These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.
Undertale is a story about misfits. It’s about an androgynous child getting lost in a world of monsters banished by humans, only to find that the seemingly evil monsters are mostly just misunderstood. It’s an amalgam of Alice in Wonderland and Where the Wild Things Are, but it’s also a progeny of the Internet, from being a Kickstarter project to employing webcartoonists to contribute boss designs for the game. These influences fuse together to create a madcap world that draws you in with its charm and keeps you there with its heart.
Undertale‘s Internet ancestry also plays out in its weird metaphysical, multifaceted humor. The game’s writing transitions seamlessly from slapstick to deadpan to self referentialism to surrealism. For instance, you’ll meet Papyrus – one of many fan favorites in the game – early on, where his comedic themes rely on some pretty simplistic premises: “This is Papyrus. His speech text is in the Papyrus font and he just talks about spaghetti and how smart he is.” It’s a blended brand of humor that wouldn’t work if it were less sincere, but Undertale knows what it is and runs with it.
The humor would also misfire if it relied too heavily on any one facet or joke. Fortunately, Undertale contains a cast of crazy but cherishable characters that catapult you through the story and ensure that the humor and the charm never lose steam. These characters include, but are not limited to: a narcissistic, murderous robot; two slapstick skeleton siblings; a social media-obsessed dinosaur scientist; and a fast food restaurant worker having an existential crisis.
The game is also an ode to the 8-bit and 16-bit eras of games. Its soundtrack, composed by Undertale’s creator Toby Fox, is wonderfully chiptuny. All of the sprite work has an 8-bit level of detail but a 16-bit level of animation fidelity, making it look like it was part of a cross-generational NES/SNES art movement that never existed but should have. It’s obvious when Undertale wears its influences on its sleeve, from Earthbound to SNES-era Final Fantasy titles and beyond.
Toby Fox’s creation has a lot to say about games too. The metacommentary comes out in multiple design choices. In the writing, characters comment on things that other games wave away with suspension of disbelief, like monsters having casual conversation about making puzzles and fighting cause that’s what they’ve always done and what else would you do? In its combat, the game can be played pacifistically once you figure out the trick to peacefully disarming each combatant. But the game doesn’t tell you that, instead waiting to see what assumptions and biases you bring to the game.
Should this be more explicit? That’s probably one of the questions underpinning people’s criticisms with the game. If you play Undertale solely as a turn-based combat RPG, then the gameplay part of this game gets much more repetitive and a lot less fun.
Being a member of iconoclastic Internet culture causes Undertale to be somewhat insular, but that’s the risk all art runs. In order for narratives to identify with people’s personalities and worldviews, there are people and opinions that a story will automatically exclude. Because we’re not all birthed from the same hive mind, all media is not going to resonate with all people. And if Undertale tried to identify with everyone, then it would lose what makes it so special.
This misfit manifesto is definitely not for everyone, but it’s worth trying out to see if it’s for you. Because if it is, it’ll be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have.