Toby Fox’s Undertale: The Birth of a Sensation

The featured image above is a screenshot from fan animation project Glitchtale: Season 1 Episode 1, animated by jakei and superyoumna and uploaded by Camila Cuevas. All artwork will be credited with links in the Further Reading / Sources section.

Undertale is one of the most popular indie game of the 2010s — after Minecraft, of course. If you’ve interacted with anyone between the ages of 12 to 20, then you’ve probably heard of this game, or at least its characters. It has clunky pixel graphics, daring ideas, and a desire to redefine gaming conventions. It’s the quintessential indie game, and its creator, Toby Fox, is the quintessential solo indie game developer. He grew up playing video games, and he was highly influenced by a few of them. He passionately attempts to contribute something new to the gaming medium.

Megalovania fan animation from SpectroliteAAA

However, in another way, Toby Fox’s life is a rare exception that no one – not even he – could’ve predicted. His game has sold over a million copies, and it blew up into an internet phenomenon. Celebrity YouTubers have made theory videos about his game. Fan animations and soundtrack remixes commonly reach 5 million, 11 million, even 20 million views. There are literally dozens and dozens of Fan Webcomics, each with their Alternate Universes (AUs) of the game. After the game’s release, several fans evangelized Undertale — and the correct way to play it — on every social media site imaginable. This flood of exposure, unfortunately, led to a massive backlash. The game and its subsequent fandom became shorthand for internet culture gone bad. Now, five and a half years after the game’s release, it feels like the Undertale flood has finally subsided.

A fan guide to the Undertale AUs, created by cr0issant on the Official Sans Amino

I feel bad saying that. I’m positive that 99% of the fans are wonderful people who just love making content and enjoy the game appropriately, and I’m impressed by their passion and creativity, but you just never know. I don’t want a select few toxic people to color the game’s reputation. That’s not fair to everyone else. This post could easily just go down the rabbit hole and exclusively talk about the fandom, but I need to pull back if I’m ever going to tell Toby Fox’s tale. We’ll let his game stand on its own merits. That being said, the reception of a creator’s work does have an effect on them, particularly in Fox’s case. It provides context for what they work on next. Furthermore, the game’s popularity belies some qualities that must have earned its adoration. What is it about Undertale that has touched so many people? Why is the Undertale rabbit hole so unfathomably bottomless? What influenced Toby Fox to design Undertale the way he did?

Actually not a fan animation, but a screenshot taken from Undertale’s Nintendo Switch announcement trailer

EarthBound For Glory

Toby Fox is actually quite a shy person. I don’t have as many interviews with him or photos of him as I do of other indie game developers. For his biography, I’ll actually avoid using photos of him to respect that privacy.

Fox was first and foremost influenced by the Mother series. EarthBound was one of the very first video games he ever played; he even credits it for motivating him to learn how to read in order to play it. And yes, EarthBound’s goofy scenarios, modern soundtrack, and psychedelic turn-based combat seeped its way into Fox’s works; however, the game influenced him more ways than one. For one, it was Fox’s entry point to playing more RPGs, including Super Mario RPG, The Legend of Zelda, Shin Megami Tensei, and Final Fantasy. The Final Fantasy series established, for Western gamers at least, the set of RPG conventions that the other games, Super Mario RPG especially, would later try to subvert. Secondly, EarthBound inspired Fox to experiment with creating games with his brothers using RPG Maker 2000, though he’d never finish any of those projects. Finally, EarthBound opened the door to a devoted online community: Starmen.net, the fan-run website for the quirky Super Nintendo game. Fox made key connections on that site that would provide a support system for his future endeavors. Without Starmen.net, Undertale may have never become what it is today.

Fox’s game development career began in earnest when he was still in high school by making EarthBound ROM hacks in order to learn how to code. Simultaneously, Fox began sharing a blooming talent for composing music. While he was still in high school Fox wrote music for the interactive webcomic Homestuck, eventually becoming a guest composer for a game based on the comic years later. This habit of composing music while working on a game is a pattern he maintains to this day. In late 2009 he finished the EarthBound Halloween Hack — a macabre spin with a higher difficulty, nightmarish enemies, and edgy dialogue. It caught on quickly within the community. As miniscule as a ROM hack is in the grand scheme of things, the ideas and themes for Undertale were already beginning to shape into its own creature.

During college, Toby Fox would make further musical compositions for various online projects while working on his first independent game. He pieced together several different concepts from the games he had played before to make a combat system where you could befriend the enemy instead of killing them. In Fox’s own words, “I feel that it’s important to make every monster feel like an individual. If you think about it basically all monsters in RPGs like Final Fantasy are the same, save for the graphics. They attack you, you heal, you attack them, they die. There’s no meaning to that.” Fox aimed for his game to carry a bit more weight to it.

