Mt. Ebott, 201X…
It has been a long time I’ve loved a game as much as I love Undertale. A game from humble beginnings, it truly is like coming across a mythical creature. Undertale is a unicorn in the gaming world. Odd, beautiful, and rarely, if ever, seen. I wholeheartedly recommend experiencing this game for yourself. If you have any intention of doing so, you’ve been warned: there are spoilers ahead.
This role-playing game heavily inspired by classic SNES JRPGs, such as Earthbound, came during an interesting chapter in my life. One in which I left the comfort of home and ended up alone in a strange and foreign place. In a way, I was able to project my real-life experiences onto Undertale, a story about a child who fell into a world of monsters.
“maybe sometimes it’s better to take what’s given to you. down here you’ve already got food, drink, friends… is what you have to do… really worth it?”
Being able to live and experience another culture is life-changing. I’m seeing the world through a new perspective and learning so much. I’m also discovering more about myself. However, Undertale was introduced during a somewhat turbulent period in my life. As inspiring as it is to be in Japan, I often find myself fighting off the demons of everyday life: doubt, stress, depression, and anxiety.
“Why did you come here? Everyone knows the legend, right…? ‘Travellers who climb Mt. Ebott are said to disappear.’ … Frisk. Why would you ever climb a mountain like that? Was it foolishness? Was it fate? Or was it… Because you…? Well. Only you know the answer, don’t you…?”
In many ways, my time here in Japan is very much like my own personal journey through the Underground, Undertale’s subterranean setting. It’s as if Undertale is a parody of my own life for the past year. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the Underground is symbolic for everyone. It is the monomyth for all of us non-hero types.
“it’s a thing now. telling bad jokes through the door. it rules.”
I’m always seen as a happy-go-lucky kind-of guy. Which is good, but sometimes I wonder how many times my smile is truly sincere. It comes as second nature to me now. Smiling has become a sort of defense mechanism. I don’t really know what’s a sincere smile anymore. Somehow, in my pursuit for a “better” life, I loss my sense of humor.
It’s truly unfortunate, because, honestly, I could use a good laugh every now and then. Not one of the nervous, I-don’t-know-how-else-to-respond variety. A good, genuine, hearty laugh. Toby Fox’s game, Undertale… It made me laugh. More than once. Those laughs were earnest laughs, the kind that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
“Everyone is always laughing and cracking jokes, trying to forget our modern crises… Dreariness. Crowding. Lack of sunlight. I would join them, but I’m just not very funny.”
However, the story of Undertale is subversively dark. The monsters are suffering in a space devoid of space, light, and fresh air. They live off of human trash which flows down from above. They have a history of persecution and live in fear of mankind. Yet, they make due with their bleak surroundings and live life with a smile. Their comedic outlook on life is the best way for them to cope with a seemingly hopeless situation.
“after a great meal i like to lie on the ground and feel like garbage… it’s a family tradition. do you want… … to join me…”
I recently saw this quote from Robin Williams making the rounds on social media: “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” The more I experience life, the more I believe in these words. In fact, this quote does a wonderful job of encapsulating the monsters’ way of life. They feel like garbage. They feel worthless. They struggle with maintaining hope.
This stark backdrop is what really help makes the humor in Undertale stand out. A friend of mine from the Twitterverse, Tim Latshaw, worded it best, “The best writers/storytellers know that humor is much more than a throwaway chuckle. They’ll use it to break your heart if necessary.” Tim’s train of thought continues in a second tweet, “Humor is often derived from dark places. Keeping that element just beneath the surface can give humor a huge impact.” I do not know if Tim had Undertale in mind when he was authoring those tweets, but he highlighted exactly what makes Undertale’s story so endearing and so…relatable. It’s an incredibly human tale.
Perhaps, life is too short to take seriously sometimes and we could all just use a good, heartfelt laugh.
Kill or be Killed
“In this world, it’s kill or be killed.”
Games have amazing storytelling potential. Currently, we’re only scratching the surface of that potential. Undertale helps with the scratching a little more by addressing common RPG tropes. Most notably, it gives the player an important choice: to kill or not to kill.
