Before I say anything else, I want to make one thing clear: I think Undertale is a really good game. It is charming, full of heart, and compelling enough that I played through it twice to get the ‘true’ ending (after inadvertently resetting my save file the first time around when I didn’t need to). The soundtrack is up there with the likes of Mario and Zelda, and the ways in which the game twists and subverts various tropes of the medium is commendable in many, many ways.
All that said, my affection for Undertale pales in comparison to that of both critics and fans alike. Whether it be uniting en masse to push the game to the top of GameFAQs ‘Best Game Ever’ poll or plumbing its deepest depths for the slightest sign of an unsolved mystery, the people who love Undertale do so with a passion fiery enough to melt even Flowey’s cold, cold heart. Hence my preface; because, while I liked Undertale a whole lot, I did not love it. And a lot of that has to do with the sheer amount of how surrounding the game and the expectations it created.
Even without being spoiled on the story, going in with the knowledge that people were already proclaiming it a classic and a masterpiece meant I was constantly judging the game against those lofty standards, and even though I could see clearly where the fervour was coming from, I just couldn’t feel it myself. Undertale hit all the notes I expected it to, but because those expectations were so high, it couldn’t really exceed them.
Undertale is hardly the only victim of excessive hype. The ubiquity of social media has made it virtually impossible to avoid the zeitgeist surrounding popular properties, thus hampering their ability to surprise us. It’s so much harder for something like Mad Max: Fury Road to blow you away when the entire internet has been raving about it for weeks, building up your expectations with or without your consent. Enjoyment might not be dictated by anticipation, but it is heavily influenced by it.
Remember when this was going to be the next big thing?
Hype can’t be avoided. From the moment we first hear about something, we start to form expectations based on when, where, and how that information is delivered. In the right doses, buzz builds excitement and heightens the experience by evoking feelings of being part of something bigger than both you and the object of your entertainment alone; it becomes a cultural touchstone, a banner beneath which disparate and disconnected people can unite in their love of a shared passion.
Too much hype, though, sets an impossible standard to live up to, ensuring that no matter how good something is it will still be a disappointment. Overhype is not uncommon. Infamous victims include the Matrix sequels, the Star Wars prequels, and, in the world of gaming, Watch Dogs. Sometimes the expectation of quality even drives us to see it when it’s not there, as many feel was the case with Avatar and Perfect Dark Zero.
Separating a thing from the hype surrounding it is nigh impossible; for all intents and purposes, hype and experience to hand in hand. Critical examination thus becomes especially difficult; accusations of bias abound no matter what is said, and valuable perspectives get lost in a quagmire of quarrelling fanatics.
The most effective way to combat hype is to wait for it to die down before buying into the experience in question. Clearly this isn’t an optimal strategy. Popular culture moves so fast that being just a week behind can feel like you’re entirely out of the loop. Patience is a weakness in the entertainment industry.
Even if you can fight the urge to chase the ghost of relevancy, you must then contend with the stigma that surrounds being ‘late to the party’. Despite having little to no logical foundation, belated critique is often considered to be less valuable, since anything of worth is assumed to have already been discussed. The naivety of such an assumption is obvious - the more time has passed, the more thoroughly we can dissect a topic - and yet the stigma persists. A year is a lifetime in this impulse-driven world.
Watch Dogs was the inverse for me: I had a great time despite the critical disappointment.
And so I find myself torn between wanting to contribute to the timely dissemination of pop culture and preferring to go on with a little expectation as possible. Sadly, for games especially, the idea of evergreen discourse clashes with the desire for constant novelty and fresh experiences. Retrospective critique is currently reserved for ‘the classics’, the Marios and Zeldas and GTAs, while equally worthwhile reflections on more recent properties decay in limbo between the old and the new.
The occasional post-mortem discussions from developers at GDC and DICE have shown that there is much to be gained from ruminating on games of any age; if only everyone shared that attitude, maybe we wouldn’t be so vulnerable to the wily ways of hype and expectation.
I wanted to love Undertale with the same intensity that its biggest fans do, but there was simply no way it could live up to the colossal expectations born of its popularity. Perhaps if I had been able to go in completely blind, I might have been struck by Cupid’s arrow, but alas, the storm of anticipation occluded his aim. Frankly, I’m jealous of those who evaded the zeitgeist and enjoyed Undertale as a pure experience. Unfortunately, in this Age of Information, wilful ignorance is only getting harder and harder to maintain.
So, what’s your Undertale? What darlings of popular culture simply don’t resonate with you despite - or perhaps because of - their mass appeal? Star Wars, maybe? Are Mario and Zelda not your cup of tea? Or perhaps you’ve never really understood the love for Red Dead Redemption or Metal Gear Solid? Whatever it is, I want to hear about it in the comments below!