Early conceptualization notes that Toby Fox later tweeted

To accomplish this, Fox began with a turn-based foundation borrowed from Super Mario RPG and its successors. In those games, the player’s timing of button presses would increase the damage they unleashed while mitigating the damage they received; in fact, if the player was skilled enough, they could avoid damage entirely on the enemy’s turn. For his game, Fox designed enemy attacks to play out like bite-sized Bullet Hell challenges with recognizable patterns. Then he implemented a conversation system similar to Shin Megami Tensei where the player would explore dialogue options in order to befriend the enemy. Finally he assembled it together in an EarthBound-style menu system.

Toby Fox’s character design concepts for Sans, Papyrus, and Mettaton

Once he finished the combat, he set about creating the characters and writing the story. He deliberately left the main protagonist a blank slate in order to help the player immerse themselves in the story. He even went so far as to use the 2nd Person tense when the player investigates objects. He aimed to establish the same quirky yet unsettling tone from EarthBound, married with a mature theme of contrasting violence against nonviolence and even inserted metanarrative musings over how we interpret stories. Toriel, one of the first characters you encounter in the game, was inspired from tutorial-heavy games such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, where the companion character Fi would hand-deliver quests for you and even solve major puzzles for you. He thought it would be interesting to create a motherly character that actually acted like a mother, instead of an abstraction like in the Pokemon series. Toriel literally holds the player’s hand through the first series of puzzles and tells the player to remain safely in her home, the way any actual mother-figure would. Fox set about writing characters that the player would connect with and tried to make the medium of video games itself an important part of the storytelling.

Undertale’s Kickstarter art, created by Temmie Chang

In the summer of 2013 Fox had finished a free demo of Undertale and used it to help sell his Kickstarter project. This campaign was so successful that it was 100% funded on the very day he began it. The next day he decided to add more stretch goals, all of which were easily met. After 30 days he had earned $50,000, a dollar amount that the green college student had likely never seen all in one place before. The Kickstarter with accompanying demo helped spread the word of his game. He anticipated to finish by 2014, but as with every video game development project, it took a year longer than anticipated. Undertale released in September of 2015, and the internet maelstrom I mentioned earlier soon followed in its wake.

This dog has become Toby Fox’s calling card / online persona, and Fox frequently uses it to censor his face in photos

At the Top of the Underworld

From what it seems in Toby Fox’s interviews and internet posts, the months and years following Undertale’s release were tumultuous for him. The idea that thousands of strangers were paying attention to his game and judging its merits became overwhelming. The fact that he had to come out and tell fans it’s okay if people don’t like the game is rather telling of how quickly Undertale and its fandom grew out of his control. He became a reclusive celebrity, though he didn’t shy away from continuing his artistic pursuits. He continued writing music as a guest composer for various indie projects, including Escaped Chasm, a game created by Temmie Chang, the artist he hired to help with Undertale.

Screenshot of Temmie Chang’s celebratory anniversary art, retrieved from her Tumblr blog

After initially feeling overwhelmed, Fox acclimated to his new role and the attention he was getting — not only from gaming journalists, but also from major Japanese game developers. Masahiro Sakurai, the director of the Super Smash Bros. series, loved Undertale and invited Fox to play Smash at Sakurai’s house. Eventually this relationship would even allow for Sans, one of the most beloved characters in Undertale, to become a playable Mii Costume in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a rare instance of an indie game getting official recognition within a AAA video game. Fox also made connections with Game Freak this way, which led to Fox guest composing a handful of songs for their recent games Little Town Hero and Pokemon Sword and Shield.

Thankfully all the dogs pitched in to censor all the spoilers for the Deltarune trailer

Once he recovered from Undertale’s internet tidal wave, he began working on his next project. He named the game Deltarune, and it would continue many of Undertale’s main themes and ideas. He released the first chapter as a kind of demo for the game in October of 2018. He says the rest of the game will not be episodic, though, and will release all at once. At the moment it is unclear how long the project will take or how close he is to finishing it.

My Impressions of Undertale

First off, Toby Fox is one heck of a talented musician. Almost every song in Undertale’s soundtrack is an earworm in some way, even the more atmospheric ones. It has really made me reconsider what I thought made a game immersive — I thought visual details were the most important element, but perhaps sound has a bigger role than I thought.

I truly appreciate Fox’s vision for Undertale. In many ways, I think his game is successful at what it’s trying to accomplish. The game’s wonderfully weird sense of humor quickly endeared me to the world and its characters, especially Papyrus, Sans, and Alphys. It became a strong example of how a game can teach empathy for others and how it can bridge gaps between groups of people who are diametrically opposed.

