As it is important in life to indulge in things that bring you joy, I decided that I would begin also writing blog posts where I talk about some of my favorite video games.
Anyone who knows me knows that video games are a big part of my life. I have called them not just a hobby, but one of my life’s passions in the past, and I believe that still holds true today. Even though I am changing more and more every day, there are still some aspects of the me of yesterday that bring me joy that I can still look fondly to, and good video games are one of them.
As an important side note: I will endeavor to keep this and future such posts free from spoilers for their content. I would not want to rob you of the joy and mystery that accompanies the experience of the game for yourself. There are plenty of other websites out there that will give you every last detail of a game’s content if that’s what you are looking for.
So, with those explanations out of the way, today I’ll start my first such post by talking a bit about the game Undertale. If any of you reading this are familiar with video games, you’ve probably at least heard this name tossed around the internet in recent years, and for good reason too. It is a very popular and successful “indie game”.
But why? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
Here you can see the game’s launch trailer if you are curious to learn more about it.
Now in my opinion, even that trailer only gives you a small glimpse of the charm and humor that the game contains. It’s not really enough on its own to get across the magnitude of just what makes Undertale a standout title and good game.
I think if I had to sum it up in a single concept it would be this:
Undertale invites players to empathize, and does so with a smile.
What the heck is that supposed to mean in the context of a video game? Well… allow me to explain my thoughts.
It makes you smile, or even laugh.
First up is the game’s humor. The dialog in the game often puts a smile on my face. Sometimes it is very quirky and unexpected, and that only adds to the game’s charm.
The characters you meet along the journey are a big part of it too. Each of them really does have a personality of their own that is expressed quite well, and it is through the characters you encounter as you are playing that the game’s story is driven. You feel like you really get to know them during the adventure.
Some of them are comical, others are a bit mysterious, some are all business. It is the mix of these personalities and the humorous dialog and scenarios that really gets people interested and engaged and wanting to see what else happens in the game. But that’s not the only ace Undertale is hiding up its sleeves.
It challenges convention.
Another very strong theme throughout the game is challenging convention. While it’s true that Undertale has a lot of aspects to it that are what you would call conventional game elements for a Role-Playing Game (RPG), it also takes a lot of conventions and tosses them out the window, or spins them on their heads. This is done throughout the entire experience with purpose and sometimes in very subtle ways, but also in very noticeable ones too.
For example let’s take a look at this image from the game.
This is a screenshot from an early part in the game, and it shows the character that the player controls at a “Save Point” which is something that is familiar to all RPG fans, allowing the player to record their progress in the game and resume play from this point.
And yet even here in something as simple and commonplace as a save point, Undertale shows its uniqueness. Not only does the game describe an action taken by the character to the player, it explains the character’s feelings as well. This is highly unorthodox for an interaction with a save point, but it’s the things like this which subtly add depth to the experience.
Here is another example image, this time a very obvious departure from convention, and it illustrates one of Undertale’s strongest standout features.
This is an image of the game’s encounter screen.
Traditionally in an RPG the player would be tasked with fighting monsters, creatures, people, ghosts, machines, and all manner of things you could imagine in order to progress through the game and experience the story and the various features it has to offer. You’ll notice the first icon on the bottom left menu says “Fight” and in this way Undertale retains that classic RPG aspect we have all come to expect and take for granted as “just the way things are done” in the genre. And yet here again Undertale really shines because it simultaneously breaks this convention by including the “Act” option.
Undertale touts itself as “The RPG game where you don’t have to destroy anyone.” Now, if you think about it, this in and of itself is very novel. As I mentioned before, the convention has always been that there are battles in an RPG, that you are expected to fight an opposing force.
While not all RPGs depict gruesome deaths upon defeating these enemies, and some RPGs have even gone out of their way to ensure the player that the enemies are simply knocked unconscious rather than killed, it is generally understood that the player fights the enemy using their party of characters, the enemies are defeated, and then new stronger enemies appear in your path, so on and so forth.
With Undertale’s “Act” menu, all of that convention is challenged. It essentially offers players a way to progress through the encounters with the game’s monsters in a non-violent way, if the player so chooses. In the image above for example the choices the player can utilize in the Act menu are shown to be “Check”, “Criticize”, “Encourage”, and “Hug”.
These options change in the game depending on the monster that you encounter, and each one has a unique set of interactions and often humorous dialog to go along with it. You can see an example of the dialog that goes along with one such encounter in the image below, where the player faces a pair of monsters that are prone to wiggling.
It’s important that the game gives players a choice too, because those who wish to play the game more like a traditional RPG are able to do so without necessarily being forced into playing it in a way that is foreign or unconventional. In other words it accommodates both traditional and revolutionary gameplay styles. And not only that, but the game was designed around these options in different ways, which you especially will see in the encounters with monsters. Choosing the “Fight” option gives you a different set of gameplay mechanics to work with than when you choose the “Act” option, and in this way the game offers a lot of variety in the overall experience.
It has an excellent soundtrack.
The game’s music score is another strong point and definitely adds a noteworthy element of cohesion to the experience. I will admit to being ignorant to much of the music world, but to my untrained ears the soundtrack is quite fantastic, harkening back to the earlier years of gaming. It offers up a variety of tones and moods that are fitting to the scenes of the game itself, and in my opinion they are catchy and memorable enough to enjoy all on their own. As I understand it, there is a concept called leitmotif that is at work on much of the game’s soundtrack, which in practical terms boils down to having parts of key songs on the soundtrack repeated in subsequent songs, such as parts of the main theme being repeated elsewhere in later songs during climactic moments for example. I believe use of this particular concept is part of what allows the score to be so memorable to the player throughout the adventure.
It is a rare class of RPG, offering meaningful non-violence.
I could go on and on about why this game brings me joy, even further than I already have with this article. But to sum things up, I think the real charm that Undertale offers truly lies in the way that it dares to be different. It brought the gaming world a completely non-violent way to progress through an RPG, a genre so often associated with and defined by its battles, and it also offers player choices that have meaningful impact on the events in the game.
Undertale takes a look at the conventions of the genre and shows the world another way it can be done with a little outside-of-the-box thinking applied. It even pokes fun at itself sometimes, with plenty of humor and interesting characters, plot twists and a great sense of mystery about it. It allows the player to empathize and sympathize with the characters and events in the story, and if you choose to do otherwise, it accommodates that approach too. It helps us all think and reflect a little bit more than we normally might during this particular activity, and I believe that’s of the utmost importance even during times of entertainment.
Undertale is full of imagination, clever design, humorous characters, and meaningful choices. It is a well-crafted and fun game to play that makes you think a little bit about challenging conventions.