Pixel Theory Blog

"Undertale" and the Post-Modern Narrative

by Seth Rose

Undertale is the first truly post-modern video game. This is the bold pronouncement I read in a forum thread as I was considering picking it up, and well...as a pretentious nerd always desperate to lend some intellectual legitimacy to my untold hours sacrificed at the altar of video games, how could I say no? 10 dollars and 8 total hours later and I will go one further: Undertale is one of the most important games to be made in the past decade.

To get the basics out of the way: Undertale is an indie RPG for the PC about a world where humans live on the surface and monsters are trapped underground after a devastating war. In a cookie-cutter setup that serves as the tip to the iceberg of depth that is Undertale, you play as a nameless human protagonist who falls to the monster underground and you spend most of the game trying to return to the surface.

Undertale is driven forward by a basic 2-button-plus-arrow-keys control scheme and deliberately old-school graphics complemented by writing, gameplay, and an art style that all heavily (and likely intentionally) invoke Earthbound. Your protagonist is a child, and you use frying pans, ballet shoes and toy knives to fight a whimsical and bizarre variety of monsters.

At least, you can do that. This brings us to the main conceit of Undertale: you don’t have to hurt anyone. Ever. No, really, you don’t. Every “enemy” encounter (including every single boss) comes with the option to “FIGHT” or “ACT”. Choosing “ACT” opens a host of potential nonviolent options ranging from talking to singing to telling a joke. Because this is still a game, you play a series of almost Wario Ware-esque bullet hell mini-games representing enemy attacks in between these actions before the “enemy” reaches a state where you can choose a “SPARE” option, winning the “fight” just as if you had beaten them violently.

Undertale is far from the only game to provide nonlethal options of course, or even the first to have the game play out differently depending on how violent you decide to be. What sets Undertale apart is how diverse these nonlethal options are and how well integrated they feel with how the plot moves forward. Violent and nonviolent runs of the game feel profoundly separate in a way that “shoot them with your pistol vs. shoot them with your tranquilizer pistol” doesn’t quite capture, because these nonlethal options are frequently folded into dialogue and plot progression as they play out, as opposed to a slightly different fixed approach just giving you a special reward after the fact. Dialogue trees go down entirely unique paths based on your bloodlust, encounters transform based on who you’ve managed to befriend, and the final act in particular takes on starkly different tones depending on your actions.

This forms the central core of Undertale’s claim to the mantle of “First Truly Post-Modern Game”. Other games such as Spec-Ops: The Line, Metal Gear Solid 2 and The Stanley Parable have played with meta-narrative awareness by cracking or breaking the fourth wall and asking the basic questions of why narrative-based games tend to be so rigidly structured around violence. Undertale takes several important steps further by saying “well...they don’t have to be”.

The significance of the nonlethal option taking the form of a button that reads “ACT” cannot be overstated. In a world that is constantly telling you to fight and hurt and kill because it is the only way forward, finding a third option is the real act of courage. “ACT” is not just another way to fulfill your objectives as other games frame their nonlethal options. It is the audacious, radical nonviolence of MLK and Gandhi. It is persistence and determination in spite of a world of violence that surrounds it. Undertale doesn’t just taunt you as Spec-Ops does with empty lamentations of how violent fixed-path video games often are. It actively gives you the option to reject that violence even when every possible sign is pushing you towards it.

Your nonviolent actions often prove puzzling to the inhabitants of Undertale, because they represent a departure from their assumptions about how humans treat monsters based on their bloody history. In a crucial sense, this is how Undertale positions itself against the greater world of video games. It doesn’t have to be like this, it says. We don’t have to fight. We don’t have to take the easy way out. There is always another option, an option more thoughtful and compelling than mindless brutal violence caught up in the raging current of the status quo. Undertale subverts our expectations in a million little ways beyond the scope of a single post, but it is this meta-fictional heart that takes it beyond just poking fun at the genre and moves it into a level of critique that I’ve never experienced in a game before.         

And that isn’t even the most impressive aspect of it, at least not by itself. The great triumph of Undertale is that it manages a fundamental integration of this meta-commentary while remaining a fun, engaging video game. If it did away with the “ACT” mechanic entirely, there would still be an enormous amount to sell it: the art style and character designs are brilliantly inspired, the soundtrack is the most beautiful in recent memory, the “enemy attack” minigames consistently impress in their sheer creativity and nerve-fraying intensity, and the writing shifts between laugh out loud comedy, heart-wrenching emotion and visceral horror with minimal effort and awkwardness.

Compare this fullness to other recent games that have tackled meta-commentary. On one end, we have Spec-Ops: The Line, which wrapped it in a relatively thin shell around an unremarkable shooter. On the other, The Stanley Parable delved deeply into the stuff of post-modern narrative but didn’t have much actual gameplay beyond moving through the world. These games presented interesting and relevant experiences worth having, but lack much to recommend them as entertaining video games beyond what they have to say. Undertale gets to have this inward looking cake and eat it too by threading meta-commentary through gameplay such that they become inseparable from each other.

Games have been experimenting more and more with using their form to critique their content over the past several years, but Undertale is the first game to get away with this on a comprehensive level. If video games ever truly grow out of their adolescence and join other forms in the pantheon of “true and accepted art that no one argues about anymore”, Undertale will represent an important step in their artistic pedigree.