Undertale’s victory in the GameFAQs “Best Game Ever” poll is one of those minor internet events that, though only mildly amusing itself, reflects interestingly on the culture around it. Probably most people in the games community are already aware of what happened, but allow me to provide a quick recap.
Beginning on the fifth of November, the website GameFAQs began running a poll to find the “Best Game Ever,” accompanied by a predictive competition that would net the winner five games consoles or $2,000 in store credits. The 128 starting games were chosen by combination of metrics, though it leaned heavily towards nostalgia properties and particularly Nintendo properties. Undertale was one of only two games released this year to be nominated, the other being Bloodborne
At this point the narrative becomes a little murky, but the basic facts are that Undertale beat Mass Effect 3 in the first round and moved to round two, where it faced off against Fallout 3. An Undertale fan on Tumblr noticed the poll and asked people to vote for Undertale, genuinely believing that it deserved to win against Fallout 3. One of the people who reblogged her post was subsequently threatened with rape and death by GameFAQs forum posters (though other posters on the forum were quick to disclaim the harassers), furious at what they saw as outside interference in their poll and livid that Undertale had beaten a game many of them considered better.
Their ire and complaints stirred up the Undertale fandom on Tumblr, many of whom felt bored and irritated by the repetitive list of previous winners and thought it would be more interesting for a game like Undertale to win. This rippled outwards, and parts of Tumblr with little direct interest in Undertale began to vote as well, spurred by the anger of the GameFAQs posters. Tumblr posters framed it as a strike against conservative gaming fans, who are often stereotyped as something of a misogynistic and racist boys club. This perception wasn’t entirely undeserved—as Undertale continued to win bracket after bracket, the GameFAQs forums exploded with topics denigrating Undertale as a game that was only loved because it appealed to an “SJW” fanbase.
From there, the cycle continued. Every time Undertale won, it would drive the posters on GameFAQs to new heights of fury, and as long as they were getting a reaction, it was satisfying for Undertale fans on Tumblr (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter) to continue to vote for Undertale.
In the end, Undertale won, beating Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the final. By that point, the ire had mostly simmered down, and the GameFAQs boards seemed more resigned than annoyed, accepting that the Undertale community had mustered enough numbers to be sure their game won.
On its own, none of this is perhaps very interesting. The poll was never intended to be considered serious, and it’s unlikely to have any lasting impact on any part of the gaming community. GameFAQs themselves admit that it is, at heart, “a big popularity contest.” It is, however, interesting in light of some of the wider trends in gaming and nerd culture as a whole.
This was, after all, the year when the Hugos voted No Award in the face of slate voting in the nominations. The Sad Puppies, a conservative movement in the SF community, had argued that the awards were going to books focused on social issues and not to hard science-fiction that resembled the classics they had grown up with. Thanks to the structure of the Hugo Award nominations process, they were able to nominate a solid slate in several categories, including “Best Short Story” and “Best Novella,” and almost all categories had at least one puppy nomination. They achieved this, in part, by persuading Gamergate that voting for their nomination slate would strike a blow against the perceived “social justice movement” in popular culture. Ultimately, their slate movement was unsuccessful, and it led to several categories where no award was given. The Hugo awards are also looking to change their nomination process so that slate voting will not be possible in future years.
It’s hard to know how many of the people voting for Undertale in the GameFAQs polls were aware of the Sad Puppies slate or its result. Internet bubbles are hard to distinguish and separate, especially on websites like Tumblr that lack any kind of systematic archiving system. But it also doesn’t really matter. Regardless of who knew what, the tension between progressive fans of SF, comics, and games and the more conservative and entrenched fans of those same properties is impossible to ignore. It wasn’t the only source of votes for Undertale, which also received support on Reddit and even 4chan, but Undertale becoming the flag-planting battle it has is probably the result of the various forces in conflict around the present and future of gaming as a whole.
Undertale‘s fandom primes it to be representative of this conflict for a number of reasons. Like Homestuck, with which it has a great deal of overlap, Undertale’s fandom spans a wide range of internet subgroups. It has characters of many genders and sexualities, it has solid writing with a lot of humour, and it recalls suitably nostalgic games without aping them. That last element is particularly interesting. In many ways Undertale is a response to and a commentary on a lot of the other games running in the poll, and the fact that it has rallied such support does suggest a move in fandom away from the uncritical adoration of older games (which is not to suggest that those games don’t deserve praise, merely that they don’t deserve uncritical praise). At the same time, Undertale sits firmly within this tradition. It’s a game that has a strong narrative, but also includes puzzle elements and a battling system that requires a certain level of skill. It’s far more similar to series like The Legend of Zelda than Bloodborne or Civilization V, which were also in the first round of polling. And even those games fit within a rather restrictive narrative of gaming that demands complex mechanical engagement and often prioritizes mechanics over story. Games like Gone Home, Read Only Memories, or Papers, Please would never have been considered for the poll, let alone won.
Nonetheless, I am glad Undertale won. If Undertale‘s victory can be taken to represent anything, then one part is the idea that a “Best Game Ever” is inherently ridiculous. It’s as least as absurd as trying to compare films like Iron Man, Blackfish, and Blue (the 1993 Derek Jarman film).
What does it mean to be a good game? Tetris, with its simple structure and near infinite replayability, might be argued to best fit the traditional measure of a game, though it lacks the narrative and themes that allowed for investment in games like Final Fantasy VII or Ocarina of Time. How on earth does one compare Endless Legend, a game that attempts to explore a completely unique world within the 4x genre, to a game like We Know the Devil, a visual novel about self-discovery and growing up in stifling environments? One is worldbuilding on a level that abandons the representation of individuals in favour of sweeping cultures and landscapes, the other is an intimate picture of the complexity of a few people at a particular moment in their lives. For that matter, how does one compare The Binding of Isaac and Myst? Is it more “gamelike” to play a game that requires dexterity and timing or a game that requires thoughtfulness and the ability to untangle complex puzzles?
Games are a huge medium, capable of presenting people with a multiplicity of different experiences. That such a narrow range of those experiences is represented in the GameFAQs poll is nothing more than an indication of how conservative the mainstream fragment of any medium will inevitably be. But at least Undertale is something new. It may not be the most original game released this year, but I do think its victory represents a refreshing desire for diversity on the part of fans—not only a diversity of character and experience, but also a diversity of structure, theme and narrative for games themselves.