Trigger Warning! – Undertale: Love, Hope, and Compassion

[“Trigger Warning” – is a piece dedicated to showcasing video games which focus on mental disorders as well as emotional and psychological trauma. It is my hope as a lifelong gamer and sufferer of various psychological disorders to combine my greatest passion with my greatest weakness to benefit the gaming community at large. These pieces are meant to applaud games that appropriately exemplify such issues in the human condition. Some of them are visceral and violent games that take a liberal approach and are not for the faint of heart. Others take a lighter approach to the whole affair and can apply to a much wider audience. Hopefully, those who do not suffer from such afflictions can look at these games as a chance to grasp at something otherwise intangible. While those who do suffer from psychological afflictions can look to these pieces of fiction for hope and catharsis. Without further ado, enjoy. 🙂 ]

[By the way, this is the trigger warning for the article:depression, anxiety, self-deprecation]

Undertale, In Summation

Undertale is an independently developed game made almost entirely by a single developer, Toby Fox. It’s a delightful tale about our impact on the world and how the choices of one person can have profound effects. Furthermore, it begs the question of whether or not we should choose a life of self-less compassion or steadfast convictions. The “game” aspect is hard to peg down. It takes parts of bullet-hell shooters, RPGs, dating simulators, and puzzle games, but could ultimately be described as an adventure game. Despite this crisis of conscience, Undertale still manages to come together as a well-crafted adventure with plenty of challenge and all of its parts coming together perfectly.

The player takes control of a human child that fell into the Underground. This massive underworld houses the remnants of a race of monsters who were forced underground after losing a war to the humans on the surface of the world. The player then has to make their way to the capital of the Underground through snow-covered mountains, swamps, and an area filled with molten lava. Their main goal is to confront the monster king Asgore and pass the barrier that has the monsters sealed away from the world.  Along the way, the player runs into a cast of monsters that range from flaming frogs, to dog-knights, to robots, to a literal sentient airplane! The combination of unique locales and the charming populace create a very warm feeling to contrast with some of the more dire moments of the game.

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Where Undertale really shines is how dynamic it can be in terms of tone and emotion. This is most present in its two contrasting ending types, true-pacifist and true-genocide. True-genocide involves you literally killing every single monster you come across. It’s quite a heavy path to take and well worth your time to play through and experience.

However, I will not be focusing on that here. So no spoilers for the genocide run! Rather, I want to focus on the true-pacifist ending, where you don’t kill a single monster, because the true-pacifist playthrough holds a profoundly important lesson about the resolve of the human spirit and the importance of loving others.

“But nobody came…”

With the exception the self-obsessed, human beings are inherently self-deprecating. When asked to describe ourselves, we often have a few negative traits in mind. Sometimes those are even the traits we initially would use to describe ourselves before moving on to redeeming qualities. This notion of self-deprecation is what connects the player with the monsters of Undertale. The monsters of the Underground can be literal metaphors to the monstrous thoughts and actions we have as human beings.

Both the in-game monsters and we humans want the same thing. We want to be happy. However, the monsters you come across are never truly happy. All of your in game encounters pit you against monsters that all have their own self-doubts. Some of them, like the sullen ghost, Nabstablook, are too shy and nervous to express how they feel. Or there’s the sheer denial of the determined skeleton, Papyrus, who constantly looks for success to quell his loneliness. For the pacifist play through, you have to figure out what is holding back each monster from realizing their true self and then show them they’re better than they think. In the case of Nabstablook, it’s a matter of having someone coax it out of its anxiety. For Papyrus, he simply needs a friend to look past his airheaded nature to see he’s a good skeleton.

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So the question remains. How can we help others fight their problems? And how can we fight our own self-doubt?

