Talkin’ bout Undertale Part 1: The Tu-Toriel

Toby Fox, how?

Who are you? Where did this come from? How did you… DO this?

My first exposure to indie gaming’s new phenomenon came a few weeks ago when a friend of mine posted the following photo to his Facebook timeline.

At this point, I chuckled a bit, filed the image away in my mind, and assumed this was some odd game with no substance using bad grammar because “lol so random lol lulz.” Steam has no end of niche garbage for sale, so while that image was certainly weird and amusing, I didn’t feel any pressing need to drop $10 on a game with only that image as the selling point.

Then my YouTube feed starting filling up with Let’s Plays of this game called Undertale. The same friend started posting more images from the game. It became harder and harder to not see it everywhere, and everywhere it popped up it came with glowing reviews.

So I decided to give it a go. Watching it, that is.

I watched the Super Best Friends Play Undertale, and I got to approximately 20 minutes into the second video before stopping the video and saying, aloud (to nobody), “No, I have to stop.”

This was a game that needed to be played, not watched on YouTube, and going any further without playing the game myself would have been a disservice to the gameplay experience. I immediately bought the game on Steam. Twice (once for a friend).

Side note: If there are any developers out there who still think Let’s Play videos are bad for business, take note of what I just said. Watched video of game -> bought game. Direct relationship. Accept the free advertising.

So I’m going to talk about Undertale a lot. So much so, that as I started writing about it, the post got to unmanageable lengths, and I decided to break it into parts. Because let’s face it: even I don’t want to read 4,000 words of me talking about Undertale.

At once, anyway.

So we’ll start in this first part (of a planned three) by talking about the game generally, and talk about how the first moments with the game twist the player’s sense of trust in the game’s mechanics and storytelling style, which is an clever set-up to the rest of the plot (particularly the endings).

I’m going to try to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, but I can’t discuss the game with any kind of detail without talking about the routes and endings in at least some sense. So if you haven’t played the game, I advise you to stop reading this altogether. Undertale gets exponentially better the less you know about it going in.

So really, stop right now and go play the game. Nothing anybody can say – least of all me – can do justice to what the experience of playing this game is like.

Really, stop. Undertale is a Game of the Year candidate and it costs $10, and takes about 8 hours to finish. Go get it. Play it.

Now.

Okay, finished the game with at least two of the three main endings? Good. Let’s talk.

With the exception of the first hour or so, I went into Undertale fresh and unspoiled. I had a basic idea of what the game was about and what it expected of me from what I saw in Let’s Play videos, and that gave me a pretty good jump-start on the mechanics.

Ultimately, I wish I hadn’t even known that much. The slow understanding you come to as you play is one of the game’s strongest features, and I missed it. The tradeoff is that I didn’t waste any time choosing my route. I thought I was ready for it.

But I wasn’t ready. There’s no way to be ready for this game, which Toby Fox made almost single-handedly (design, programming, writing, music, and most of the art).

Undertale is a classic-styled RPG which clearly draws a lot of its inspiration from Earthbound and Mother 3. You need only look at the main battle screen to see that.

But Undertale isn’t Earthbound, Mother 3, Shin Megami Tensei (which shares talking mechanics with this), or any other RPG to grace our screens. Because what are those RPGs about?

Fighting or capturing monsters, growing stronger, leveling up, and defeating a final boss to save the world. Almost invariably so.

By contrast, Undertale is ostensibly a game about not fighting. I mean, you can fight if you want. The option is right there on the UI, and it works just fine. You can defeat monsters, level up, get stronger, equip better weapons, and so on. All the RPG stuff you expect is there, and certainly there are endings you can only get by using them.

But that’s not what makes this game special. If that was all there was to it,  Undertale would be average and standard. Still good, but just a standard RPG with great writing. Hardly something worth gushing about.

This is something different. Rather than defeat your enemies, Undertale challenges you to understand them. Every single encounter in the game can be passed by simply convincing your enemies to stop fighting. To do that, you simply pay attention to their dialogue, and try to figure out where they’re coming from. Then you can take an action (other than fighting) that brings you to an understanding with them.

