Undertale is a post-modern masterpiece. Toby Fox, its creator, has produced a work of interactive narrative art that is moving, surreal – and fiendishly clever.
We are slightly late to the Undertale party – it was released towards the end of last year – but it is a game that deserves repeated praise, as it is sure to feature prominently in video-game history. Besides, it's a slow-burner, not a flashy, triple-A title, and it's just as cheap on Steam now as it was a few months ago.
The game begins with an ambiguously gendered 2-D preteen character falling into a magical world filled with monsters, which has been sealed off from the world above by humans. A stranger to this world, you must navigate it and decide its fate.
So far, so RPG. Visually, Undertale resembles Pokemon, the classic monster-battling 2-D role-player. But that is where the similarities end. Undertale reveals itself to be an incredibly sophisticated, ironic riff on the conventions and rules of the role-playing genre, and of video games themselves.
It runs the full emotional gamut, too, inspiring you with heroism and – as one running joke has it – determination, before making you bawl your eyes out at tragedies of your own making. It is an imaginative triumph of post-modern narrative.
The battles are unique to gaming. The mechanic looks simple – dodge attacks, and pick from a Pokemon-style roster of retaliation options.
You can, of course, fight the monsters if you wish. Or you can flirt with them, challenge them to a bicep-flexing competition, stoke their insecurities, pet them or invite them to wash you. The boss battles are spectacular.
There are surprises aplenty in store. The game plays with parts of the combat interface in unexpected ways – and any rules that the game appears to have established will be broken by the end of it. Undertale teaches you to take nothing for granted.
Fox has also written an original score for the game, which at several points offers a truly brilliant combination of gameplay and music. And he is willing to abandon the established visual style of 2-D RPGs for visual effect – in ways that surprise and confound.
The writing, meanwhile, is clever in two ways. The comedy is sharp and sparklingly funny, while the tragedy is soul-wrenching. There are moments so touching that tears are likely.
But it is the structure of the plot – making use of multiple endings, concealed secrets and unique encounters – that ingeniously manipulates your expectations. Fox achieves something that many games have tried, but never accomplished – playing around with the possibilities offered by a game having multiple endings.
Undertale is underpinned by heavy hints of a subterranean plot that involves time travel, secret characters and video game-bending metaphysics. Killing – the default goal of most video games – has consequences, not all of them expected.
And without giving anything away, the game’s finale is one of the most bizarre confrontations in the history of video gaming.
Undertale rewards repeat playthroughs. It lures you into thinking that you have a save file, in the manner of older games, but this is for show – autosaves, and sly references to choices you thought you had erased by clever saving and reloading, deliberately disorient you.
Fox knows how players interact with games now and has filled this one with Easter eggs designed to cater to the forum-trawling hacker-sleuths who play them. Clues are hidden even in Undertale's files and in the code of the game's website. This game knows how you have played it. It is one step ahead of you and it will tell you so. It smashes the fourth wall to pieces and makes Metal Gear Solid's Psycho Mantis' memory card-reading trick look like a cheap stunt.
This structural playfulness – combined with the game's technical mastery of video-game engines and music, and a deeply emotional story, all realised as a single, coherent work of art – is why Undertale succeeds so resolutely.
One reviewer wrote of Last of Us, the story-heavy zombie thriller on the PS4, that it was gaming's Hitchcock moment. If so, then Undertale is gaming's Ulysses moment, and Toby Fox its James Joyce.
It has a place in the post-modern canon – somewhere between the meta, time-travel zany of Slaughterhouse 5 and the irreverent fantasy-surrealism of Terry Pratchett.
One thing is for sure, you’ll never think of experience points in the same way again.