I’m not gonna lie — Undertale is one of my favorite games of all time. I know that for some of you, that’s gonna be incredibly triggering to hear. But, hear me out before you grab your pitchforks.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Undertale is the most influential game of all time, or objectively, the best game of all time (if you wanna read more about objectivity in video games, check out my blog post on it here).
BUT, you cannot deny how influential Undertale has been.
The game itself not only has such an innovative gameplay system, but also incredibly unique and fun characters.
But, what made the game great was not just the gameplay, or the characters, but it was how Toby Fox manage to mix the two together. On its own, the gameplay was really good, and the story was really good. But, if things ended there, Undertale would have gone down as that: a pretty good game.
But, that’s not how Undertale went down as, now is it? Even six years after it was made, people are still talking about the game. But, why is that the case? What did Undertale do that made it so amazing?
If at this point you aren’t familiar with Undertale’s story (I’d be shocked if you weren’t. I mean, why else would you click on this post?). Let me give you a quick rundown. A long time ago, humans and monsters lived in peace. However, a war broke out between them. The humans won the war, and sent all the monster to live Underground. Here, the humans used a magical spell to seal the entrance to the surface world, permanently trapping the monster in the Underground.
You play as Frisk, a child who after climbing a mountain falls into a hole where they end up in the Underground. Here, Frisk meets different monsters, some friendly, and others who are hostile.
Simple story, right? Well, if it wasn’t simple, the game wouldn’t have left such a massive impact as it had on the Internet.
What made the game great was the massive impact that your actions had on the story. Every decision you made, not only affected the characters, but completely changed the atmosphere of the game. The game reacted violently to your decisions.
I could go into more details about this, but I think it is best if I link a great YouTube video about this by one of my favorite YouTubers. He goes into more details about Undertale’s combat system, and how it completely changed the face of the internet. Check it out here!
What I want to talk about is Undertale’s use of choice. Undertale’s ability to give players choice was nothing new. A lot of games before Undertale did it (Telltale’s Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Heavy Rain), and games after it was released did it (Detroit: Become Human). But, what made Undertale stand out from the rest?
When it comes to a “choose your own adventure” style of gaming, there is some great positives to it — namely, player’s ability to impact the story. But, there are also a lot of drawbacks. The most notable one is, more shallow characters, and linear storytelling.
Here’s what I mean, let’s compare two games: Tellale’s Walking Dead, and Detroit: Become Human. What makes these games so comparable is that while they both offer choices, Telltale’s choice system is incredibly linear, where most choices don’t actually have an effect. On the other hand, Detroit: Become Human’s choices have a radical effect on the story.
Why does this matter?
Well, to put it lightly, the more choices you give a player in this style of storytelling, the more the developer will have to spend on creating new scenes, different storylines, and different ways a character can develop. The problem is, character development sometimes has to take a backseat.
It can be incredibly difficult to have in-depth characters when you have to think of every possible path a character can take. In a sense, you have to stretch a character out as far as you can to take into account every possible decision a player can make.
But, by stretching out a character too thin, there’s no room to make a deep character with many layers.
Let’s look at Detroit: Become Human. The game takes place in the not too distant future, where androids are commonplace all across America. However, there has been recent news of what are called ‘Deviants,’ or androids that developed free will and fought back against their often abusive owners. In most cases, they end up killing their owners.
You play as Connor, a police android whose sole purpose is to investigate these ‘deviants,’ find the cause of how they have free will, and try to stop them from spreading. However, in this game, you can make choices for Connor; whether it be dialogue choices, choices on how to confront a deviant, or some other third option. These choices will have an effect on him. His main two paths are that he can take is that of a mindless android who follows orders, or a deviant who tries to fight back against the oppressive human race. Or, a third option, where Connor just dies.
Ultimately, it is the player who has the final say on Connor’s fate.
But, the problem that this game faces is that there are at least 40 endings minimum. In it of itself, this is not bad (and its so much fun to try to figure out how to reach every ending!) But, with how spread out the storytelling is, it doesn’t leave much room for telling in-depth characters with complicated backstories.
That’s not too say Detroit: Become Human is a bad game at all! Its still a very fun game to play, but I’m merely pointing out a simple flaw that the game has.
However, let’s look at Telltale’s Walking Dead. It has a much simpler story. It takes place during a zombie apocalypse. You play as Lee Everett, an escaped convict who murdered a Senator. He stumbles upon a group of people during the apocalypse. He learns to live with them while also hiding his past behind him.
Just like Detroit: Become Human, you make choices as Lee that have an effect on the story. But, unlike Detroit, Telltale’s game has much deeper characters with deeper backstories. This is because the ‘choices’ that are offered to the player are merely an illusion.
There’s only one ending to the game, and no matter what choice you make, you cannot change that ending.
These choices don’t actually have a long-lasting effect on the story. Any time the story changes because of player choice, it always finds a way to autocorrect itself and go where the developers what it to go. Its easier to tell deeper characters when the developers get to decide what happens to these characters.
