Ginger Nuts of Horror
What? What the Hell is this doing here? Undertale? In a horror article?
Absolutely. I'm fairly certain those of you with even a passing interest in video games will have heard of this title by now; an independent piece of work that took the market by storm a year or so ago, Undertale is a cultural phenomenon, spawning vast swathes of art, comics, spin-offs, musical renditions and more. A love letter to and parody of RPG (Role Playing Game) titles of yore, the game essentially takes every standard of role-playing titles; every accepted or accrued cultural norm, and inverts them. In standard RPGs, you encounter a monster, you kill it; you gain experience (or “EXP”), you level up, get stronger, kill bigger and badder monsters.
Here, you can do that, but the game will punish you for it. It calls into question the automatic assumption of violence within such games and the player's blithe engagement therewith; rather than killing everything you encounter, you instead have the option of engaging with them, talking them down, which is often more difficult and dangerous and less immediately rewarding (your character will remain weak and enfeebled if you take this path, the internet dubbed “pacifist run”), but will also result in a fuller and richer playing experience, many monsters even becoming your friends by the end of the game, and will also provider access to the most comprehensive ending. Alternatively, you could perform the “genocide” run; murdering everything you encounter, which results in an entirely different ending and many, many different encounters (not to mention revelations concerning the game's mythology).
But...Undertale, in a series of horror articles? What the Hell..?
Yes. Whilst ostensibly cute and fairly passive in terms of its design, depending on the path you take, Undertale slowly reveals a deep and abiding horror at its heart, that acts as a commentary on the wider, unspoken horror of RPG conventions:
As the first monster you encounter in the game (Flowey the Flower) demonstrates, this world is ruthless: a matter of “...kill or be killed.” There is some truth to that, depending on how you choose to approach it: if you take Flowey's lesson to heart, and slaughter everything before it can slaughter you, you will find vast, empty segments of the game, without characters or music, those that have fled leaving behind small notes and missives concerning the approaching horror. This factor escalates as you encounter named characters, who you may be familiar with from previous runs: Papyrus the Skeleton, one of the most amiable and pleasant characters in the game, who attempts to make friends with you even as you slaughter him, Undyne, whose rises from her own death as a more powerful version of herself, in order to defend her world and friends, before dispersing. Others: Toriel, Napstablook...characters that are strangely endearing when you encounter them in pacifist or less violent runs, making you reluctant to actually kill them, even knowing that they are only game sprites. Their deaths have incredible weight and meaning, making the player feel extremely uncomfortable, especially when it comes to the more innocent or unwitting of the cast.
Worse: as you follow this course, you will find your character increasingly acting without your input, especially when the choice is between violence and non-violence: at points, the character will begin acting of their own accord, especially towards the end of the game. It will even eventually rename itself; calling itself Chara; a reference to a character in the game's back mythology, that you will only learn about on the “pacifist run;” a child who fell into the underworld and who, ultimately, died, as a result of its own actions. The significance of this is unclear; whether it is Chara's spirit possessing the player character, aroused by the violence you choose to practice, but the outcome is inevitable: Chara ultimately takes control, not only of the character, but of the game, breaking the fourth wall and shutting the game down in the player's face in a fairly horrific fashion, after a grotesque and disturbing physical transformation.
This is part of what makes Undertale simultaneously cute, funny but also often disturbing and frightening: whatever path you choose, the game eventually reveals its own mythology, which is a commentary on the mechanics and nature of video games themselves: after becoming Chara, at the very end of the genocide run, you encounter Sans; a character who has been consistent throughout the game, an who acts as a kind of judge; weighing your actions up to that point and determining whether or not you may pass unmolested. Here, Sans reveals that the “EXP” from your kills stands for “Execution Points” and that the levels or “LV” you obtained as a result stands for “Level of Violence.” Depending on how you've performed, Sans will either let you proceed to the final encounter with Asgore or he will attack you (especially if you happened to kill his brother, Papyrus). Sans is essentially Undertale encapsulated: he is funny, charming, oddly cute in design, but also incongruously disturbing at times: early on in the game, if you happen to have expressed violence during its previous segments, he will engage you, talk to you: inform you that “...if you carry on along this path, you're gonna have a bad time.” At which point, the pin points of light in his eye sockets go out, leaving them dark and strangely glaring. This contrast between a cute, doofy character (who constantly cracks terrible skeleton-based puns) and a suggestion of threat is a prime example of how the underlying horror of Undertale manifests: it is rarely overt or superficial, rather it engenders a sense of discomfort, self reflection, often even guilt on behalf of the player; an emotion that is sorely misrepresented in most horror media (notable exceptions include BioShock: Infinite, which provides similar commentary on the automatic and assumed violence the player engages in).
