41 Games: Undertale
I was talking to a writer at Devcom/Respawn and he said he didn't care to play Undertale because it was "meta." He doesn't like games with metanarrative elements. I tried to explain to him that I understood, but that he was making a mistake: most games with metanarrative elements use those to avoid saying anything meaningful. "Haha, aren't games silly and random?" they mug unconvincingly, so desperate for our approval thatthey've failed to stake any real claims about the narratives they're meant to be critiquing.
Undertale is the complete opposite. Its metanarrative elements are completely essential to its characters' search for meaning--in their world and in each other. And its commitment to metanarrative isn't half-hearted. The UI is diegetic. It gets re-arranged, smashed, referenced and reinvented routinely--but always as a reflection of what's happening in the narrative itself. This is not lazy commentary on games--this is an elevation of the medium of games themselves, an opening up of the possibility space of narrative to include every element of the design.
The comparisons to Earthbound are warranted because like Earthbound this is a game about being young, and struggling to fix a world that others have broken. But where Earthbound's bonds of friendship are reduced to destiny, Undertale is all about the struggles of being young and building friendships. The miscommunications, the temptation to reduce it all to a zero-sum game, the real sacrifices that are required, the incredible pain caused by betrayal.
There are critiques to be leveled. It will come off to some as overly twee. Its ending crawls so deep into its own mythos it loses clarity and therefore, emotional force. The combat is inventive and different, but at times it turns an otherwise leisurely narrative-focused experience into a twitchy shooter, which will leave some of the people who would most enjoy it behind.
But these critiques are minor and pale in comparison to the vision and creativity on display.
Perhaps the best way I can praise Undertale is this: you can play it multiple times and discover something new in the Text. And I'm not referring to the game's multiple paths (the game branches based on the approach you take to fighting its monsters.) I mean that this is a game that is rich enough to merit a replay of the same path, the same way one might revisit great novel, film or TV series. And it's short enough (10-12 hours) and so mercifully free of padding that replaying it doesn't seem like madness.