Blog Archive

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Review of Undertale

Reviews | Milo
This will be the first in a number of reviews I will write based on the lessons I have learned about writing, storytelling and how to construct an engaging narrative from various different sources. I wanted to avoid writing a typical review of the things I enjoy for the following reasons: (1) I’m not planning on sticking to one type of medium e.g. I’ll be looking to review games, novels and more (2) There are plenty of other bloggers, websites and magazines that handle more “traditional reviews” and so I figured this was a far more interesting, and relevant, angle to take for The Patient Approach.

In this review I’ll be sharing my thoughts on ‘Undertale’, another critically acclaimed video game also released last year. Please share your thoughts on this fantastic video game, and let me know which lessons Toby Fox’s game taught you.

If you follow PC gaming or indie gaming you will have heard of Undertale, it is a game that was rightfully praised last year for its innovative gameplay, humour and engaging characters. However if you only have a passing interest in video games, or are completely distanced from the medium, you will need this warning. Undertale is a game that is very difficult to discuss without spoiling it in significant ways, so please keep that in mind before reading on.

Already played the game? Just played it now before returning? Don’t care about spoilers? Fantastic let’s continue with this review! Let’s begin by briefly summarising what type of game Undertale is before we move on to the more interesting part of this review. Undertale is a story about a character who falls into the underground world of monsters, a world that has been cordoned off from the human world after they lost a war many years ago and remains locked by a barrier. The objective of the game then is to escape the dungeon, however, the manner in which you do this is up to you. You can use the traditional video game method of bludgeoning everything in your path, or you can try to reason with the monsters you encounter. Whichever option you pick has a drastic impact on your gaming experience, from the music in certain areas to the bosses you encounter and the manner in which NPC’s react to you. Of course, as is customary, it will also impact your ending too. It is in the manner in which the game reacts to you that I find most interesting for a writer learning to improve his or her craft. 

This might seem unintuitive at first, because it seems to be a feature that is exclusive to gaming. After all how can you transfer a multitude of outcomes and reactionary responses to a novel? It’s not that I’d recommend utilising Toby Fox’s reactionary world, but rather, his character’s distinct and idiosyncratic reactions. The monsters in Undertale speak to your character, and at times to you the gamer, with such an earnest realness that you can’t avoid thinking of them as real people. If you choose to follow a path of peace then you gain the opportunity to befriend these monsters, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t start to care from them. Indeed I am not the only one, and I have seen other people commenting on how after the game’s biggest revelation (that EXP in Undertale stands for Execution Points), the idea of taking a route of violence, even as an experiment in morbid curiosity, was too difficult to stomach. The character’s in Undertale are so powerful and engaging because of the way that they talk to you, they don’t talk to the “player”, they don’t talk to your character nor your avatar. They talk to you. It is because they talk to you that they are able to react to your actions, it’s not simply a palate swap of one line of dialogue for another, but an entirely different experience that is presented to you depending on your actions throughout the game. Furthermore all of the characters have insecurities, quirks and idiosyncrasies that all real people have. They also have a deeply ingrained sense of apprehension that soon turns to genuine compassion and love as they get to know you.    

So the million-dollar question is: how to you transpose this to the written word? The simplest translation is to have characters who similarly talk to the reader and share their thoughts and opinions with the reader. This of course is nothing new and something that other novels have utilised across the years. It’s certainly worth trying it out to see if it’ll work for the world you are developing, however, a problem with it is that it brings the reader to the fore of the discussion. You see with video games the gamer is the elephant in the room, a thing that all the game’s AI must account for but, for the most part, cannot address. Novels are a polar opposite to this, as their domain is more alike a perpetual play whose actors perform without pause or reprieve regardless of whether anybody is reading it or not. The reader is, for the most part, an entirely passive recipient of their experiences whereas with gaming they are the orchestrator. If this is to be the case then, I’d suggest that Undertale teaches us a subtler way of talking to a reader, as opposed to the reader. I believe that if you want to create characters who befriend and engage with the reader who have to create characters who are ultimately looking for that friendship on a personal level, you have to create space within the soul of the character that the reader can fill. On the flip side you can create scenarios that allow for a number of characters to act as surrogates for the reader, so that the reader might find a way into the story on a more intimate level. Lastly another way we can generate this effect is by using an awareness of the genre of your novel and subverting it in ways that draw the reader in. This allows you to create characters who a free thinking and very human in how they respond to a situation. For instance, you want to write a thriller about a former professional criminal who has been “pulled back for one last job”? Maybe you change the script slightly and he is instead a willing participant in the heist, maybe he can’t wait for another job because he has struggled to return to civilian life? Or maybe our protagonist is the one charged with getting this grizzled veteran on board, and during in the planning process she could think aloud in ways that gets the reader involved.

Ultimately I don’t know if these suggestions are particularly helpful or exciting, but they’re just starting points for how we can apply Undertale’s reactionary characters and unique dialogue to a novel setting.

Pictures can be found at

No comments:

Post a Comment