Undertale was the indie king of 2015, earning huge critical appraise and commercial success for its fun characters and deconstructive gameplay. Not often does a game create such an instant fanbase around itself, but Toby Fox's game proved to be a huge hit with audiences who've overtaken the internet to share jokes and theories about the story and characters.
And that's the problem.
My first experience with Undertale came from two close friends of mine. Both of them started ranting about it during it's week of release, telling me how much of a wonderful experience it was. Upon finishing it, one of my friends declared it his new "favourite game of all time". Not wanting to be left out of the action, I bought it off Steam, eager to see what all the fuss was about.
From here on out, I will be delving into spoiler territory for the game. If you haven't played it and have thus far remained spoiler-free, please go buy it and play it. Because I daresay you won't enjoy it as much if you read on.
Not long after buying, but before playing, my friends started giving me helpful tips. Nothing hugely spoilery, or so I thought at least. Just things like "You can go through the whole game without killing anything." Little comments like that helped shape the game in my own mind. Now I had an idea of what it was, and also an idea of how good it was. All this expectation weighed down upon my mind, and when I started playing, the game had the unreasonable task of meeting it.
Having finished the game now, I know that the first part of the game is easily the worst. While I appreciate the idea of an NPC that skips puzzles for you, on my first play through I got easily annoyed when I wasn't allowed to play the first few rooms. Maybe that's on me and my frame of mind at the time, but it didn't sit well. When I finally got to a few puzzle rooms, I quickly grew bored, and turned it off.
"Was that it?" I asked my friends.
"It gets better." They replied.
I shrugged. I had given Undertale a go, and wasn't a fan. They loved it, and that's cool. But from the opening segments of the game, I didn't feel it was one I wanted to spend more time with. By the end of the year however, Undertale started gathering a plethora of awards, and the games fanbase had reached an insane level. It was truly unavoidable, and everywhere I looked people were handing it various Game of the Year awards. Maybe I was a bit quick to judge.
So I go back to it. But that expectation is now vastly inflated, and the little comments and spoilery bits that I'd read over the months added to it. Undertale, in my mind, had to be the most complex narrative deconstruction work ever produced with scenes that would make me cry uncontrollably and gameplay that made me really think about my actions.
But because I was going in expecting that, it did none of it. I tried to go through without killing anything, because I knew that was "how to play". When I accidentally killed one enemy, I was annoyed when one character started referring to me as a "serial killer". I read this game was really good at remembering your actions, yet it didn't recognise I had only killed one enemy? There were a few instances of this throughout the game.
Now, the humour of the game I found pretty good. It was probably the only thing that didn't disappoint. When the jokes don't hit, the style is pretty cringe-worthy, but thankfully moments like that are few and far between. If this game was sold to me as just a "funny game", it would have easily met that expectation. Unfortunately for Undertale, its own hype got in the way. Nothing shows that more than the ending.
At the end of the game, the game asks you to judge yourself for how many things you've killed. After the last boss, I was asked to go through the whole game again without killing anything for a different ending, this time with characters commenting on various forms of déjà vu after restarting. This, I understand, is one of the main things people loved about Undertale. The fact it remembers your previous playthroughs. Which is pretty cool, but about halfway through my second I stopped playing. It wasn't different enough, and the gimmick of remembering what happened previously, in all honestly, isn't new.
It brought back memories of the Zero Escape series, a thoroughly excellent puzzle series that also makes use of multiple playthroughs to progress the plot. There's also the online choose-your-own adventure "The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo", which also has characters remembering things from other playthroughs. Or heck, the visual novel Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi has a very surreal and excellently done ending done in a similar vein. Even when it comes to humorously deconstructing the act of player choice, The Stanley Parable became one of my favourite ever games for doing just that. Talking to enemies rather than fighting them? The Shin Megami Tensei series has been doing that for years.
Now I'm not saying that just because these thing still exist, there's no room for Undertale. Quite the contrary, it's great to have different perspectives on a subject matter, and Undertale is completely unique in what it brings, and how effortlessly it combines all these different tools. But what it does mean is that after all the hype the game, I found myself comparing it to these other games all too easily.
The problem is when someone tells you something is original, you can't help but think of something that's similar. Maybe that's just me being cynical, but as I played through the game and I found my expectations weren't being met, I started reminding myself of these other games. I started noticing every flaw and problem with Undertale. Things I probably wouldn't have done with there was no hype around it, and I hadn't been told a thing before playing.
Undertale is a game best experienced with no prior knowledge. If I stumbled across it on a Steam sale having never heard of it before, I would probably sing this games praises to the moon. But as is, I was constantly lumbered with ludicrously high expectations for it, and my enjoyment of the game was severely diminished. I'm sorry I didn't enjoy you as much as I should have Undertale. I truly think we could have gotten on very well in another life. But for now, you're just another one of life's little disappointments.