GameFaqs ran a recent polling tournament for the title of “Best Game Ever” with the winner being an indie game called Undertale. Now I wouldn’t be a decent game review if I didn’t address this, would I? …Okay, so I may not be decent, but I am a reviewer….Oh, you get the point.
“Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS. One day, war broke out between the two races. After a long battle, the humans were victorious. They sealed the monsters underground with a magic spell. Many years later… on Mt. Ebott, 201X. Legends say that those who climb the mountain never return.”
The opening text from the game
How Did It Win?
If a person takes a cursory look at all of the tournament contestants, Undertale should not have won. First of all, it was created by an independent studio with a shoe-string budget. It didn’t have the resources or budget that comes with large studios such as Nintendo or EA. Second, Undertale received little to no advertising. It had to rely mainly on word of mouth and its own reputation. Third, Undertale was released only this year. Many of the other games on the list, such as Ocarina of Time or Chrono Trigger, have withstood the test of time. Many games receive a small flash of hype that dies quickly like a firecracker. Several of the contestants have maintained a reputation of quality despite the years.
After considering all of these factors, you can’t help but ask yourself how the small newcomer managed to climb its way to the top? Having played the game myself I believe it’s because of the sheer flawlessness of this masterpiece.
Difficult to Discuss
If I was willing to provide spoilers, I would be spending the next year creating a novel-sized research paper examining every detail of this masterpiece. It truly deserves that much attention and thought. It provides multiple tones that beautifully blend together, and it orchestrates emotions like a master conductor. Undertale can provide the somber seriousness of a Shakespearean playwright mixed with the witty hilarity of Terry Pratchett.
However, going into a large number of details would be a disservice to anyone that has not experienced this game yet. To anyone even slightly considering experiencing Undertale, the best thing I can say is “Do it. You won’t regret it.”
The Correct Channel
One of the best things about Undertale is that it cannot be translated into another medium. Yes, I realize that my slogan is “Where the publishing medium doesn’t matter”, but here me out. That slogan means that I believe something can be an excellent artwork in any medium. Many people that I have talked to believe that a work is inherently inferior for using a certain medium such as books being inherently better than film. Often people with this mindset believe that videogames are at the bottom of the pecking order and don’t even deserve mention. My blog is the antithetical answer to such close mindedness, and my slogan means that I believe all mediums are worth paying attention to.
Having corrected that potential misunderstanding, Undertale could not survive in any form other than video game. Some narrative games have so little gameplay they could easily survive the transition to film or literature. Undertale does the opposite, blending it gameplay to reveal pieces of its narrative. I can’t remember any game that has done this feat, let alone done it so well.
I’ve talked before about emotions triggered and orchestrated by video games. I make notice of this aspect because I consider it a sign of good writing. The best stories are the ones that get the audience emotionally invested. If I should cry after a character’s death or if I jump for joy during a moment of triumph, then the story immediately goes up a letter grade. I can forgive bad graphics or special effects or strange music choices or anything else of the sort so long as I am able to get emotionally invested.
So how good is Undertale’s emotional writing? Well, I couldn’t do an evil playthrough. Allow me to explain. Often times in choice-based games, there are multiple ways that can be played. Usually the game features a good ending and an evil ending, and some games will be more ambiguous about what is right and wrong. Typically in such games, I will get every ending possible just so I can see how many details are altered and so that I can get the full experience, and I generally start with the good ending so that my initial impression is a happy one. However, I couldn’t do it with this game.
In Undertale the evil path is referred to as the Genocide Route because the player has to kill every character. And I couldn’t do it. For the first time that I could remember, I was so emotionally attached to the characters that I couldn’t turn on them. When I started this review site, I laid down some rules for myself as a reviewer, and one of them was that I would go through everything that a game offered before I would review it. Well now I have to break that rule because I just can’t do it. That’s how powerful and effective the writing is. I guess you can say I didn’t have enough Determination.
I have a list that I call First Timer Games. If anyone who has never played a video game before is looking for a recommendation, this is the list that I consult. Before I had even finished my first playthrough, Undertale made it to the top of that list.
If you have never played a video game before, start with Undertale.
If you play only one video game in your entire life, make sure that it is Undertale.
If you read my posts just for the book reviews, experience Undertale.
I cannot stress this enough. You need to experience Undertale for yourself.