In this post I take a more in-depth look at the design of Undertale. If you haven’t played the game yet I’d strongly recommend doing so before reading, since I pretty much spoil the entire story, and also just generally recommend playing the game because it’s fantastic and also important. If you’re still on the fence, perhaps you might want to check out Austin Walker’s excellent review of the game. I also get into kind of spoilery territory with The Beginner’s Guide, which I also think is very good and worth playing. I also spoil Chrono Trigger: If you want to play Chrono Trigger you really should have gotten to it by now. It’s been 20 years. It is also a very good game.
Two weeks ago, discussing Undertale, I said the game wasn’t really about violence: At the same time, I dedicated the better part of a small essay on how its treatment of violence affected me. This might seem a bit hypocritical, so I’d like to expand a bit about why the discourse around a game that I say isn’t about violence tends to center so much around violence. Ironically this means I’ll have dedicated even more writing to this aspect that I say the game isn’t really about. So it goes.
In the immediate aftermath of playing the game, and in light of my brief and traumatic experiments with a no-mercy-kill-everything playthrough, I was powerfully reminded both of my experience playing Hotline Miami for the first time and, more recently, playing The Beginner’s Guide. These may, perhaps, seem like strange and tenuous connections: these three games are, to put it mildly, somewhat different from each other. However, what makes them similar in my mind, and gives them a similar emotional tenor in retrospect, is that all three have a kind of reflective quality, a style that holds a mirror up to the player and makes them question themselves.
Now: This is not the same thing as interrogating the player directly, which has recently become a somewhat trendy way of adding a sort of facile depth to game narrative. While it was genuinely a breath of fresh air when Braid and Spec Ops: The Line started directly questioning the narratives we build game genres on, and our relationship as players to those narratives, it’s quickly become trite and co-opted, a way to have a cake and eat it too, a way to pretend to be above the crowd while still being firmly part of it, superficially questioning the morality of the player’s actions while still locking their actions into place and encouraging the player to take them, rewarding them for doing so. Hotline Miami doesn’t ever say the things you do in the game are wrong or that you’re bad for enjoying them, though this is for some reason a popular interpretation: It merely takes pains to make it clear to you, the player, that you have just killed a shitload of virtual people, and leaves it to you to decide how you feel about it, while occasionally pointing out that you must be getting something out of it since you keep doing it. This mere act of acknowledgement, though, is surprisingly ground-breaking in video games. Just taking a moment to look back on what you did, and think about it and about its consequences, without telling you what that means… that’s unusual! Still!
That’s what I mean when I say a reflective quality. There’s something to the game that makes you look inwards, to examine your own motivations, rather than merely questioning the narrative conceits of the game itself. Another word for what Undertale does might be ‘responsive’. It anticipates a large range of player input and responds to that robustly, creating the feeling of a directly interacting with a world, if perhaps within rather tightly constrained terms. The consistency and levelness of this responsiveness, combined with a lack of overt value judgment on the results, creates the reflective effect: Leaving the player to say, “Oh, this is the effect that my choices have had. How do I feel about that?” Now that I’ve said all this, it should become clear to those of you who are familiar with The Beginner’s Guide why I would be reminded of it, a game largely, at least in its latter half, dedicated to introspection and the questioning of motivations. Though there’s no guarantee that the player of The Beginner’s Guide would be the sort of person who tries to write interesting critical thoughts on games, who tries to curate and present interesting new content to their friends and followers, who is jealous of other artists for their creative ability and self-sabotages their own creativity in consequence, it’s a pretty safe bet that the player has had some impulses like that, and then by their resemblance to Davey is led to look within.
