Undertale: Why Less is More

Undertale season 2

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few months, you’ve probably seen Undertale on countless “top 10 games of 2015” lists, and seen countless music covers on YouTube. In fact, the latter is where the game first came to my attention, but I never truly paid attention until hearing a friend vehemently discuss the game, with frequent mentions of the combat system. I added it to my Steam wishlist without much thought until another friend bought it for me one Christmas.

First impressions of the game was that it was very simple, potentially even lacking. The game didn’t open full screen, but instead in a shy and unassuming window, playing the simple backstory, with an 8-bit piece of music (that ends up returning as the leitmotif in a quarter of the soundtrack). The graphics themselves are almost a defining point of the game.

In a world where games fight to have better and shinier graphics, constantly one-upping themselves to look as realistic as possible, Undertale takes a step back to produce a game reminiscent of NES era graphics. However, rather than detract from the game, it acts very much in Undertale’s favour.

They add to the nostalgic feel to the game, especially for people like myself who grew up with graphics like these. And most importantly, the graphics don’t distract from the important parts of the game. The simplicity helps to remind you that you are playing a game, a fact the game itself, and even some of the characters within, seems to be more than aware of. And it also helps you to truly appreciate the true strength of Undertale: the music, and the story.

Undertale is a game that lures you into thinking it’s simple. The graphics are one part, but so is everything else. The music starts off with a limited selection of computer generated notes. But as you play more, it gets infinitely more complex, even when the leitmotifs remain exactly the same. The story and gameplay follow a similar pattern.
Talking of gameplay first, it originally appears to be much the same as any other RPG: random encounters with monsters, and the subsequent killing and EXP gain. It’s a model we are all familiar with, and Undertale uses this with the very subtle addition of giving ‘mercy’ to the monsters you fight.

In this way, Undertale can be played as a normal RPG, but it can also be played as something entirely new, that arguably questions the age-old formula, without losing the bulk of the gameplay or fight mechanics. Because again, the monster’s attack phase starts with a simple bullet-hell style method of avoiding damage, but in certain fights, even this is spiced up in various ways, including shielding, shooting and even a multiple choice quiz.

Lastly: the story is the biggest example of something simple turned great. What starts as a very simple ‘humans vs monsters’ back story, develops into an amazing story for the length. Develop Toby Fox intended for the game’s story to last about 2 hours, but it resulted in a game at least three times that length (or more, if you are a player like me and vaguely incompetent at some of the battles). Even taking this into account, the story is comparatively short. However, this does in no way mean the story is lacking, even without taking into consideration the replay value it has by merely choosing to play differently and experience different pieces of the story. I have literally never laughed more at a game, and never has a game made me cry anywhere near as much.

In short, Undertale is a game that presents itself simply. It never pretends to be anything more than a game. And the game is better, more honest, and far more touching for this.

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