Hey Hey folks, Dave here. Just a friendly reminder that this is a critique. I shall be talking about Undertale for those who have played it. If you haven’t, and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.
Watching Dave talk about Undertale fills you with determination. That’s a joke, I say, a joke. Well ok, it’s a reference, and quite an easy one at that. I wanted to start off by talking about determination. The determination I’m most interested in is my determination to play the game non-violently. This again is no big shock. The game opens you up to this pathway right after meeting Toriel. Each enemy in the game has a way to defeat them non-violently. A lot of people who haven’t played Undertale yet know about this factor of the game (or they talk about “that bullet hell RPG”). Back when the PBS Idea Channel talked about Undertale, they said that one reason this is so remarkable is that unlike most videogames, the violence in Undertale is a choice. Nothing is stopping you from murdering every creature you come across (and the game has its own path for this decision), but the characters are so delightful, and the world so full of joy and whimsy, that I don’t even know if I could attempt such a thing. I’m the kind of person who when finally trying his first Renegade run in Mass Effect turned it off after 15 minutes because I couldn’t stand what a jerk Shepard was being.
Toriel teaches you the path of nonviolence. She’s Undertale’s female goat Gandhi. She also arranges it so that you are stuck living with her forever once you reach her house and have put her philosophy into practice. To continue with the game, you must go against her wishes and follow her into the basement. To prove that you’re strong enough to face what the rest of the game has in store for you, you must fight Toriel. Now like every other fight in Undertale, it is possible to win this without bloodshed. There’s even a hint of how to do it earlier on. I guarantee that most first time players miss this. I certainly did. When sparing Toriel didn’t work, and talking to her didn’t work, I thought my only recourse left was to maybe get her health down enough so that she would surrender and you could spare her. After all, that’s how it works in Pokemon.
There’s a mechanic in Undertale related to critical hits and how much health your enemy has. In the final fight against Asgore, I noticed this for the second time in the game (as this is another battle where it seems like you must fight your way through). In fact, this increased damage saved my bacon against Asgore as I was on my last sliver of health. Remember what I said about my Pokemon idea? So I get Toriel down to about a third of her health and still I can’t spare her or talk to her. I think perhaps it needs to be a quarter or less so I attack again. Critical hit. Toriel dies. The ensuing cut-scene happens and the title plays. I was devastated.
I considered reloading my last save point and trying again. I’m sure many who killed Toriel thought of this or actually did it. Despite having to fight her, Toriel is gentle, kind, and lonely. It’s easy to empathise with her and her actions, and that makes the fight and her death even more poignant. As painful as it was, I decided to forge ahead. Here’s why. It has to do with David Cage. I know, I know, but listen. Back when Heavy Rain was released, Cage remarked that he didn’t want people replaying his game. You control 4 characters in Heavy Rain, and in most perilous situations, if you fail, the character you are controlling will die, and the game will continue. This leads to many possible scenarios. Cage’s thoughts were that the story you ended up with would be your unique story. I like this idea. It especially opens up a conversation with others who have played the game, as you can compare your notes on what happened and who survived. When Bioshock came out it was semester break at university, and returning to classes, all my friends started discussing our various strategies for combat. It gives each player a certain amount of ownership over their experience. Of course this idea goes against the notion of replayability which has been a sought after feature by gamers and game reviews for decades now.
And Undertale is chock full of replayability. Not only are there three main endings, but on those paths, there are some choices that will lead to different outcomes. Not all of these change the nature of the game, some are just changes in dialogue among individual characters, but it remains that Toby Fox put a lot of thought into anticipating player decisions and accounting for them. It’s the best use of player anticipation I’ve seen since The Stanley Parable. When a game has so many pathways open to it, a decision on when to stop playing has to be made. I have almost never played through a game a second time straight after completing it. All the other pathways, all those other decisions I leave until I feel like playing the game again someday in the future. Of course I am afforded this opportunity because I can buy my own games. I’ve always thought replayability was only a hook for younger players. If you only get a new game on your birthday or Christmas (if even you get one that often), no doubt you’re going to be playing a game with multiple paths over and over again until you exhaust all possible outcomes. Even then you’ll learn to master the systems and make your own fun within the game space. That’s certainly my experience as a kid, and I had some pretty awful games to do that with too.
As a further example of this, after completing the game, I guess I got the neutral ending. I had to fight Photoshop Flowey. That was a trip and a half. The game ends with encouraging you to replay to get the pacifist ending. I had killed Toriel after all. I was merciful to every other enemy in the game (even Flowey), but I had killed Toriel. And you know what, I’m kind of glad it ended up that way. The horror of accidentally ending Toriel’s life after she had been so kind to me, after I tried my hardest to find a peaceful solution, that stuck with me for the rest of the game. That crack I made at the start about determination, it turns out there’s truth to it. Killing Toriel filled me with determination. The determination to not end another life, no matter how difficult. I didn’t always have the answer, especially for most of the boss battles, but that determination made me look up the solution to these fights online. Strange huh. I didn’t want to reload my save file because this is the path I had chosen, but at the same time, I was going to find a way to complete the game nonviolently by any means necessary. It also gives me something to accomplish for a future playthrough.
I entertained playing through Undertale again straight afterwards. I actually played the first hour. I was able to spare Toriel, and then get a ways into Papyrus’ traps but then decided that my original playthrough was all I needed to make this video. The pacifist playthrough is something I can look forward to one day. Not only to see what happens but because I know there are many things I didn't do. I never made friends with Undyne. I never went on a date with Dr Alphys, and I’m sure there’s so much more that I missed. That’s the benefit of a game with replayability, more often than not, it’s close to impossible to see everything the first time through. Of course the opposite can be true too. If you play through a certain way, get an ending that was unsatisfying, and then don’t play the game again, your experience of the game might be negative, regardless of the game’s quality. I enjoyed my time with Undertale. That’s good enough for now, and getting the pacifist ending in the future might change my perspective of the game for the better.
Thanks for watching.