Undertale is Garbage

Something I was thinking about recently that doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention in the voluminous writing about Undertale: the repeated theme of garbage and its redemption. Like how Bratty and Catty, two shopkeeper NPCs found in an alleyway, sell you things they found in the garbage, including the second most powerful weapon and armor in the game, or how Napstablook, a depressed ghost, invites you to “lie on the floor and feel like garbage” together, which results in visions of the universe. Spoilers ahead.

There’s a garbage dump in one area, which isn’t notable in itself, except that the ending of a Pacifist run keeps returning to it: there’s a bit about going to the garbage dump for a date, which leads to a conversation in the epilogue involving the line “OH MY GOD! YOU’RE GOING BACK IN THE TRASH!!!”, which results in everyone else saying that they want to be in the trash too. And why not? They really are rubbish monsters: even the most formidable of them failed to take down a small child without any EXP who wasn’t even fighting back. The same scene has them admitting that they’re all losers — but that being defeated by the player character was the best thing that happened to any of them.

The garbage dump collects refuse from both the underground and the world above, the world of humans. As such, it’s where the monsters get all their human technology. You get to it by falling, an echo of the fall into the underground in the game’s beginning. Thus, all of monster civilization is as a dump to the surface world. The humans regarded the monsters as trash, so they swept them into a cave where they wouldn’t have to look at them.

This is echoed in one other area, the True Lab, located far under the Underground just as the Underground is far under the surface. This is where Dr. Alphys ran away from her guilt by sealing away the wretched products of her mad experiments: disturbing things that glitch up your screen and put the wrong text in the wrong places during combat. In fact, the entire atmosphere of this sequence is one of wrongness, and the wrongest part of all is the monster named Amalgamate, which can’t even attack you properly: it instead makes pathetic gestures towards what would be an attack if it were being done by something less messed-up. But at the end, all the creatures in the lab are freed and reunited with their families, who accept them.

Dr. Alphys herself spends a lot of time at the dump. I suppose that makes sense with the dump’s connection to technology, but it also has to do with her sense of worthlessness, of having failed as a scientist and as a person. She was tasked with something bigger than she could handle, and she lives with the weight of the consequences. There’s some subtle suggestion of a suicide attempt. She’s so convinced of her true worthlessness that she engages in the always-disastrous ploy of trying to fake being a hero, repeatedly creating the appearance of danger so she can come to your increasingly unconvincing rescue. This plot thread is designed to make the player annoyed with her, but annoyance is defused once you recognize the hopelessness that inspired it.

The really striking thing about Alphys, though, is that when she’s first introduced, she seems like nothing more than a comic character, a socially-awkward anime-loving nerd stereotype. And she never actually stops being that, even as you come to understand her better and feel sorry for her. Forget redemption from guilt. It’s the guilt that redeems the character from being just a joke.

In fact, that’s a general feature of Undertale‘s style, and of Homestuck‘s style before it. (Toby Fox, creator of Undertale, is one of the main members of the Homestuck Music Team.) Characters and plot elements are introduced in a mocking way that makes you not take them seriously at first, but you wind up gradually caring about them as you learn more. Even the music often has a pattern that fits this notion, starting off with chiptuney square waves and then introducing richer sounds and realer instrumentation once the melody is established. Heck, the very first thing you see in the game is a mockery of all manner of awkwardness in old games: a picture in what I think of as “CGA Palette 2 Brown” over the text “Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS.” Accompanied by what sounds like the soundtrack of a NES title, but which eventually turns into the most significant and emotional theme of the game. Garbage redeemed.

There’s actually a second theme twined up there: Memory, a theme first heard from a music box under a forlorn horned statue in an unregarded passageway under a leak that’s raining water on its head. This statue isn’t in the dump, but it’s in the same general area. You have no way of knowing its significance, or even if it has any significance at all, when you first encounter it. It’s only much later that you find a “Royal Memorial Fountain” containing an awful statue of the local TV star Mettaton that was installed only a week ago to replace an old statue of Prince Asriel, and can put two and two together. Asriel is the game’s chief villain and also its chief victim, a dead child infused into flower by one of Alphys’s experiments, as forsaken as his discarded statue, with nothing but determination where his soul used to be. “Flowey”, as Asriel now calls himself, does his best to provoke you into violence throughout the game, but the best ending can only be achieved by showing compassion to everyone, including him, the character who deserves it the least but needs it the most. And the statue foreshadows that: by showing it a little kindness, protecting it from the underground rain with an umbrella obtained from a garbage can, you start the music box playing, giving you the musical clue you need for a puzzle that conceals a powerful artifact.

You don’t actually get the artifact, though. Your actual reward for your compassion: dog residue.

See, this is one of the game’s big participatory jokes. When you try to take the artifact, you’re told that you can’t, because there are “too many dogs in your inventory”. Checking your inventory, you see that there is an “Annoying Dog” in there that wasn’t there before. When you remove the dog from your inventory, it immediately runs to the artifact and absorbs it, leaving behind only some “Dog Residue”, which is variously described as “Dog-shaped husk shed from a dog’s carapace”, “Dirty dishes left unwashed by a dog”, “Jigsaw puzzle left unfinished by a dog”, and various other randomly-chosen descriptions. Using this item fills up all the empty space in your inventory with more dog residue. Except sometimes it also yields some “dog salad”, which is a healing item. So your reward looks like garbage, but it’s really unlimited free healing items, provided you’re hip enough to this game’s themes to not just throw it out. You can even sell the extra residues for free unlimited cash, if you can find a shop that will take them.

The amount of healing you get from dog salad is somewhat randomized, with different descriptions for different effects. At its strongest, it heals you completely, with the message “It’s literally garbage???”

3 Comments so far

  1. DANoWAR on 10 Apr 2016

    Heyo, I dont’ know if you care, and I haven’t played Undertale yet so I don’t really know, but it feels like there could be spoilers inside your blog entry.
    If there are any, maybe you could prepend it with a spoiler warning?
    Just a thought.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 10 Apr 2016

    OK, since it concerns you, I’ve added a spoiler warning in the first paragraph, before it gets to anything too bad. Be aware that this entire blog is pretty spoilery in general, though.

  3. Mark on 23 Apr 2016

    That’s a very insightful observation.

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