Game Design Analysis: Undertale

This article will contain spoilers for the game Undertale

Today we’re going to be analyzing a couple particular areas of Toby Fox’s game, Undertale. We’ll be talking about how some of the NPC dialogue is tailored to the player, what makes the fight with Sans so difficult, and how subtle changes could create a mood and atmosphere suiting the situations you’re in.

First let’s talk about dialogue and how everyone’s experience is tailored to their playstyle. In the case of most games, when you talk to an NPC they have specific pieces of dialogue they may give depending on how far along the game you are or in some cases have a few pieces of dialogue they may randomly cycle through. In the case of Undertale, when it comes to NPC dialogue or examining the environment there are several variables in place with each piece of dialogue. Variables such as what items you have on you, what’s equipped, who you’ve talked to, what you’ve examined, and going back as far as what choices you’ve made not only on this playthrough, but previous playthrough’s and how many you’ve gone through. On top of all of this, a random number generator then decides which among a small group viable dialogues to give you, making each playthrough slightly unique. The coding used to do this is very simple, but somewhat time consuming which is why you won’t see this method in many AAA games due to the deadlines they are pushed to meet. The short length of Undertale also lends itself in favor of this technique, and most major game companies prefer to go for longer playtimes over replayability or unique playthrough experiences with some exceptions.

Now let’s talk about atmosphere and the subtle ways of adjusting it to your needs in a game. One of the things Toby Fox became very well known for with the creation of Undertale other than the creation of the game, was the music composition he made for the game. Audio is more than just complementary to a game, it’s a tool of emotion. The audio that exists or doesn’t exist sets the mood of a situation or environment as effectively if not more than a talented voice actor or good dialogue. Anyone who’s done a genocide run of Undertale has witnessed this a few time with the infamous “But no one came” scene in which after all the monsters of an area are killed off and you enter another random encounter only for no opponent to show, the music cuts out instantly and is replaced with an ambiance of wind blowing through an empty chamber and a few dramatic low notes slowly playing. This touch is subtle, yet powerful. This is just one example of several in which the music, sound effects, and ambiance alters the mood of the player to fit with the scenario.

Click to hear the ambiance for yourself!

Lastly let’s talk about the infamous final boss of the genocide playthrough, Sans, and why it seems so difficult. Sure the fight is stacked in his favor as any final boss should be, but there’s more lying behind this fight than what it seems at first. We’ll start with how Sans fights. Sans breaks the rules established by the game several times in the fight by dodging attacks, doing poison damage, and ignoring invincibility frames that you typically gain after taking a hit. Why is this important? Well to put it simply, when you challenge Sans and these mechanics he breaks make themselves aware, your first thought might be that it’s not exactly fair which is just a part of the big plan to make you fail. The term “tilting” refers to the meta-gaming tactic people may use in PvP where they attempt to enrage their opponent which leads to poor decision making and lowered reaction time by their opponent. This goes from any kind of competitive game from shooters to Poker. Sans in Undertale is designed to tilt the player and catch them off their game. First by making the fight generally unfair, and then later as his dialogue continues to berate you, condescend, and mock you for every time you fail to beat him. Your first fight against him is likely to fail as you won’t know what he’ll be throwing at you, and any subsequent fight will remain difficult as your experience in dodging his attacks goes up, your mood and temper will bring your performance down at the same time. Lastly there’s the big center construct that the game’s story seems to revolve around, determination. The game brings up determination several times in the story before a big reveal that the game’s idea of “determination” is actually a meta concept of you as the player reloading a save after failing, thus being determined to win. This concept is pushed on you several times throughout the game, and in this final fight it ultimately betrays you. “Dungeon fatigue” is a term often used when a person either plays a game for too long or does a repetitive task in a game for too long. Eventually the experience wears on you and will affect your performance just as tilting does. The worst part about this one is we do it to ourselves. Every time you make a little bit more progress in the fight before failing, there’s a small voice in your head that says “one more try.” And as you keep going, you’re likely to fail more and more. This leads to the actual true best strategy for defeating Sans, which is to take a break from it. If you find you’re failing a lot, stop playing, give it some time, then try again later when you feel renewed, motivated, and ready.

Image taken from the wiki

That’s all for this week’s Design Analysis breakdown, let me know in the comments below if you’d like me to go over any specific game next week! And if you’d like to buy Undertale, you can click the Humble Bundle link below for it! A portion of your payment will go to charity and you can access the game on PC, macOS, and Linux!

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