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[blog] Undertale

Undertale is a very good game.

So you should play it, because I am about to spoil the hell out of it.

No, really. Don’t read this if you haven’t played the game. It won’t even make sense. I’m reflecting on it, so I’m not gonna bother explaining stuff you would know if you’d seen the ending(s).

This is a heavily story-based game. Dissecting the plot without playing it will not entertain you and may ruin your enjoyment of the game later. I’m not kidding.

Okay then.

A game where you don't have to kill anyone

Here is an exhaustive list of things I knew about Undertale going in:

  1. You don’t have to kill anything.
  2. There’s a nice cow mom lady in the first area.

Half of that isn’t even right — Toriel is a nice goat mom lady.

The very first sentence on Undertale’s Steam page is “UNDERTALE! The RPG game where you don’t have to destroy anyone.” Not having to kill to progress is, seemingly, the primary selling point of the entire game.

So I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t even fight anyone. I never saw the combat UI at all until I got to Asgore. It just wasn’t relevant. The game was supposed to be playable without fighting, so I decided upfront that I wouldn’t fight. I went in willing to die rather than fight. That takes a certain amount of, ah, determination.

Since then, I’ve watched a handful of people kill Toriel and later be annoyed that the game didn’t tell them not to do it. In other words: the game doesn’t clearly tell you not to kill a person who has been preposterously nice to you the entire time you’ve been playing. So when you do kill that person, it’s the game’s fault.

I suppose right there, in the very first hour, is the biggest point Undertale is trying to make. What kind of a medium is video games, when the only way we know how to approach a problem is to destroy everything that’s even mildly inconvenient?

By taking this stand, the game traps itself in an awkward place, and the resulting balance is really interesting to me. The game knows that the biggest trope in its genre is to defeat everything the player encounters. It wants to throw this pillar out the window, to redefine what it even means to be this kind of game. But at the same time, it’s still a game, so it has to rely on some existing game vocabulary in order to be understandable at all.

So we have the Froggit NPC a few screens before the Toriel encounter, who tells you that someday you may need to spare someone whose name isn’t yellow. Of course we know that “someday”, in video game parlance, means “the next boss fight”. And when you do spare Toriel, the game tries to stall a bit, but she still has to give you different dialog each time, just to let you know that something’s happening. That the game is progressing. Even if it’s only the difference between “…” and “… …”.

On the other hand, the game pretty well obfuscates its key pacifism feature — “spare” really means standing your ground while refusing to fight, but it sounds like nonsense in many cases where sparing is useful. If you don’t take the Froggit’s advice to heart, it may not even occur to you to try “sparing” someone who’s still keen on fighting. I can’t tell if this is an oversight (!), the lack of a better word, or intentional obtuseness/irony.

Anyway, I approached the game with determination, and I probably would’ve kept sparing Toriel even if she’d said the same nothing ten times in a row. So those nods feel forced to me, as though the game wishes it didn’t have to provide them at all, but knows it would be losing something important if they weren’t there. The funny thing is that the game is right — a nontrivial number of players still overlook that little extra ellipsis, conclude that sparing Toriel doesn’t accomplish anything, and instantly resort to the tried-and-true tactic of beating her to death.

There are two curious phenomena when this happens: often either the player’s friends will lambast them for not playing the “right way”, or the player will discover via some other means that this locks them out of the pacifist ending and become aggravated at the game for doing this to them.

Here Undertale encounters a second internal conflict. If Undertale is anything, it’s a game about consequences. Surely you don’t deserve the “best” ending merely for playing the game — I might even argue that there is no “best” ending, only the one you earn for yourself. And yet Undertale is still a game, and a story game at that, and the entire point of playing it is to experience a story with a satisfying conclusion. So the game wants you to earn the pacifist ending on your own, but at the same time it has to nudge you in that direction somehow, or it’s fundamentally failed at being a game.

That said, lecturing people on how to do an optimal playthrough their very first time completely defeats the point of the goddamn game, so if you’re doing that you should knock it right off.

Having a bad time

After I beat the game and got the pacifist ending, I stopped avoiding Undertale spoilers, and the existence of the “no mercy” (or “genocide”) ending came to my attention. I waffled a bit, but eventually gave it a shot, morbidly curious how this story-heavy game would deal with a dead main cast.

