Undertale, “The friendly RPG where nobody has to die.” Apparently I missed that slogan, because I killed almost every monster I saw. It wasn’t bloodthirsty desire that drove my killing, but rather a cultivated sense of how RPGs are meant to be played. Kill monsters. Gain XP. Find better equipment. The option is certainly there to play Undertale like any other game, but I quickly learned that it isn’t one.
The premise of Undertale is straightforward: Long ago, monsters and humans ruled the earth as equals, until a war broke out between them. Humans reigned victorious and monsters were sealed below the surface of the earth in the Underground—an 8-bit world that mirrors the traditional retro games Undertale seems to comment on. You play a human child who accidentally falls through the only known entrance to the Underground and are tasked with finding your way back home. It’s a serviceable story, but the writing really shines through character interaction.
The most memorable character for me was Mettaton, the killer robot/TV star of the Underground. Mettaton locks you into a strange compilation of dramatic TV show scenarios, including a cooking show where your soul is the special ingredient, as well as a musical where Mettaton confesses his love for you. At one point, the robot becomes the anchor of a news station and asks you to report on several items in a room: a basketball, a puppy, a video game, and a glass of water—all of which turn out to be bombs planted by Mettaton which you have to defuse. The robot also does his own reporting during the broadcast: “Like all glasses of water, it’s comprised of water, glass, nitroglycerin.” Dialogue in Undertale ranges from zany to brazen, sarcastic to caring, and the real adventure comes from starting relationships with new creatures and experiencing their surprising complexity and humour. Not all monsters want to attack you, and you don’t have to attack them either.
I didn’t kill every monster put in front of me—sometimes it was easier to flee than fight. Undertale’s option of pacifism is not directly encouraged, although the tutorial does briefly mention the option to select “Act” while in a battle, which provides several non-violent options to perform. You can pet monsters, or give them compliments—each “Act” varies with each monster and elicits a different response. If you compliment Froggit, a frog-like monster who doesn’t understand why it’s fighting you, they continue to attack even though they are “flattered.” If you pet Lesser Dog, a sword-wielding, bipedal Pomeranian, you are awarded the option to spare him and avoid any attack.
When I entered my first few battles, I clicked “Attack” robotically, partly out of RPG habit, and partly because I was scared that I would miss out on EXP and gold if I didn’t kill monsters. An hour in, when I felt I had enough of the latter that I could consider sparing a few monsters, I found that choosing Act was just a hassle. It took about ten minutes of Act combinations to get past Dogamy and Dogaressa, a married dog couple who are helping protect the Underground from the humans. You have to roll in the snow and then pet them both separately, and the process of figuring that out was tedious and boring; attacking and killing was the easier option. With new monsters comes new variations of attacks, so each battle feels distinct regardless of your approach.
Undertale challenges conventional RPGs when players employ these nuanced battle mechanics. Instead of just sitting back and clicking a button, you get an active role in both offence and defence. When a monster attacks, you have to navigate a small, pixelated heart and avoid an assault in the spectrum of bullet-hell that’s difficult even at low levels. When you attack, it takes timed keyboard presses. At first I was put off by the discrepancy in agency between attacking and defending—why not make attacking just as detailed and exciting as defence? But the more I played, the more it made sense: Violence is not necessarily valued in Undertale.
Will you play Undertale like any other RPG you’ve ever picked up? Or will you take advantage of the opportunity to avoid death? Is there a “right” or “wrong” option? The driving force of Undertale exists in questioning your morality.
Undertale offers a mix of engaging characters and slapstick comedy that challenge expectations of how an entire genre of games is constructed and played, and its effectiveness lies in that balance. In some ways, the game questions the morality of killing pixelated monsters, but it’s also able to laugh at itself, and that’s what makes Undertale so charming.