Breaking the rules does not create new ones (or: UNDERTALE)

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UNDERTALE playthrough dog doesn't know about art

A personal favourite moment, out of many funny moments, in UNDERTALE

UNDERTALE. Well that’s everybody’s favourite game at the moment, isn’t it? (If you don’t want to read about the game’s ‘secret’s LEAVE NOW.)

To be sure, UNDERTALE is a very good game – but I am struggling to see quite why so many people think it’s so good. Full disclosure: it’s great enough that I have played it through twice with no bored patches; it made me laugh out loud, literally, on a number of occasions; and parts of it also made me very, very sad. I just don’t see why that makes it unique, nor do I see that it is necessarily funnier or sadder than other games; and though its central conceit – that killing your ‘enemies’ is, in fact, immoral; that indulging in mass killing will lead its major characters (themselves described as monsters) to consider you inhuman; that it will remember your acts of killing during subsequent playthroughs – is smart and well executed, I didn’t feel excited by it.

Because the game remembers those acts and doesn’t allow you to take them back, you can say that ‘completing’ UNDERTALE necessitates playing the game more than once: one playthrough is not a playthrough at all if you’re thinking thematically, and the game’s memory of your previous decisions – during a playthrough and then in subsequent playthroughs – is nimble and shocking. Each playthrough being short enough (somewhere between three and five hours) that you can complete the cycle several times, it’s truly impressive the way the world evolves and never lets you forget; but for my part, the world is surprisingly hollow.

I find myself contemplating a third run, knowing that I’ll be looking purely for the new twists in the tale but not really being so invested in the tale itself. And yet, UNDERTALE has really stolen hearts. I wish it’d steal mine; I hate not being able to join a party, and I find myself dancing along to the music and knowing all the correct moves but not really feeling it. To extend the music analogy to breaking point: UNDERTALE is clever, and it has unusual melodies (you could even say it makes use of counterpoint) but for me it just doesn’t have soul.

Two other games I’ve playing recently don’t necessarily either but their coolness, their coldness, is their virtue. The first is Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) which, after sitting on it for a year, I finally played Act III of, and found it better than the second, which was better than the first (read my review of Act I). Where UNDERTALE is saccharine, KRZ is mysterious; as UNDERTALE makes you laugh in a way that feels like you should say ‘I get it!’, KRZ is tragicomic, understated. I laugh at it less heartily but more often, and with a beautiful ambivalent pang of sorrow. And man, does it have soul: from the bizarre ambience of Act III’s Hall of the Mountain King to Act I’s beautiful folk band and miners’ songs, and Act II’s completely surprising flight of a giant eagle.

Kentucky Route Zero Act III

An example of Kentucky Route Zero’s idiosyncratically precise dialogue. “Like a glass elephant.”

On the face of it, KRZ and UNDERTALE are possibly incomparable; but I think KRZ has always done quietly what UNDERTALE advertises on its proverbial box. With every single dialogue decision you make in KRZ, you build the story – and often the decision you make has no consequence at all – and KRZ never lets you forget because you never forget. Precisely because nothing has a consequence, every line of dialogue in KRZ has precious significance; precisely because your actions lead to direct changes in the game world of UNDERTALE it pulls you back from the feeling that you are not the protagonist. As many people have written fondly about UNDERTALE, it buries the talons of its save file deep inside your computer, so you practically can’t delete them. Smart, but it doesn’t bury them deep within me; I am not my computer. KRZ, on the other hand, is endlessly replayable though basically nothing will change. The writing is, simply, evocative and razor sharp and that, for me, makes it immersive, makes my decisions important.

On that subject UNDERTALE showed me something I didn’t necessarily notice before: that is, when you know that the choices you make affect things in the game, you become keenly aware of the game’s rules; when the choices you make are seemingly meaningless, they can only matter to you. While UNDERTALE undoubtedly does more than KRZ to bend established video games rules, KRZ goes beyond those rules into territory I’d hesitantly refer to as the territory of the visual novel.

It’s a story that you play. UNDERTALE isn’t. UNDERTALE is a game with a story that shifts – and very beautifully – according to a very well thought out and well executed mechanic.

The second game is one without a story at all. The Long Dark, which is currently only a sandbox, is so good because of its lack of narrative that I fear I’ll never play the game once the story mode is available. What makes The Long Dark so fascinating is that, in throwing me into a cold world and simply saying ‘survive’, it holds a mirror up to me and my bizarre, barely acknowledged ways; my prejudices; what I feel like makes up a good life. I’ve found myself wandering the wilderness doing nothing at all in The Long Dark, simply because it seems too early in the day to go to bed. During one game, when I set myself up with some supplies in a pretty abandoned house on a hill and took to ice fishing, I unconsciously tried to keep to office hours, even taking a short ‘lunch break’, and then returning ‘home’ in the evening after clocking off about 5pm. I have no idea why I felt the need to construct this semblance of bourgeois life – it’s not like I could go home and read a nice book.

The Long Dark and KRZ are very, very different games but both resonate more strongly with me than UNDERTALE precisely because each hands me the keys to the car – each in very different ways – and asks me to make something of the world I’m thrown into. With UNDERTALE I feel like a spectator and, while I’m spectating something affecting, clever and often hilarious, I don’t find it easy – as much as I want to – to take something away from it or put something in.

Even as the game remembers ‘me’, I feel that the world vanishes every time I quit UNDERTALE — while KRZ and various runs in The Long Dark stay with me. That’s it, really: UNDERTALE is a great, great game but I know I’ll forget about it. In time.

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