Role playing game - right from the name, you know that you are about to dive into an experience that is designed to transport you to a far away land, where you will be doing something completely different from your average daily life on Earth. Indeed, that was the main attraction of Dungeons & Dragons originally, it provided a series of greatly functional (well, for the most part) rules to be able to dive into a playful sort of escapism.
When it came time for RPGs to be digitized and transported to computer, the D&D rules would be the obvious starting point. For years that was mostly what RPGs (or, rather, cRPGs) were all about; that is, fight as a warrior or as a wizard through hordes of orcs and beholders, get the treasure, defeat the evil sorcerer.
But not just that, they were also quite often brutally difficult. Nowadays, Baldur’s Gate might be more known for sassy vampires in tight suits that can be romanced, but back in the 90s, the series by Larian Studios was about probably dying at your first encounter. Or second, if it was a particularly lucky day.
In the 80s, Japan would bring about their own way special flavour of RPG, exchanging the classic medieval Dungeons & Dragons hijinks for something different. Still, that is not to say that early RPGs from Japan were easy or forgiving, quite the contrary, in fact. With random battles spread throughout, it would be a matter of when you would die in the first Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest titles, rather than if.
But then, things changed, when the Dragon Quest gameplay framework was used to do something quite different, a RPG taking place in the 20th century United States, with little to no themes outside the life of a young boy. Mother (or Earthbound Beginnings) was indeed different from many of its contemporaries. Players might be way more familiar with Mother 2, or Earthbound as it was released in the West, where Ness and his friends will have to deal with a malicious alien entity named Giygas.
Still, that is not meant to say that the Mother series did away with difficulty, as it was still quite high, especially if a player had never dealt with a Japanese RPG before. But the overall context was different, for sure, friendlier and more familiar for a child who might want something different outside the usual bards, wizards and warriors. But the idea of a RPG still tailored towards younger players which could be different from all others in how it related to the player, was how the inspirations that Undertale really needed.
One of the most successful and influential indie RPGs from the last 10 years, it took developer Toby Fox about 32 months to complete it after releasing it in 2015. An avid fan of Earthbound, Fox set about to use the medium as a storytelling device, rather than “having the story and gameplay abstractions be completely separate”.
And again, Undertale is not an easy game either. But it is a game that uses classic mechanics of RPG to tell an engaging story, that the player can influence with their actions (often realizing it when it is too late) and featuring many emotional moments, along with comedy. Even though it is a strange place to visit, the Undertale universe, it strangely feels like home. That might be because we get introduced to how everything works by Toriel. Fox designed the character to feel entirely like a mom, since he disliked the usual “tutorial characters” featured in many other games.
While we can’t really say that Undertale has launched a whole series of “Underclones”, the idea of a RPG that deviates completely from its roots, has been more and more successful. With games such as In Stars and Time and Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan definitely being inspired by the overall idea of using the mechanics of the genre to tell a story, rather than punishing the player for a weak party.
In Stars and Time features a party that is constantly exchanging jokes and telling about their past, making the player really feel like they're on an adventure with friends, rather than the classic companions of the D&D flavour. Rainbow Billy takes us on a journey of colours and cute characters that will need to be rescued, favouring cozy and easy gameplay over severe RPG mechanics.
Even though Undertale is now almost ten years old, it has never really left its place in the hearts of many gamers and its characters and soundtrack are still a constant present. Yes, especially on a meme level. Since then, Toby Fox has also released other RPGs, such as Deltarune, which takes place in the same universe as its anagram title Undertale, even though it plays differently from his biggest success. It might not feature worshippers of Shar to bring home to your mom, but the game, and its “successors”, have a big heart to share with everyone who wants to cuddle up and warm themselves.
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