Undertale came out of nowhere in 2015, and became a cult hit. Sure, there were those aware of Toby Fox’s previous work on the web comic Homestuck, but no one could have anticipated just how much of a cult following Undertale would amass. It makes sense: Undertale is an adventure game that uses role-playing game mechanics and clever story elements to subvert players’ expectations. It has a bevy of memorable characters, plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and a great soundtrack composed entirely by Toby Fox—and that soundtrack is what everyone was gathered to hear the Fifth House Ensemble perform its world premiere of Undertale Live last night at the Studebaker Theater.
As we waited for the show, I could tell immediately this was a crowd of dedicated Undertale fans, with various cosplays of Undertale characters present—though most were under heavy winter coats. All braved the weather to get out to the Studebaker Theater after a day of freezing rain and hours of snow. But the prospect of seeing their favorite songs from Undertale performed by a live band filled them with determination.
Undertale Live isn’t just a live music performance—it’s also a sort of “let’s play” that has an abridged version of Undertale playing while the band performs music appropriate to the action on the screen. At important junctions the audience was able to send an SMS text to vote on whether they would fight or show mercy to the monster they are encountering, determining how the playthrough on the screen would progress. Every show has the potential to be different, making each viewing of Undertale Live its own unique experience.
Though I appreciate the interactivity, and since Undertale is inherently about player choices it makes sense, the implementation of the voting seemed a little lacking. There wasn’t really feedback when your votes registered—at least, I didn’t get a “thanks for voting” until minutes to hours after my vote sent. But it was opening night, I’m sure there are some technical hiccups—so that’s fine. But I’d really love to see some sort of tally of just how many votes each got, or even a board or graphic that showed how many votes each choice was getting in real-time. I would have loved to see how close the audience was to offing Toriel, for instance, since there was some outcry to do so in the official Discord server.
The interactivity did go beyond SMS voting, if you count the official Undertale Live Discord server. In it, the audience was expected to discuss the game’s progress and otherwise interact. While there was plenty of chit-chat, and even after show plans (be careful with strangers, kids). Once the music started, ironically, the chat mostly fell silent for the two hour performance—but the audience wasn’t. There were plenty of cheers, gasps, and shout-outs to their favorite characters—and a lot of love for the Fifth House Ensemble, who’s stayed close to the community the entire time they were creating this show, even chiming in on Discord just before they warmed up on stage. In fact, all the interactivity on Discord, Twitch and Twitter had fans asking for Undertale Live to livestream their show (something they are not currently doing). That’s not a bad idea, as it would likely pull in the full Undertale fanbase that isn’t near enough to tour cities to attend without deterring fans from the live experience–especially from a musical perspective.
Fifth House was absolutely amazing. Often, I would be watching the gameplay on screen and completely forget that the music was being provided by a live ensemble. They really did their homework. The performance was flawless, and the arrangements by Eric Roth and Chris Opperman faithfully recreated Toby Fox’s mostly electronic sound with a dectet with a drumset. If you’re worried that what version of the story you play so you can hear your favorite songs—like Megalovania, which is locked behind the “bad” ending—Fifth House Ensemble will still play your favorites.
While Undertale Live is moving on from Chicago, you can still catch them on their upcoming tour dates here. To find out more information, and to be notified of the upcoming Undertale Live album, sign up for their newsletter via the website.
Undertale Live gave me a better appreciation for Undertale and its fanbase. Fifth House Ensemble’s passion for this project was apparent, and they delivered a performance worthy of the fanbase and in fact, any audience who’s ready for an epic adventure and fantastic music, live on stage.
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