As video games become more accepted as a form of art, people can use video games to create vast worlds and convey powerful messages. Although video games would not be considered a traditional form of art or put on display in a museum, they are an important aspect of our culture because of how ingrained they have become in our everyday life and how they can reflect our everyday life, depicting themes such as racism, sexism, equal rights, and other social issues. The downside to using video games as platforms for expression is that the message may not reach an effective audience. Video games are often seen as childish, and the style of video games adds to the perception of it, further affecting the outreach of a game.
What is Undertale?
Undertale is a role-playing video game with a retro, 8-Bit-feeling design created by Toby Fox. Although the aesthetics and design choices of the game may appear childish, Undertale explores very heavy themes with an alternate take on role-playing games. For example, the abbreviations LV and EXP would typically be taken as meaning “level” and “experience,” respectively, but Fox designed these terms to instead mean “level of violence” and “execution points.” The true meaning of these abbreviations is not revealed until the player has completed the game, and the accumulation of these points greatly affects the outcome. Additionally, a player can replay the game and experience a subsequent playthrough affected by decisions made in a previous one.
The purpose of attributes such as LV and EXP underlines the power of choice as in-game decisions have great effects on the ending and subsequent playthroughs, and the results of the in-game decisions create a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions in the player as they are continuously introduced to the twists and turns of the story. The premise of Undertale is that a lost human falls into a hole, entering the underground world of monsters who were banished from the surface after a war between humans and monsters. The player has to navigate through the monsters’ world, meet various characters, and make many friends, learning that monsters are nice. Although some characters in the underground are hostile towards humans, the human protagonist has the choice to befriend the monsters.
Gender and Racial Identity
Regarding identity in Undertale, the protagonist is androgynous and is known in the fandom as “Frisk,” which is a gender-neutral name because they are not assigned gender in the game. Removing gender from the protagonist allows the focus of the game to be more on the surroundings of the player rather than the role of the protagonist the way games are typically styled. Other examples of LGBTQIA+ representations in Undertale are the characters Alphys, Undyne, and Mettaton. Alphys is a bisexual scientist who creates Mettaton, a sentient robot that discovers its identity as an eccentric feminine male. Undyne is a lesbian leader of the underground royal guard and the main love interest of Alphys within the scope of the game.
Sexuality is not the only aspect of identity that is covered in the game. The historical hatred between humans and monsters parallels racism and xenophobia in our society. The moment Frisk enters the underground, monsters try to kill them and hunt them down. The player never sees the perspective of human society, but the hatred and fear seem mutual. The protagonist acts as a bridge between the two worlds through which the player can understand the “other” and see that they deserve humanity. The consequences of the player’s treatment towards the monster are not light as they drastically affect the ending and any other future playthroughs.
The Choice to Be Kind
The player cannot kill any monsters, which will result in a pacifist ending that is generally accepted as a good ending. However, a player can also grind to kill every single monster, revealing secrets in the game and a greatly altered experience in subsequent playthroughs. The neutral ending results from a player killing just some monsters, usually because the concept of LV and EXP throws them off. An in-game character, Flowey, even emphasizes that it is good to increase the attributes LV and EXP, but the player discovers too late that Flowey was lying and cannot go back and change anything. Again, the power of choice is a heavy element in Undertale and really tests the ability of an individual to treat others with kindness while reflecting the state of the real world onto an underground society created by “monsters.”
In a way, the role of choice also symbolizes the obsession of humans to follow the rules and repeat history because it is what people are comfortable with. However, there cannot be progress without some discomfort.