In a stunning upset, 2015’s UnderTale managed to beat out 127 established video game heavyweights like Mass Effect and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time to win the 20th anniversary edition of GameFAQ’s Best. Game. Ever. contest last week.
Yes, the game has a massive Metacritic score of 93 and has appeared on nearly every major publications’ best games of 2015 list but, the decision isn’t without controversy, as many of the votes for the game came from outside the GameFAQ forums, driven largely by rallying by the game’s fans on Tumblr and other social media sites.
To those who have played Toby Fox’s quirky and heartfelt ode to 16-bit JRPGs, the internet adoration and immediate cult status of UnderTale aren’t really that surprisingly. The game is filled to the brim with references to internet culture and fandom, and Fox even describes himself as coming “from the internet.” There are fan girl scientists, characters named after derided fonts, and even an entire village that speaks its own dialect of Doge. Tumblr and DeviantArt searches yield thousands of results and the game even has its own page on Know Your Meme with multiple individual memes listed.
So, just how did such a seemingly obtuse game in an admittedly cult genre (JRPG), with equally cult influences like SNES game Earthbound and meta-webcomic Homestuck, become the internet’s darling?
Much of the game’s popularity can probably be chalked up to JRPG fans desperate for both innovation and nostalgia, both of which UnderTale has in droves. The hybrid combat system is at once wildly creative and totally familiar: the usual hallmarks of turn based combat and attack options are present, but here they are fused with bullet-hell style mini-games that play like something out of WarioWare.
However, the real genius of UnderTale is in the game’s morality system.
You are warned early in the game of the dangers of relying too heavily on violence in solving conflict, with Mercy seemingly the best way forward. However, unlike games like Mass Effect with their clear cut Renegade and Paragon paths, the “right” thing to do isn’t always clear. Which isn’t to say that the choices all exist in a moral grey-zone like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but rather that the battles are themselves puzzles and the game offers few clues as to how reach a desired outcome. While some could argue that this vagueness represents a weakness in the game’s design, I would argue instead that it is, in-effect, the true message of the game.
For a game that, financially at least, owes its existence to the collaborative power of the internet, raising $51,000 on Kickstarter despite having only asked for $5,000, the gameplay itself is also deeply reliant on this same culture of collaboration. Cult properties become cult properties because of the people that form communities around them, and UnderTale has this idea built into the actual gameplay of the game.
UnderTale is a subversive game, but not in the way that it first leads you to believe. Even the game’s Kickstarter campaign billed it as a game “where no one needs to get hurt.”
And yet, the path of non-violence is often unintuitive, if not merely unclear. In order to unlock the various endings granted by Pacifist, Genocide and Neutral runs of the game, the player is more or less forced to engage with the community outside of the game. Yes, exploration is expected and rewarded, but much of the true joy of these discoveries is in sharing them with your fellow players.
The game is full of Easter Eggs and references to JRPG classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, but the enjoyment of these references hinges on the player already belonging to these other fan communities, in their understanding of internet culture and memes.
The argument could even be made that UnderTale’s divergent moral paths are a reflection of the paths we can take as netizens: do we take the Pacifist route of encouragement and kindness in our online interactions, or do we choose Genocide and commit to trolling and harassing behavior?
The roleplaying in UnderTale, unlike other RPGs, isn’t that of the character we control, but the type of game player we are. The game forces us to confront both the tropes of a genre, but also our typical behavior in games of that genre. But more than that, it rewards us for trying out all of these roles, with brilliant writing, sardonic wit and memorable and relatable characters.
To truly discover all of UnderTale’s secrets and truly belong to the community, we need to live all sides of the story.