Undertale is a Postmodern-Game-About-Games insofar as it exists as a rumination on the nature of being The Player and the power that entails. To explore this, the game makes clear that it is aware of its existence as a world saved to your computer in which you, as the player, cannot die. Through the power to save and erase data you can toy with the fate of everyone you meet, a fact the game is starkly aware of. Weight is granted to these themes by enabling you to choose to systematically slaughter every character in the game or even to leave varying combinations of them alive just to see what happens, as after all, you can simply reload and erase your actions anyway, right? Early on the game pulls a bit of a dirty trick with its hints and teaching to lead you into killing a character and then panicking and reloading. This leads you into a conversation that demonstrates to you that the game remembers what you did, and that at least one character is completely aware of your power over reality.
Undertale makes effective use of its Game-About-Games set up, but it isn’t satisfied with merely showing up some silly video game mechanics or taking some wry glances at tropes. At its heart Undertale is the story of 3 children and the way their emotional states and agency impact and reflect on the world around them. It’s a look at what it means to be the protagonist of a story and what that entails for everyone else. It’s an exploration of power and escapism and what those mean to someone who plays video games and finds themself relating to the people inhabiting them. Why would someone leave their world behind? Why would Frisk or The Fallen Human ever climb a mountain like that?
Though I played it upon release, Undertale was almost completely unknown to me. It came out at the tail end of a period of extreme distress and isolation stretching a number of years. Living with my partner and some friends now, I’d found myself saddled with a new form of mental struggle, a fear that I couldn’t connect with the people around me. A fear that I was broken or had some key emotional component to me missing. A fear that led to me avoiding contact with the people in my house, growing ever more upset at myself for not making my escape from loneliness what I imagined it would be. Tingeing me with bitterness and a tremendous anxiety that my self-loathing was radiating out of me and could be felt by others, or worse still, interpreted as directed at them. The feelings of jealousy that can arise from seeing people seem to thrive as you fall compounded this monstrously.
In my own eyes I was distant, aloof and cold and any interaction I entered into I feared I would result in either myself getting hurt, or unintentionally hurting someone else. A retreat into media was naturally a staple activity to me. Reducing my world as best I could to my screen and thriving instead in the worlds open to me in video games and social media seemed far more manageable than opening my door. It was in this state that I started up Undertale on a whim, and it is safe to say that the game had a profound impact on me. Even perhaps helping me to begin to reorient my self-conception and by extension a process of reconnecting with myself and people around me.
While Frisk is a separate character to The Fallen Human, this is only acknowledged by the other characters and the narrative towards the end, where Frisk is imminently to be removed from the player’s control. As the player, Frisk and The Fallen Human all inhabit an ambiguously shared existence they can all be seen as representing the player to varying degrees. In other words in so far as “climbing the mountain” is concerned we can say that Frisk, the player and The Fallen Human all did it for similar reasons, if not necessarily the same motivations. To escape from the world they were in and to explore a new one.
The Fallen Human takes on the name the player inputs at the beginning, and thus becomes a direct stand-in for not only the player themselves but the concept of players in general. The True Good Ending of the game entails the willing removal of the player from the game space with The Fallen Human making no appearance. Indeed reopening the game after this has Flowey beg the player to leave everybody in peace. The Fallen Human takes larger roles when the player chooses to go out of their way to harm or systematically slaughter every NPC in the game.
A narrative path is trod through the ending to these “bad timelines” by Flowey. Leading from revelling in your actions, relating how they once committed the same repetitious cruelty and their knowledge that you too are like them at heart. A cycle of slaughtering and reloading driven to a hedonistic fugue as a result of being granted the power of the protagonist and playing until all they can do is repeat the same sequence with the same people over and over until “seeing what happens” when cruel variables are presented runs out of steam. Flowey, over the course of this discussion, reveals they had the same power as you before you superceded them as protagonist (in one ending Flowey is even able to reassert power over the save file and use it against you to kill you over and over, rendering you a plaything that will never leave). Ultimately, when presented with the cruelest incarnation of yourself, Flowey becomes terrified of you and attempts to stop you before falling victim too.
Here the cycle of violence underpinning a consequence free existence of saving and reloading is established. The only other character to realise your nature sets up an impossibly difficult fight against you, the hope of boring you out of ever again reloading your save his only recourse. By granting the player the possibility of committing mass murder against the inhabitants of this game (and many subtler smaller cruelties) the game asks whether the ability to erase consequences truly excuses committing these acts in the first place. Is it not a reflection on someone’s character to desire to torture characters they love just to see how they will react? Does a reset button truly change the nature of these crimes? The Fallen Human and Flowey represent a player overcome with boredom, on a hunt for sensation or addicted to destruction. The more evil the player does the more of a destructive force and the more free will is granted The Fallen Human, taking on a life of their own until they ultimately eject even you from the game.
Undertale is, however, a game built and advertised on the capacity to offer mercy to every enemy in the game. You are presented with a standard RPG interface through which you can select “Fight” and damage enemies. However, where commands such as “Run” or “Skills” would be in a standard RPG, there are interaction options reminiscent of a dialogue tree. This transforms combat into a kind of social puzzle designed to convince monsters that you are not a threat, allowing you to select the “Mercy” option and end the fight with no bloodshed. At its best, Undertale evokes a struggle to understand the needs and motivations of your opponent even despite their potential and often intent to harm you.
