When I played Undertale, I played it on live-stream with an audience and with a very special person – a guide. My guide (Messiahforhire) reminded me to call Toriel at every new screen, to buy multiple hot dogs, and to pet dogs till their heads expanded off the screen. Without Messiahforhire guiding me, it’s likely I would have missed a large chunk of the game. Maybe Messiahforhire didn’t anticipate that I would play in pacifist mode, but that mode of gameplay came naturally to me. When I started SOMA, I chased the dinosaur-monster-robot I found in one of the first levels thinking that maybe it was just misunderstood…
Pacifist mode is achieved by playing the entire game without killing any of the monsters, and by befriending Papyrus, Undyne, and Alphys. If you’d like to learn more about the different Undertale modes and how to achieve their endings, you can read this post!
I play a wide variety of games, though I tend to focus predominantly on horror and games made by smaller teams, studios, and artists. It’s becoming more rare that I’ll maintain interest in a game and want to explore and complete the game thoroughly. Undertale captured my interest right away – I was so invested in the game that I couldn’t wait to stream it to so I could play more!
Rather than share a more formal analysis on my feelings and experience with Undertale, I thought I’d build on the format of Michael Lutz’s spectacular 20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique. Warning: there are spoilers!
- Each encounter, character, and event in Undertale felt genuine for me: genuinely funny; genuinely strange; genuinely empathetic.
- This feeling of genuineness is important: it marks a difference between games that play at diversity and games that truly speak *with* diversity. There is an alarming trend to play dress up in the name of diversity, especially in games and tech. Undertale is NOT playing dress up and this is one of my favourite parts of this game.
- Many folks have spoken about the conflict of interest between playing Undertale with information with a guide or spoilers and how that shapes the game, and the game as it would have been played devoid of any supplementary info.
- Having Messiahforhire as a guide structured my play differently, but this is not a problem for me. There are times when anxiety, attention to audience interaction, or simply not having enough attention span influences how much exploration I’ll have in a game. Guides (sometimes as a single guide and sometimes as multiple people in chat) often help me when I need to Stay Determined. This is most helpful for me in horror games…
- The way that, what I will call the guide function, operates in my live-stream is often through consent: people will first ask me if I want to know how to do something and then offer assistance (it’s awesome).
- However, Undertale is straight-forward in how pressing the role of authorial intent is. Lutz points this out in paragraphs 10, 13, 14.
- Combat is ambiguous and this causes frustration when each action could potentially harm the monsters or seemingly stop the story from continuing. The fight with Asgore is an example (also, omg my heart during that fight!).
- Purchasing items in the game is almost entirely about the characters that will benefit from your exchange: Temmie can go to college (sidenote: I have never ever loved anything as much as I love Temmie); spiders get to have bake sales; Bratty and Catty get their wares from the garbage dump (but don’t worry, it’s a good dump). These exchanges, more about the characters than the goods, makes the economy of the game less about weapons and more about uncovering relationships.
- So is Undertale’s economic system a market economy? Difficult to say… The majority of purchasable items varies from Glamburgers and Torn Notebooks to an Empty Gun (which still does damage). The most powerful weapons appear to be weapons you find rather than purchase, and belong to the monster who leans most heavily towards violence as a solution to the human condition.
- Flowey is one of the best-written characters in that game; petals down. But there is a point where, as I was being battered over and over again (in my most favourite boss sequence of maybe all time) that I realized that this is an *actual* problem for real-life me: I do not fight back.
- Like so many, I have experienced different forms of abuse. By rewarding the player for being patient – no matter what – the game unintentionally reinforces patterns of abuse: accept being attacked; “spare” the attacker; repeat a few times, receive reward of having the attacker return to a state of introspection and, ultimately, (platonic) love.
- “Not fighting back” is crucial to the success of Undertale’s pacifist mode. You are rewarded only after being attacked and (often) killed over and over. I’m not sure how I feel about this as the only means of achieving positive reinforcement in the game.
- I had/have a channel slogan now called #BurnAllFlowers that my friends chanted with me to help me overcome the ultimate Flowey fight, but when it came time for me to actually harm Flowey, I couldn’t. We still chant #BurnAllFlowers even though I never will.
- There is something lurking here, relating to (psycho)analysis, projection, and desire. In some ways, I can imagine that the player is a patient in a psychotherapy session, and Frisk, meant to be a projection of the patient, acts more like a projection of the analyst instead. I’ll follow this part up with more on psychoanalysis in another article.
- I wonder who the ideal player is in Undertale … Was it me? I had so much personal investment in the game and love everything about the game. But, if there is a motive behind the learned ethical code in Undertale’s pacifist play, what motive is that?
- Is it even possible for me to play Undertale in murder mode? I highly doubt it. But what I wonder is what the benefit of that exploration would have been; to wipe the slate clean and approach the game from a different gameplay perspective may have alleviated pressures to act in certain ways and indeed to confront the monsters lurking underneath (I’ll see myself out).
- Is the game (ethically) unplayable in murder mode as Lutz’s points suggest? It is troubling to think that the answer is “maybe.” And if it is playable, who is it playable for?