Caution: Potential Spoilers
Undertale is one of the most highly-praised indie games of 2015. I sincerely believe it will continue to be for years to come. There is so much that creator Toby Fox did correctly when conceptualizing this game, and the story is just one of those things.
Now, I won’t spoil the plot for you. I came into this game pretty much blind and I’m glad for that. It made the experience so much more enjoyable when everything was a surprise. However, I will talk about something that added to the overall narrative design of the story: the combat system.
I know what most of you are thinking. What does the combat system have to do with the overall narrative structure of a game? In this case, quite a lot.
Without getting into too much detail, the main story of Undertale revolves around a young child falling into an underground world filled with monsters. To escape, the child must traverse this unknown land and face its ruler. The game also gives the player a choice in how to accomplish that goal. You can either proceed in standard RPG fashion by killing monsters you encounter along the way, gaining XP, acquiring currency, and increasing your LVs, or you can spare every creature and forfeit leveling up and acquiring money from enemies. Proceeding either way gives you a different ending. Both are interesting endings and worth seeing.
What does the combat system have to do with this? Everything. It’s another instance of storytelling occurring in the negative space of the game. Undertale sports a unique battle system which combines bullet-hells and reaction time events together in an RPG, turn-based framework. The interesting part is the aspects that are attributed to each type of combat action.
In this game the player attacks are very different from the enemy attacks. While the enemies attack using bullet-hell inspired attacks…
…the player attacks using reaction time events.
The former deals with defensive play, while the other highlights offensive play. This seems pretty standard. There are many games that employ the same sort of logic.
In Undertale, the way in which you deal and take damage directly reflects what the developer wants the player to be feeling at those moments. The bullet-hell enemy attacks make you focus on avoidance. You don’t want to hurt anybody, but you also need to stay alive. Subtly, the game is telling you that the monsters that are attacking you don’t really want to kill you. Their attacks are not directed at you most times; they’re just random bullets. So just avoid them. You know you can. Have mercy.
On the other hand, the attack mechanic relies on speed and accuracy. To deal the most damage, you must hit the action button in the center. If you hit too early or too late, you deal less damage and even run the chance of missing the target entirely. There is no room for hesitation. You must focus and strike exactly. This is what you must do to enact a genocide on all the monsters in the Underground.
This is a subtle and elegant way to integrate story into the overall game design. Things like this are what make analyzing story in video games so fun. I highly recommend playing this game, even if you are not intoparticularly into games! Check it out on Steam or download it directly from the developer here.