My gift to Carr is this year’s indie darling, Undertale. It’s kind of a throwback to old-school RPGs, but has enough moment-to-moment twists on the genre that I hope will keep him interested. I chose it because I think Carr will appreciate its quirky dialogue and elegantly simple plot. I’m especially looking forward to hearing his reactions to the story getting all meta, which I know he’s a sucker for.
I don’t think Carr will be turned off by the rather mundane intro; once things get going after the first half hour or so, I think he’ll really dig in. Overall, I’m curious which playstyle he’ll end up gravitating toward. He’s pretty good at picking up story cues, so I’m hoping he’ll figure out where the game could take him and choose either a neutral or pacifist route. Not that a genocide run would be a bad thing; I just won’t have as much to talk with him about.
It’s not often I’m made to feel this rotten. The last time I was struck so brutally in the feels I was pulling that final trigger on The Boss, or scrabbling to get away from what I’d done to all of those colossi as the world went dark. Undertale did that to me in the first 30 minutes. This is the same supposedly mundane intro that Seal mentioned in the forward and it’s something that has haunted me throughout my entire playthrough of Undertale.
So like anything else we talk about here at NitWitty I’m going to get all spoilery. To talk about something critically we need to actually, you know, talk about it.
In Undertale, you play as a human child who has fallen down into a deep cave that is populated with monsters. The opening cinematic tells the story of a war from long ago, between humans and monsters, but leaves the details up to the player to discover. Throughout Undertale, the player will have encounters with a variety of these monsters. During the encounters a player can Fight them, or there is an Act option available too. With Act you can talk to them, or look at them and see how they are doing and get clues on how you can react. Different monsters also have specific actions you can take, and by doing the correct actions in the correct order you can talk the monster down. For example, an early ghost you encounter is sad and morose. Through Acting you have the option to cheer them up, or make taunt them. Selecting the former allows you to end the encounter non-violently. The solutions to other encounters are far more complex though. Undertale is designed to show that there is always a way out. Basically, you can get through the entire game without having to actually fight anything up until the last boss.
I mention this because early on you encounter a monster named Toriel, who is an adorable little goat monster. She’s a delight. Toriel is nice, and she’s motherly. Early on when you have no power and no items, she protects you from other stuff. She teaches you how the game works, and how the puzzles are constructed, and she guides you through the first area – a place called the Ruins. She is constantly present, and even the early encounters you get into, if she’s around, Toriel will step in and harmlessly chase the monster away.
There however, comes a point where you have to advance past the Ruins. When you try to do that, she tries to stop you. She says, “No No No, I made pie! Butterscotch and Cinnamon pie.” She had gone through the effort of setting up a room for the player, and a gave them a cell phone. Toriel also explains during your travels that she wanted to be a teacher, so she has created a lesson plan that she can teach since you’re down there. Basically, she wants to give the player a new home.
As the player you talk to her and explain that you need to go, and get back to your own world. As you insist, she tells you that every human that has come through and gone, has died. But still you insist that you can survive. Insist that you need to face the dangers, and insist that you can be brave to get out of this area. At the end, you can’t just live in the Ruins with Toriel forever.
Maybe there’s an option that the game can end right there, and you can live forever with Toriel, eating Butterscotch and Cinnamon (or is it Cinnamon and Butterscotch?) pie. If that option exists, I didn’t take it. Instead, she said, “Okay, if you’re going to leave you have to face me first.” At that point, having been able to talk my way out of every single encounter, I was forced to fight Toriel.
When I fought her, there was no option to Act. I mean, you can but it doesn’t do anything. Instead when you Act all she does is stare at you and continue to attack you. It was in the middle of the fight that I realized that if you don’t move, if you just stood still, she wouldn’t hit you. In other words, Toriel wasn’t trying to hurt me. To get out of the encounter, I kept trying different things, but nothing seemed to work.
Eventually I had to select the Fight option, and actually attack Toriel. I attacked the goat lady, the one that wanted nothing but the best for me; I attacked the goat lady that had protected me. The only way that I thought to get past her, I thought, was to basically abuse her, to push her away, to eventually kill Toriel.
And that’s what I did.
Make no mistake, she’s a sprite. She’s 2 colors, she’s not real. I am aware of these things. But I felt this overwhelming regret. Toriel was gone. She was gone and not coming back. The cell phone she had given me just rang when I called her. Before I had been able to communicate and now I was greeted with nothing but a hollow ellipsis where her well-meaning dialog had been.
There was a silence as I continued, and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt awful. Truly awful. The one decent character I had encountered in the whole game was dead, and I did it. I didn’t do it because I was afraid, or in danger. I didn’t do it by accident. No, I did it because I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. I couldn’t find another option, some sequence of acts I could do. Maybe if instead I had offered up the Mercy option over and over and over again it would have turned out differently. Maybe, eventually, she would stop. But I don’t know, because that’s not what I did. Instead I attacked until she was gone. In the end I wasn’t clever enough to save her from me.
This had a drastic effect on how I played the rest of Undertale. For the rest of the game whenever I encountered a monster I would take the beating (I became very good at dodging at some point). I would explicitly go out of my way to figure out what every single monster wanted, and once I had worked that out I went on to do that. Of course learning the hard way means that I suffered a lot of damage, but I was willing to do that.
My encounter with Toriel colored my entire playthrough of Undertale. With the exception of her, I didn’t kill a single thing in the entire game. I didn’t kill Undyne, or Papyrus or any random monsters, or that robot or the king. Hell, I didn’t even kill that final boss meta asshole flower even though I really wanted to. (Like, seriously, that douche-nozzle flower closes the game window after he kills you, and the only way to beat him is to launch the game again.) Because at the beginning I had killed Toriel and the rest of the game I basically went out of my way to apologize for that original sin.
I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about these things usually. The games that make me feel something like that are few and far between. This one had a shocking effect on me. I was not expecting to come in and feel what I wound up feeling, and I did not expect for that emotion to stick with me for as long as it has.
What I received was Undertale, a game that everybody should play. It’s cute, and quirky and has this adorable 8-bit aesthetic. But what Seal really got me for my holiday, was the gift of regret.
So thanks for that.