Undertale made me grin until my face hurt. Then it broke my heart. And that was just the prologue.
Undertale is a new RPG that just landed on Steam. It's cut from the same cloth as stuff like Earthbound; that is to say, it's charming, weird, wacky, and subversive, but not without substance. It might not look like much visually, but it's no generic "retro" RPG. It can, among other things, lay claim to the unique distinction of being an RPG with plenty of battles, but — if you so chose — almost zero violence. You can engage with pretty much every enemy by talking to them or flirting with them or petting them (there are a lot of dogs) or a ton of other unique interactions that pop up on a per-enemy basis. They're little puzzles unto themselves, and they have left me smiling every time. Or you can mash monsters into paste with your fists. Your call.
Really though, the reason I'm completely in love with Undertale so far is its heart. The game exudes warmth. It's clever and sometimes sad, but above all else honest. It pulls no punches, and every moment — every dialogue and fight — has been legitimately surprising. Case in point: its opening, the most boring part of many games, destroyed me.
(Early game Undertale spoilers ahead.)
Undertale opened with me, a human, falling into a hole. There, I discovered the world of monsters, outcasts after humans did that whole genocidal war thing they're so good at. Despite what should have been rampant anti-human sentiment, a sort of demon dog... thing named Toriel took me under her wing. She was immediately, unflinchingly kind. After showing me the ropes — literally holding my hand as I solved my first puzzle and talked my way through my first fight — she gave me a cell phone so she could check in on me while she took care of Some Stuff.
Thanks, dog mum!
Left to my own devices, I explored. The game used those introductory moments to charm me into a fucking smile coma with its magical fever dreamscape. Every encounter — every character I met or battled, even random encounters — was funny, relatable, and interesting. Not dialogue or fight was rote. Undertale does not waste a second, let alone hours like some RPGs do. Case in point:
Some characters I met while exploring:
A puzzle solution rock that apparently didn't get the memo on how this shit is supposed to work (jump to the end of the video):
A depressed ghost boss who really just needed someone to talk to:
Spiders having a bake sale:
And the sad ghost again:
And I didn't kill any of them. Instead I got to know them, and once I'd seduced them or befriended them or cheered them up, we went our separate ways.
All the while, Toriel made sure to call and check in on me. She also asked me if I preferred cinnamon or butterscotch — again so she could take care of Some Stuff. I picked butterscotch, and she seemed slightly distraught, but also willing to work with it.
When I finally found Toriel again, she welcomed me into her subterranean cavern cabin, a warm hug of a house stocked with history books, well-groomed plants, and — for some reason — a branded bar of chocolate in the refrigerator. I also perused her diary, which was mostly just bad jokes. For instance: "Why did the skeleton want a friend?"
Then I found it: a cinnamon-butterscotch pie, a labour of demon dog mum love. Next I came across a staircase in the middle of Toriel's home. Curious, I ventured down it, into a tunnel beneath her place. However, Toriel hurried downstairs to block my way.
A little weird, but fair. After all, Toriel wanted me to check out the bedroom she'd set up for me. It was so very nice and cosy. I curled up and took a nap in my new bed. When I awoke, there was a slice of pie waiting for me.
I ventured out of my room and found Toriel sitting in her big comfy recliner, reading a book of Snail Facts by the fire. There was a question I had to ask her, but... I didn't want to. I'd seen Toriel's home — the empty rooms, the thoroughly worn books, the sheer size of it. I understood what she was up to. But still, I had to ask:
Toriel told me to wait. She had something to take care of.
I didn't know exactly where she ran off to, but I had a pretty strong hunch. I went into the tunnel, and Toriel told me she was gonna close it once and for all. Others like me, she said, had fallen into her underground bizarro-paradise before, and they'd all tried to leave. The same thing happened to each: the journey's rigors were too great, and they succumbed. They died. Toriel refused to let that happen again.
Toriel had been so kind and caring, the best demon dog mum I've ever had in a video game. She reminded me a lot of my own mum, honestly. It broke my heart to hurt her, but I also didn't want to quit the game forever after playing for 45 minutes. I pressed the issue, and her demeanour changed. Fine, she said, but only if I could prove I was ready. Cue combat.
Toriel was relentless. Her attacks were too much for me to handle, unskilled as I was. I tried talking to her, but she looked right past me. She attacked again. I tried talking again. Nothing. Finally, I struck back — my first proper attack of the entire game. Still, I was probably fucked. I could take two more hits, maybe.
But then, a curious thing happened: her attacks began forming an arc around my little heart, like they were gently enveloping it, taking care not to crush. Toriel continued to look past me, but her attacks — the game's mechanics — spoke louder. She couldn't find it in herself to hurt me. Not really.
It was only after I struck the final blow that I realised what I'd done. That was no start-of-game sparring match. Toriel wasn't testing my ability to go toe-to-toe with a combatant of her calibre. She was testing my ability to be completely ruthless, to kill. Undertale is a game where violence can almost always be avoided. Toriel seemed to be trying to teach me that non-violence isn't always the best option.
Could I have tried talking to her again when she was weakened? Did she have to die? I don't know. Part of me wants to go back and find out; the other part thinks games are more interesting when you make mistakes and accept them, live with the guilt.
Transfixing me with one last wearied glare, she offered a stern warning about what awaited me in the cold, quirky wastes. Then... well, just watch:
Nearly in (real-life) tears, I piloted my character back into Toriel's house. I didn't think she was still alive, but I don't know. I thought maybe I'd find something. I walked into her room and read her diary again. Suddenly, her joke from before made a whole lot more sense.
Fucking hell, Undertale. You made me cry with an awful pun.
I won't spoil any more of the game right now, but I will say this: it gets even better after that. Also, mercifully, the next section is (so far) mercifully lighthearted. So much joy, silliness, and heart. OK fine, one more spoiler: