Hello again readers! I am Darin “Shr3d” O’Meara and welcome to another article. Today, I will be writing on a topic that I have wanted to write on for months since I stumbled upon it: what makes Toby Fox’s Undertale so revolutionary and successful.
This article contains spoilers. If you have not played the game I highly suggest you do before reading this article, as the game is best played blind. Play through all three endings too; trust me, the extra effort is worth it.
This is where the spoilers start. You’ve been warned.
Undertale is an RPG game set in a world where Monsters and Humans used to live in harmony. Then, a great war raged as humans wanted to take control of the world. Caught off guard, the monsters couldn’t kill a single human, and the humans banished monsters to the Underground and sealed them in with a barrier, which needs seven human souls to be shattered.
Your character is a genderless (Frisk will be referred to as male in order to make pronouns easier) human who has managed to fall into the Underground. You get to name him, but their real and true name is revealed to be Frisk. Upon arrival, a being named Flowey tries to kill Frisk, only to be saved by a monster named Toriel. Toriel guides Frisk through the ruins and acts as a mother figure to them, and plans on raising him as her own to protect him from further harm. Eventually, as Frisk begin to question how to get home, she finally leads the way, but blocks his path in an attempt to stop Frisk and prevent him from ending up like all the other fallen humans.
This moment is when the three (four technically, the Hacker Ending exists) storylines split, each following their own narrative and contributing to the game’s lore. Click here for a Youtube video that fully outlines Undertale’s story and lore (credit to Spero Games), as it is too complicated and long for just one article to cover.
So why is Undertale as successful as it is? The game has received several awards as well as reviews almost always above 9/10 or 90/100. Its success can be explained from both the surface and basics of the game as well as its more complex features.
On the Surface
The game’s success can be attributed to several things that can be observed without research into the game and with minimal play time. These things come mainly from pure design and superficial in nature.
Undertale’s soundtrack is acclaimed for being one of the best in the video game industry. Undertale’s creator, Toby Fox, put special emphasis on developing a soundtrack fitting for the game’s narrative. The game’s soundtrack is completely synthetic and has an 8-bit feel to it, but without the simplicity that a classic 8-bit video game song would have. Instead, it uses several different sounds and styles in order for each note and each harmony to work together to create a song that fits the area, fight, or character it is meant to portray.
In addition, Toby Fox deviates from the norm several times in his music with its key signature and time signature. For example, his song, “Here We Are,” is in 5/4 time, with some very odd chords and notes in order to provide a very ghastly and creepy tone to fit the True Lab area of the game.
Toby Fox also uses leitmotifs for certain themes or characters in the game that reappear throughout the narrative. For example, when Frisk falls from the bridge and lands in the dump, the leitmotif from “His Theme” plays in the song “Memory“, suggesting a connection with Asriel and the first fallen human. The main theme from “His Theme” can also be found in the main song of the game, “Undertale.” This, in effect, allows the player to make connections in the story through the music as well as the dialogue and gameplay. The full soundtrack can be found for free on Spotify and for $9.99 on iTunes. Please do give it a listen, as it is my favorite soundtrack of all time.
The game’s graphics are very simply, yet sleek. Undertale uses an 8-bit, classic style of graphics that gives the game a nostalgic feel. Older and newer gamers alike can enjoy the graphics, as older players can enjoy the nostalgic feel, while newer ones can enjoy the simplicity and old-style they missed out on. In addition, keeping the graphics simple allows the player to focus on the story instead of complicated and distracting graphics, ensuring that the player’s focus is on the narrative.
Undertale’s combat system is ineptly simple, yet it’s fantastic. All you do is move your little heart around the little box, dodging attacks, and then you get your chance to attack by playing a little timing game. The attacking part is easy, but when on the defensive, it rewards a truly skilled player. Attacks can come at you from anywhere, and each character has their own unique offensive maneuver, which can often become extremely challenging.
Being able to spare an enemy adds a whole new aspect to the game as well. Each monster has a different way of being spared. One might require running away, while another might require a Flex-Off, while another may require that Frisk simply lives long enough to see the end of their dialogue. Sparing a monster entirely depends on who it is you’re up against, and figuring out how to let them live is part of the game’s challenge.
Boss fights are very well designed, and in several cases, are not easy by any means. You should expect to die quite a bit, especially on the Genocide Route, where monsters put their entire existence on the line to prevent Frisk from progressing.In fact, Sans even keeps track of how many times Frisk dies to him (except he loses count after like 15 or something).
Undertale is an RPG, done in the style of Earthbound. Due to this, it’s movement and maneuverability around the world is simple for anyone to figure out and use, making it easy to navigate to each area. This sort of simplicity allows gamers of all ages, casual or not, to pick it up and instantly know how to move, interact, and play. After all, only eight total keys are needed: the arrow keys, Z, X, C, and the ESC key.
The characters in the game are some of the best I’ve seen. Each have their own backstory, their own personality, and their own aspects that people can relate to. Certain ones make my insides all fuzzy when I see them, while others give me goosebumps just from encountering them. Throughout the game you connect with each character while they constantly change and develop further and further. Each character has one glaring weakness that blinds them, which they overcome, making them relatable to the player.
- Toriel is blinded by overprotectiveness.
- Sans is blinded by nihilism.
- Papyrus is blinded by validity by rank.
- Napstablook, although a minor character, is blinded by depression.
- Undyne is blinded by racism.
- Alphys is blinded by insecurity.
- Mettaton is blinded by fame.
- Asgore is blinded by overwhelming selflessness.
Each of these problems are evils we face in our everyday lives, and seeing these characters move through and overcome them in the game helps the player make connections with the characters.
Serious, yet Humorous
This game gets deep. Between timeline manipulation, the end of the timeline/universe, and messing with your head, Undertale makes you shiver. Flowey as a character is just dark – he talks of murder, of wiping out everything, of wiping out you. Prior to his boss fight, he crashes your game and manipulates the opening screen’s text upon reboot, changing it from “One day, war broke out between the two races” to “One day, they disappeared without a trace.” Heck I’ve got goosebumps writing about it. Not to mention the True Lab and its Amalgamates, which are haunting in nature, along with Chara‘s dialogue at the end of the Genocide Route.
But in the middle of it all, you’re forced to make a harsh decision, one that can impact Frisk forever. Which is worse, Junior Jumble or Crosswords? There’s fart humor, there’s sarcasm, there’s something for everyone. Frisk goes on a date with Papyrus who acts like a complete nimrod the whole time, he hangs out with Undyne, which prompts Papyrus to run through the closed window, Sans can stack 30 hot dogs on Frisk’s head, the list continues. I mean come on, try to tell me the Annoying Dog doesn’t make you crack a smile. The mass amounts of comedy serve as comic relief for what is an otherwise creepy game. However, if you play the Genocide Run, expect little to none of this comic relief, as it is just horrifying and psychologically draining, as intended.
Some of Undertale’s complexities contribute to much of its success. The game’s lore and storyline are very “involved”, so most of its complexities lie there.
Simple, yet Complex
The story of Undertale is very simple if you want it to be. A casual gamer can play through the first neutral ending, never learn about other endings, and be happy with it, thinking they understand the story. However, hardcore gamers can delve into each and every line of text and find more and more clues about the lore and how it connects. They can play run after run and still not see everything the game has to offer. Pieces of the puzzle that seem missing take lots of speculation and digging to find. The game can be simple or complex, however you want it.
Open to Interpretation
This game is largely open to interpretation. With so many gaps left untold, fans are left to speculate and theorize about several aspects of the game. Who is W.D. Gaster? How did Sans and Papyrus even get to the Underground? What are the blueprints and the weird machine in Sans’s secret room? The Game Theorists have even theorized about the game before, and are currently in the middle of a three part theory revolving around Gaster’s true identity, how he came to be, and his connection to Sans and Papyrus. A game that lets fans plug holes in the narrative for themselves keeps fans engaged and invites dedicated players to stick around for the long term, an invitation that is happily accepted by many. After all, it’s been more than a year since the release of the game, and people are still puzzled as to this whole Gaster thing.
