A forlorn, decrepit statue sits unmarked in a small, unremarkable chamber, water dripping down from the ceiling above. Up ahead, you find a small bin of umbrellas, appropriate, as a downpour has now started. However, there’s no reason you can’t backtrack. The statue is only 10 seconds behind you. And so you set your umbrella over the stone figure. A tinkling music box melody, short, sweet, and a touch melancholy, begins to loop, befitting the seemingly forgotten statue you took 10 seconds to care about.
It’s small moments like this, among many, many others, that have continued to stick in my memory five years after finishing developer Toby Fox’s sleeper hit indie video game, Undertale.
Undertale has been on my mind lately, as Sept. 15 was the fifth anniversary of the game’s release. While it’s not exactly a date I have marked on my calendar, I noticed my Twitter feed abuzz that evening about the game’s exceptional soundtrack, and I traced that excitement back to a pre-recorded live orchestral concert of the music, which Fox had shared on his Twitter feed. As a fan of both the game and the music, I decided to keep the concert running in the background throughout the evening.
Publications with a dedicated focus on video gaming media have already written at great lengths about Undertale’s out-of-the-blue runaway success in 2015. While it’s not uncommon for narratively-driven video games to attempt to present players with moral dilemmas to solve, few games have thoughtfully integrated the implications of their own morality systems as Undertale.
Undertale is, in many ways, a parody of the role-playing game (RPG) genre. To roughly summarize, this genre focuses on fighting and winning battles, which earns your character experience points. Earning enough points levels up the character, which increases the statistics that determine how quickly and easily you can win harder fights. Often these games throw enemies at you that are glorified data spreadsheets, the image of a dragon tacked on to add a bit of personality. Often, the fights end with your enemies dead, accompanied by a little fanfare as your experience points accumulate.
Undertale’s tagline, “The RPG where no one has to die,” hints at its core gimmick. You can approach the game’s battles as fights to the death, but every fight doubles as a puzzle with a peaceful solution. The game’s narrative can be completed in four or five hours, short by RPG standards. Depending on whether you kill everyone or no one, the story plays out in vastly different ways.
More than just this gimmick, Undertale succeeds because its writing is sharp and clever. The game’s script is economical so that only a handful of interactions manage to paint each new character as a rich, vibrant personality. And as circumstances bring your hero into conflict with these colorful characters, the choice to kill or find a peaceful solution gains weight it may not otherwise have. The solution to win peacefully may not always be easily found, but the choice to kill, especially to kill wantonly, can have dire consequences.
And more than just the writing, the game’s soundtrack is wonderfully composed. For the past five years, I’ve been periodically humming the songs that backdrop Fox’s world. The music has that chiptune charm that’s helped the Super Mario Bros. theme survive 35 years, while also being laden with leitmotifs as memorable as the characters they represent. The jovial clatter of an amiable skeleton. The ethereal chime of a fern and crystal laden cave. A climactic confrontation with an old king wracked in grief. Fox has written a near-perfect song for each of these things.
When I heard those songs played via orchestra on Sept. 15, joining in with tens of thousands of other viewers, I’ll admit that the joyful thing they represented and the community they brought together brought some tears to my eyes. I admit that from a place of sincerity, of earnestness. Among many other things, Undertale is a piece of media that embraces earnest sincerity and rejects easy cynicism. It’s an attitude I wish more media in general would explore, and perhaps part of why, five years later, Undertale continues to stir something powerful within me.