Note: minor spoilers ahead. I won’t ruin major plot elements.
If you have played Undertale (if you didn’t, please stop reading right now and go play it), you may have come through some interesting feelings. It can be a cheerful journey most of the time, with likable characters and silly jokes here and there, even when the sense of humor gets a bit dark. Your lovely time with your “stepmother” or that unforgettable date with the one and only Papyrus are some of the sweetest times you’ll have. Laughs and smiles will be a common situation during your time with Undertale. However, I can’t deny there was something “itching” in my brain the whole time, a continuing state of anxiety. I found horror in this adventure, and I want to show it to you.
Don’t get me wrong. There aren’t scare jumps or a “frightening” story in Undertale. You won’t necessarily feel fear while you play it, maybe the complete opposite. Nevertheless, I felt nervous and aghast with some specific scenes and with what is under this tale of the last war between humans and monsters. These dark little secrets (who are we really?), the missing pieces that we will try to find and connect in our walkthrough(s). You can sense the fear of the Unknown in these pixelated lands, in whoever you’ll find in your way and the lack of knowing what you should expect.
Take the first “enemy” you encounter, for example. It’s a smiling and speaking flower. A quite cute one if you ask me, and I wanted to have a charming conversation with it because it seemed like a cool fella. My expectations were subverted from the beginning of the journey when this rude piece of leaves deceived me then attacked me. Not only it almost broke my heart (in a literal way, because in Undertale you protect your heart from the enemies’ moves), but it spat these words with a horrendous beam: “You idiot. In this world, it’s kill or BE killed. Die”.
Luckily enough, a human-like goat named Toriel helped me and later she would take the place of a mother. A remarkable one, that would teach me the basics of the game and some lore, all while taking good care of my human character. But again… my expectations would be subverted when I tried to exit the Ruins (the starting location in the adventure) and she would attack me. My own new stepmother, someone who just seemed impossible to do harm. And she’s an incredible spellcaster; the enemies I fought before were a joke in comparison.
In Undertale you can attack or spare the lives of the creatures you find along the way, and this will affect the journey and the ending you get (there are three possible endings depending on how you’ve treated enemies). When you fight bosses, this will change possible outcomes, if they live or die, their reactions and how other characters will behave with you. However, this doesn’t change the fact that our character’s own “mother” tried to murder us. She sure had her -understandable- reasons, but we are still talking about parricide here. Are we still going to have mercy with every creature we battle, considering they could stab our back in the end?
This anxious feeling of mine will appear with almost every character we meet. Some of them may change their thoughts towards us and others will be just an enigmatic personality with hidden desires, like Sans. Even the most inconsequential NPCs have an existential crisis and/or nihilism vibes around them: “Someday, I’d like to climb this mountain we’re all buried under”. “All that pressure to succeed… really got to her…”. “Everyone is always laughing and cracking jokes, trying to forget our modern crises… We can’t do anything, so why be morose about it?”. It was hard for me to feel safe in this treacherous environment, not to feel in danger around every corner. Of course, there will be genuinely good creatures, that will help us along with our quest and wish us good. But trust is a delicate matter when we are a stranger in a strange land and most of the natives try to kill or at least deceive us. It’s hard to form bonds with people when they can do harm when we least expect it. People can be pretty dangerous. Like in real life, isn’t it?
The last aspect I want to scare (tell) you about is how Undertale plays with your mind, not only with the creatures and the situations you have to face, but with the scenery. The map design in this title is fabulous, full of carefulness and attention to detail without a doubt. Despite the artistic choice and the inner-beauty of it (you’ll love it if you like games made in GameMaker), it has meaning. The different kinds of scenarios we will walk over vary from simple chunks of lands to labyrinthine laboratories. There is a constant “trick” between what is shown and what isn’t in these places. The use of darkness, in places where we can actually avoid any possibility of light and have our screen pure black. The use of excessive light, in locations, that present “magic” transitions and tense situations. It doesn’t matter that we have a cell phone and some characters will contact us from time to time (one of them will harass us, honestly). We can feel alone in this journey, maybe even in this whole existence in this odd universe, and it looks like there isn’t much we can do about it.
Undertale is a unique experience I just recently had. I laughed out loud with some corny jokes and hilarious moments, and I felt emotional with other situations. Specific characters grew on me and they became some of my most loved cast in quite some time. However, the most relevant sensation I got from this game was how it dug into my nerves, and the ever-present thought of “something is wrong and I’m being lied every moment”. The eventual macabre art such as the final boss design didn’t help much.