If you do find yourself in conflict with Sans, then his earlier warning of having a “... bad time” becomes manifest: Sans, in contrast to what the game informs the player (“The easiest enemy; only has 1 hit point and can only do 1 hit point of damage”) is THE most difficult encounter in the game; a gruelling endurance trial in which the player character is expected to die over and over and over, getting used to his various attack patterns before delivering the killing blow. This encounter is effectively the culmination of Undertale's fourth wall breaking meta-mythology; the game does not necessarily lie to the player, but it does deceive them more subtly: Sans is indeed, technically, the easiest enemy, in that it only takes one hit points worth of damage to kill him, and he can indeed only do one hit point in return per attack. What the game neglects to inform you of is that he is so impossibly fast, he can dodge every attack you throw at him and that he can launch THOUSANDS of individual attacks (each doing only one hit point of damage, as informed) per turn.
This is an excellent example of the discomfort and disturbance Undertale elicits in the player, in that it deliberately calls into question the relationship player and game have: in the same vein as other works such as Stephen Volk's Ghostwatch, which undermined TV viewer's relationship to their media so profoundly, the resultant backlash caused it to be buried away from public consumption for a decade or more, Undertale upsets the assumed relationship between game and player; between player and player character. The game deceives rather than instructing, subverts rather than assisting. It also comments upon its own mechanics (and those of RPGs in general) by making them part of its mythology: you are expected to die and die a great many times while fighting Sans, using the “save” and “reload” feature to return. Sans is one of the few characters in the game aware of this feature, and will comment on it, his dialogue changing to reflect your status with each new encounter. Distressingly, it becomes apparent via multiple play-throughs of the game that Sans and Chara are some of the only characters in the game (along with the aforementioned “Flowey”) who have this capacity, and that Sans is very much aware of what you as the player have been doing in other saves and play-throughs of the game (this is another factor that the game subverts, which can be quite disturbing, especially if you are unaware of it: the game does not allow you to simply start a new save and wipe away your mistakes; it remembers what you have done on previous or alternative saves and it will comment on them, not to mention the alternative actions you take).
This plays into a far deeper, darker mythology that does not become readily apparent: there is something about the doofy, dumpy Sans that is remarkably sinister, when you delve deeper into the game: he knows who and what you are when he first encounters you, as he has seen numerous versions of you pass through the same state before, all following different paths, all manifesting different moral choices. He and Chara both have this capacity, but whereas Sans seems to use it benignly, Chara does not, using it as an excuse to wreak havoc and be utterly amoral without fear of permanent consequence.
As for Flowey the Flower...again, a character that is far, far more than he initially seems: presented in most playthroughs as the principle villain of Undertale, Flowery usually manifests at the end of the game in which he kills Asgore, king of the monsters, and absorbs the souls of not only every monster you have encountered (friend or foe), but also those of the other children that have perished here before you. What he becomes is truly, graphically horrific; the monster that is in stark contrast to all others in the game (barring one or two notable examples): A disturbing amalgam of plant, flesh and technology, which, once again, makes reference to the game's mechanics and makes them part of a wider mythology by perpetually killing and “reloading” you so that he can kill you again. This degree of sadistic darkness is emphasised by much the game's previous cutesy style, and is a commentary upon the hideousness of living in a world ruled by video game conventions; that you can “die” multiple times in myriad hideous ways, reloaded and reloaded and reloaded by some unseen, God-like hand (i.e. the player).
It's only if you play through the pacifist run that you come to understand who and what Flowey truly is: a revelation that is as tragic as it is moving, and which ties up the in-game narrative mythology beautifully: it transpires that Flowey is the soul of the murdered child of the king and queen of the monsters (Asgore and Toriel), who was killed by human beings when he attempted to carry the body of Chara back to their village. He died in a bed of golden flowers, where his body crumbled to dust (as all monsters do in the game). As Flowey, he does not recall being Asriel Dreemur, but the player's actions remind him, his absorption of the various souls (both human and monster) allowing him to transform into a demonic, adult form of himself that has power over the entire underworld, able to reshape or destroy it at his will. The “fight” with Asriel is both epic and tragic, the entity still ultimately a lost and murdered child; not the monster he has become, a fact that the player must remind him of through their actions, rather than attempt to slay him outright (which is impossible anyway).
Undertale is a game rife with secrets, with references; with fourth wall breaking meta-commentary, disturbing deceptions, often frightening or unsettling imagery, and characters that are bizarrely lovable, even at their most absurd or vile. It is a game that needs to be played and experienced by the individual to truly understand, as almost everyone will have their own, idiosyncratic experience.
What I have described here is barely the tip of the iceberg, especially in terms of the horrors and revelations that await. For example, what might the player find behind the mysteriously sealed door near the waterfalls? What still lurks within the depths of Doctor Alphys's sealed off lab? Who is Gaster?
Many, many mysteries, each of which is a joy to explore, let alone solve. A rare work that lives up to its hype and then some, and that evokes so many emotions in such depth and profusion, it's all but impossible to express in words.
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.