Undertale is reflective in many ways – though, unlike my other examples, it allows you a range of choices with which to express your intent before it shows the results of those actions back to you in a way that makes you think about why you performed those actions. In this context, and the context of violence still being a largely uncontested necessity of game design, one which we’ve all been trained to participate in in so many ways, it’s no surprise that the strongest and most overt response that people have to the game is how it reflects their acts of violence within it. Undertale doesn’t make violence seem bad by saying that violence is bad, but rather than echoing the commonplace narratives of just war that we use to create and maintain our structures of violence it shows realistic, if not explicit, consequences of violence. In a context where the hypocritical justification of violence is made so mainstream as to be invisible, the mere act of depicting it as an action with consequences becomes radical. Given that, I kind of wish the game had included more tacit interrogations of the sort of pacifism it encourages engagement in: being kind to people so they’ll do what you want, being the good guy to get the ‘best’ ending. There are moments, Flowey mocking you for trying over and over to create a happy ending, Papyrus lecturing you on privacy when you try to snoop around his shed, or Undyne questioning your motivations for showing mercy after earlier being willing to kill opponents, but for the most part this path goes unwalked – perhaps a good theme to expand upon in future games.
When nearly every character in the game starts out as an at least nominal enemy, it’s only natural that a violent path leads to a painfully lonely experience. In this context, every boss battle becomes an important turning point, central to the game not just for being challenging but because the decisions you make here will affect how the entire remainder of the game plays out. The background music for these fights is the same as the character themes that play when the character is doing something fun or goofy, though changed a bit, given heavier percussion, made to feel more consequential to reflect the weight of the situation. Listening to the soundtrack, you hear the history of the game through its characters: The characters, and the music which expresses them, form the core of the plot, rather than just decorating it like leaves and branches. It’s incredible just how deep this thread of musical narrative runs in the game: One can listen to the soundtrack a hundred times and, if not listening carefully and expertly, not notice the subtle references character themes have to other character and location themes, all together laying out the story of the game like a musical tapestry.
In most other RPGs, these characters would be party members, recruited to travel with you on your journey: However, in Undertale your journey is ultimately a lonely one, though companionship may lie at the end. The player’s relationship with other characters is evocative of the character Magus from Chrono Trigger. Like most of Undertale’s characters, he is initially presented as an antagonist, and though you do later find that his goals were noble the fact remains that he committed many crimes to achieve those goals. In the end, you choose whether to forgive him for these crimes and have him accompany you or to defeat him once and for all after his plans collapse. There’s power in this idea, that someone could as easily be enemy as ally: It forces the character to be complex, to be both ultimately relatable and morally suspect, to be both believably befriended or justifiably struck down. It’s not a coincidence that Undertale’s design premise, that you can befriend or destroy your enemies, lead to some of the most charming and endearingly written characters in the medium.
Undertale is designed to be played through multiple times, but not to be played to ‘completion’. It makes a mockery of anyone who wants to see everything there is to see, but it also conceals parts of itself behind layers that can only be seen by revisiting the game. What at first seems like a plot hole turns out to have its explanation in part of a completely different story path, and though this creates the impulse to try to see everything, inevitably if you try to see it all you’ll end up more dissatisfied, if perhaps better informed, because each thread comes to a logical conclusion, and pushing past that end-point leads to pointed and unpleasant questions about why you, the player, are doing this.
Most first-time playthroughs result in a muddy and troubling ending, where the player character escapes but nothing really changes in the underworld, and the actions the player took inevitably lead to some sort of political turmoil with far-reaching consequences. There are, however, two ‘true’ endings that fully resolve the plot: The true pacifist ending, found through not hurting anyone and going out of your way to ensure the major conflicts are all resolved, and the genocide ending, achieved by killing everyone in your path, and then picking fights with monsters until there are none left, thoroughly cleansing the underworld of life. If all you want is to make peace and friends, the true pacifist ending gives you that, letting you escape the underworld and resolve the tangled mess of Flowey’s warring consciousness. If you want to conquer, to become powerful, to prove you’re the best, then the genocide ending brings that to its logical conclusion with you destroying the game itself and moving on to conquer new worlds (eat your heart out Alexander the Great). At the end of both paths, you find a character who lives by the philosophy you have followed: Asriel, gentle and understanding, unwilling to fight back even as an angry mob fatally wounded him, or Chara, angry and bloodthirsty, eager to grab power by any means necessary.