The ice bird who makes bad ice puns? He’s just looking for someone to laugh at his jokes. The dog in the suit of armor just wants to be played with and pet (a LOT, in one particular case), like any dog. Some enemies literally just want to be left alone. You go into the battle just hitting them with a stick, and you’ll never find that out.

This “combat” is turn-based in a very clever way. While you’re trying to puzzle out exactly what it is that each NPC wants you to do or not do, they’re actually still attacking you. But rather than just take unavoidable, turn-based damage from attacks directly like a classic RPG, you are thrust into 5-10 seconds (sometimes longer for boss fights) of bullet-pattern dodging, themed for who you’re being attacked by and what with.

Avoid the attacks and you take no damage. Keep talking it out until your enemies lose the will to fight. Simple. Elegant. Not especially easy, but rewarding, active, and fun. And usually hilarious.

 

What’s impressive about the way the game conveys this to you is that it eases you into the act of “mercying” or “sparing” enemies by first hinting to you that not fighting is an option (if the “mercy” button on your battle menu wasn’t a clue), and then by giving you particularly non-threatening enemies to start with.

But that’s not your first encounter in the game. Your first encounter is one that makes you distrustful of everything that comes after, which is exactly what the game wants and needs from the player to tell its story (and especially its meta-narrative) effectively.

This is Flowey the Flower. He shows up in the very second room of the entire game and briefly explains a couple of game systems under the guise of being helpful. One such system is the one in which you collect “friendship pellets” to improve your “LV,” or “LOVE” level. He offers to “share some with you,” whereupon they start floating towards your “soul” (the heart avatar that basically serves as your hitbox) and your health drops to one if you take him at his word and hit his “pellets.” Because it turns out the “friendship pellets” are actually “enemy bullets.”

He then mocks you for trusting him, and goes on to explain that this is a “kill or be killed” environment. And then he looks like this as he mocks your naivety and launches a final, unavoidable attack to execute you:

You’re saved in the last possible moment by Toriel, the character the Internet has taken to calling “Goat Mom,” and the tutorial character who actually explains the game’s mechanics.

But at this point, it’s too late. Your first two minutes with the game has taught you two simple things:
1) Don’t touch the white floaty things in battle, because it turns out they hurt.
2) Trust nothing and no one.

The game has just lied to you, explicitly. At the time when you, the player, are the most vulnerable, unsure of what to expect or even how to play, your very first experience in the game is a near-fatal betrayal from a character who looks cute and unassuming. And this, in a game whose Steam description talks about making friends and not fighting.

So Toriel is the second character you meet. She, like Flowey, looks cute, non-threatening, and attempts to help you so much that she’s almost overbearing. But because you met Flowey first, you have no reason to trust Toriel. She seems nice, but there’s also something that feels a little off. She seems clingy. She’s a little too nice. A little too concerned. Like she needs to know where you are and what you’re doing at all times. Maybe that whole “right place right time” savior thing was a big set-up to make you trust her?

Oh look. Now she’s literally holding your hand to help you through an apparently dangerous puzzle. Because you should trust her… right?

None of this would give off a particularly unsettling vibe if Toriel was the first creature you encountered in the game. But it isn’t. At the time you encounter Toriel, literally 100 percent of the things you’ve encountered are cute creatures that have tried to kill you via betrayal by appearing innocent and helpful. Toriel seems like the most innocent, helpful creature imaginable, so all you’re thinking about at this point is when the heel turn will happen.

The reason this is important is because at the same time you’re trying to determine who’s friend and foe, the game is easing you into core mechanics. Remember what happened the last time the game “taught” you mechanics?

The first thing in the entire game someone told you to do almost got you killed, so now that Toriel and other monsters are telling you to not fight monsters (who are attacking you in every encounter), how much trust do you put in that? Why believe them any more than you believed Flowey, who instilled the “kill or be killed” mentality in a moment of sadistic honesty, and then acted on it directly?

You don’t know who to trust, and therefore you don’t know what to trust. All these monsters are attacking you, and some other monsters are telling you not to fight back. What sense does that make?

