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Monster of the Week: Undertale

Pfft, Undertale? More like PUNdertale, amirite?

Heh, heh… *clears throat*

Okay, so when it comes to Undertale, chances are you fall into one of three groups: 1) You love it, 2) You’ve never heard of it, 3) You wish people would just shut the hell up about it. And yes, groups two and three can both exist at the same time.

So here’s the deal with Undertale — it’s a crowdfunded independent PC game that came out in September 2015 and soon developed a cult following. It blends nostalgic pixel art and old-school roleplaying game elements with bullet hell combat — fast-paced dodging. If you follow video games, especially indie or PC games, you’ve probably heard of it. Maybe even incessantly — many of Undertale‘s fans share a passion for the game which borders on fanaticism, which is why some people have gotten sick of hearing about it.

So, uh. I wrote a blog post about it.

Thing is, I’ve known I wanted to discuss Undertale on this blog for a while. It broaches a lot of the ideas that make monsters so fascinating as a philosophical idea — the things that made me want to start Monster of the Week in the first place. But I’ve struggled to decide how to approach it. There are plenty of characters and situations that I could go into in depth, but only the devoted fans could appreciate a post like that. It would spoil the game for anyone who hasn’t played it yet — and, yes, Undertale has been out for nearly a year now, but despite its popularity as a PC indie title, it’s still a PC indie title. A lot of people I know who read this blog and might be interested in playing (or watching) still haven’t done so.

I feel strongly that Undertale is best enjoyed if you go into it knowing as little as possible. And, unlike some of the other video game monsters I’ve featured, it’s pretty much impossible to analyze these monsters without spoiling the plot.

So, while I believe that it’s a great game that’s absolutely rife for discussion, especially on the “monster” front, and I could easily devote a whole blog post to each of its characters…

I’m going to keep this spoiler-free.

So if I’m not going to talk about any of the characters from the game, who or what is the monster of the week?

Well…

You are.

Or are you? Let me explain. Before we get too far into the moral implications of player choice, let’s talk about how these ideas are executed.

I mentioned that Undertale came out last year, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the graphics:

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What year is it, again? I mean, this thing looks like it could have come out on the SNES. That might turn some people off, but, I mean, I have a humongous soft spot for that era of gaming – plus, I stubbornly believe that game should be judged by gameplay and not graphics. But that’s beside the point.

Undertale’s art style was an intentional choice which, paired with its predominantly chiptune-style soundtrack, evokes an older and simpler age of RPGs.

Which is fantastic, because Undertale is not simple.

It would be easy to call Undertale a love letter to that era of RPGs, and in some ways it is – but it’s also a damning indictment of the genre conventions that we’ve become numb to.

How?

Well, that all depends on you.

Because beneath the nostalgic pixel art, Undertale is as modern an RPG as Dragon Age – it sets the holy grail of player choice at the center of your gaming experience.

The game begins by telling you about its world. Accompanied by the kind of primitive tune you might have heard when you booted up a game twenty-five years ago, a series of sepia-toned graphics tells the story of a war between humans and monsters.

You can see why I like this game.

The humans won. They trapped the fallen monsters underground behind a magical barrier. Many years later, a young human falls into the monster-inhabited underground. And so your adventure begins….

Where do you go from there? Well, I won’t tell you any more of the plot, but to a certain extent it is up to you. Like many RPGs, you’ll be given choices about how to interact with the characters you meet. Some of these choices will impact the way the plot advances. There are several endings. You can replay the game to unlock new endings or look for details that you’ve missed.

None of this is new.

A number of games in the last decade or so have featured a moral dimension to their choices – you know, Fable’s superficial changes in appearance, Mass Effect’s paragon and renegade routes. Stuff that goes a little bit beyond “Should I date Tifa or Aeris?”

The fact that Undertale also offers moral choices is, again, not new.

It’s possible to go down a very dark path.

I went down that path. It was hard. I don’t mean the gameplay – although there were some parts that gave me a bad time.

No, I mean that it was emotionally difficult. It was emotionally difficult in a way that’s unique to games as a medium and rare even among games, difficult because of your actions. I’ve played a lot of games where the plot throws something upsetting at you. I’ve played very few that make use of your agency in quite as palpable a way as Undertale. Some games will back you into a corner and force you to make a hard choice; Undertale does not give you that excuse.

Because this world you’re exploring is populated by monsters — defined as such, basically, because they aren’t human — and when we hear the word monster we expect a certain kind of behavior. You do not get that implicit free pass. That doesn’t mean you’re incapable of monstrous behavior.

What makes the characters you meet monsters, philosophically? They wear that label, but does it apply? That’s for you to decide.

Are you a monster?

That, too, is for you to decide.

And, oh, man, there are some great monsters in this game. “Monsters” and monsters. Undertale can be fun and silly at times, but it’s not afraid to get real – truly, uncomfortably real.

And I love it for that.

Seriously, if you like Monster of the Week, whether that’s for the philosophical issues or the safari of video game baddies, you should give it a try. Try it because of the story, or because of the artistic potential it spotlights in the video game medium, or because you can put thirty hot dogs on your head. (Not thirty-one.) But if you like games and you’re interested in the monstrous, it’s not one to miss.

Because you could be a monster – but you don’t have to be.

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