Platforms: PC, Mac OS
Content Areas: English
Suggested Age: middle/high school
Play Length: 5-8 hours
Number of Players: Single player
Difficulty Rating: Easy/Moderate
There is always a twinge of fear when you ask students to name their team for an activity. However, on one particular day, it led me to the great discovery of Undertale, a role-playing game (RPG) about a child who falls into a great hole and must find her way out among a world of fantastic (and hilarious) monsters. Although its retro pixelated art style and gameplay seem simple at first, Undertale lures players in as they learn the dark history of this underground world and get to know the quirky characters who aid, trick, and try to destroy them on their journey. Undertale may be laced with humor, but its message is far deeper than the underground world the player must escape.
Yes, Undertale begins with an evil, talking flower. From there, the main character begins exploring the underground world, where a protective, motherly figure named Toriel teaches the game mechanics through a series of simple puzzles and monster battles. It is with Toriel that players learn one of the most unique game mechanics of any recent game in history: the protagonist doesn’t have to kill any monsters in order to win the game. That’s right. Every monster that is encountered can be spared through a unique list of actions provided for that monster. For instance, at one point the player must fight a guard dog named Greater Dog (literally, a dog wearing armor who guards the town from humans). In this battle, the player can choose from many actions, including “Beckon,” “Ignore,” “Pet,” and “Play.” If the user “pets” Greater Dog, he “curls up in your lap” instead of attacking, and can eventually be spared rather than killed, thus winning the battle. Of course, killing is still an option (if that’s your style), but the player’s choices have consequences which impact the game’s ending in dramatic ways.
Without giving away too much, there are three game styles the player can adopt, including that of a true pacifist, a neutral player, or a genocide player. A pacifist does not kill any of the monsters in the game, while a genocide player kills all of the monsters in the game; a neutral player falls in between. As your students play through the game, they will quickly come to realize that the true evil in the world of Undertale is not the monsters, many of whom the main character ends up befriending, but actually the literal and metaphorical divide between the humans above ground and the monsters below ground who allow prejudice to prevent them from getting to know one another.
As you can imagine, when the player adopts a genocide strategy, these prejudices are only reinforced, while adopting a pacifist strategy helps bridge the divide between the monsters and humans, thus changing the story arc for the better. Even more intriguing is that if the genocide route is taken the first time through the game, all further run-throughs will have altered endings, meaning that there is only one chance to be a true pacifist. This, of course, raises the question of redemption, and if a person who has made bad choices can ever truly leave their past behind them. It also illustrates the importance of considering how one’s decisions will impact others; taking the pacifist route is certainly not as easy as killing all of the monsters in the game, but it certainly does lead to a better outcome.
Due to its story-driven, dialogue-based nature, Undertale lends itself well to a language arts curriculum, and would pair well with any text focused on themes of prejudice or stereotypes. If you don’t have time for your class to play through the whole game, you could still use the game to teach elements of humor--pun, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, parody, etc.--as it is filled with humorous characters and dialogue. To enrich the experience, you could have students analyze how humor is used to develop theme or even expose flaws in society by studying a particular scene from the game. Finally, you could easily have students compare and analyze how the decisions they make throughout the game impact its outcome.
If there is a downside to the unique gameplay of Undertale, it is that in order to fully grasp it’s lesson, you really need to play through it several times to see all of the outcomes. This, of course may not be feasible with limited class time or access to resources outside of class. However, this could be mitigated by watching let’s plays (video recordings) of the endings or by having some students take a pacifist approach, some take a neutral approach, and some take a genocide approach as they play through the game. In addition, the game’s introduction to the mercy system is vague at best, so it is easy to kill a monster before you realize the effect it will have on the ending of the game. If you want students to take a specific approach as they play through, it would behoove you to explain the mercy system up front so they don’t accidentally end up taking a neutral route when you wanted them to take a pacifist or genocide approach.
All told, Undertale is a simple, imaginative game filled with puzzles of logic and puzzles of morality which leave the player not only laughing, but thinking. And because of its simplicity, teachers will find Undertale to be an accessible venue to introduce themes that are particularly relevant to our society today. Because of these features, I believe that Undertale could be a great fit for the English Language Arts classroom.
Educational Rating: 5/8
Classroom Friendly, Motivation, Concrete Learning, Additional Skills, Feedback, Difficulty, Accessibility, Extension
Overall Rating: 8/8
Immersion, Environment, Storyline, Replayability, Entertainment, Gameplay, Originality, User Control