A small book in the library of the snowy town, Snowdin, reveals the nature of a monster’s soul and the key to answering the aforementioned questions: “Love, hope, and compassion…”

“…stay determined”

A true-pacifist ending requires you to exhibit these three qualities, love, hope, and compassion, throughout your entire play through. From a gameplay perspective, it means never once killing a monster. By never killing a monster, you never gain any levels so you never get tougher. You have to go through the entire game with the lowest amount of health possible. This makes fights painfully tough because you have to convince a monster, while in combat, that fighting isn’t the answer. Meanwhile, they’re bludgeoning you with attacks. In some cases, you are presented with the option outside of combat to save a monster as well. These are also moments where you need to step in.

From a story perspective, it means developing meaningful friendships with the various boss characters you come across. Each major boss in the game has the chance to become your friend. If you manage to get through their fight and spare them, a unique story arch opens up where you try to win over your former enemy through kindness. It requires a bit of roleplaying gymnastics and eventually they become part of your journey.

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None of this is terribly easy. You’re at a health disadvantage the whole game. Combat is often a matter of biding your time and waiting for enemies to give in to your patience. Battles become a grind to get through. There are also little mistakes you can make here and there to prevent you from achieving the ideal ending. It’s a matter of perseverance in a system stacked against you.

That being said, achieving the best possible ending means keeping a level head and putting the needs of the monsters above your own ambitions. A shopkeeper in the early game puts it best, “As long as we got that hope, we can grit our teeth and face the same struggles day after day…”

What Can One Gain from Undertale?

So why push through the insane task of getting the pacifist ending? Because one of the most gratifying aspects of life is making the world a better place. Which is never an easy task, because it means choosing love as your response to adversity. And loving someone, showing them compassion, and hoping they will see things for the better can be a painful experience. Loving someone means that you’re letting them into your life. You’re giving them the chance to hurt you because you care about their well-being. So when they fail, it means you’re watching someone you care about fail. It hurts to watch. But pushing through the pain is necessary, because it means when you come out the other side of all the struggles, everything is more beautiful. It’s like a breath of fresh air to a drowning man.

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Undertale shows that acting out of love, hope, and compassion is rewarding but tough. This is illustrated no better than with two characters at the end of the game that propose a rhetorical question and answers. “Why even try?” because if one person tries, “Then everyone will.”

So by looking out for others and loving them, we help make the world around us a little better. Then, we can find happiness in ourselves as well.

Your Dear Writer’s Thoughts on Undertale

This game came at a formative moment in my life. I was depressed beyond comprehension and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After completing Undertale I took in its message of helping others and decided that I wanted to spend my time helping people overcome mental illnesses much like mine. So I geared my life towards reaching out to those who suffer from depression, anxiety, and trauma victims. Some days it comes easy. Either because the way in which I’m helping is hands off, like writing one of these articles. Or it’s because I’m simply having a good day and I’m using my sudden burst of energy for some good.

But most of the time, I’m inconsolably depressed. I have a hard time in day to day life. Every bit of my day is a struggle with suicidal ideation and severe apathy and lethargy. There’s never a moment where I’m not battling for my own mind. However, I find an unending source of confidence and hope when I help others. It’s what keeps me going. Undertale affirms this notion. That powering through tough times is worth the fight, and it takes quite a bit of hope for the world around us.

At times, the fights in Undertale seem hopeless. The hurdles you have to jump through can be tough. However, if you have even the slightest shred of hope left, you can still push through to one of the most heartfelt endings in gaming.

When all’s said and done, the final boss gives one final speech. At this point, he has torn everything you worked for from you. Yet, if you still choose to show him mercy, through the sheer evil that he is begins to have hope as well, “Maybe with the little [hope] you have,… you can save something else.”

Trigger Warning for Undertale: Undertale is a weird one to pinpoint because it’s a very unassuming game. It’s not overtly violent and the humor relies a good deal on wit and charm. The visuals aren’t particularly unpleasant. However, there are a few moments in the game that invoke horror elements that might be a bit much for some more sensitive people. I would still urge anyone who calls themselves a gamer to play it though. There are some truly beautiful moments that have personally changed my life for the better.