SPOILERS will be discussed for “Undertale” and the “Portal” franchise, so you’ve now been warned.
Undertale’s success is quite the Cinderella story. A game funded completely online and created by indie gaming company Toby Fox has managed to have more staying power than video games made by bigger companies.
Undertale was released in 2015, but the hype for it is running strong three years later. I know just by checking out all the fan art groups in Deviant Art and the fan fiction on fanfiction.net that are constantly being updated with new art. The game’s staying power is remarkable in terms of holding the attention of geek culture but explaining that popularity is tricky.
Popularity is fickle and unpredictable by nature. It is not always warranted either because as the Good Book often says, it is not necessarily a judge of good quality. Thankfully, in Undertale’s case, it is warranted. Undertale is a great game, but other great games haven’t received quite as much long-lasting attention. I have a theory for why this is, but to explain why, I will compare Undertale to one of my other favorite games, Portal 2. Again, there will be spoilers.
On the surface, “Portal 2” and “Undertale” don’t have much in common. One is a science fiction, first-person shooter game and the other is a classically-styled RPG. However, if you think about it, these games have more in common than you realize.
Both games feature a mute protagonist in a fantastical environment. Each of them is ground-breaking for different reasons. Both have extremely memorable characters. Both have deeper underlying stories that are somewhat shrouded in mystery, and they present morality as something complicated. Both are great games, but Undertale’s fandom is still wildly active while Portal 2’s fandom has predictably calmed down. There are many reasons why this is the case, but honestly, I think it mostly comes down to marketing and overall story.
In terms of marketing, Toby Fox has done an unbelievably good job handling their money. They have been proactive in marketing their game and wise about how they invest their money. Their game has been translated into multiple languages for other countries earning them money from overseas. They have also been wisely staying the sole source of their official merchandise keeping all the money for their game within the company. Their smart business practices have paid off for them and resulted in getting their game on other platforms such as PlayStation 4 and eventually on the Nintendo Switch. For an indie company like Toby Fox, this level of business savviness is remarkable.
Valve’s inactivity is a running joke at this point. Except for the VR game that came out sometime last year, their Lego contribution, their short films, and their ongoing comic series, they have done almost nothing to capitalize on their success. While their inactivity continues, people are losing interest. It’s a pity. Their games still hold up due to their groundbreaking mechanics and their unique blend of dark humor and compelling storytelling. “Half-Life 2” and “Portal” rank among the best science fiction games of all time. As far as I know, GLaDOS still holds the title of the best female villain in a video game. These franchises deserve better, but for some unknown reason, Valve is not doing much to keep their games in the spotlight, which is why they arguably aren’t as popular as they could be.
The other reason behind their varying levels of popularity I think comes down to the stories themselves. I may get flack for saying what I am about to say but hear me out. “Portal 2” is not as popular as “Undertale” because its story is less palatable. Let me explain what I mean. Again, there are spoilers, so continue at your own risk.
Underneath its dark humor, Portal 2 is an extremely dark story. It is the story of Chell and GLaDOS discovering how people pursuing science without ethics destroyed the lives of thousands of people and the robots they created and eventually destroyed themselves. To make that even more brutal, GLaDOS discovers how she originated from a woman who was forced to become a robot against her will and discovers some good in herself that’s still there. But instead of reforming, GLaDOS decides to “delete” the human part of her and continue living in willful ignorance while pursuing “science.” To make matters worse, she releases Chell and it’s implied that she’s doomed to live an eternal life completely alone.
That tragic storyline is hard to digest for most people, and it only gets worse the more you think about. That and its arguable lack of replayability make Portal 2 an arguably less appealing game than something like Undertale.
Don’t get me wrong. Undertale has a dark storyline in some places no matter which route you decide to take as a player, especially where the True Lab is concerned. But for the most part, your game is only as dark as you decide to make it. If you decide to be a pacifist, it’s only a little dark. If you decide to do a genocide run, it is extremely dark. If you do a neutral run, you get something in the middle.
That philosophy is part of the genius behind each of these games. In Undertale, philosophically, your journey is only dark as long as you decide to make it dark. In Portal 2, philosophically, your world is dark and there is little you can do but survive it.
Both these philosophies are true to life and important to understand in these different works of art. But if you’re completely honest, you would rather dwell on the scenario where you can make choices that change the world instead of the scenario where your only choice is to do what you must to survive. That scenario is much more optimistic, and truthfully, more pleasant. That storyline is what makes Undertale more popular than Portal 2.