But, what makes Undertale so unique? Well, it managed to find a way to combine both ideas: allowing the player to have choice while also telling a deep story with complex characters. Unlike the previous two games, where choices are typically put in front of the player via dialogue options, every choice the player has in Undertale is determined through its combat. Every single time the player kills even a single monster, the story changes.
This ultimately leads a multitude of endings, but the two most prominent are: the genocide route and the pacifist route. As I said before, you will always end up in combat with a monster. But, you can choose to fight and kill them, or try to find a way to befriend them, and ‘spare’ their lives.
The game’s focus on pacifism is so heavy that even in the original trailer for the game, it calls itself: “The friendly RPG where nobody has to die.”
Here is where Undertale gets interesting. Every time you die, every time you reload the game, or every time you reset the game — you are canonically changing the timeline of the game. You aren’t just ‘saving’ your game when you reach a save point- you are saving where you are in the timeline. Without even realizing it, you the player, are having an immediate effect on the story (this matters later on).
But, the interesting aspect of this game is that no matter what path you take in Undertale, the game always finds a way to explore every character. You get to see the multitude of layers with every character you meet. No matter what route you take, they will react differently to your choices, and sometimes, will reveal a little bit more to their backstory (sometimes even a lot).
Take a look at Undyne, the leader of the royal guard. She has a hatred of humans, and seeks to hunt any human that she can find. When you fight her, by choosing to befriend her, you learn about her crush on another character named Alphys. You also get to see her friendlier and more playful side.
But, this side of Undyne is something you can only see if you choose to ‘spare’ her life in the pacifist route. Kill her, and you will see none of the backstory.
But, let’s take a step back. Let’s just say that you decide to reset the game, and then play through the genocide route. What happens?
Unlike the genocide route, Undertale encourages you to be a pacifist and befriend everyone. The game never once pushes you to kill everyone, or commit genocide of a whole species. This is something that you the player choose to do. YOU, the player, actively choose to embark on the darkest path of Undertale’s story: the genocide route.
Unlike your time meeting Undyne in the pacifist route, this time around, the first time you meet her is when you have killed every monster beforehand. This time, Undyne realizes how much of a threat you are, and knows that if you aren’t stopped, you will eradicate every monster and human alive.
This time, Undyne transforms into ‘Undyne the Undying.’
A character who is fueled through her determination to stop you from killing anymore monsters. You see her heroic side, a monster who will willing to die to save her people. Heck, even the name of the music playing recognizes this: “Battle Against a True Hero.”
This isn’t just true for Undyne, but true for every character you meet. No matter what route you take, their reaction to your actions will reveal a different aspect of their personality. Going down the pacifist route, you’ll learn about every character’s backstory and pains they have gone through. Going down the genocide route, you’ll see how every character reacts when they meet you. In some cases, once mysterious characters reveal major parts of their characters by going down this dark route.
When you go down the pacifist route, you’ll meet a short, stubby skeleton named Sans. He’s incredibly lazy, loves to play pranks on people, and enjoys making puns. For the most part, throughout the game, you’ll occasionally meet him in the weirdest places, and he’ll make his typical jokes. He’s mostly there to check up on your progress.
Near the end of the pacifist route, you’ll see a glimmer of his true personality. Sans makes a passing comment in the game, where he says it simply: if given the opportunity to, he would have killed you. But, he didn’t do it because of a promise he made. Its a quick, passing comment, and something that he immediately throws away as a ‘joke.’
This is never explored again in the pacifist route.
But, go through the genocide route, and you’ll meet Sans at the end of the game. Here, he says that he has no choice but to break his promise to his friend, and he fights you. This is where you realized that you are fighting the hardest character in the game. In your first attempt, Sans kills you in less than a few seconds with his strongest attack.
I played through Sans’ boss battle, and I stopped counting how many times I died after my 80th attempt. Yeah, to put it lightly, Sans is TOUGH.
But, if you get through his first attack, you’ll be hammered down with incredibly hard attacks that are nearly impossible to dodge. Here, is where Sans reveals that he has been studying timelines and seeing them change. He doesn’t know much beyond that, but he believes that you are the culprit behind this.
It is only in the genocide route where you see Sans’s true character: a scientific mastermind, but broken by depression because he knows no matter what happens, he cannot control your decisions. His nihilism stems from the fact that no matter what he does, you can just reset the timeline in a matter of a few seconds. He, as well as everyone else in the game, will have their memories wiped and it will be as if nothing happened.
I can go into more details about this, but the reason why all this matters is simple: Undertale is a game not just about choices, but the effect of choices. Unlike other games, this game managed to tell in-depth characters with deep backstories while also giving the player the freedom to choose how the story will go.
I don’t really think there has been many games like this since. In fact, I would argued that, that is why Undertale is so loved. It really is a once in a lifetime game that I don’t think could ever happen again.