How Undertale Changed the Gaming World

Why a silly indie game from 2015 became one of the most influential games in modern gaming culture

How Undertale Changed the Gaming World
Source: Press Kit.
“Legends say that those who climb the mountain never return.”

One human, alone in a world of monsters, trapped far beneath the earth at the end of a long and bloody war. One human, with nothing but their wits and a sense of determination.

This setup isn’t unusual for an adventure RPG, but Undertale is anything but your typical adventure. Visually stunning with retro 8-bit style and technically simple, relying on arrow keys and a 3-key command system, Undertale is an indie game created by Toby Fox. It was released on September 15, 2015, and quickly became the hottest new game, topping the charts with a whopping 530,000 copies sold before the end of the year.

No one could get enough of it! It was the highest-viewed letsplay series for many of the top gaming YouTubers, garnering millions of views across the platform in record time. Its soundtrack went viral, especially the signature song of the Genocide route, Megalovania, which has been mixed and remixed hundreds of different ways. There was fanart for every major character and most of the minor characters, and cosplays of the various boss monsters took over every convention in 2016. Fan games spawned almost overnight, and the fan community ran wild with theories about every tiny story aspect they could get their hands on.

Even now, Undertale is many people’s go-to game when asked about their favorite story or plot twist. In fact, it has a positive approval rating on Steam of more than 96%, and with more than 800 concurrent players on average as of September of this year, it’s still an incredibly popular game.

But why? Why has this silly little game full of goofy skeleton puns and deadly flowers been nominated for more than twenty awards in nine different award programs, winning four of them? What is it about this game that sticks in people’s minds and captures their hearts?

Pacifism in gaming

Fox’s game is so incredibly different from any other RPG because of the availability of a True Pacifist route; you can complete the game without killing a single monster, from the smallest encounters all the way up to the final boss. Indeed, this route is the only way to get the absolute best everyone-lives everyone-is-happy ending.

And it’s that complete pacifism that’s the key; you can’t kill even a single monster if you want this ending. If you accidentally hit something too hard, you have to start the game over completely if you want to have any hope of getting the best ending.

This flies in the face of most long-time gamers’ instincts. Every other RPG requires killing enemies to gain experience and level up in order to finish the game, even if the option to spare certain major characters is available. The Pacifist route was the complete antithesis of traditional adventure games, garnering curiosity as more and more people played and learned of this new ending option from a short post-credit scene.

This attention to detail, in that every action the player takes has a real, measurable effect on the ending of the game, means that Undertale has an extremely high level of player autonomy, which, according to the popular YouTube series Game Theory, is one of three major driving motivations that drive people to play videogames. Players like to feel that they are fully in control of how the game will play out, and Undertale ensures that this is the case in the most literal way ever seen.

Undertale's immersive settings and stories

On top of that, Undertale is an incredibly immersive experience. Not only are all of the characters, from single-interaction background characters to main, recurring bosses, fully fleshed-out personalities with their own motivations and arcs, but they fit together as a cohesive society.

The Underground is a fully functional monarchy, with a clear royal family line, practicing (if ineffective) military and defense system, well-defined history, and examples of everyday citizens with normal jobs and lives.

It’s a believable setting within the confines of its own reality, which makes it much easier for us to implement the suspension of disbelief and fully invest in the story.

And of course, there’s so much hidden lore to this game! Who is Gaster, and what happened to him? What really happened to the first fallen human and Asriel? Who is Sans, really?

There are a thousand breadcrumb trails that are impossible to gather in a single playthrough, and since the game discourages players from completing multiple runs of the same game file (which is another fantastic ARG element), this means that players around the world have had to collaborate in order to gain as much of the story as possible, creating an intense, tight-knit community of fans.

Frisk and the Riverperson travel on a purple river. Text reads “Tra la la. Beware of the man who came from the other world.”
Source: Author.

Toxicity in the Undertale fan community

This fan community, unfortunately, has had serious issues. Several letsplayers have been forced away from the game due to overwhelming negative reactions to certain play styles, including Markiplier, who was so pressured by his audience to do a certain kind of run that he abandoned his original letsplay after only two episodes.

He only completed the game on his channel in late 2016, more than a year after the game’s release, in a series of live streams in which he discussed the difficulties he’d faced with the community. He, like many streamers, struggled with avoiding serious spoilers that would influence their gameplay and ruined the immersive and unexpected experience of each ending.

Undertale still connects

Still, despite these many setbacks, Undertale has found a special place in the hearts of many gamers. It has an approval rating on Steam of nearly 95%, and the reviews seem to speak for themselves.

“Some games are okay.

Some games make you stop and reevaluate who you are at the very core of your person, make you feel a depth of emotion that no work of art ever has before, and then leaves you with a genuine sense of loss when its all finally over and gone, because you know you won’t ever be able to experience anything that beautiful for the first time ever again.

You should probably play Undertale and find out which one it is.”

-Heroic Matt on Steam, September 2015

“if you need to step away from AAA-games for a sec, this game will bring something entirely new but with a quality story AAA-games wish they had.”

-Mynameisgregor on Steam, September 2020

It’s clear to see that Undertale is a game that can stand on its own through the test of time. Beautiful, classic, and deceptively simple in style, this game is an excellent callback to the original core of the RPG. Inspired by classics like Earthbound and the Legend of Zelda, Undertale is so beloved and fan-centric that it has inspired so many fan spinoffs and reinventions. It would be hard to deny it as a powerhouse in the world of modern gaming.

It’s enough to fill anyone with determination.


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