Happy birthday Undertale! I know, I’m late, really late, but I’ve been debating if I should write on Undertale. On one hand, every reviewer and their dog has written on it, on the other hand, I’d rather review the fans than the game.
It doesn’t even feel like a year ago that the internet got a hold of this game to argue about. This was the new ‘Final fantasy 7 or 10’ debate. The new ‘Jak or Ratchet’. I haven’t seen people this divided on if a game was good or bad since- well, ever! Not even Five Nights At Freddy’s had this kind of split. Adored by the fans and hated even harder by the haters, Undertale split the internet.
A Short Look at Undertale.
Undertale, for those among us who have missed it (kudos, that’s a difficult task) is a pixel based RPG with the premise that unlike other games, no one has to die. The mechanics are simple, explore and move through the world, occasionally engaging in combat with monsters who inhabit the world. You are given the choice to either attack, act or flee during combat and the fights all have this gorgeously unique feeling. All monsters you engage with are individual characters so any actions taken with them are approached in different ways.
It’s easy enough to write a whole article on why this game succeeded; the humour is the kind that the internet loves, it presents new interesting mechanics (only if you’ve never played JRPG’s), it’s very similar in style to another popular game Earthbound, which gave a lot of us incredible nostalgia.
These views have all been written on, at least a dozen times each. There is no opinion on Undertale that has not been screamed across the internet and no one needs mine added to it. No, what I’m looking into, my personal interest here; how did this popularity end up effecting Undertale a year on?
A Sudden Rise to Fame.
At first glance, this is great! Instant fame, popularity, millions of sales; that’s gotta feel good right? I’ll let you in on a little secret about us games designers; we’re anxious skittish creatures. I’m not Toby Fox, I can’t speak personally for him, but that’s gotta be overwhelming. The pressure to continue producing such incredibly well selling and beloved content is high. Do you stop your career now you’ve hit it big? Do you keep trying with the knowledge that there will always be people who preferred your earlier work? Have we killed the chance of getting Toby to keep producing work?
There’s always the other side of the coin here. Anything Toby does produce may either be seen as too much like Undertale, or not enough. The constant balance for games producers to make work that their fan base will appreciate, but also draw new players in is a difficult battle. With Undertale however, I doubt many fans would accept a game that wasn’t Undertale 2, making branching out almost impossible. With the very vocal fandom though, who’s to say how they’d react if they were to be disappointed? Speaking of the fans…
I know for a fact there’s still an incredibly large fanbase. I’m in a games design degree, I hear about it every conversation. New fan theories, comics, animations, fanfics, fan games— you name it, the fanbase is producing it. I remember a solid few months where I couldn’t log onto anything without Sans shoved in my face. This exposure is great- except it’s filled with incest pairings, paedophilia and generally very uncomfortable fan renditions. This kind of exposure, the kind that at best is off putting, at worst highly offensive, does nothing for the game.
Often, it’s simple cases of the fans being quite young and not knowing better. More often than that though, it’s just people looking to serve their own agenda of interest. From people looking to make a quick buck off unlicensed art, (despite Toby Fox asking the contrary) to people straight up sending hate to other artists, Undertales fandom quickly turned toxic and self fulfilling. Unfortunately, this is common of nearly every ‘fandom’, but Undertale suffers badly from this due to being so suddenly famous. The kind of fanbase that sprung up so fast around it meant that the fandom quickly became synonymous with the game in conversation. The kind of label this puts on Undertale is incredibly offputting to new players, and even the old ones who chose to abandon it.
The other kind of fan, is of course, the Gatekeepers. We’ve all met them before in other places. They’re people who tell you the exact order to watch Star Wars in. They’re the kind of people who in telling people exactly the right way to play a game- they destroy enjoyment and surprise for new players.
Undertale wasn’t interesting to me the first time I heard about it. I’d played a lot of pixel RPG’s before, I could miss out on one. Whenever I expressed this though, I was told in no uncertain terms how I ‘couldn’t be a gamer’ without playing it, how I had to play it the ‘right’ way, and if I didn’t like it, I just didn’t understand good games design. Shock of shock, this made me want to play even less.
I did, of course, eventually. I wasn’t planning on missing out because people were unpleasant.When I got there though, it was- not at all what I was expecting. It’d been built up as this pinnacle of gaming, a modern brilliance of innovative games design and it… wasn’t. It was fun, it was interesting, insightful and even times heartbreaking, but nothing could fulfil the hype surrounding it. (Except maybe Toby Fox jumping out of my screen to give me a wad of cash.)
The gatekeeping that comes from any fanbase that get’s big enough does nothing but hurt the very thing it’s trying to promote. Forcing people to play it their way and often being smug or rude when people don’t just fosters an unpleasant environment, for both the players and the creators alike. Creating false expectations creates disappointment and hostility, creating more negative views of an otherwise great game.
So, What’s Next?
Was Undertale interesting? Absolutely. Did I have a lot of fun? Yes. Had I seen a lot of similar moral choices based games before? Definitely. Undertale takes it a new route I’ve never seen before and makes it a staple, focus mechanic. I wish no one had ever told me that. Going in expecting that- all it does is an amazing disservice to the brilliance of the game by holding it up as something it isn’t.
The intensity of the fanbase may be ultimately what stops future gamers ever playing it. While many games have a large fanbase, Undertale really steps it up a notch in terms of toxicity, from fan opinions to horrific fan content. Since its release, its seemed impossible to get into Undertale or have any kind of opinion on it without someone angry about it.
Honestly, out of all of this, I really admire how Toby Fox has dealt with this. Still very polite and down to earth, he seems to have taken it all in his stride. I know that if I poured my heart and soul into a game about pacifism, choice and the question of ‘human nature’ and people immediately turned around and used it as a reason to attack others, I’d be furious. To know that something I made with a lot of love had been corrupted by those who claimed to love it, would just break my heart.
As with all things, in the future the buzz dies down. Worst case scenario, it remained haunted by it’s history and people play with some bias. Best case, these issues are lost to history, and Undertale goes back to being loved for what it was, not what the fandom was.