING NO MATTER WHAT," it would be neither of those things. Sure, if you play by relying on convention, you miss the point; but you have to be able to miss the point for that point to mean anything at all.
There are just a few mechanical repercussions for the actions that you take in Undertale. For starters, the gulf between the stories that get told in a peaceful run and its hyperviolent counterpart is enormous. Sequences in one simply don't appear in the other, probably because you unthinkingly killed someone you could have befriended, or vice versa. In that sense, it has a lot of traditional "replay value," though even that concept isn't without caveats. (Without spoiling too much, let's just say Undertale has a way of remembering your actions, good and bad alike, with alarming persistence.)
There are moments of uplifting, memorable narrative highs on the good path and unimaginably dark lows on the bad — content you have to tailor your actions in a given playthrough if you want to see. It's the only thing resembling a mechanical karmic measurement in the game: Be good to see the good ending, be evil to see the evil ending. That's a familiar concept to anyone who's ever played a game dealing with moral choices, though Undertale's metric is punishingly absolute; if you stray from the path of good or evil just once, you end up with a far less satisfying (or far less horrifying) neutral ending.
I really, genuinely liked the characters of Undertale. I liked the world, and I didn't want to do anything to hurt it.
Where Undertale's take on morality succeeds is not how it rewards your decisions, but in how it makes you feel while you're making those decisions. During my first playthrough, I started to panic about how underleveled my pacifist tendencies were leaving me — without killing enemies, I wasn't accruing EXP, which I worried would make the game much more difficult in the long run. (I was right in that regard — surviving enemy attacks in Undertale requires you to partake in increasingly difficult bullet hell minigames for each foe, and without the extra health that comes with leveling up, I died a bunch on my kill-free playthrough.)
But I stuck with it, and the reason why I stuck with it is important. I found myself endeavoring to save the characters of Undertale not for mechanical reasons; I wasn't just grinding my way to the ending or content I wanted to see. Rather, my efforts were purely emotional: I really, genuinely liked the characters of Undertale. I liked the world, and I didn't want to do anything to hurt it.
Undertale is engineered to elicit that emotional resonance, and I don't mean that in a bad way. The game is constantly endearing itself to you. It possesses a density of humor that absolutely shouldn't work, with nearly every signpost, every tooltip and every bit of dialogue containing something funny. Even if every joke didn't land (nearly all of them do), the pacing should be exhausting (it isn't).
The game's characters aren't just funny, they're also incredibly vulnerable at times. You spend a lot of time getting to know what makes them tick and befriending them — you can even engage in short-form, parodical dating simulations with some of them. I felt affection for all of them, and that affection (that real affection!) is what guided my moral compass through the game, resulting in my most memorable gaming experience of the year.
This moment scared the shit out of me.
Old habits die hard, though. I had loved what I'd seen in Undertale, and made the decision to see its inverse moral route, if only to experience everything this game I enjoyed had to offer. My decisions in this run weren't based on real emotions — thank God, because that would make me a sociopath — but on a mechanical decision to get to the content I wanted to get to. I felt genuinely terrible throughout the run, slaughtering enemies and characters I liked, but my guilt was overridden by my ingrained completionist desires.
And then, at the end of that murderous run, that very behavior was diagnosed by a former in-game friend. My desire to get the evil ending wasn't because I wanted to be evil, but because the content was there. In their own words, my actions were "not out of any desire for good or evil ... but just because you think you can. And because you 'can' ... you 'have to.'"
This moment scared the shit out of me.
Every aspect of the game invites you to consider its inhabitants, for all intents and purposes, as real. They're well-written and relatable, but moreover, their memory extends beyond the span of a single play session. Undertale strips away the safety net of a clean reset, giving every one of your actions the specter of permanence. Undertale makes you care about its characters, and then makes you treat the actions that affect them with real, honest-to-God weight. It forms an actual, tangible connection with its players — it's no wonder the game's fanbase is so immensely passionate.
I've seen Undertale called "emotionally manipulative" because of this practice; because it makes you care about video game characters and then makes you feel bad for making the conscious decision to hurt them. The fact that this is by and large a novel concept is why Undertale is a game worth talking about.