Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
I certainly don’t think that Undertale is the “game-to-end-all-games” like its fans say it is, but it’s still worth an analysis. Undertale might be one of those rare titles that uses conversations as an actual game mechanic. Of course, you can argue that Undertale isn’t really about conversations, it’s about bullet hells that are thinly masked as conversations, and you would be totally right. But for what it’s worth, Undertale definitely has its moments.
WARNING: Boss spoilers, especially for pacifists.
It’s always been a kind of weird question: how do you make a conversation engaging with game mechanics? You can definitely make a conversation engaging with good writing, but that’s different. Today’s narrative games are still just variations of “choose an option from a menu,” and even though the resulting dialogue can be very interesting, that’s all thanks to the writing and not the action of choosing an option from a menu.
And that’s not to say that Undertale isn’t a game about choosing options from menus, because it is. But it goes another step futher: after you choose the option, your enemy attacks you. Sometimes, they’ll even attack you based on the option you chose.
Fundamentally, this is the same thing as a character saying a different line of text depending on what you say to them. But Undertale‘s system abstracts this result by masking it under a bullet hell pattern which represents that character’s emotions at the time.
In writing, there’s a classic tip: “show, don’t tell.” Rather than having a character just outright tell you their emotions by saying “I’m sad,” that character should show their emotions with a line more like “Sorry, I’m not feeling up to it right now.” This level of abstraction forces the reader to draw the dots and gain a better understanding of the situation.
Continuing that train of thought, it seems that Undertale‘s philosophy is “play, don’t show.” Instead of having a character say “Sorry, I’m not feeling up to it right now,” that character will simply just not attack you. You realize that the character is too depressed to even move. It’s not something that’s told or shown: it’s something that’s played.
But Undertale has a lot of hits and misses. Some fights are really well designed and your actions feel like they truly change the way your enemies react. Other fights… not so much. First, let’s look at one of the good fights: the Royal Guards.
These two guards will use team attacks, which assault you from both sides. Immediately, this represents how they synchronize with each other, more so than any other duo you’ve ever fought. It’s actually quite rare to fight multiple enemies simultaneously, but when you do, each enemy will just use their own attack at the same time. They won’t actually coordinate their attacks with each other like the Royal Guards do.
If you kill one of them, the other one becomes angry and tries harder to kill you. This is pretty standard RPG stuff, and it’s nothing new we haven’t seen before. But rather than just giving the remaining guard a stat increase or some kind of “enraged” buff, Undertale takes advantage of its higher level of abstraction. The guard will continue doing the same types of attacks it used before, but this time the attacks will only come from one side and are much more numerous. Surprisingly, fighting one angry guard is actually harder than fighting both guards when they are calm.
But Undertale‘s whole gimmick is that you can talk to people, and possibly find a non-violent resolution. The options you can choose are hard-coded to each character you fight, so it ends up feeling more like a puzzle than a dynamic decision. Here, with either guard, you can choose to either clean their armor, or whisper to them. These options are really ambiguous, but you’re expected to experiment with them before you understand what they do.
The non-violent resolution requires you to clean the second guard’s armor. This causes their armor to become too hot, and they will take the armor off. Guard 1 will become flustered, and you need to whisper to him, which causes your character to tell him to be honest with his feelings. He will confess his love to Guard 2, who reciprocates, and they will be too excited about their newfound romance to fight you.
But saying it in pure text doesn’t do the scene justice: everything is represented through gameplay in their bullet patterns. First, when you select the option to clean Guard 2’s armor, you will actually have to do it during their attack phase. An armor-shaped sprite floats around and you need to touch it while dodging all the bullets. Let’s ignore the sheer absurdity of what it would look like to clean someone’s armor while they’re trying to attack you.
Then as soon as the armor is cleaned and Guard 2 takes it off, Guard 1’s bullet patterns change. Now, he is nervous and unsettled and doesn’t know where to look. His attacks fly all over the place and pose no threat whatsoever, whereas Guard 2’s attacks are still calm and focused. Once you whisper to Guard 1 to be honest with his feelings, they make up and stop attacking you altogether.
