I hate that flower guy. Flowey. You meet him about three minutes into Undertale and he's a liar. And not one of those I'll-tell-a-little-porky-to-spare-your-feelings liars, either, but a compulsive, manipulative six-petalled twat of a helianthus. He tells me that it's OK not to attack him, that all he wants to do is talk and then, BOOM, he's shooting bullets at me that surround me in a circle. There's no way out. He's going to kill me—a harmless kid, who just wants to get home, is going to get killed by a sunflower. "It's kill or be killed," he says.
This is the world of Undertale, an indie faux-JRPG (and currently the highest-rated PC game of all time), that posits a question: Are you capable of playing through the entire game without a killing a single enemy? My answer: well, maybe. Sort of. I guess I can spare most creatures, but this flower thing, I'm not too sure. It's his face—the way it expands and contorts, twisting into something truly evil as he moves to kill me. Fuck Flowey. It's 180 seconds into my first playthrough and I'm screaming at a talking sunflower. Luckily, before he crushes me, I am saved by Toriel, a strange goat-cum-dragon creature whose name sounds oddly like the echo of tutorial.
Made and scored by Toby Fox, Undertale is one of those rare games that blindsides you with its creativity and love of play. Echoes are important to Undertale—everything feels familiar but somehow not, an amazing achievement of making new a fairly tired game formula. Anyone who grew up with a Final Fantasy game, Chrono Trigger, or EarthBound will feel immediately at home—for about five minutes.
The earliest hint you get that the world may be playing with convention, rather than adhering to it, comes in the battle system—it mimics the classic turn-based formula superficially while being absolutely nothing like it whatsoever. Undertale luxuriates in pretending. It's your crush hiding behind a Halloween mask.
If you're anything like me—and I think you are—you're familiar with the tedium of certain turn-based battle systems, where all you have to do is mash X to win against 99 percent of foes, which gradually, slowly, gently, placed your brain into a catatonic state across its 70 hour play time. Not Undertale. The battle system is a bullet hell with heart. (Literally: your cursor is a heart that you must steer through waves of attacks). In response, you can whack them back, or choose to "act," which begins a battle-within-a-battle where you're required to figure out what is eating each individual enemy and then use the correct remedy.
Undertale contains some of the best boss fights I have ever experienced, which you can win without ever having to lay a finger on your enemy. Some—I'm not gonna spoil any of them—are so damn cathartic that I was basically in tears by the end of the encounter.
'Undertale,' release trailer
That's because everything seems so tight in Undertale. Everything from the battle system to the world to the characters feels carefully thought out. It's both charming and horrifying; a coming of age story refracted through a Grimm brothers fairy tale. Enemies are cute and awful at once; it's unsettling and often uncomfortable, and a whole lot like growing up.
This is what came to me time and time again while playing: Undertale is about navigating that weird, icky space between childhood and adulthood, where home feels comfortable but boring and everyone in the outside world is trying to kill you. The whole tutorial area is essentially childhood—you're guided through puzzles by your mom-stand-in Toriel (who loves you more than anyone; who protects you; who is lonely), taught how to manage the world; but when it's done you have to confront her, and either kill or spare her. And, when you do, you're thrown into a barren world of snow, plagued by skeletons.
New on Broadly: The Broadly Guide to Touring in a Band
Later, you can date characters (skeletons, cats, or you can even flirt with Toriel, if you're into that sort of thing). You can get to know why a ghost is upset or laugh at a bug's terrible jokes. Or you can simply kill everyone in your path. It's up to you. And the more times you spare someone, the harder the game gets: you don't earn XP, so you never level up. This is reflected in real life. It's not easy to fit in; it's not simple to understand each other and your place in the world. Oftentimes, it's the most ruthless folk get the furthest. Undertale gets that. You are the only human being in a world of monsters, which is a sentiment a lot of people have experienced at one point or the other.
Even when you kill someone like, for example, Toriel, you can't simply reset and try again. Undertale, just like the big velociraptor in Jurassic Park or real life, remembers. Trust me. When I did that, because I couldn't figure out what Toriel wanted and felt awful for slaughtering her, Flowey soon popped up to gloat about my failure. He was right: I had lost patience. I had failed to understand Toriel's needs. I had become a monster. I had become Flowey.
There is no escape from your fuck ups. There is no safety in the save and reload tactics. When you hurt someone's feelings, they're going to remember. Your mistakes linger, even your actions in previous playthroughs haunt subsequent runs. The heart and soul of Undertale comes from two characters who have neither—Sans and Papyrus, a couple of skeleton brothers who are gaming's Beavis and Butt-head. Your relationship with them will be colored over and over again, every time you play. It's a wonderful thing—to feel connected to what is essentially an image on your monitor.
Undertale is a deeply thought-out world that is the living embodiment of a Peter Molyneux promise. But it isn't gratuitous—it actually doesn't care if you play it once, one way, and then never touch it again. It makes your choices matter, but doesn't smack you over the head with the illusion of free will. The more time you invest, however, the richer the experience becomes. The further I went on my adventure, the more I found myself acting truly as I would—not because a mechanic was forcing me to, but because I felt the presence of actual options.
You could go the entire game not killing anyone and then spare the final boss. What effect that would have is for you to discover, but there's a real sense Undertale will remember. It rewards you for going with your gut, rather than slamming X in every battle until the entire universe is dead. It's easy to attack, but it's not so easy to get to the bottom of what people want from each other.
Undertale is a game that made me long for the innocence of youth while simultaneously making me smile at the weirdness of the world. Every choice matters, and the game remembers whether you've been naughty or nice. It's not trying to judge or test you. It merely presents you with a quest and lets you figure out how you're going to get from A to B‚ how you're going to treat people, how you're going to be remembered, how you're going to be a success. It feels a lot, now I think about it, like life.
Undertale is out now and if you have a PC you should probably play it. Here is the game's official website for more information and that.
Follow David Whelan on Twitter.