These endings could both be regarded as ‘good’ endings, provided that in each case you actually believe in the ethos you were playing with. If you want both? You can’t have that. The victories you earn along one path or the other become hollow: If you try to make peace after you murder everything in a quest for power, the peace you find will be a lie. If you go back to destroy the world after saving it, you’re forced to confront how shallow your first quest was, how self-serving the peace you created. The very first puzzle in the game says it all:
One of the most overwhelming sensations I get playing Undertale is a sense of it pushing at its own boundaries. This is a game that uses all the tools at its disposal to tell its story: Where traditional JRPGs would tell a story through the text in a box, Undertale tells its story through the text in the box, the color of the text, the sounds the text makes as it appears, the speed the text appears at, the typeface used… Where other games play character themes for that character’s scenes, Undertale speeds up and slows down the playback of those themes to express the character’s current mental state, cuts them off and interrupts them with other characters’ themes. Where other games might occasionally save secondary data to enable certain secrets or to subtly improve the user experience, Undertale has characters aware of the player, aware they’re in some kind of contained reality, and working against or with the player using explicit knowledge of the game’s systems, or some in-world equivalent. At every corner, this game bursts at the seams, so eager to express itself that it breaks down every boundary we expect a game to have from years of playing games. Consistency in art style? Broken. Consistency in input style? Broken. Yet it pushes past these boundaries judiciously enough that every time you see it happen it seems special – and, while these tricks might seem wearing or pretentious if they were presented as clever, when these things happen they happen utterly earnestly, without pretense, so completely audaciously comfortable with how ridiculous they are, that it seems at once completely natural and completely absurd – natural because it’s so unabashedly absurd.
This style of blurring the boundaries between the art and reality is something that has become more common recently, but is still striking and effective when used well. House of Leaves, the novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, uses a tangled layered narrative combined with a truly labyrinthine layout to make its story of a house that’s slowly getting larger and becoming a gateway to somewhere else feel simultaneously closer to the reader and more distant, taking on some style of unsubstantiated rumor rather than just fiction; even as we know it’s all a story, it bypasses our defenses and accesses parts of our brain that are still scared of the dark.
At around the same time as this novel became popular, in the early 2000’s, the practice of creepypasta started to become popular. Creepypasta – a portmanteau of ‘copypasta’, a goofy slang for copy/paste, and ‘creepy’ – is basically the same thing as a scary story told around the campfire as applied to anonymous image boards. What it loses in atmosphere it gains in a sort of vague credibility. You can be pretty sure your troop leader isn’t actually a hook-handed murderer, since you can see both his hands, but when a story is posted anonymously to an image board it could be anyone from anywhere, could be a confession masquerading as a story, could be the last testament of someone being hunted, could be written by a sapient artificial intelligence, could be anything. Several games have come out of the creepypasta tradition, most notably a few explosively popular games based on the well-known ‘Slenderman’ mythos, but Undertale is one of the first to incorporate the stylistic approach of creepypasta into a more traditional game design. In so doing, it harnesses the strong points of both, using the traditional gameplay and narrative hooks to grab the player’s attention and invest them in a world while using creepypasta techniques to blur the boundary of that world. Blurring the lines like this is a powerful technique for a static narrative work like House of Leaves, but when the player is responsible for making choices life and death choices within that world the complete effect can be downright uncanny, almost too effective for comfort.
Another interesting trait of Undertale’s design is the ways it harnesses abstraction in its storytelling. Though all games are abstracted to varying degrees, and game designers have learned to leverage this abstraction to achieve some remarkable narrative and experiential results, Undertale goes above and beyond here as well – both in obvious ways, such as its use of low detail pixel graphics and a combat system rooted in metaphors, and in less obvious ways such as its wordless but symbolically loaded protagonist and its clever use of double entendre. Let’s look at each of those in turn:
Though pixel graphics are often derided as a cheap nostalgic appeal, there’s a lot of storytelling power to them that isn’t apparent at first. By representing characters and objects in a low-resolution way, you can omit defining detail that would otherwise change the interpretation of a scene, such as a character in disguise who would be recognizable to the audience, or you can make dissimilar objects look alike, such as a pile of autumn leaves and a campfire flame. By having something written on a sign and having the character read it back to you through a text box, you can create an unreliable narrator, where what appears in the text box isn’t necessarily what’s actually written on the sign. By abandoning a claim to be a pure representation of the reality of the game, you have created a situation where the reality of the game is being interpreted by the player based on available evidence, and what was once a passive experience is now an active one. These techniques aren’t unique to pixel graphics – you could achieve similar results with any style that isn’t purely representational – but by couching them in pixel graphics, a style that pretty much anyone who plays games is used to by now, means that you can do them so stealthily that they become effectively invisible while still subtly shaping the player’s experience.
