WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the game Undertale.
Undertale is a game about a human who gets trapped in the world of monsters and must traverse through their world in order to get home. On the way, this human learns of the sad history between the humans and monsters, and the way the monsters have lived since.
This game is a role-playing game in which you wander a world, encountering monsters. Encounters with monsters involve bullet dodging phases that you must survive long enough to either defeat the monster or convince the monster not to attack you.
Undertale is a good game. It is a lovely and truly touching game. I want to make that clear before I say what I have to say.
I did not enjoy Undertale. I even feel like I am the sappy sort of person that Undertale is supposed to appeal to, but I did not enjoy it. I came away from the experience feeling cheated and angry. I will explain why in great detail. But I want to again make clear that even though my experience of Undertale was not a good one, I do believe that it is a good game that is worth playing, and that it has the capacity to appeal to a lot of people. So if you haven’t played it, please don’t decide not to play the game simply because I didn’t like it. And if you played it and loved it, please respect my experience of the game as I respect yours.
My Experience of Undertale
I played this game late in the hype. I was well aware that there were different endings, but I wasn’t exactly sure what they entailed. I knew that it was possible to spare monsters when you encountered them, and I loved that. I don’t like killing things in games. I genuinely don’t, and the older I get the less I enjoy it. So I was happy to play Undertale, a game where you didn’t have to kill things. But the first time I encountered a monster, I didn’t really understand how I was supposed to spare monsters. I had somehow missed or skipped the part where the game teaches you this. So I killed the first monster I encountered because I didn’t know what else to do. It was a froggit. It was not even enough exp to gain a level. I figured out how to spare things in my next encounter.
I went through the entire game without killing anyone after that first encounter. I did not particularly enjoy the gameplay, so I was mostly playing the game for the narrative. I wanted to help the monsters, I thought that would be my reward for completing the game.
It wasn’t. Instead, Sans, my favorite character, gave me a monologue about how he pretty much hated me the whole time anyway. All because I had killed one, single froggit at the very beginning of the game before I knew what any of this was all about. I spared the king, because I wanted to help make things right with the monsters. But the king dies anyway; all the monsters are still trapped. My entire quest and struggle felt like it had been for absolutely nothing. The game had in no way rewarded me. I was sad, and I was angry. I hadn’t enjoyed the gameplay, I hadn’t enjoyed the narrative. I hadn’t enjoyed the journey, nor the destination. When I finished it, I hated the game.
I would like to point out that I got a Neutral ending. I know that this is not necessarily ‘bad’. However, because this ending was so different from what I was hoping and expecting, while I was playing I interpreted it as a bad ending.
No Reward for Learning While you Play
For me, the whole point of Undertale was to teach people that you don’t have to kill things; that you can solve problems peacefully. I felt like I had learned that lesson fairly early, so I had high hope that I would receive compensation accordingly. I did not.
I appreciate that if you play passively, there are things you can learn about the characters and the setting of the world that you otherwise would not learn. These things I agree are rewards that you can get while you play. But the reward I am talking about is the final reward. The end goal. I thought that if I was good during the game, it would affect my final outcome. But it doesn’t. I basically got a 99% for killing a single Froggit, and the game treated me the same at the end as someone who had gotten a 1%.
My main problem with this game is that it does not reward you for having learned the lesson while you play. Like I said, I learned fairly quickly and I stuck to it. But I was still punished. The game only rewards people who already KNOW the lesson going into the game, not those who learn along the way. You have to do absolutely everything RIGHT from the beginning in order to be rewarded, to get the truly good ending, the True Passive ending.
It is also apparently impossible to get the True Passive ending, the ‘good’ ending, the first time you play. Thus making it inherently impossible to get a ‘good’ ending the first time you play, and making it impossible for players to be rewarded AT ALL for learning the lesson the first time they play. The reward is for the fact that you had the time and patience to play the game twice, more so than rewarding you for learning the lessons the game had to offer.
The ‘endings’ are also so extreme in their requirements that the morality of the game comes off as very black and white. If you do ANYTHING bad in the game, you are a bad guy. Kill ONE THING at the very beginning of the game, and you are painted a villain. This standard does not hold true to any of the other characters. Several of them learn and grow throughout the narrative to become more understanding. But the game does not reward the player for doing the exact same thing. Thus, it feels like the game holds the player to a ridiculously high standard. You must be perfect, completely without flaw in order to get the good ending.
The Mechanics Do Not Contribute to the Moral
If the gameplay were appealing to me, I might not have been so angry. I might have considered playing the game again to get a different ending. I believe this is how people are supposed to feel when they get an ending like mine. But I did not enjoy the gameplay. I wanted to finish the game once for the sake of having experienced it, and I never planned to play it more than once. So, after finishing the game, my final experience of it was that I was sad, and felt like I had failed.
The only rewards for not killing things in Undertale are narrative driven. Nothing else about the game’s mechanics helps to teach players that solving conflicts without violence is also a viable option. Without the narrative, there is no reason to play passively. The mechanics do not reward that type of gameplay. If you kill things, you get EXP, a mechanics driven reward, which makes combat easier and faster. Being passive and not killing things is consistently the more difficult and time consuming option. I considered killing things in the game just because I hated encounters and I wanted them to be shorter. The game mechanics themselves made me want to go against the very thing the game was trying to teach me.
Having the pacifist route be more difficult makes sense to me in terms of narrative. Often times in real life it is difficult to see a peaceful way around a conflict. But I feel that at least in a game where you are trying to teach people through gameplay that a passive route is possible, and encouraged, that following that route should be much more intrinsically rewarding to actually play.
I could have enjoyed Undertale if I had been able to enjoy the narrative. I really wanted to enjoy this game, and I really wanted to embrace and love the story. And I did, right up until the end. Because of one single mistake I made at the beginning of the game, the narrative rejected me.
I probably would have enjoyed the story of Undertale more if I had enjoyed the gameplay more. If I had been willing to play the game again, probably a lot of the problems I had with the game as a single playthrough experience would not have been problems. As it was, I felt like I had suffered through the game, and I wanted there to be a reason for my suffering at the end. Some greater narrative reward for which I had sacrificed my time and enjoyment. The fact that there wasn’t, that the ending I received did not appreciate my effort, ruined the entire experience for me.
All that aside, I appreciate what the creator was trying to do with this game. The sentiment is lovely, and one that I wish more games would aspire to. But the way it was executed upon in Undertale just didn’t work for me.