Can a role-playing video game change how we treat each other?
Entertainment often reveals truths about the world around us. A category of entertainment that has taken great strides in recent years in commenting on societal interactions and the breadth of human emotions is the video game industry. Mass-produced, big-budget, upscale titles typically revolve around one common element: fun. However, in the independent game subcategory, passion projects created by small teams set out to explore the ways in which we interact with our environment and the people entrenched in our own small worlds. There is one recent game in particular that stands above the rest within this definition. Undertale, conceived by one man, Toby Fox, is an interactive experience that not only entertains but teaches us about how art is a reflective mechanism of life and, perhaps more importantly, the interactions we have with others.
Undertale is a unique take on role-playing games. It doesn’t feature high-end graphics or endless amounts of action. There are no big explosions or special effects. No, what makes Undertale such a shining example of art imitating life is the way it handles the quiet, incidental terrors of the human experience. The premise: a child named Frisk falls into the Underground world inhabited by monsters. In order to return home, he is tasked to wade through the world and, in turn, correspond with the creatures of this world. While the combat system is traditional turn based like many other games within the genre, the game can be completed without ever vanquishing a single foe. This begs the question, are any of the characters actually enemies?
Undertale thrives on allowing the player to make conscious decisions about the way they interact with the characters throughout the roughly six-hour adventure. In the beginning of the game we meet Flowey, a luminous and cheery sunflower that offers to teach Frisk how the game works. Toby Fox has ingeniously set the player up to question the motives of others when Flowey deceives Frisk and attacks. Luckily, we are saved by the mother-like character of Toriel just in time. She offers to nurture and protect us from the monster world, providing shelter in her lovely home. The only stipulation is that in an attempt to keep Frisk safe, she doesn’t allow him to take the only path leading back home. The first true player choice moment comes when you, as the player, must decide how to gain passage past Toriel. The only method of moving forward without attacking your enemy, in this case Toriel, is performing certain actions — mostly communicating with words. And with the proverbial stage set, the real game begins. Unbeknownst to the player, every in-game choice is remembered in later stages, making each seemingly inconsequential moment with each monster across the landscape essential.
Undertale provokes an emotional response from the dialogue between characters. Early on, it becomes abundantly clear that every individual is struggling with his or her own personal plights. There is a prevailing loneliness in the Underground. The game stresses that the only way to return to the land of humans is with the power of a human soul. Monster souls are said to be too weak, as if they are inferior. What this does is tell the player that because they are human, they are inherently greater than the resident monsters. In reality, these monsters are shown to be misunderstood and, in many ways, just as afflicted with the human condition as the rest of us are.
In the real world sometimes differences cause biases, and the Underground is not immune to this feature. For instance, a pair of brothers who play a big part in the game use humor to deflect their own struggles. Skeleton creatures, Sans and Papyrus, are the first to try to foil Frisk’s escape, but their attempts are weak, often diverted by conversations and tangents about their own lives. The naming conventions used in Undertale are critical. Sans means absent or remote, an extension of the small skeleton’s stature in society. Papyrus is effectively an open canvas, an unfiltered place in which every thought spouts into the airwaves. The supposed overarching evils that lurk come from Undyne and Asgore, both determined to capture the human’s soul in order to cross the barrier. Alphys is a scientist recruited to help with the process, and the extension of him is a game show host robot named Mettaton.
At the root of it all, no matter what the perceived notion of any of these characters is, all they really desire is to be understood. Some like Papyrus and Alphys merely seek companionship. Others, like Sans, are dealing with loss. Mettaton is programmed to entertain despite not feeling as if anyone cares. Even Undyne, the leader of the King’s guard, is shown to be vulnerable and a skeptic. And it all comes full circle by the end of the game. Of course, each journey is different. Some players may choose to become a godlike character, slaying every enemy that stands in Frisk’s path, while others may spare the ones that are convenient. Finishing the game without defeating a single enemy takes a lot of work, and those immense efforts are from truly understanding each and every character’s struggle.
Undertale masks sadness with humor. For many of the Underground’s citizens, laughter is a way to cope, but we discover profound clarity when we remove the layers. One of the most memorable characters throughout the game isn’t even one that Frisk battles. There’s an incidental conversation with a monster-like Octopus living in shallow water. Onionsan is just happy to have company even if it’s for only a brief moment. One cannot help but attribute his name to the effect that peeling onions has on the eyes.
The lore throughout the game can be summed up by one of the many occurrences when the writing is on the wall. “A monster with a human soul, a horrible beast with unfathomable power.” And this is how Undertale comments on life. By the end of the game, should the player decide to eliminate any of the monsters, the only person who appears as a monster is Frisk. In essence, the one who uses the significance of a human soul for wrongdoing has the power to be an unstoppable monster.
Undertale preaches the age-old concept that everyone is facing their own battle. Treat the people you encounter throughout life with human compassion and understanding. You may not understand the depth of their personal battle, but just because they appear and act differently than you doesn’t mean that their fight is any less important than your own. Undertale is a heartbreaking demonstration of the never-ending concept that there are always people who feel ostracized and isolated from society because of the way they look, talk and act. The emphasis on the human soul in the presence of monsters delivers parting knowledge that every human has a soul of equal importance. Undertale comments on the way we interact with one another, and the experience hits the soul in a way that permeates our daily lives.