The combat system is also quite interesting — it’s a remix of many of the weird RPGs I’ve seen in the past, but put together in a way that feels new. Several JRPGs use combat without considering why they have it, and that fighting often bears little to no weight on the actual story. Most monsters are just there, and they attack you because… that’s just what monsters do. However, the monsters in Undertale approach you because you’re a human lost in their world, and your soul is their ticket out of the Underground. Unlike most games that give the player narrative choices, Undertale will actually give you consequences to your actions, and you’re not going to like every single one of them. I applaud Fox for having the guts to frustrate or disappoint the player with an outcome they might not have wanted.

That being said, any video game that uses a morality system is walking a tightrope. It needs to carefully balance its message with game mechanics, making the player care about the characters and the outcome without coming across as preachy. Furthermore, it needs to explain the system in enough detail that the player will understand what is expected of them. If a game is unclear about its morality, then the player will feel unnecessarily judged. Players should see consequences to their actions, and if the game wants the player to feel remorse, that works, but the player also needs to understand the decision that they made, or even if there’s a decision is available at all. Otherwise an unwanted outcome isn’t going to have any real impact.

Oddly enough, Toriel is where 90% of my complaints about Undertale lie. Sure her hand-holding is a fun jab at AAA video games, but in an ironic twist of fate, I don’t think she actually gives the player a good tutorial. During my fight with her I tried solving the conflict peacefully… but it didn’t seem to work. It felt like the game was steering me towards killing an enemy for the first time. But evidently that’s not the case. There is, in fact, a way to solve her fight peacefully. It felt like the game tricked me into doing the wrong thing. The same thing happened with Undyne, only this time I caught on to how her encounter worked just in time. I get that completing the nonviolent route and seeing its happy ending should be difficult, but these bottleneck points where the player is pushed into killing a character feel… cheap. Furthermore, this morality system only sees in extremes. You can only kill or spare. You are only a saint or a sinner. I get that an indie game won’t have the time or resources to flesh out the nuances of ethical behavior, but it still felt like at least some shades of gray should’ve been included. I feel dumb that I got the neutral ending all because I interpreted the tutorial wrong. Feeling morally judged is not something I’ve ever felt in a video game before. It was a welcome change, but those bottlenecks made the game wobble on its tightrope. It held on, but there were several moments where all of it nearly came tumbling down.

Execution issues aside, there’s no doubt that Undertale has heart. So few games feel as passionately made and as driven to ask questions as Undertale. I totally understand why pre-teens love its creepy yet safe world and its eccentric characters. I feel like I went through a similar phase with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask back when I was a kid. In fact, the two games seem to have quite a bit in common: both are dark twists of established formulas, both emphasize human connection and empathy, and both have emotional depth that can stay with a young gamer. In the end, I think that is why people feel so strongly about it. Undertale may have its flaws, and the ideas in isolation aren’t even entirely new; but the way Toby Fox puts them together has never been done before, and I applaud that. When Fox finishes Deltarune, you can be sure I’ll be downloading it.

Further Reading / Sources

  1. https://twitter.com/tobyfox?s=20
  2. http://starmen.net/
  3. https://www.homestuck.com/
  4. https://earthboundcentral.com/2009/10/earthbound-halloween-hack
  5. https://undertale.com/
  6. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1002143342/undertale
  7. https://undertale.tumblr.com/post/150397346860/retrospective-on-undertales-popularity
  8. https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/undertale-launched-a-year-ago-today
  9. https://meloshantani.wordpress.com/2013/05/25/toby-foxs-undertale-dev-2-dev-interview-1/
  10. https://www.pcgamer.com/the-making-of-undertale/
  11. https://v1.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/125361-Undertale-Dev-Every-Monster-Should-Feel-Like-an-Individual
  12. https://kotaku.com/undertale-creator-shares-notebook-full-of-early-concept-1790978697
  13. https://killscreen.com/previously/articles/behind-humor-toby-foxs-undertale/
  14. https://twitter.com/tobyfox/status/818209115495399429
  15. https://twitter.com/tobyfox/status/818212161004638208
  16. https://www.famitsu.com/news/201707/12137087.html
  17. https://medium.com/kickstarter/undertale-creator-toby-fox-on-the-indie-computer-game-that-s-become-an-industry-darling-fa4df6cee2db
  18. https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2020/10/01/undertale-five-years-later/
  19. https://kotaku.com/the-undertale-drama-1798159975
  20. https://culturedvultures.com/undertale-a-beautiful-game-and-a-toxic-fanbase/
  21. https://temmiechang.tumblr.com/
  22. https://temmiechang.tumblr.com/post/150431613059/undertale-1-year-anniversary
  23. https://youtu.be/vcEij1HdtV0
  24. https://youtu.be/nR31ymMSUA0
  25. https://aminoapps.com/c/officialsansamino/page/item/list-of-undertale-aus/4oPm_ELHvIor2L0JPGprZmME2jRvDvK2D

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