In the several decades that video games have been around, there are two things that the medium often attempts but fails to handle well. That would be humor and metatextual commentary on the medium of games. So, when 2017’s subversive RPG Undertale managed to do both of these things and make it look easy, it was no surprise the game earned widespread acclaim.
Now available for PlayStation Plus Extra and Premium subscribers, Undertale is a one-of-a-kind game that everybody should play.
Undertale can trace its inspirations back to the cult classic Earthbound, which similarly utilizes dry humor and a deceptively serious story to surprise gamers, but Undertale is much more than an attempt at recapturing the same lightning that Earthbound did. Creator Toby Fox utilized every element of Undertale — its music, combat, dialogue, and art — to create an experience that pushes the player to think outside of the confines of the game itself.
The player will immediately notice twists on the traditional video game formula of fighting enemies in pursuit of your final objective. Notably, you can spare and befriend every enemy in the game. That does mean the player can also choose to kill every creature in the game, leading to two extreme paths that lead to different endings of Undertale. This variety, and commentary on the apparent obsession with violence in games has earned Undertale plenty of praise. But what makes Undertale special is how it accomplished this when so many other games have tried and failed.
It's not an exaggeration to say that 2007’s Bioshock was a watershed moment for the perceived seriousness of gaming thanks to the iconic “Would you kindly” scene. Releasing a decade after Bioshock, Undertale had to grapple with ten years of discourse on how games dealt with violence and player agency and how that impacted game design.
While games like The Last of Us or Spec Ops: The Line took the grimdark approach, the natural evolution of Bioshock, in confronting the player with violence they perpetrated and making players consider their own morality none of these titles mechanically are able to back up their themes. Undertale fixes this with two key elements.
The first is humor. Games like Earthbound proved that by using humor in an otherwise serious narrative a game can clearly expose the unsettling nature of the actual actions occurring within the game. It lives in the genre of absurdity, where the game itself can't help but laugh at how horrible things are. It reflects the dissonance at play in the mechanics of the game itself.
Perhaps more important is how Undertale uses tricks only a video game can. There are plenty of fourth wall breaks, and moments that confront the player as a human in the real world rather than an in-game avatar, and actions can change the very components of the game itself. It makes player choice have meaning, and unlike Bioshock, there is a sense that there is an actual cost to what you do. It might make you feel guilty, at which point you attempt to cheat the system and start from scratch. The game will call you on this.
All of these elements are equally subversive. The simple pixel art, the unnatural humor, the off-kilter combat, and the game’s unwillingness to give players a pass all feel at odds. Particularly when the only other games attempting to tackle the same issues of player agency took the route of better graphics and more gritty narratives.
Yet none of this darkness and meta-commentary that Undertale is extremely concerned with outweighs the joy and fun that comes from the excellent humor and combat. It is allowed to live as a confusing contradiction and asks the player to accept every quirk. With its inclusion on PlayStation Plus, now is the perfect time to play this subversive RPG.