When I was a kid, kid protagonists drove me nuts, especially in the fantasy genre. That trope of a child being whisked away from his ordinary life always seemed like a grating waste of pages and screen time to me, not least because the kid was invariably the least interesting character in the story. As a child reader, I was invited to imagine fantastical worlds and grand adventures, but no one thought that I might want to imagine, like, not being a child? That was the form of escape I wanted the most. I didn’t want to meet amazing people (and have them tell me how important and special I was). I wanted to go ahead and fucking be an amazing person, a real and unchaperoned participant in the world.
The idea of abandoning my humdrum day-to-day and learning that somewhere else I was super duper important and valuable—for no particular reason, mind you, just because, Chosen Ones and all that—didn’t strike me as intoxicating so much as deadening. Condescending.
I get it. It’s practical to have a point of view character who initially understands the rules of the world just as little as the reader does. And it’s also totally valid to indulge one’s presumed audience, and kids love hearing that they’re more special and awesome than the world realizes.
That’s fine. Indulgence is fine. Escapism is fine. But as a cultural narrative, it’s at least boring and maybe a little corrosive as well. Who needs coming of age tales—who needs to come of age—when you’re already the most important person in the world and you’re just waiting for the world to realize it?
The opening sequence of Undertale is a sort of point-by-point rejection of that trope, or of what it usually means. You’re a child, far from home, and you learn that the world around you is beguiling and at least a bit sinister. Then a competent adult takes you under her wing to protect and guide you. She treats you as infinitely special and infinitely fragile, and soon enough she takes her role as your protector too far, not just babying you through the first portion of your adventure, but trying to talk you out of having an adventure at all—so progressing in the game means rejecting the easy answers she offers.
This is the only specific thing I’ll spoil: You can part ways with this kind-hearted pseudo-parent peaceably, all hugs and hard-won mutual respect, or you can goddamn kill her. And whichever of these things you do, you’ll express your choice through Undertale’s dizzily inventive battle system.
In Undertale, you can attack your opponents—I hesitate to call them enemies; I actually hesitate to even call them opponents—and you can avoid their attacks with a clever little mechanic where you move a heart-shaped reticule to make it dodge chunks of capering monotone pixel art. But you can also chat, flatter, cajole, flirt with, pick on, not pick on, and otherwise engage the monster on the other side of the turn-based battle. And it’s possible to get through the entire game without killing a single one of those monsters, opting instead to understand them and/or manipulate them and/or seduce them.
There’s that line from the Edge review of Doom, way back in the iron age of 1994: “If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances… Now, that would be interesting.” That often gets boiled down to the simpler formulation, “If only you could talk to the monsters,” which is a bit less radical than what Edge was actually proposing—cyberdemons, unite with me against the spiderdemon scourge!—but still a lot richer an interaction than we’re offered in a dismaying majority of the videogame canon.
Videogames are these wondrous systems, these fascinating and resonant spaces, where our primary mode of interaction is, quite frequently and kind of regrettably and sometimes nonsensically, violence. That Edge review of Doom was reminding us that that has never been the case for all games, and that it doesn’t have to be the case at all.
In that sense and following that line of thinking, Undertale is very much a game about talking to the monsters. You’re still an implausibly powerful agent of destruction, but you can choose to actively reject your status as a killing machine, or you can mete out mercy selectively. It’s up to you, and the choice manages to feel meaningful every time, in addition to breaking up the baked-in monotony of battling in even the best old turn-based JRPGs. If you go the non-violent route, you’ll never get any experience points, and thus you’ll never level up. But then again, this is a game where you don’t need to assert your will by means of your ever-escalating combat prowess, remember?
There’s a lot of pathos in the usual role of a videogame protagonist, forced into being solipsistic at best, sociopathic at worst. (Forever a child, and worse, an all powerful child with an arsenal). Undertale allows you to liberate yourself from that role, and tuns the act of doing so (or not) into one of the most affecting coming of age tales I’ve ever encountered.
It’s a game about how games can expand our empathy rather than dulling it, and about how fantasy can help us grow rather than giving us an excuse not to.