Undertale is a good game narratively, as well as mechanically. It’s even good narratively and mechanically for the same reasons – it breaks/subverts expectations.
We are quite used to subversions of narrative – the anti-hero, the unexpected twist, genre breaking, all of those are common at this point. As is to be expected – there is nothing new under the sun, especially in literature, which has been around for thousands of years.
So, when Undyne cuts short her monologue, it’s surprising, but not unexpected. Very well executed. Similarly, when Asgore is set up as the main villain, the dissonance when he is revealed as an unwilling actor is again surprising, but not unexpected.
The subversion of mechanics is amazing, though. The first time you get hit by the “blue attack”… and turns what you thought was a “bullet hell” avoidance game into a platforming game, that was amazing. When the special attack hits, and the screen expands, that was amazing again.
Heck, in the very first fight, where games would normally insert a tutorial character, Flowey’s instructions for you to basically damage yourself and set him up as a monster, that was amazing use of mechanics and narrative together. Mechanically, you learn to move yourself around the world, that pellets damage you. Narratively, you learn that Flowey is evil, and sets the tone for the world coming up (that it’s kill or be killed, encouraging you to kill monsters), and sets the course for your redemption.
The fact that it is so amazing, is also what makes it impossible for me to make. Each fight that subverts your expectations is unique, and that’s what makes it wonderful. It also means that it is content. Each fight is content, not just an expansion on current mechanics. It is an amazing amount of content to be packed into a 2 hour experience, not just narrative content, but game systems content, and I am forever grateful for the experience.
Most games take one mechanic and polish the heck out of it, and use refinements of this mechanic to make an entire game. For all the narrative goodness of Portal, the portal mechanic never changed throughout the game. We were never surprised mechanically. For Portal to create a “blue attack” moment, one of the portals would have dropped you into a different dimension or something, and that would never have been done because it would be so much work for just 1 encounter.
I wouldn’t be able to create so much content on my own, though. Both in terms of resources (money and time) and in terms of potential audience.
I’m glad Toby managed to get Undertale funded and I’m glad that the world has this game – games are better off for it being around and expanding the medium.