Though it could be argued that any killing on your part is conducted in self-defence as almost all of these monsters ambush you, Undertale has well established there exists a vast power differential at work. You are at no moment under any threat from a single inhabitant of the game (even Flowey is only able to briefly eject you from the program) as you can simply reload your save after any death. Furthermore, in the context of the setting, a single human is established as a figure of fear capable of defeating monsters with ease. As a human you are a member of a class of people who long ago forced monsters to live underground in the first place.
Monsters then are severely disadvantaged in interactions with you from the beginning, not only due to your invulnerability, but your status in the world. You are regarded with a great sense of fear, the existence of the “no mercy run” proving it justified on its own. You, as a player, hold a great deal of power in this world, and as such when attempting to play as a moral person it is expected of you to have the patience to talk it out, run away from, tire out your opponents etc. In essence, to reject relying on the violence the skeleton narrative structure of this genre expects and is built on. In other words, the onus is on you to demonstrate that you are not a threat to these people, as someone who has entered their world as a place of play in which you wield a godlike power.
In providing you the capacity to overcome the trappings of the genre and your own instincts as a player of video games, Undertale is able to condemn the actions of players who do not. It is important to note that Undertale does not condemn the player simply for having or even necessarily using their power. Sans attempts to get the player to use their power to reload the game to a less bloody and devastated state in a “no mercy run” by boring them into starting over. Flowey reveals to the player the actions they could’ve taken to improve their friends lives more by reloading after finishing a neutral run. Both clear examples of an encouragement to return to the past to improve the present where it is in the player’s power. While Flowey’s push may be a trick, it ultimately does end in a better future for everyone involved, and ultimately the end of the cycle of violence on the part of the player, as they are encouraged to give up control and leave the game world in peace.
If Frisk, The Fallen Human and Flowey all represent players of games, then Asriel is the final piece of the puzzle regarding Undertale’s ideas about them. Asriel is a kind-hearted young child who ultimately, through being granted the powers of the player via The Fallen Human in the past (a player of games prior to Undertale), became Flowey. Asriel in this new form slowly but surely became a sadistic hedonist locked away in a repetitious game that made them a god. “I know why The Fallen Human climbed the mountain. It wasn’t for a very happy reason,” Asriel tells us during the True Ending. Frisk and the player came to this world to escape their old one, much as did The Fallen Human who “hated humanity”.
Many who played Undertale, myself included, have found themselves greatly relating to the character who is arguably the main villain, Asriel Dreemurr. In the story of Asriel we can see a culmination of the themes of The Fallen Human who was a great influence in Asriel’s life and of the player playing now. Asriel is a child who one day finds themself unable to feel feelings they know they are meant to, who experiences a loss of ability to connect to others and comes to feel more and more of an outsider not just to their friends but to existence itself, trapped as they are within the confines of an escapist fantasy world, in which they are the protagonist. Influenced and placed there by a player motivated by their own hatred-tinged desire for escape, Asriel descends gradually into a loathing of their position and by extension all that exists. An affliction that can ultimately only be cured by offering kindness and understanding even as their problems become so engulfing as to begin to utterly dismantle reality.
Having suffered for a long time with mental illness and isolation, the sense of loss of feeling and community conveyed by Asriel is palpably relatable. The connection to the escapism inevitably turned to when the real world has become too much makes it hit all the closer to home. In losing their connection to their world Asriel retreats into a escapist version of it, wherein they have become a god. In finding all their friends and family reduced to NPCs that have a limited number of behaviours, the feeling of loneliness only increases. Over time it festers into a cruelty to be inflicted on others. Feeling abandoned and coming to loathe the world indiscriminately is something I can also relate to, feelings of loneliness and desperation turned outward can be very destructive and lead you into a cycle of ensuring they worsen. Sometimes the depression in you, warping as it does your view of reality, truly does feel like it could reach out and undo reality itself. As Asriel turned “God of Hyperdeath”, an idealised video game final boss, the very image of escapist power fantasy beats on you relentlessly, you withstand. Asriel finally pleads with you not to leave, preferring to remain trapped in this fight than lose their only friend; finally, their true nature is revealed. Once Asriel finally gives up they ask you, “why are you being so nice to me?”
Undertale is aware of what the depths of despair can do to corrupt a person, but it is also aware of how in turn kindness begets kindness. In leaving open the possibility to commit the utter destruction of everything, Undertale makes a point of asking why someone would be driven to this. Even if these characters aren’t real and can’t truly feel pain, why would someone wish to simulate harm against them? Undertale’s answer is that by coming into a world to escape or feel powerful (a blurry line symbolised by the extremes of Asriel and The Fallen Human), you become intoxicated but never satisfied. In encouraging the player to let go and allow Frisk and friends to go on with their lives the game isn’t just asking the player to free them, it is asking the player to free themselves.
Undertale posits that, by living in power fantasies, you become numb to the feelings of the characters living in them. By exercising your frustrations with the real world on these avatars, something is happening to you that goes beyond the length of the experience. Players can learn kindness and patience ultimately moving on to other experiences or they can linger, holding on to their dominion for as long as they wish, in the latter case growing ever more numb to seeing people suffering until they cease to be what they once were, a child turned force of nature who lives only to see what things they can provoke from others.
Everyone knows the legend right…? Travelers who climb Mt. Ebott are said to disappear.