I played Undertale and I’m not sure if I’m going to actually be able to write about it. It’s a remarkable game, but I don’t know what to remark. I guess I’ll try, even though I’m sure people have written a gajillion essays and I’ve probably totally missed the boat.
After getting the ‘good’ ending, I started a new run through the game to see what was up with the, um, less good endings, and was disturbed enough by the process that I just aborted my run and looked up what happens, which revealed to me both that I hadn’t been nearly brutal enough to get the darkest ending and, moreover, confirmed to me that I wasn’t willing to be that brutal.
Despite containing no blood or explicit violence, this weird indie RPG gets closer to the truth of violence than any other game I’ve seen. The reality of violence is that someone who was there isn’t there any more, that the world becomes deader and quieter because you’ve fundamentally broken a part of it that worked before… Yet violence is also intrinsically appealing, because it’s a way to push against the world directly, a way to effect change regardless of whether it’s acceptable to others, a way to feel strong, a way to overcome concrete challenges. Simple solutions to complex problems, cutting knots, not actually easier but stronger, more decisive, more quantifiable.
A weapon is one way to change the world, it just usually does so by making it emptier.
Sometimes that’s the way it goes anyway. Sometimes violence is necessary. Sometimes there’s no time, or communications break down, or it really is you or me and it’s not gonna be me. Not often, not nearly as often as we like to pretend it is, but sometimes. That’s just how it goes. But it’s nice to at least acknowledge, for once, that our violence has effects beyond the immediate, that our world is impoverished by the absence of a living, breathing, thinking process that once inhabited it. Maybe that seems trite, but if it’s so trite then why do I so rarely actually see it in the stories we tell about violence?
It might be a parable about violence and its consequences, or it might be not about that at all. It’s not really a game about violence, just a game that responds to violence in an uncannily truthful way. It’s no more about violence than it is about cool skeletons or fish lesbians or fear of the unknown or the anger of the oppressed. You can make it about those things, I suppose, but that’s just as much what you take with you as what’s there.
And that’s just it. Undertale is expansive, it pushes against its boundaries in surprising and unexpected ways. It’s a short game, but packed so full of detail and possibility that it’s hard to pick any one thing to really talk about. No other experience has taken me on this ride from hilarious character-based comedy to deeply unsettling introspection to alternately intriguing and terrifying blurring of where the boundaries of the game lie. It’s…
Well. It’s really something. I guess that’s all I can say, though I’m sure it will come up in other specific contexts later.
It’s not an experience I’ll be forgetting any time soon, that’s for sure.