The game very cleverly predicts what kind of person would be willing to do this: me. Someone who’s already completed the game, with the power to restart the story from the beginning over and over, who’s curious how everyone else will react if I do things differently. It’s not something that’s very easy to discover in passing, and in fact I was out of the ruins before I was told that I had to kill every monster in each area. The game knows this, knows that it has a hidden story virtually no one will stumble upon accidentally. It lays on the moralizing pretty thick, even hitting audiences of streamers and LPers, who can’t bear to do terrible things with their own hands but are content to watch someone else do it.

That resonated with me. I could’ve watched a recorded run — several of my friends had even streamed their own attempts. But I felt that if something terrible were going to happen one way or another, the least I could do was own it and do it myself. It reminded me of putting down my cat a couple years ago; I’d felt then that it was important for me to push the plunger, to actually be the one to kill my cat. That something crucial would’ve been lost if I’d let someone else do it. I don’t know what that something is, but I still feel the same way.

Undertale: 7/10, reminds me of my dead cat.

So the most interesting thing about the bulk of the run is that the player character becomes an entirely different person. 8-bit RPGs don’t have a very big player vocabulary: the only things I can do are walk around, fight things, and interact with NPCs and the occasional object. There’s really not much space for expressing any real personality at all. But Undertale does it for me. Sans sees me as a monstrosity right off the bat; I one-shot bosses with increasingly furious attacks; eventually my inner monologue when examining objects is different. Even the familiar “determination”, which in the pacifist run was a powerful force I wielded for good, becomes the motivation for the horrible storyline I’m unfurling now.

Eventually I encounter Sans, the gatekeeper from the pacifist run, who’s now intent on destroying me. And destroy me he does. Over, and over. Eighty times, before I finally beat him. It took me at least eight hours spread over the course of several days. It was excruciating.

And yet I persevered, carried on by my determination. I adore Sans, but I still wanted to defeat him. He says at one point that he knows I’m the person who has to do something just because I “can”, which means I “have to”.

That’s true, of course, but it exposes a paradox in the game’s message. What am I actually being told here? If the game truly didn’t want me to do any of this, it wouldn’t reward me by having this entire separate storyline. It wouldn’t even have the Sans fight, because we play games for the challenge, and Sans is certainly a challenge. The game dangles more insight on a string, then chastises me when I reach for it.

I killed Sans, and Lexy destroyed the universe.


I say “Lexy” because that’s the name I gave to the fallen human, to the character canonically known as Chara. Until the end of the no mercy run — the very last event in the story, as experienced by the player — everything suggested that I’m supposed to be the original fallen human.

That’s why Frisk has the power to save and restore: my determination to keep playing. That’s why the game ragged on me, personally, for playing through no mercy in the first place.

But the final cutscene has Lexy — Chara — me — break the fourth wall to taunt me, the human being in the real world. And then they kill me. Except they don’t really, because the game knows it’s a game, and even Chara knows on some level it’s a game, since they’re not too surprised to see me come back.

This is where the game’s message, if it has one, starts to come a little unraveled.

The ultimate ending to no mercy is — just like Sans’s special attack — literally nothing. Perhaps that’s the game’s retort to me: it’s not rewarding me after all. But you’ll never find this out without playing through the story, without persevering, without the very determination the game otherwise celebrates. In fact, because this is a game with set paths, there’s no way whatsoever to learn more about the world other than to try things you haven’t tried before within your limited vocabulary.

The game tries to apply real-world moralizing throughout the no mercy story. Killing is bad. Killing everyone is really bad. Okay, I can buy that. But this is a story that assumes I’ve already beaten the game, and probably even seen the pacifist ending. At this point, it’s well-established that I have the power within the universe to turn back my own death or even start everything over from scratch.

If I kill an innocent person, and then turn back time so it never happened, have I really done anything wrong?

That’s an extremely heavy question, and Undertale refuses to ask it. Instead it stresses that the original murder makes you a fundamentally bad person. Or maybe, as Sans hints when he first sees you, it means that you were a fundamentally bad person all along. All that murder is certainly enough to make Chara super duper evil.