Historically, RPGs have traditionally given us only one way to win. We need to kill or be killed. Hundreds of sprites are finished off one by one in the name of progress. We attack, but don’t listen. We automatically assume that opponents are inherently evil. Good and evil. It’s convenient to have things black and white. It makes it easy for us to kill without thinking about it.
“The more you kill, the easier it becomes to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt. The more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.”
Even with a game such as Dungeons & Dragons, where incredible flexibility is given in how players can interact with the game world, I discovered that players were deeply rooted in this mindset. For decades, killing our opponents has led to progress…but, do we really need to kill to win? Undertale flips this concept upside-down.
In Undertale, monsters are not expendable masses of pixels. They each have reason to fight. Some need consoling, some need affection, and some just need to flex their muscles. Fighting all of them is possible, but none of it is needed. Sometimes all that is needed is a hug. Sometimes even running away is the best course of action.
While the choice for violence is ever present, the game really rewards you for pacifism. This is where most of Undertale’s genius lies. By choosing not to kill, it provides shades of gray that is more representational of real life.
Real life does seem to have that cruel “dog eat dog” mentality sometimes though. We often find ourselves stuck in our own versions of the Underground, struggling to work our way towards the surface. We run into obstacles. Sometimes people may get in our way. We can choose to fight or to negotiate. Fighting guarantees enemies, but through negotiation we can forge friendships that help us along the way.
By providing the choice to kill or not to kill, Undertale challenges your morality. Will you resort to violence in order to progress? Or will you push for peace?
Personally, I didn’t have the heart to kill these monsters. The more I got to know them, the more I realized the problems they faced and the hurdles they had to overcome. They are monsters which struggle with identity, confidence, loneliness, grief, anger…
Through thick or thin, I was determined not to kill anybody and I stuck to that ideal, even against monsters seemingly undeserving of it. By doing so, I got to learn more about the monsters, their world, and culture. I formed friendships and I was rewarded with sincere, heartwarming happiness. It instilled within me empathy, a respect for life, and revealed to me the rewards of being merciful.
“Be careful in the outside world, OK? Despite what everyone thinks, it’s not as nice as it is here. There are a lot of Floweys out there. And not everything can be resolved by just being nice. Frisk… Don’t kill, and don’t be killed, alright? That’s the best you can strive for.”
I grew more attached to the characters than I expected. I planned to do a so-called “genocide” run after I achieved getting the best ending, but I found myself paralyzed by my own morality. Suddenly, I was experiencing a moment that only one other game was able to achieve, and that was Brenda Romero’s “Train.”
Train has a simple concept. Ship the most pawns as fast as you can via toy trains to their destination. However, as you play, you learn that those pawns are people and their destinations are concentration camps.
Your conscience now comes into play. Many players quit, some try to stop their friends from going down the same path, and a select few just see it as a game. The miraculous thing this that most of us can’t bring ourselves to continue, even though it’s only a game. It becomes an eye-opening experience.
Undertale has that same effect.
“That power. I know that power. That’s the power you were fighting to stop, wasn’t it? The power that I wanted to use. But now, the idea of resetting everything… I… I don’t think I could do it all again. Not after that. … So, please. Just let them go. Let Frisk be happy. Let Frisk live their life.”
I refuse to do a genocide run now. I struggle with the idea of even resetting the game to do another pacifist run. I know that they’re fictional, but I really want the best for Undertale’s characters. One day, I will play the game again, but, for now, I just want the characters to enjoy their happy ending.
Undertale is an incredibly heartwarming story that upturns common RPG tropes, discourages violence, and has an amazingly catchy soundtrack. Of course, that’s what Undertale was for me. Depending on your choices…it could be different for you.
This game has made my life just a little bit better and a little bit more bearable. It has provided a little more happiness to fuel me along the way. Thanks to Undertale, I’ve rediscovered a more witty, humorous side of myself. I’ve embraced being a little silly at stressful times. It’s surprisingly medicinal. Granted, it’s not the solution, but it has put me on a good path through my own version of the Underground.
Undertale fills me with DETERMINATION.