There’s always something more
This is a more technical thing, but is still very complex nonetheless. Every time you create a new save file, the game is assigned a new Fun value. This value determines several random events within the game. Some of these have connections to the game’s lore, while others are meaningless quirks, like a phone call. So, instead of having a set story that ends after seeing all three endings, other events, rooms, and even characters and further mysteries can be discovered by playing even more times, luring the player to keep on playing to discover these secrets and solve these mystieries.
In the case of Gaster, different Fun values trigger three different Gaster followers and the Goner Kid to appear, who tell Frisk about Gaster and his experiments. Another of these values even triggers a door to appear, leading to (what is presumed to be) Gaster himself, who says nothing and disappears upon contact.
This game messes with your head. A lot. At the end of the Pacifist Run, you get your happy ending. Everyone is happy. But OH NO Flowey has to come mess it up. He doesn’t mess with the game, or the characters, he messes with you, as the player. Since Flowey is omniscient and aware of the presence of you, the player, Flowey talks directly to you. He explains that the only threat is yourself. YOU have the power to reset everything. YOU have the power to erase all the characters’ happy endings. YOU are the main antagonist. It took me a solid week before I could muster up the willpower to erase the save file and start again so I could play through the Genocide Run.
The Genocide Run is psychologically draining and dark. The Genocide Run strips all comic relief away. Everyone avoids you. You kill everything. Everyone Frisk interacts with meets a horrible death. Flowey begs for mercy, dead. An innocent kid, almost murdered (thanks Undyne). Sans, the lovable skeleton, dead, with his final words stating “… … … so… guess that’s it, huh? … just… don’t say i didn’t warn you. welp. i’m going to grillby’s. papyrus, do you want anything?” referencing the brother you stripped from existence. Every single character you connected with, watched grow, and related to, dies by your own psycopathic accord. Even Toriel, at the very beginning of the Genocide Route, says it wasn’t Frisk she was protecting by locking him in, it was the world. The Genocide Run plays with your head to make you feel like the real monster, and the language used confirms this, enough to trigger a feeling of physical sickness at times. Even the music contributes, as it turns its happy, peppy soundtracks of places like Snowdin Town to distorted versions of these songs made to sound as dark as possible. Then, in the end, all hell breaks lose, and the universe is destroyed by releasing the demonic first fallen human, Chara. So basically, no matter which route you take, you, as the player, are the enemy.
This aspect is what I find truly revolutionary about Undertale. I haven’t played a game before that breaks the fourth wall in such a way that Undertale does. Multiple characters are able to manipulate timelines, monitor timelines, mess with Save files, and speak to the player. The game messes with your head to a degree I have’t seen before. Never have I seen a game make the player question their morality and every decision they make more than Undertale, and it sets a bar other games are going to have to strive to hit. I’ve never seen a character within a game try to dissuade the player from playing the game in order to let the characters live happily ever after.
This game gets a 10/10 from me easily. The game revolutionizes the gaming industry and creates a new brand of psychological gameplay that I haven’t seen before. Toby Fox ensures that every line of dialogue is meaningful and adds to the game in one way or another. There was never a moment in the game when I was bored (save for the senseless grinding in the Genocide Run, but even that was dark in nature and served a purpose). The game was very short, but contains enough material, inside and outside of the game, to make a full length, double-digit-hour-long masterpiece.
Thanks for reading! Tune in Wednesday for another Pokemon TCG article, and Saturday for another Gaming article!
I do not take credit for any pictures used or any videos linked in this article and all credit for them belong to their respective creator.
Undertale is made by Toby Fox and is available on the Steam Store. All credit for the game, the pictures used, and the clips used goes to Toby Fox and Undertale.