The no mercy ending is quietly unsatisfying for me, not because the consequences are bad, but because the way it plays out seems completely at odds with everything I thought the pacifist story was trying to say. Undertale is a game about redemption: there’s the obvious example of Asriel, but even the individual random encounters are with monsters who are genuinely trying to kill you. In most cases, killing them first would be reasonable self-defense, but the game encourages — rather, demands — that you take the time to understand why they’re upset and how to pacify them. The game’s ethics insist that winning a fight someone else started is evil, and the only good course of action is to work to SAVE everyone. Yet if you play through no mercy, the game breaks its own rules and actively sabotages your own redemption, by changing the very last scenes of the pacifist ending.

I find the dissonance really jarring. Even on a practical level, why does Chara’s ability to reset exceed mine? The game also has themes of fragments persisting between timelines, but finishing the pacifist run gives you the “true reset” which genuinely erases everything. Except for this. Why does my impulse to destroy make this mere video game character more powerful than I?

Or maybe the ultimate point is that it doesn’t! After all, Undertale is just a game on my computer, and I can go delete the file that remembers I “sold my soul” (which I did). Is it deliberately so easy? Is this the final layer of meta commentary on this story, that I still have the power to subvert the game itself and erase my own save file? That my own redemption is in my own hands? Doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for a game where the final bosses toy with the very concept of saving.

Lexy, huh? That's a nice name. My name is

Undertale is also a game about identity, about discovering who people are — both metaphorically and otherwise.

Flowey is revealed to be Asriel. Toriel is revealed to be the former queen. Sans is revealed to be something of a guardian. Papyrus struggles with his need to be popular and head the Royal Guard. Undyne initially appears to be a hulking beast, but turns out to be a somewhat different kind of intense warrior. Alphys wrestles with her nerdy interests, her past mistakes and lies, and her crushes on goddamn everyone. Mettaton is a multi-layered actor and actually a ghost. Asgore is… many things.

After all this character development, the game leaves us with three lingering questions. Who is Frisk? Who is Chara? And who am I?

The answers are surprisingly complicated, and I’m kind of stalling here because I still don’t know what they are but am hoping to figure it out by the end of this section.

The game tricks you right at the beginning by asking you to name “the fallen human”. You don’t learn until much later that there have been eight fallen humans, long after you’ve forgotten the phrasing of a stock RPG dialog. You name the first fallen human, Chara; and you play as the last fallen human, Frisk. Throughout the game only Asriel and Chara ever refer to you by name, but the UI shows your name often enough that it’s easy not to notice this.

In a story, and especially in an RPG, names are everything. Names are identity. Undertale won’t even let you name yourself/Chara after any of the major characters, and clearly the conversations with Asriel (as Flowey) are much more striking if you use your own name.

So it’s no surprise that I came away from the pacifist ending believing that I was Chara, and Chara was intertwined with Frisk somehow, and thus Chara was a good person for having seen that ending through. But that’s not quite right, because Asriel outright says to you:

You’re not actually Chara, are you? Chara’s been gone for a long time.

In the pacifist story, it’s very clear that Frisk did all these good things. On the other hand, in the no mercy story, it’s very clear that Chara did all these bad things. In the various neutral stories, it’s a little more ambiguous, but strongly implied that you played as Chara — since Frisk’s name is never mentioned.

RED - Try as you might, you continue to be yourself.

Consider also that all the human souls you see are different colors. You play with a red soul throughout the game, and Chara’s original coffin is colored red. Alphys’s seventh journal outright says “a human cannot absorb a human SOUL”, so it certainly seems that we’re playing as Chara the entire time.

Let’s talk about Chara.

The universal interpretation seems to be that Chara is a just plain evil person who wanted to start a war and watch the world burn. My speculation above is sure not helping that. Some of the evidence is ambiguous (the tapes never gave me a creepy vibe), but Asriel’s commentary is fairly conclusive, and the no mercy run certainly is. Right?

Chara hated humanity, according to Asriel. Okay.

But you spend the entire game surrounded by characters who hate humanity. Sans says straight out that he would’ve killed you if not for the promise to Toriel. Papyrus wants to capture you and deliver you to Undyne, who intends to rip out your soul. The majority of the monsters you meet throughout the game are trying to kill you for various reasons.

