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I sure talk about video games a lot on this blog, don’t I? This week I had planned on writing about something else to break the monotony, but then Undertale happened.
The gaming community has welcomed Toby Fox’s new indie computer game with open arms, and the Internet is taking notice. It’s already rated a perfect 10/10 on Steam and a 4.5/5 on Metacritic among other impressive scores.
The concept of a role-playing game “where you don’t have to kill anyone,” as the tagline for the game presents, is as innovative as it is fun. Defying this age-old RPG concept is jarring to players, for better or for worse.
Undertale is a game that needs to be played to be believed. You play as a small child in the not too distant future who has fallen into the realm of the monsters, who have been banished underground following a war.
Any player’s first instinct would be to kill the enemies they come across, and there’s no wondering why. That’s just how games are: enemies are meant to be killed. You’re expected to grind enemies to gain experience points to get items; it’s standard gameplay. What players don’t expect is that doing so will permanently change their game.
Players have nicknamed the three modes of play “Pacifist,” wherein you kill no monsters or bosses, “Neutral,” where you kill some but not others, and “No Mercy,” where you kill everything. Playing a No Mercy run has serious consequences, and in fact will irreparably change your game so much that future playthroughs will never be the same. Even after starting a new game, certain characters will seem more wary of you, and you will be unable to unlock the happiest ending.
This is practically unheard of in gameplay, the concept of a game changing forever due to the actions of one playthrough. The only way to make your game go back to the way it was is to uninstall the game and install it again. It’s as if Fox is trying to make a statement on the consequences of violence; in real life, there is no ‘reset’ button.
These drastic consequences are more than likely due to the fact that many of the monsters you meet have sentience, and you’re not kept in the dark about that. All of them talk to you, and many of the bosses have complex personalities and are extremely likable. Many reviewers believe that in making the No Mercy run so drastic and scary, Fox is attempting to make a statement on the ‘grinding’ aspect of video games. More specifically, video games often become about simply trying to gain experience, reach the next level and upgrade your character, with little regard for what you’re doing or acknowledging that the only way to do it is through violent means.
When you play a Pacifist run, you never gain experience points, but the game is happier for you overall and it feels satisfying. You’re rewarded for sticking to your guns and, more importantly, your game won’t be almost irreversibly changed.
While a deep statement about the violence of video games may not have been the angle Fox was going for, there’s no doubt that Undertale’s gameplay is one of the most creative and fun experiences in gaming this year. With ratings as high as it’s gotten, we can only hope to see a shift in the gaming world with a push for more varied and unique gameplay experiences, defying classic tropes and inventing something as refreshing as Undertale.