Archive for undertale

Why not Undertale?

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , on December 29, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

Undertale screenshot
I’m not sure what to do about Undertale. I have gotten multiple requests to write some kind of piece or video about it. I obviously want to do things that my backers want and request sometimes, but I also am a bit torn about doing in-depth work about games that I don’t particularly like. (Way to not bury the lede.)

I suppose I should preface all of this by saying that I have not actually played Undertale and am perhaps still open to the possibility that there is some great aspect of the game that I am just not getting. I did play the demo version of the game that was released way back in 2013 ( a full two years before the final release), which consists of a somewhat less developed version of the start of the final game, and I have watched a decent chunk (the first 4-5 hours) of the release version being played by my brother.

So, I don’t offer my opinion as coming from some place of authority about the game. This is really just more of a rant. I would obviously make a further effort to play the game if I were doing a real in-depth analysis piece.

But…thoughts

I feel like, generally speaking, it isn’t my thing. The core value proposition of the game is its humor. Not really the story per-se, as the plot itself is pretty threadbare, mostly proceeding from one non-sequitur anecdote to another. And although it’s a genuinely funny and charming game, there have been lots of other genuinely funny and charming games over the years, including the game that Undertale so clearly borrows its aesthetics from: Earthbound.

Earthbound is a game I heard people raving about for so long that I decided to check it out a few years back. My conclusion there is much the same as it is with Undertale: It’s a clever game, with some genuinely effective humor and quirky characters. Earthbound in particular had some quite innovative design decisions in the genre for its time, but my overall experience with Earthbound was that once I put it down, I didn’t feel very compelled to pick it back up. The game seemed overly long, as most JRPGs are, and the humor felt stretched a bit thin.

On the plus side, Undertale appears to be a much shorter and digestible game than Earthbound, but mine and my brother’s continued thought when watching him play through it (which he says persisted through the rest of the game that he has played), was “this is fine, but is it ever going to blow my mind?”

And yes, I know about the replayability factor of the game, and how the choices that you make in combat or even by reloading earlier saves affect how characters react to you, but there’s really nothing about what’s already there that’s making me starve for more of it.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to see why anybody is that crazy about the game.

Hype

So, let’s talk about the hype for a second, because I feel like Undertale may be one of the most unfortunately over-hyped games ever. That’s a bold statement, but we’re talking about a game which was literally voted “Best. Game. Ever.” by a community of enthusiasts at GameFAQs, in the year it came out. Perhaps I shouldn’t take that award’s merit too seriously, but it’s fair to say that a lot of people really were crazy about this game.

The other question about hype in general: is hype the fault of the game? I think this question is particularly salient if, as in the case of Undertale, it’s word-of-mouth that lead to such astronomical popularity. It’s not as though Toby Fox was out promoting the game left and right. He certainly wasn’t on stage at Sony press conferences at multiple E3 like some other unfortunately over-hyped game that was released this year. I have never even seen Toby Fox’s face, and the most promotion I saw for the game pre-release was the demo, which I don’t even remember where I found.

So I think in this particular case at least, the answer is no. It’s not Undertale’s fault that it was over-hyped. Perhaps it would be much easier for me to appreciate it for what it is if it weren’t being heralded from the heavens. It is certainly a cute and funny game with clever twists on classic Dragon Quest style combat. It also makes a solid effort to offer the player a sense of freedom about how they approach situations in the story, even if many of your choices are seemingly as binary as “murder” or “not murder.”

Aesthetic

I’d like to go back and talk about the aesthetics of the game. Simply put, I find Undertale to be an ugly looking game. Apart from a few scenes which were not illustrated by the game’s sole author Toby Fox, most of the time the game looks like an early NES game. It’s a similar style to Earthbound, but it honestly looks much worse than that. Thankfully the music is catchy and usually appropriate alongside the story scenes of the game. But overall, the game is not selling itself to me on aesthetic.

Aesthetics perhaps are overvalued by myself and our culture at large, what with plastic surgery and celebrities and all, but it definitely makes an impact on how much I want to play a game.

Conclusions?

I’m not sure that I’ve really done much of use here other than rag on a game that I haven’t even played, but it’s been rolling around in my mind for a bit and there’s certainly a couple thoughts that I think are interesting to think about, in terms of what it is that one person likes about a game versus what another person dislikes. People have wildly differing tastes in the media that they consume, and that’s great. I would never want to tell someone that they are wrong if they really do think that Undertale is the best game ever. It’s just hard for me to see why they feel that way, and I hope that they can appreciate that.

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