Games. Culture.

Undertale Feels Like One Big Meme

Despite the Neutral Route being a middle of the ways path, it feels like a bunch of nothing.

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I’m feeling a bit shady today, if y’know what I mean. Believe it or not, it has next to nothing to do with that Eminem stuff from a while ago. I’m just in the mood to talk about everyone’s favorite game, Undertale. That’s right, I’m about two bosses away from the completion of my first playthrough of the 2015 surprise hit and thought I could share some of my experience. Though I’ve enjoyed the majority of my ride, I can’t help but feel dissatisfied with the promise of Undertale versus it’s execution. So far.

I think it important to note that these are impressions of a Neutral run of Undertale, with a bias towards Pacifism. Aside from a few early monsters, I’ve played the game 95% of the way as a Pacifist. Also, spoilers.

When I talk about the promise, I mean the fact that combat can either play out or not. Undertale became a hit because of the players ability to either traditionally fight and kill everything in their path or talk their way out of an encounter. You hit your foe and then navigate a tiny heart through obstacles they throw at you in defense or if you embrace pacifism, you just navigate the obstacles. Undertale presents it’s world as one filled with humans and monsters, but instead of resting on the base principle of conflict, it instead asks you to be empathetic to the plight of the monsters surrounding you. See, they are trapped down in their world, and you are the key to their freedom. It’s not that they want to harm you, but contact with your kind before has never been any different so why should it be now? After all, “Violence begets violence.”

It’s a shame then that the game presents it’s non-violence as such an immense workaround, it can’t even be enjoyable in game form. Immense is probably an exaggeration but it’s the lack of content and the execution that leaves me wanting. Remember when I said all that shit about how you should “be empathetic to the plight of the monsters?” Yeah, it’s not really how it works. If you come across a little volcano, you excite them to the point of theoretical eruption and spare them. A huge knight tries to fight you and you sing a song to put them to sleep. It’s all really nonsensical and funny but devoid of any “empathy” or meaning. The game really only wants you to empathize with the big players.

Let’s take the first major boss fight for example. Toriel, your guardian through the introductory portion of the game, attempts to bar your progress outside of the Ruins, her home. She claims that out of love, not spite, is she standing in your way. With no clear second exit, it becomes very clear that you must confront your monster adoptive mother. It’s a pretty straight-forward fight, just lay into her a bit and she’ll drop. Then she’s dead forever and you can live with that guilt as you continue your trek through the world of monsters. Or you can try to “spare” her, which is the way to end a battle non-violently and without fleeing. Then try again. And again. And roughly twenty-one more times. Yes, the key to Toriels fight isn’t to slay her or even to necessarily cleverly talk your way out of it: it’s to spam a command a slightly ridiculous amount of times, without any clear knowledge, until the game deems it appropriate to excuse you from the fight. Writing for KillScreen and speaking on the same encounter, Julie Muncy states,

“There is, of course, a way to do this without killing Toriel, but it’s incredibly counterintuitive… I tried to talk to Toriel: nothing happened. So I read the situation the game laid before me. The only efficacious option was to fight. So I did. I killed Toriel. I don’t think Undertale approved.”

When backed into a corner, she found that the easy and only way to beat Toriel was to get through her. Of course she would think that though, because the win condition she was striving for wasn’t impossible, just impossibly stupid to attain. Instead of employing empathy, the game asks you to abide by it’s warped, in-game definition of it which slightly ruins an otherwise sad, tone setting encounter. This is all central to the core issue I have with the game: it’s all a big internet meme. Attempting to understand Undertale, at the very least it’s Neutral route, is like staring into the void. Sure the writing is very self referential, the game itself employs meta-narrative elements and above all it’s characters and scenarios are wildly funny, but at the end of it all, it means next to nothing. It’s a product that would value shock or incoherence masked as humor more than it values giving a message. When I found out that the win condition to spare Toriel was exactly twenty four spares, I thought to myself, with the same disdain I hold for any explanation of the absurd, “Of course, it is.”

I’m about an hour from finishing my playthrough of the game and have felt like it’s been nothing but a long joke. At one point a dog pokes out of a pile of snow and I meet it with the typical “aww” that any sane person would. Then he reveals himself to being a giant dog knight because why the hell not and of course you play with him until he tires out and the encounter is done. Then the game moves on to the next absurd point. Just like the internet meme culture it was born out of, a thing is presented for laughs before it’s quickly shooed off stage in order to shine a light on the next absurd thing. Both lack context, and both are supposed to be and are funny, but when taken as a whole, it all feels empty. That was all there was to that encounter and it’s the exact same way with most others which indicates a sameness to this run that doesn’t feel like it’s letting up.

My disdain with the game probably would not be as severe as it is if I didn’t know what Undertale is. The founder of this site hails it as one of his all time favorites, many of the people I interact with regularly love it, and it became the darling child of the internet when it released two years ago. This acclaim and fervor led to many a conversation about Undertale, which has informally informed me about much of the basic premise of the game. I know of the depths it can go to, which juxtaposed with my current playthrough tells me that I just “picked” wrong. It’s not that the game can’t be funny, which it is incredibly, but I was hoping there’d be some heart as well. Now I know I was a fool.

Apparently the two other possible playthroughs, Genocide and Pacifist, hold a lot more in them and it just makes this one feel like a waste of time in retrospect. This refusal to really be anything firm just robbed me of any excitement for subsequent playthroughs. Now as a consequence, I’ve effectively wasted hours just to have to play the “real” way(s). My only hope now is that I won’t play those other routes and be as disappointed as I’ve found myself now.

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