Furthermore, if you come in with even a cursory understanding of RPGs, you’ll notice some familiar terms: LV and EXP. You need EXP to bring up your LV, which increases your hit points and attack power, which are pretty much universally good things in RPGs. You’ll notice very quickly that sparing monsters gives you no EXP and keeps you at LV 1 indefinitely, because you don’t gain any EXP from “sparing” people.

Anyone familiar with RPGs knows that staying at LV 1 for the entire game is bad. Really bad. Especially when that means you’re only going through the whole game with 20 hit points.

So your RPG knowledge is telling you to at least knock out a few enemies to bring your LV up. On the other hand, the game is explicitly telling you not to (or at least that you don’t have to), but we already know it lies to you before, so whatever.

More than likely, the decision that you make will be rooted in what you believe to be the best gameplay decision, and chances are, that looks like something down the middle. That’s perfectly understandable and most likely what Undertale wants from you in the opening bit. You’ll learn later that Undertale is more concerned with your actual moral decisions than your gameplay decisions. The two are, of course, inextricably tied together.

At the end of the “tutorial” section, Toriel will invite you into her house, bake you a delicious pie, and effectively explain that this is your new home. Despite you being a human fallen from the surface into the world of monsters, Toriel is effectively adopting you. Or trying to, anyway.

LOOK AT HOW COMFORTING THIS IS.

Toriel reads you a book. She gives you a bedroom, which seems to have clothes, shoes and toys from other children just sitting around (alarm bells go here).It has a comfy bed. She’s really trying to be Goat Mom. Everything about it is comforting and normal, and that, specifically, makes you view it suspiciously.

But that place, comforting as it may seem, isn’t your home. Because you don’t know where any of this is going, this feels almost like a non-violent(?) kidnapping, and for all you know, it could be. The desire to leave that place is obvious, both because you don’t feel comfortable there as a character and because staying in place obviously isn’t going to progress the game.

You ask how to go home. Toriel deflects the question. You ask how to leave. Toriel abruptly excuses herself. You follow her. She tells you she is going to destroy the only exit to the Ruins. She goes on to explain that she is just trying to keep you safe; every human that has come through before has died upon leaving the ruins, at the hands of someone named ASGORE.

And yes, the game puts that name in all caps and red lettering. Because danger.

After ignoring Toriel’s repeated requests to return to your room and not try to stop her, she turns to you and…

The game’s first boss battle is a moment that likely throws a lot of first-time players off. While you’re still unsure whether or not to trust Toriel, her motivations appear, at least on the surface, to be in your best interest.

If you use the “check” function in battle, it even tells you as much:

But Toriel has created a situation where you seemingly must fight. She is blocking you from leaving the ruins, and has specifically told you to “prove you are strong enough to survive.”

This is the culmination of the entire opening of the game. All the misdirection, all the ideological struggles between aggression and pacifism, will be tested here. It seems like fighting is the only option provided to you against Toriel.

But let’s look at some of the hints strewn about in the game.

First, the Steam description.

Then, the dialogue in the actual game. I would argue the room with these frogs is the most important in the entire game, for these two lines:

undertale won't fight

undertale name isn't yellow

This is a hint, followed by a much stronger hint, on how to pass the Toriel boss fight – followed by every consecutive boss fight until the endgame – peacefully.

It turns out, your other option is being stubborn and “saying you won’t fight,” as the game hints is a viable option.

Choosing the “Spare” option repeatedly in this fight treats you to a series of dialogue from Toriel, in which she eggs you on to fight for a while, then slowly breaks down and begs you to turn back. Once your HP decreases to a certain point, you’ll also notice she is purposefully avoiding hitting you with a mortal blow, as well. Eventually she relents.

It isn’t immediately obvious that you’re making progress when you choose the “spare” option. The game has already taught you that only enemies with yellow names can be spared. But, it also hints that there are exceptions. The first three times you try the option on Toriel, all you get are ellipses. First you get one line, then two lines, then three. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the fact that there is progression.

It is a well-hidden option, and that is likely very frustrating for a lot of people. But it’s also effectively foreshadowed, it’s just up to the player to think outside of “usual” game mechanics and stick to their convictions.

In the coming hours, Undertale will find many ways to test those convictions and make sure that whatever ideological path you’re following is one you’re committed to.

But we’ll talk more about that in Part 2: Undertale and Morality.