It’s Time to Move on From UNDERTALE
I only recently completed Toby Fox’s sleeper hit UNDERTALE. The game launched quietly last year, but went on to create massive waves following its release. I wanted to see what the buzz was about, but a menagerie of high profile, excellent AAA blockbusters this year competed for my time, meaning it was only now that I was able to devote my full attention to the title. After two playthroughs, I now know where the hype comes from. UNDERTALE is an emotional journey with a self-aware sense of humor, likeable characters, and an incredible soundtrack. While it’s not going to upset any of my top picks from last year, it certainly was one of the best games of 2015, which is saying a lot.
Yet I’m left wondering if UNDERTALE deserves all of the praise it’s receiving. It’s been half a year since the game came out, and yet the web is still ablaze with discussion about it. I still see UNDERTALE popping up on my Facebook newsfeed and even on wall doodles when I go to school. The VGA’s ended up awarding their Indie Game of the Year award to ROCKET LEAGUE over UNDERTALE, and the fan uproar that followed far exceeded the amount of attention that show should rate. IGN jumped onto the train quite recently, rating the game a perfect ten in a posthumous review. While the public has already moved on from games that are guaranteed to live on as classics like THE PHANTOM PAIN and THE WITCHER 3, UNDERTALE’s sizeable following refuses to let go, and frankly, it’s high time that they do.
We know, UNDERTALE, we know
To be fair, UNDERTALE has received quite the amount of both critical and popular acclaim, and deservedly so. The reasons for the latter are quite obvious, as explained above. It’s impossible to deny the charm here. Even in regards to its craftsmanship, UNDERTALE is worthy of praise. There’s quite literally a mountain of hidden content and dialogue to be uncovered through only the most esoteric methods, and despite its user-friendly presentation, it’s amazing just how little hand-holding the game actually offers. Additionally, UNDERTALE’s subversion of player expectations and its breaking of the fourth wall are cunningly implemented in ways that border on the postmodern. But UNDERTALE’s strengths only take it just short of being a true classic.
See, ROCKET LEAGUE cemented its success by coming up with a novel idea and executing it flawlessly. UNDERTALE only does one of these things. As good of an EARTHBOUND clone as it is, UNDERTALE is still only an imitation, and an unabashed one at that. Though the game demonstrates ample polish, there is a dearth of original concepts at play here. UNDERTALE prides itself as “the friendly RPG where no one has to die,” though the same words could describe every Pokemon game ever made. More adult RPGs, like DEUS EX and DISHONORED, can also be completed through charisma and guile alone. UNDERTALE isn’t even the first of the soon-to-explode EARTHBOUND revival movement, as 2014’s LISA drew from the same well, so to say that its tastes are at least fresh would also be a stretch.
This might just be the most poignant message in the game
Despite UNDERTALE’s focus on narrative, there isn’t much of a point to it, either. For the purpose of my argument, I’m going to consider the Pacifist playthrough to be the “canon” choice (I recognize that the Genocide run is just as valid according to the rules of the universe, but playing the game in that way is far less mechanically rewarding). UNDERTALE champions the use of love and understanding over hate and violence, but doesn’t have much else to say beyond this elementary sentiment. That’s fine and all for the shit-tier anime repeatedly referenced in this game, but UNDERTALE has pretensions of being far greater than that. The complete shattering of the fourth wall in the finale offers no metacommentary, no additional thought to UNDERTALE’s basic thematic message. Like PONY ISLAND, UNDERTALE’s meta nature is purely superficial, used for cheap flair rather than to make a true postmodern statement. Where THE PHANTOM PAIN from the same year successfully, and cathartically, addressed the player directly, UNDERTALE only does it in a wink-nudge kind of way.
There seems to be a consensus among a large section of the community that UNDERTALE is this obscure, unappreciated gem in the same way that people who’ve seen EX MACHINA might think that alone qualifies them as underground cinephiles. This mindset couldn’t be farther from the truth. The fact that UNDERTALE was even nominated for a base consumer level show like the VGAs just goes to show it’s widespread reach. And that IGN, the unrivaled giant of video games journalism, felt obligated to compliantly throw the game a perfect review half a year after release is as telling as it is sad. Nay, I’d say UNDERTALE has received more than it’s fair share of the limelight when so many other treasures, like SOMA and HELLDIVERS, went largely ignored.
As I already stated, UNDERTALE is a fantastic game. I’m not saying that it’s not worth your time; quite the opposite actually. But I also don’t think that UNDERTALE is by any means underrated. UNDERTALE has received exactly the amount of critical attention that it deserves, and while it flew under the radar for a period, that speaks more to the quality of the games released alongside if anything. Yes, ROCKET LEAGUE is a more impressive achievement than UNDERTALE, because it screams originality from the word “go,” while UNDERTALE’s greatness can only be measured, and remembered, against the carcass it’s built on top of. This game is a pleasure of the highest caliber, but that is a separate thing entirely from being a masterpiece.