Yet the game’s very clear message is that the right thing to do is look past all this and try to work things out, even with people who are adamant about fighting. You only even get a hint about the pacifist ending by sparing the life of the antagonist who had just tried to reshape the universe in his image.

Why is everyone except Chara deserving of mercy? The monsters have good reasons to want to kill you, but why not give Chara the same benefit of the doubt?

We don’t know too much about Chara’s motivations. They were just a kid, and we only have a few glimpses into what happened all those years ago. We know Chara put themselves into a perilous situation where they would be attacked, seemingly so they could attack right back. There was no need to carry the human body through the barrier; if they just wanted to go smack some humans around, they could’ve just done so. But no, they wanted to be attacked first.

Does that ring a bell?

It sounds an awful lot like what every RPG player does.

Because, of course, as we knew all along, Chara is the player. And Undertale is, ultimately, commentary on the design of video games and the people who play them.

Let me ask you a question. Frisk.. Why did you come here? Everyone knows the legend, right…? “Travellers who climb Mt. Ebott are said to disappear.”

Frisk. Why would you ever climb a mountain like that? Was it foolishness? Was it fate? Or was it.. Because you…?

Well. Only you know the answer, don’t you…?

I believe Frisk is dead when the game begins.

They landed on Chara’s grave, where buttercups had grown. Chara’s soul, with its extraordinary determination (thanks to being the player character), had lingered there all this time, waiting for an empty vessel.

You really are naming the most recent fallen human. The entire game, no matter which route you choose, you play as Chara, as a metaphor for player characters in general and for the way you “possess” one when you play any game.

Remember, Undertale is a game about redemption. Chara’s redemption. Your redemption, from the usual violent approach to playing games. You are the antagonistic human, who contrives ways to be attacked so you can attack back.

i always thought the anomaly was doing this cause they were unhappy.
and when they got what they wanted, they would stop all this.
and maybe all they needed was.. i dunno.
some good food, some bad laughs, some nice friends.

Chara’s ultimate redemption is to eat some good food, have some bad laughs, make some nice friends, and build a new life as Frisk. As someone different enough that even Asriel doesn’t recognize them any more. As the kind of friend Asriel always wanted.

I don’t like that Asriel’s fate is left at best unclear and at worst depressing as all hell.

Maybe that’s the point.

Your power awakened me from death. My “human soul.” My “determination.” They were not mine, but YOURS.

Now. Now, we have reached the absolute. There is nothing left for us here. Let us erase this pointless world, and move on to the next.

Chara’s fate is also unclear — as a stand-in for you, the protagonist in other future games. Will you go back to your old ways and keep putting yourself in situations where you “have” to fight back? Will other games provide those situations for you?

If Alphys can build a new body for Mettaton, I have hopes that she can do the same for Asriel. And if one guy with a copy of Game Maker can completely invert what it means to be an RPG, I have hopes that others can do that too.


It’s endlessly fascinating to me that sweet goatmom Toriel resents Asgore for not killing humans fast enough. I’ve never seen anyone else remark upon it, but that’s basically her accusation: he could’ve just crossed the barrier and killed some humans, but instead he waits for humans to trickle in naturally.

It’s also interesting that they already had seven human souls before Frisk fell: the six beneath the castle, plus Chara’s.

Undertale is a game about metaphors, I guess, in the sense that all games are games about metaphors. You pick commands from a menu, and it’s kind of a metaphor for actually doing something.

Except in Undertale, the metaphors willfully break down. What is the box you’re fighting in? Why does it have your soul but not anyone else’s? At first it seems like a metaphor as well, with various bullet hell attacks skinned to fit the monster you’re fighting… but then Migosp dances in the box, Aaron flexes in the box, Napstablook cries directly into it, Asgore and So Sorry and various others attack from outside it…

Asgore attacks and destroys part of the UI. Fighting Flowey requires finding scraps of the UI floating around. Sans starts attacking you while you’re browsing menus. Ultimately you push the box around when it’s not your turn, so you can reach the UI.

I totally fucking dig this.

The best part of no mercy was getting to see everyone else be heroic. Games are frequently about how the player character rises up against adversity and saves the day. This was a rare inversion that I really enjoyed: I was the adversity, and I got to see how everyone else rose up against me.

