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Undertale Is Winning

GameFAQs' "Best Game Ever" poll quarterfinals include 5 games by Nintendo, one by Square Enix, one by Konami… and Undertale, published by a single person and available for $10 on Steam or without DRM. The forums are full of "WTF?"

Undertale is sweeping GameFAQs "Best. Game. Ever." poll, and some people are outraged. Some claim that Undertale is only beating other games because people who hate Ocarina of Time have been grudge-voting for it, or that Undertale fans are "cheating" (definitions of cheating vary from post to post), or that the contests were won with paid-for votes. There is no indication of this happening—although there was an attempt to buy a victory over Undertale. (It failed. I have no idea if it was actually funded.) Several threads are trying to rally fans of several other games with an "anything but Undertale" approach, which is somewhat hampered by their followup "… except Ocarina of Time, which we also need to crush."

So far, it's directly beaten Mass Effect 3, Fallout 3, Super Mario World, Pokemon Red/Blue, and Super Mario 63. As I write this, it's running against Smash Bros. Melee; if it wins, it'll be facing off against either Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Super Mario RPG. (The GameFAQs community seems to think that Z:OoT is a shoe-in.)

The arguments are fascinating. Occasionally, someone will say, "I played it, and it's okay, but it's doesn't belong in Best Game Ever, and it certainly shouldn't have beaten [whatever game it most recently won against.]" A few others say they liked it and are voting for it. Many more than either of those, are incoherently yelling that this newbie-indie game shouldn't even be allowed in the contest, and whatever nefarious schemes its SJW tumblrina fanbase is using to keep it on top need to be stopped.

At first, I couldn't understand the rage. Sure, it's disturbing when a new tiny thing is more popular than an established behemoth in the industry, especially when it keeps being more popular. But gaming is a field of constant innovation, and the indie market is no longer a tiny fringe on the edges of "real gaming;" this was bound to happen eventually. So why the shock?

They weren't saying that the game had lousy mechanics. This is partially because many of them have never played it, but more because it doesn't—the mechanics are not particularly impressive, although some have said the combat system is innovative. The critiques against the gameplay code—the structure of the adventure and combat—are minimal. However, "innovative combat" that involves black-and-white pixel art is not enough, on its own, to defeat any of the games it's beaten—and the people who hate it, know that.

I tried to figure out why they despise it so much. Yes, it's popular on tumblr. Yes, it's inspired a great deal of fanart by teenage girls. Yes, the art is downright simplistic compared to many of the games it's defeated. But even those fell short as reasons for united outrage against it; while those complaints were all voiced, none of them get the resounding "hell yeah, bro" that I'd expect if they were considered the core reason the game is hated. To sort out the hate, I had to read a few of the mini-reviews posted in comments about the other game contests—and realized, it's not about Undertale's gaming mechanics at all.

Undertale is a pixel-art dungeon-crawl with a unique tagline: "In this RPG, you don't have to kill anyone." It has a "total nonviolence" option—and not an "easy mode" setting, but one carried out by player choices in-game. You can chose to never attack anyone, and still win. The NPCs are interesting, the dialogue is clever… and the storyline is one that appeals to many players on a level that most games just never go near. Undertale is "game of the heart" for its tumblr fanbase, and that's not something that the forums at GameFAQs know how to address.

The forums discuss the combat (innovative, but not unique), the NPCs (entertaining, but well within standard tropes), the art (16-bit pixels; some love it; some hate it; nobody thinks it's groundbreaking), the pacing (excellent—but every award-winning game has good gameflow), the text (heavy on puns, good foreshadowing), easter eggs (lots… but lots of hidden content doesn't make an amazing game)—and they cannot figure out what makes this game so special for so many people, that enough of them would say it was better than Mass Effect 3 or Pokemon Red/Blue. Their posts have an edge of frustration, with an unspoken plea of "it's just not that damned good! What are you seeing in it?"

The people who vote for it aren't saying it's that good, not really. They're saying it's that important to them. They're saying they've found features in Undertale that are lacking from every other game they've played: real consequences for your choices, and the ability to be the hero without being a mass murderer.

The value of those traits, for the players who want them, is incalculable. Undertale fills a need that's been aching since they first started gaming, be that three months ago or thirty years ago. Its embedded morality bridges the disconnect between "game justice" and "real world justice"—in Undertale, you can make the choices that most of us would claim are the good ones, the moral ones… and still win.

Fortunately, I don't have to go into detail about that, because someone else already did. Good Game Design article about Undertale morality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkJ8C1MEKLs (warning – heavy on spoilers.)

That morality is what makes Undertale precious to so many—and being oblivious to it is what makes the outraged crowds at GameFAQs' forums so baffled at its success. They think of a nonviolent game as an interesting gimmick, not as something that reaches deep into people's souls.

Mario and Zelda and Metal Gear Solid fans are voting for art and music and clever dialogue and challenging combat, and Undertale players are voting for what makes their hearts sing.

No wonder it's doing so well.

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