Role-playing games have a real fondness for the moral dilemma. It dominates all the big choices in heavy hitters like Mass Effect or Fallout, allowing you to decide whether you’ll perpetrate genocide or rescue a busload of orphans without much room in between.
Undertale does this too, but rather than offering you that choice at pivotal moments in the plot, the choice is with you in every combat you enter. Will you fight the monsters that live in the underground? Or will you use a less lethal—maybe flirtier—option to survive your encounters with the enemies of Undertale?
“A game where you don’t have to kill the monsters!” That’s been the press banner the game has ridden under since release. That’s certainly a novel enough concept on its own. But I think it understates the accomplishments of Undertale. This is a game where you don’t want to kill the monsters. At least, not once you get to know them.
Undertale, which was designed, written and scored by creator Toby Fox, looks awfully familiar on first look. The music in the start screen recalls the chiptune tracks of RPGs gone by. It possesses an eerily nostalgic quality. The game begins, and you almost know the words before they appear on screen.
Long ago, there was a war between humans and monsters. The humans won and sealed their enemies underneath a great mountain. Now you, a human child, have fallen underneath the mountain, where the monsters live. You’re attacked almost instantly, as you might expect.
Undertale does a lot with expectations. The game looks and feels so much like an RPG out of your misty childhood that it’s easy to be drawn into old patterns of play, biffing randomly encountered monsters over the head until you level up.
But it only puts on the costume of those games in order to ultimately subvert them. Early on, after I had already reduced several enemies to glittery bundles of EXP, I saw, in a bookshelf, an excerpt from a book on monster history. It described how, displaced and now trapped underground, the monsters moved deeper into the mountain, fearing further human attacks. Later, I found a book describing monster funerals, a concept never approached by the games Undertale directs its winks and nods to.
The “fight” option in Undertale does not feel violent in the way that killing someone in Grand Theft Auto does. Damaging monsters causes them to dissolve, rather than bleed out and die. It’s the sort of familiar system that encourages players to think about their enemies as targets in a whack-a-mole game. And it’s possible to play the whole game through like this, killing every monster you encounter from the smallest ooze thing to Asgore, the King of the Underground himself. But that gets tough when they start talking to you, revealing fully realized motivations and engaging, often goofy personalities.
There are few real bad guys to be found in Undertale. The grim, spear-wielding knight who chases you for a third of the game is admired by younger monsters for her fierce defense of the weak and helpless: “She would never hurt an innocent,” says a starry-eyed dinosaur-thing who just wants a front row seat for her next fight. The skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus (named after the fonts) nominally guard the way into the first monster town you come across. But they’re more interested in cracking jokes and cooking pasta than capturing you.
Funny, noble or tragic, you’ll be forced into combat with them sooner or later, though. Choosing the nonviolent approach can be challenging. Without leveling up, your health pool remains very small, and a few attacks will often be enough to kill you. Achieving a merciful finish to a fight is different for every enemy. Sometimes it means doing the right things in the right order, and sometimes it’s just lasting long enough for them to consider not murdering you.
In my own experience, the pacifistic approach, aside from relieving a whole lot of guilt, is also the more satisfying gameplay option. It engages players to try and think outside their regular notions of how a RPG fight should work. If there’s one thing Undertale could do better, though, it would be cluing players in on how each enemy should be approached. Too often, I found myself waiting for a timeout that would never come in a boss fight. Or I resorted to more brutal tactics because I had run out of creative solutions to an encounter. More than once, I was forced to look up the nonviolent tactics for a fight after repeated deaths.
The themes Undertale tackles during its runtime are heavy stuff—xenophobia, war, sacrifice. Past the muscle-bound seahorses and vibrating cat people, that’s what the game is ultimately addressing. But there’s a masterfully light touch to it all, and a charm and humor that feels very intimate. At once unique and referential, goofy and heartfelt, Undertale gives hope to anyone who believes that games can be more than just momentary entertainment.