This is the trailer for Undertale, a video game playable on PC and Mac that was released in September 2015. To the uninitiated in the world of indie games, this might seem like something out of the 1990s: the graphics and soundtrack are reminiscent of older games made for the NES or Gameboy systems. The graphics and sounds are nothing new, and even playing such games on a modern system is rather old hat as emulators have grown in popularity.
However, Undertale has made quite the splash in the gaming world. On the online distributor Steam, Undertale is owned by more than one million people. The game has been reviewed as being the game of 2015 by IGN and best game ever by the GameFAQs community. This game is significant simply because of its popularity, but such accolades after a few months on the market, and as an indie game made by essentially two people, raise a few questions: why is Undertale so exceptional, and how did it elicit such an intense fan response? Also, as an archivist, how and what should we try to capture from Undertale’s moment in video game history?
[The following contains some mild spoilers to the plot of Undertale. Be forewarned].
The Power to “Save.”
Undertale follows some standard features of a role-playing game. The player controls one character, a child who has fallen into the underground, a large cave-like area below a mountain, where monsters have been exiled after a ware with humans. They encounter monsters, some of whom are friendly, and some of whom are not, and they talk, battle, and trade with them, going through different towns and regions on their journey to return to the surface.
This game acts as a commentary on the RPG genre as a whole in a number of ways. First, you can play the game without killing anyone. Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale, has built in a system where the player can “Act” in a number of ways to dissuade creatures from attacking them. This is known as a “True Pacifist” run of the game. Alternatively, the player can kill everything and everyone they encounter, a method many gamers follow in other RPGs– this is known as a “Genocide” run.
Another interesting feature of the game is that it remembers what users do, even if they do not save. For instance, if the player accidentally kills the first main “boss,” and then attempts to go back to their previous save file, and then saves the first boss, the following dialogue happens directly afterwards.
Such features have not been common in previous games, even those made by major gaming companies, as things such as improved graphics and battle mechanics have been valued over more introspective games. When commentary on the genre has been used, it typically is incorporated in dialogue, with characters breaking the fourth wall and discussing RPG tropes. Toby Fox, instead, has chosen to comment on the genre in the very mechanics of the game itself.
This is what is often praised in articles and reviews, and so for that reason, these reviews and articles are significant to Undertale; they highlight the moment in gaming when Undertale was released.
Underminers and Source Code
Downloading a copy of Undertale is not terribly challenging, and so presumably an archive could obtain a copy of it and maintain hardware to open it with. However, as has been noted by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his book Mechanisms, there are things we do not see that are important to how the game is functioning, and these are things that are important to not only scholars of gaming, but to the community itself. Because the game remembers what players do, there has been an entire section of the Undertale wiki devoted to “Consequence Avoidance,” so users can TRULY erase saved data, which requires some level of going into temporary codes/scripts.
Toby Fox had said on Twitter that he did not want people data mining originally, at least for the first year of the game, although he has had a less strong stance on this since January. Because Fox made the game in an application called Gamemaker, a lot of the data can be extracted without having the source files themselves. There is a Reddit community called Underminers who have gone through many of the games files, and have found new and interesting secrets about the game. Because Fox created a game with such depth to it, where certain actions could be remembered and trigger future, different dialogues and interactions between characters, such information is invaluable to those trying to understand Undertale without playing through it multiple times.
The Fan Community: Memes, Art, and Games
The fans of this game have been incredibly active, and incredibly creative in their own rights. Particularly with data from Underminers, many fan games have come about. These all build on the plot and lore present in the original Undertale, often allowing the player to battle existing characters in the game who were not fought in the original, or introducing new characters who talk about their interactions with other characters. Most of these fan games are in the format of a battle, where the player is able to chose whether to not hurt their opponent, or kill them, highlighting that this is one of the mechanics gamers thought was most important, along with the detailed plot of the game.
Another major addition made by the fan community has been in the form of art and memes. Undertale has a number of memorable and repeated lines, and these have been used by a number of people in the gaming community to create memes and art pieces. These are significant and useful because, as a casual gamer myself, I have noticed that Undertale references have become abundant; people will say things like “[Insert anything here] fills you with determination,” “You’re gonna have a bad time,” or “Get dunked on!” These memes help highlight the phrases’ location/associations in the game, their usage, and their significance.
The fan response to this game has been immense, and is spread all over the internet. To document it, and to archive it in some way would allow users to see similar works, when and certain derivative games, stories, and images became part of the meta made by Undertale fans. This could also potentially become a growing trend for indie games. While major gaming companies provide games with expansive stories, requiring 40+ hours to complete, with lots of images, characters, and extra stories beyond the “main plotline,” Undertale is rather confined to one plotline with a few sidequests, and the game can be completed in under 10 hours. The fans of this game have filled in beyond this, and this could be a trend for future indie games.
Which Path to Take?
All of these aspects of Undertale are valuable, and could be documented/archived in some way. Their significance goes beyond Undertale itself, and the information they provide helps users understand Undertale, the gaming industry, gaming communities, and ultimately how the internet has affected so many aspects of how gamers and game creators interact.
Right now, I think that perhaps the most interesting route to take is in data mining and through the Underminers. This path, in my mind, highlights a number of the significant features of Undertale. By looking at certain aspects of Fox’s code available through data mining, and attempting to archive that content in a useful way, we can highlight the mechanics used by Fox that were so crucial to the game’s success. This type of data would presumably be useful for future game creators, something Fox seemed to be interested in fostering.
Also, this type of project highlights a moment in gaming history, where indie games are springing up because of programs like Gamemaker and RPG Maker that allow game designers to work efficiently, but also allow gamers to find out secrets about their games before playing them. Because of this, in many ways working with data mining and Undertale can include some social history elements as well, including perhaps a section on Fox’s opinions on data mining, and the Underminers’ reaction to such opinions.
Unlike the game Undertale, I think all routes here could lead to happy, fruitful conclusions.