Undertale and the problem with our need for universally loved games
I love Undertale. I love that it has gotten a lot of praise in the press and a significant word of mouth following. And as the game has picked up a wider and wider audience, there was bound to be pushback against the near universal praise it has received. Kill Screen, a site I admire very much, recently published a mixed review of the game. The comments are already filling with readers telling the reviewer, Jake Muncy, that the game went over his head. I don’t see it that way. The review is a fair account of his experience. I don’t agree with his take, per se, but it’s absurd to tell him he was wrong in not enjoying himself. If the gameplay and structure frustrated him, that’s entirely fair criticism.
That’s all beside the point, however. What bothers me isn’t Muncy’s review, but the culture surrounding gaming criticism that sort of demands that games have universal appeal to be great. How did I get here from there? Here’s what I mean: Muncy gave Undertale a middling review because he found it largely inaccessible. Responses have insisted “no, you are wrong, you missed obvious points that would have pointed you in the right direction”. In other words, critics of Muncy’s criticism are largely defensive of the idea that Undertale is not for everyone.
The thing is, it’s not. Muncy has done no wrong here; he is simply recording his experience with the game, which is a critic’s job. It doesn’t negate anyone else’s experience, positive or negative.
On the other hand, to Muncy and critics of Undertale, I would say this: Perhaps it’s a good thing that Undertale was hard for you to get into. I don’t mean that pretentiously. I mean that if a second and third set of hands at the development wheel other than Toby Fox’s had fine-tuned the difficult and muddled aspects of the game, that it might have diluted Fox’s voice. And it’s the potency of Fox’s voice that people who love the game are responding to. In just about every other art form, we accept the pratfalls of great artists for the heights of their visions. If you tell Terrence Malick to find a plot and knock it off with sunbeams already, it wouldn’t be a Terrence Malick movie. It’s time for gaming to get on that boat.
Gaming is the one medium where we expect something that is an unqualified masterpiece to also have a sort of universal appeal to it. We obsess over Metacritic scores. When a game scores more than 90, we pick it apart, either justifying the grade or decrying it. We expect games made largely by huge teams of people to both move us like poetry and entertain us like a wild dream. I’m guilty of participating in this cycle. We rarely see this “praise/backlash/backlash to the backlash” cycle in other mediums to this level, especially with independently developed titles. And it’s sort of silly. It sort of goes without saying that in film, music, painting, even comic books, important works will also be challenging in ways that limit their overall appeal. We accept “well, this movie didn’t do it for me” more easily than “this game isn’t quite the masterpiece you say it is”. Yes, part of that is how personal our favorite games feel to us, but I think it’s something more. We want games that are universally beloved. We want games that do everything for everyone, that satisfy twitch gaming impulses as well as our desire for a rich, interactive story. And I think that universal desire for the universal “great game” is holding gaming back. Rich storytelling is rarely designed to appeal to everyone.
Undertale is an important work in gaming, because it is such an uncommonly singular expression, a story told by one person how they wanted to tell it. It is unvarnished, ambitious vision, the likes of which we rarely get in this medium. It’s almost impossible in AAA games. Even when a developer with a strong voice controls the story of a AAA title, like Ken Levine and Bioshock Infinite, too many concessions end up being made to make the game as widely accessible as possible. The story becomes watered down, reliant on cliche, and unsatisfying. But it’s rare even in indie game development for a game to be so focused in its expression and intent as Undertale. That makes it special, even if Toby Fox’s design choices make the game inaccessible for many. Fox is telling this story how he wants to tell it. That flies in the face of how we are used to playing games. It’s no surprise that much of the backlash aimed at Undertale has focused on the gameplay muddling the story. And it’s unfortunate that the response to that backlash seems to be insistence that people who did not enjoy the game are wrong. If you loved Undertale like I did, its value is in how it moved you, not in making sure everyone else has your exact experience.
As much as I love this game, I understand those who find the cries of “Play it twice!” from its fans maddening, who dislike the bullet hell aspects of the gameplay or who find its storytelling muddy and vague. It’s like with Terrence Malick movies: I get why you don’t respond to it even if I love it, but the movies need visionaries, whose works have the potential to inspire epiphanies in those they do connect with, even if half the audience finds it impenetrable. That’s the tradeoff that keeps art moving forward. We need more games like Undertale. And we need to start getting used to the reality that for gaming to advance as a medium for artistic expression, we need more titles that don’t please everyone.