Undertale: On Spoilers

Hans Jorgensen, September 9, 2016

By now, you have probably heard about a little indie RPG called Undertale by a guy named Toby Fox, in which you don't have to kill any of the monsters. If you haven't played it, you've probably seen fan art, read reviews, or got treated to headlines of how someone recreated part or all of it in Minecraft. And emblazoned on top of all of those bits of fan art, reviews, and headlines is usually some warning line or even an entire paragraph taking up space at the beginning of the article with words in bold saying "WARNING: UNDERTALE SPOILERS".

I, personally, love this game. Not only do I find it to be one of the best designed games I've ever played (and one of my favorite soundtracks of all time), I also found it to be one of the most interestingly written and thought-provoking games I've ever played. So as a gamer, programmer, and thinker, I'm probably going to reference it a lot in my blog. And before I do that, I thought it might be good to write this post so that not only do I have something to link to when I put those spoiler warnings on top of my own posts about it, but also so that you can know and understand why it is so important that Undertale not be spoiled.

(And, of course, I will do it without spoiling it. ☺)

In all honesty, spoilers are actually not too much of a problem. Sure, many stories do rely on anticipation of what happens next, or on big reveals of the secret plans or that somebody is revealed to be somebody's dad. But most of these really do not go beyond suspense, suspense that is dispensed with on second or third readings or viewings. And yet not only do we enjoy these works on the second, third, or even further readings or viewings, we can enjoy most of these on our first viewings even if they were spoiled for us. Heck, take the biggest spoiler of all: everyone in America who isn't a little kid knows that Darth Vader is Luke's father - and yet we enjoy the movies anyway.

But in Undertale, nothing could be further from the truth.

It's difficult to describe exactly how Undertale does this, but there is something about how it is written and presented that makes it feel alive. There is something that really makes the world feel more real, and that makes you, the player, an integral part of it. Everything that happens in Undertale really does feel like you are catalyzing it, taking individual actions and seeing the results unfold. It's a game that makes you think, a game that reaches beyond the traditional boundary of story and audience and instead sits down to chat with you, to ask you: why do you do the things you do? Why, when you look at someone or something, be it real or fictitious, do you think what you think about them and do what you do?

And what do you do? Do you pick it apart and see how it ticks? Do you learn about it and hug it? Do you spit on it and walk out? And once you have done that, what do you think? Undertale asks this question, and its answer stretches far beyond the confines of the game client.

Take drawings done by fans, for instance. Undertale's graphics are relatively simple, brought to life by their subtle animations, but much more by their dialogue. So in order to compose a drawing of a character or scene in the game, you have to fill in curves, establish details, shade colors. And when you do that, you fill it in with your impressions of what you saw: what kind of person do you perceive them as? What would it be like to meet this person in another context, to talk to them in another place and time?

Or, take the game's soundtrack - over 100 tracks ranging everywhere from 8-bit chiptunes to moving piano pieces to electric rock ballads. As the game progresses, each song associates itself in your mind with how you felt, what you wanted to do - and how the game spoke back to you. You might stumble across a cover of one of the pieces, or even write one yourself. How do you interpret it? How would it feel if you were in that place and time?

And the reason it matters so much is because you eventually will come to that place and time. Those moments you encounter in the imaginary world of Undertale, you will encounter again in the very real world around you. Fears, disappointments, and joys may come, times that put you in those moments that affect what you will do and who you will become. And people will come to you - people who may have rich, lovely stories but also may be hurt, may be scarred by fate, may be disillusioned, may be naive. They may carry hatred or vice, or a complicated past, or the weight of the world on their shoulders. They may just want to be loved, to be understood. And you will need to ask yourself - what do you think of them, and what do you want to do? And why do you want to do it?

And that is an experience that you can never replicate by simply watching the actions of another, by allowing the story to be told by someone else. For when you do this, that question can really no longer be asked, because it is being answered by someone else. All of your thoughts will be colored by theirs, and what you want to do with what you see here will be confounded with what you think of them. All of the plot details and character reveals can never have the power in this published form than they can if you see them and act through them yourself.

Should you never read Undertale spoilers? I wouldn't say that. People do have a right to know what they are getting into, to make the best choices they can about what they wish to put into their minds. I did some of this myself - when I played Undertale for the first time, the first chapter was spoiled for me already by my own volition, through IGN's review. And that led me to appreciate the game much more, to realize its genius and the forethought that Toby Fox put into making it.

But if you claim that you can understand the game through reading reviews and leaving it behind, I tell you that you cannot. Take a seat and dive in. You will never be sorry you did.