The combat system is abstracted out into something resembling a bullet-hell style shooter game, where after each turn you must defend yourself from your opponent’s attacks by steering a little heart, representing your soul, away from their attacks. This allows the game to express the emotional state of your character, through the behavior of the heart, and the personality and emotional state of your opponent through their attacks. When they’re full of righteous fury, their attacks will be rapid and direct. while if they are questioning themselves or distracted, their attacks hesitate or drift off course. One could express something like this in a more conventional and purely representational battle system, but it would be very difficult to do so in a way that the player would actually pick up on, rather than crediting strange hesitations to AI problems or balance issues. Admittedly, part of the reason why it would be difficult to convey characterization solely through a representative battle is that it isn’t done, which creates a kind of chicken-and-egg scenario, so perhaps abstraction isn’t the only way to achieve these effects. Nevertheless, it is an elegant one – and creating this degree of expression within a traditional JRPG combat system would be impossible, regardless.
Though you name a character at the beginning of the game, which is implied to be the character you play as, the designer does something rather tricky here. The character you play as is actually named Frisk, and the character you named is the human who fell into the underworld long before the start of the game, catalyzing its events. However, Frisk and the named human, usually referred to as Chara, are related in some obscure way. Is Frisk a reincarnation of Chara, or just someone similar who becomes the vessel for an idea? To some extent it depends on how you play the game, but no matter what it’s always left sort of vague.There are other games with silent protagonists, which mostly use them as a blank slate through which the player can act, but Undertale goes several steps further, alternately writing the character’s blank-slate cipher status into the story, alluding to certain characters’ knowledge that there’s another person behind the character controlling them, and using the player’s actions to ‘bake’ a personality into the character from one of several options. This contributes to both the boundary-blurring effect mentioned earlier as well as world-building and characterization: Though it might seem tempting to replace Frisk with a more expressive and fully formed character, much of the game relies on the actor at the center being a conduit through which the rest of the story can flow.
Perhaps most fascinating is the game’s use of the abstractness of language. At certain points, the game uses double-entendre, not merely for jokes, but for key plot points. At each save point the game tells you you are filled with ‘determination’: Later, it explains that determination is the vital component of the human soul that allows it to fight off death even as the body housing it weakens. Yet ‘determination’ also comes to mean the ability to determine fate, to fight against destiny and choose the one hopeful thread in a sea of tragic possibilities – or, if you choose to play a genocide run, it becomes ‘determination’ as in ‘termination’, the will to eradicate everything you meet. Similarly, ‘save’ as in saving data, is conflated with ‘save’ as in rescue, leading up to a climax where the verb ‘save’, used so prosaically through the rest of the game, becomes what you must ultimately do to complete it. Word-play becomes word-business, and what would be a throwaway gag in another story forms the core of an emotional arc in Undertale.
The sheer number of ways that Undertale pushes against our understanding of what a game is or can be, how games work and why they work, is staggering. This is a game that both incorporates everything we have learned about how to make a good game and tell a story within it, and then builds upon that with innovations of its own, both realizing and expanding our group conception of how game design works. It’s a monumental achievement. This isn’t to say it’s a perfect game, but perfection is boring and disposable, just a version of something we already understood with fewer mistakes: Much better than perfect, this is a creative game, an expansive and loving game, a game that changes our understanding of what a game is and can be.