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Unraveling Undertale

Why I Love: Just Add Water's Oliver William Walker examines the charm of a surprising, unusual, and thoughtful RPG

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Oliver William Walker, a designer at UK studio Just Add Water.

For me, Undertale is a once-in-a-lifetime game. Something that manages to feel new, fresh and original while also feeling comfortable and familiar. An experience filled to the brim with surprising unique moments that could only have been created as an interactive video game.

Replaying Undertale to write this, I felt myself transported back to my tiny university halls room, playing by my warm incandescent desk lamp in the dead of night. The game is tied with so many happy memories from that year of my life, particularly the feeling of making fantastic new friends and the immense independence you feel when leaving home for the first time.

"Undertale feels like a game come alive from a high school notebook"

It was around this time that I began seriously transitioning from a gamer and a lover of games to a professional game dev and designer. As I have matured as a gamer, it has become increasingly rare that a game will grip me. However when it came to Undertale, I was so hooked and immersed I didn't put it down until the early hours of the morning. I was excited to boot the game up the next day and this feeling of excitement and joy is the reason I love video games so much.

What was it about this deceptively simple game that had managed to capture my attention? Could it have been the fantastic characters dripping with unique personality and humor? Or was it the brilliant twist on an turn based battle mechanics? Possibly the sheer oddity of the adventure. But really, I know it was the holistic experience that Undertale builds that captured me.

Undertale feels like a game come alive from a high school notebook. Skeleton NPCs named after fonts, quirky humor and bad jokes, even the graphical presentation is delightfully handmade and quaint. It feels like a game that came fresh from someone's imagination. There's been no filter on the ideas; nothing is too weird or unusual for Undertale.

Core gameplay is built around an ingenious battle system that combines the best elements of multiple genres. It is a fusion of bullet hell games and turn-based RPG mechanics and the combination makes for a compelling and solid core game loop. The battle system also includes deep player choices that make you question if there is a better way though combat than chopping your enemies into little pieces.

Undertale combines JRPG concepts with bullet-hell shooters and options like mercy

Undertale combines JRPG concepts with bullet-hell shooters and options like mercy

Undertale manages to achieve a great deal with very little, which I am a particularly big fan of. The subtle use of sound when a character talks to you ominously from across a dinner table is a fantastic example of this. Even the art is no more detailed than it needs to be.

Music also stands out as extraordinary. The soundtrack is packed with catchy chip tunes that fit each moment perfectly. From the goofy themes of the skeletons to the climactic end battle, the music wonderfully emphasizes the on-screen moments. I often find myself listening to the music away from the game and feel transported back to those moments as I played them.

Throughout the game there were many moments where I felt delightfully surprised and taken aback. Boss battles particularly shine in the experience and certainly the end boss is something to write home about. Peppered throughout are game mechanics that tell little stories, most of which will have you laughing out loud. (The hotdog stand is a personal highlight of mine; you can ask for hotdogs over and over until there is a stack of them piling up on the protagonist's head.) Undertale is able to do all this and much more with its gameplay, making it a true encapsulation of why video games are my favourite media.

Undertale inspires me creatively on a number of levels. It is living proof that you can take the work of others and create something new and original, not only improving on the source material but providing your own unique perspective. I feel that Undertale is exactly the game that Toby Fox wanted to create at that point in his creative life and for me that is hugely inspiring. I believe that Undertale is a reflection of the people that created it and the things they hold dear. I think that all creative work is somewhat a self reflection of the creators, but here that feels especially true.

Undertale is a true gem that will stand tall in my memory for years to come. It captures the spirit of an indie video game beautifully. I think this game is fantastic, both as a creator and as a player. I love the bones of this game.

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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