Sans’s character development was the other best part. He seems like he can’t help but view the world cynically, and comedy is his way of dealing with it. I feel for him a lot.

In the end it’s actually Papyrus who’s positive about everything, no matter what. How ironic.

I was disappointed at first that Sans didn’t remark on my killing Papyrus. Serious and focused seems fitting in retrospect. When he finally did mention Papyrus, it was a teeny bit heart-wrenching.

The whole cast is curious and colorful in a way you don’t often see in games. Everyone has a unique relationship to everyone else, rather than just to the player — you feel like you’ve stumbled into someone else’s story, rather than like you’re having one told about you. That’s a really important thing to capture if you want a world that doesn’t feel like a cardboard backdrop, and Undertale does it splendidly.

I went through several rounds of proposed explanations for the game’s contradictory endings. One that I tried to make work for a while was that you play as Frisk for the pacifist story (having absorbed Chara’s determination, perhaps), but you play as Chara for everything else. That would mean that Frisk’s fate at the very beginning of the game depends, retroactively, on how you finish the game.

I totally fucking dig that, too, but alas it’s more convoluted than what I settled on, so probably less likely.

I’m still not quite happy with what I came up with, because the post-credits pacifist scenes just don’t make any sense. If Chara is still super evil and in control of Frisk, why bother doing all the good stuff in the first place? They already know that they can one-shot half of the main cast. Or is the idea that they’re free to do what they want after the end of the game, because they’re no longer under my control?

I don’t know. It just feels like the author had an idea they really wanted to include, so they threw it in regardless. Like it’s “game stuff” rather than real story. Seems such a shame when the rest of the story is put together so well.

Of course it’s possible that the rest of the story is good by coincidence, I’m full of it, and the disparate endings are also just thrown in. It is a game where the power of friendship saves the day, so maybe it’s cheesier than I give it credit for.

The So Sorry boss fight is adorable, and I’m really disappointed that a lot of people feel bitter about it because the guy who proposed the character has a fat fetish or something. There’re even wholly fabricated stories floating around about how the boss battle is designed this or that way because Undertale’s author hated the character so much. People sure do like to make up backstory that happens to support their own preconceived ideas, then spread it as though it were iron-clad truth.

Be careful in the outside world, OK?
Despite what everyone thinks, it’s not as nice as it is here.
There are a lot of Floweys out there.
And not everything can be resolved by just being nice.
Don’t kill, and don’t be killed, alright?
That’s the best you can strive for.

A lot of Floweys, indeed.

But even Flowey was redeemed.

For all their determination, it sure is funny that humans only live 80-odd years, whereas at least Asgore has apparently been alive for centuries.

Undertale is a game about

Undertale is a game about a lot of things.

On its surface, Undertale seems to be a game about the consequences of designing and playing games that expect you to kill everything. It seems to come down pretty hard on the side of saying this is bad. Yet the entire game guides you towards confronting Asgore, who you have to attack. You’re only saved from killing him by someone else’s interference. Otherwise, he would’ve killed you, and Flowey would’ve been right. For all the game’s heavy moralizing, it has no real comment on this impossible situation it puts you in and then rescues you from.

Undertale is a game about the fundamental limits of a single game, which can only contain so many distinct stories, which is forced to balance a player’s desire to see completion with a player’s desire to replay without getting bored. It struggles to say anything clear about that balance, as it condemns you for seeking out the extra story it offers.

Undertale is a game that isn’t just a game, but a story that tells itself with a game and all its components as the vehicle. And that’s really what story-based games ought to strive to be: not movies where you have to press a button occasionally, but unique tales that can’t be told in any other medium because they’re woven so seamlessly with the very notion of being a game.

It wasn’t perfectly successful at that, granted. There are plenty of places where the game merely dumps a pile of text on you, and if you’re not very good at bullet hell then you probably won’t be consoled by how Toriel’s attacks eventually refuse to hit you. But it’s a huge step in a very interesting direction.

If nothing else, Undertale is a game about expanding our idea of a video game beyond our usual handful of stock genre templates. It deserves plenty of praise for that, and I hope it inspires people to tell their own quirky tales.

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(illus. by Rumwik)