Nothing here in this fight is particularly new. Using romance to end a conflict is one of the oldest narrative tricks in the book. But because all of this is played, rather than told or shown, it feels like a story that you are deeply involved in. The appeal of this fight, like the appeal of most of Undertale, is in the fact that it takes something old and familiar and presents it in a new way.
Unfortunately, it turns out that very few fights in Undertale have as much mechanical narrative as the Royal Guards fight does. In fact, many of the most emotional and moving fights in the game react very little to the player’s actions.
Toriel? Mercy until she stops hitting you.
Papyrus? Do whatever you want until he stops hitting you.
Undyne? Do whatever you want until you can run away.
Muffet? Do whatever you want until she stops hitting you.
Mettaton? Pose until he stops hitting you.
Photoshop Flowey? Do whatever you want until he stops hitting you.
All of these fights have no mechanical consequences like the Royal Guards fight does. Even if you’re not playing pacifist, it’s the same thing: just keep hitting them until they stop hitting you. There are no moments like the surviving Royal Guard attacking more fervently after his companion dies. If anything in a boss fight changes, it’s a hard-coded change rather than one that’s actually brought about by the player.
There’s an argument to be made that the one-dimensionality of the boss fights actually symbolizes each boss’s resolve. Nothing you say will change their thoughts or alter their beliefs. Basic enemies like the Royal Guards aren’t desperately passionate to kill you, so your words actually can have an effect on them. But I don’t respect this argument because each boss’s dialogue and narrative setup gives them so much room for flexibility (except perhaps Undyne). Maybe Papyrus will attack you in different ways if you flirt with him. Maybe Mettaton will act differently depending on how high his ratings are.
In terms of mechanical narrative, Asgore is by far the worst boss fight in the game, especially if you’re playing as a pacifist. He destroys your mercy button, which is a really epic and powerful moment: no one has ever done that to you before. But then you need to attack him until the game goes into cutscene mode, when he kneels down on the verge of death and you can choose to either kill him or spare him.
This defies Undertale‘s most important rule: monsters die when you kill them. No one just comes back from death. There are no cutscenes where people go “oh darn, you have bested me, I am going to run away but I shall be back later.” If you attack someone until their health bar goes to zero, they die and there’s nothing you can do to prevent that. Every single battle reinforces this theme over and over and over, until Asgore decides to completely throw it out the window.
If you’ve been playing as a pacifist, you’re trained to do absolutely everything you can to avoid the fight button. You have to spare Toriel more than 20 times before she spares you. It becomes almost like a puzzle to figure out each enemy’s non-violent resolutions, and you’re ready to struggle to find the answer. So when you go into Asgore’s fight expecting a similar puzzle, you simply never get one. You can talk to Asgore as much as you want, and thanks to Toriel you’re already primed to believe that by talking to him enough he will stop hitting you, but that’s simply not the case.
While the Royal Guards were an example of playing through a narrative, the Asgore fight is an example of being forced through a narrative. The ultimate message is that there is no non-violent resolution and you and Asgore are fated to fight each other… except that’s not true at all, because there IS a non-violent resolution, you just don’t know about it. You fight him fully believing that there is absolutely no other way. Every time you hit him you feel like he’s going to die. Then the game suddenly stops and asks “now that he has one health left, would you like to spare him?” It feels like a bait-and-switch scam.
To be honest, I’m not a massive fan of Undertale. If I wanted to play a good bullet hell/RPG hybrid, I would be playing Knights in the Nightmare. Even though Undertale sometimes has cool mechanical narrative moments like the Royal Guards fight, the bosses make me feel like I’m on a railroad. The boss fights are meant to sweep you away in an epic flood of emotions, but I would argue that it’s because of the music more than the gameplay itself.