More Thoughts on Undertale

I commented briefly before about Undertale‘s redemption narrative as applied to Dr. Alphys, but she’s hardly unique in the story. Nearly every major character in the game is defined in terms of their flaws and failures, at least at first. Toriel is overprotective, Papyrus has delusions of grandeur, Sans is a slacker, Undyne is excessively zealous, and so forth. I’ve seen a theory that maps the major characters to the different circles of Dante’s Inferno, and while the details of that were very much a stretch, it’s worth noting that there is a fair amount of disguised Hell imagery in the game. You are, after all, in an underworld full of monsters, and, as with Dante, the only way out is through. A focus on the charcters’ sins adds to this, even if it is mainly done for humorous purposes.

But if there’s one thing we all know about Undertale, it’s that it’s “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die”. They may be sinners, but that doesn’t make them bad people — or even if they are bad people, that doesn’t make them your enemies. I mean, they are your enemies for the most part, but they don’t have to stay that way. Going the Pacifist route means figuring out how to resolve conflicts without violence, and that means treating the antagonists like people instead of like monsters.

This applies to the lesser encounters as well — in fact, it applies better. A lot of the major encounters come down to “survive for long enough and eventually your opponent gives up”, but the random encounters are all about paying attention to the monsters and figuring out what they really want. Maybe a monster just wants you to notice what a nice hat it’s wearing. Maybe it wants to wash you, or get into a muscle-flexing contest. Monsters have weird obsessions sometimes, and I think this makes the whole thing work better than it would in a less-exaggerated setting. The modeling of their motivations isn’t terribly sophisticated — the mind of a monster is a simple state machine. Still, it’s significant that you can relate to them as more than just things that you harvest for EXP. After this, it feels peculiar to go back to playing conventional combat-based RPGs, where your enemies are more objectified.

Now, even for a Pacifist, combat isn’t just a matter of guessing the right things to do. In between your actions, you still have to dodge your opponent’s bullet-hell-like attacks. Some of the attacks are more abstract, some are more representational, but it’s worth noting that, within the game’s fiction, they’re always really attacking your soul rather than your body. It’s like a big metaphor for introversion and social anxiety. People approach you at random, and you try to satisfy them as quickly as possible so they’ll leave you alone and you can stop dodging bullets. Occasionally, with the major characters, the end result is that you make a new friend.

I’m tempted to say on this basis that social anxiety is the player character’s defining character flaw, but that doesn’t really fit with your role in the story in general. It’s worth remembering as a technique, though.

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