by Jed Pressgrove
If you kill just one monster that threatens you in Undertale, at the end you will be asked, “Is killing things really necessary?” This question isn’t morally serious, as developer Toby Fox’s message goes on to explain that playing through the game again without killing anything will give you a “happy ending.” This awkward moment confirms Undertale as little more than an obstacle course posing as an aspiring pacifist’s wet dream.
Though not marketed to children, Undertale often resembles a patronizing lesson for kids. When monsters start fights with you, you can either kill them to become stronger (the traditional role-playing game outcome) or make them lose their will to fight by talking to them, flirting with them, and so on. For one monster, you can select “Don’t pick on,” and the monster feels much better about itself and can be spared. For another monster, you have to laugh after it tells a joke in order to make peace. However, some enemies must be attacked until they’re too weak to continue, so the “merciful” path isn’t necessarily obvious. Ultimately, showing mercy is another turn-based routine that can be tedious, raising the question of whether it’s violence or monotony that prevents audiences from caring about throwaway characters.
The flaccid stakes in Undertale highlight the lack of a significant message in the killing/mercy dichotomy. Fox wants players to think twice about killing enemies while largely reducing the latter to unfunny punchlines, as when two dark knights finally realize they’re into each other or when a flamboyant robot turns into a pop star diva. Undertale’s depiction of humankind is even shallower despite the trusty find-a-way-back-home plot. Take a long look at the protagonist. The flaw isn’t the lack of next-gen polygons; it’s the absence of soul. (Undertale’s rambling about the souls of humans and monsters doesn’t make up for this limitation, either.)
The off-putting vacancy in the Undertale protagonist’s face is especially puzzling given Fox’s schmaltzy attempt to undercut typical turn-based combat. Almost jokingly, you dodge the attacks of enemies in real time as a heart avatar. Does Fox think the mere shape of a heart can be a stand-in for human depth? If the little snot you play as is supposed to comment on a hollowness about previous role-playing games, Fox takes the lazy route. The silent protagonist cliche, already parodied well by Super Mario RPG, does not complement any inventiveness Fox squeezes out of the monster encounters. And if the hero is meant to resemble a dead fish to show that “anyone can be a hero,” Undertale should come with a bucket to vomit in.
Undertale seems rather desperate when you enter a church and are told “You will be judged for your every action.” After a laughable sermon about RPG design (“[EXP] stands for execution points”), you are instructed to think about your actions in Undertale. But what’s there to contemplate? Either you managed to spare a goofy-looking thing that attacked you or you didn’t. Unlike Jack King-Spooner’s Beeswing and Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2, Undertale pushes make-believe morality — a sort of BioShock bullshit — as opposed to situations that get to the essence of life and struggle.
There’s a part in Undertale where you can pray to remind an enemy of its conscience. Such flippant moments suggest that Fox misinterpreted Earthbound, Undertale’s biggest influence, as merely quirky. Earthbound was strange, but its spiritual consciousness and emotional warmth were striking and genuine, especially in its prayer-centered climax. The final fight in Undertale doesn’t have much to show other than creepy sadism. Before the concluding battle, the game literally turns itself off, and it will turn itself off again if you happen to lose. If you win, the binary choice returns: kill or have mercy. If you want to be “good,” you have to pick mercy over and over and over before Undertale almost shuts up. Fitting that the big bad guy at one point says, “You idiot. You haven’t learned a thing.” That’s a perfect encapsulation of how pointless Undertale’s wannabe progressivism is.