Sequart has “sequential art” as the general focus of both its articles and its studies. Sequential art, a term that was coined by Will Eisner and expanded on by other comics creators and theorists such as Scott McCloud, can be loosely defined as a medium that depicts one action as the result of another in telling a story or transmitting some kind of message. One event or image or word in that image leads to another or hints on the fact that something came before it. Sequart itself has focused on comics, television, and film to this regard.
It’s not the first time that I’ve talked about a video game on Sequart. I did a two-part article on Type-Moon’s eroge visual novel game Fate/Stay Night entitled Yet Those Hands Will Never Hold Anything: Emiya Shirou As the Interactive Superhero of Fate/Stay Night and, like the game I want to talk about it, it too deals with the idea of heroism and heroic protagonists: albeit in a different kind of way.
However, one idea that I would like to posit is that video games are sequential art in which the player determines how the previous scene or idea relates and leads to the next. Think of it as Scott McCloud would with regards to comics as “the invisible art” exception instead of the passive perception of a reader-audience linking these elements together, there is something more direct and participatory about the player’s actions leading down a linear or even alternative quantum paths of possibility. This is an important thought in mind as you consider the nature of the protagonist in Undertale.
Undertale is an indie (independently) created role-playing game released in 2015, one without an established industrial games studio, and the result of a Kickstarter Campaign and the artist Toby Fox. Its graphics are modelled after the 16-bit Super Nintendo and Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs) of the 1990s complete with synthetic and brilliant leitmotif musical themes that are strains of one central tune. The story seems to take place after 201X where a human child accidentally falls into the Underground: a place where Monsters have been imprisoned behind a magical Barrier for an indeterminate period of time after losing a War with Humanity.
The cut scene introducing all of this information to the player, including what seems to be their player-avatar, is a dull beige and brown static cut scene reminiscent of even older and more 8-bit games such as Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the original Nintendo Gameboy. As these games go, it looks fairly straightforward.
Yet, for our purposes, this is where it actually becomes more complex. Before the game begins you, the player, have to give your child character a name. This is process is entirely up to you, with a few exceptions if you’ve played the game before and realize that some of the other characters might not want you to choose their names with varying results. Your character is a short child with yellow skin, squinted or shut eyes, long brown hair, and a blue and purple stripped shirt. You cannot tell their gender. In fact, the game goes out of its way to state – especially in the company of Monsters that might not even know any better about human mores – that your pronouns if stated at all are “theirs.”
It makes sense when you consider the argument that gender is a cultural and social construct generally applied to children by adults that may, or may not be kept as they hopefully live the rest of their lives. But this also assumes that your character is basically terra incognita: something of an object that has no past history or characteristics aside from what you have them do. This is not an uncommon practice in video games: especially given the fact that the character is a silent protagonist and never speaks once, at least visibly, in your interactions with other non-player (NPC) characters. We will get back to these elements sooner rather than later.
So your character – whoever he, she, or they seem to identify – explore the Underground and run into Monsters that seemingly want to kill them through either direct means or treachery. But it’s also here that Undertale reveals its own strange nature. You see you have information while, at the same time, you have choices.
When you encounter Monsters, the only denizens of the Underground, you come to what seems to be a generic first-person obligatory fight screen. It is modelled after the JRPG Super Nintendo game EarthBound, the North American localized name for Mother 2, with the added exception of a bullet-hell mini-game in which the player’s red heart-shaped Soul has to avoid the attacks of the Monster in question before their next turn. However, there is more than just Fight, Item, or Run options on this screen. You have two more options: Act and Mercy. While Fight has you attack and injure an opponent, Act gives you different options. It allows you to Check your opponent’s statistics and description while Mercy, when you fulfil certain requirements in the Act options, allows you to Spare the Monster’s life.
And the Act options have some fairly unique descriptions. It is as though a narrator is giving you some personalized perspectives on your opponents that, with some doing on your part, could become friends. This same “voice,” for lack of a better word, describes your surroundings when you click on objects or undertake non-combat actions as well. This may not be news to EarthBound or Mother players. In addition to the fact that the first Mother game for Nintendo was originally supposed to have character descriptions for monsters that you clicked on, the Mother series in itself – particularly EarthBound – is known for quirky “Lewis Carroll in a 90s American yarn Wonderland” narrative descriptions and dialogue. However in EarthBound, which was a great inspiration on Toby Fox, there is a separate unnamed and unseen narrator that occasionally talks to the player usually through ingesting coffee or during special events: usually through the characters, but sometimes breaking the fourth wall.
This strange third-person omniscient narrative choice might be the same for Undertale with regards to your character: save for a few irregularities.
When your character first comes into the Underground, somehow they know what things are. Remember how the premise of the story is that Humans and Monsters had a War a long time ago and the Monsters were sealed away for ages? These Monsters have been Underground for generations, developing a society from the trash of humans above and making various cities: some of which they have abandoned over time. Monsters also do something else which humans are not capable. They use magic.
When you meet Toriel, the Caretaker of the Ruins, she takes your character to her house. There you can explore. But it’s strange that somehow, for a human child who has never seen a Monster before, a species that has been buried under a distant mountain named Mt. Ebott surrounded by a vast forest, to know that a stovetop is powered by fire magic: at least, according to the narrative text that comes up when you click on it.
It’s also odd how by clicking on the Check button under the Act directory, you can get such indepth knowledge of the Monster that you are encountering. Your child character must have pretty excellent powers of perception, even with Toriel’s guidance in interacting with other Monsters, to notice these details and work with them.
And this isn’t even going into your character’s dreams. Sometimes when you sleep, but mostly when you are knocked unconscious or you get a Game Over screen – in other words when you get killed – you get a message telling you not to give up and to “stay determined.” It could be easy to dismiss as suspension of disbelief or story pacing. It could be that an objective narrative voice or series of descriptions are options that you can call on in exploration and battle. The message telling you not to give could be similar or part of the plot at some point where everything gets revealed. It is entirely possible.
But of course there is more. There is a reason why your battles are the aforementioned bullet-hell mini-games with your Soul on the line. Your Soul is literally on the line. It turns out that the Monsters are generally after your Soul because they need Seven Human Souls to escape their prison in the Underground. You also find out that your Soul, a Red Soul, isn’t the only kind of human Soul there is. At some point as you’re headed towards Snowdin, the first main Monster town that you’ve encountered so far, you first come across a mini-game.
It is a Ball Game: a game in which you have to kick a snowball into a hole with a flag over it. Depending on how fast or efficiently you get the snowball into the hole you will get a result that gives you a different colour flag and description on how you handled your victory. Each colour corresponds to the variety of Human Soul colours that exist: which you will find out about later on. As you win at each other goal, you get what can be interpreted to be a description for each and every different kind of human Soul: Perseverance, Kindness, Bravery, Integrity, Patience, and Justice.
But what is interesting is that if you get the Red goal, twice, on your current save file you will get the following description: “Try as you might, you continue to be yourself.” What is fascinating is that when you get to the last level of the game, in the first play-through, if you stand in front of the mirror and you haven’t killed anyone, the narration states “Despite everything, it’s still you.”
It turns out that the Monsters and their King Asgore already have Six Human Souls. So far, they do not have a red one. Fans tend to call a Red Soul’s aspect Determination. I can see why that would get confusing. In Undertale, Determination comes from a Human Soul and it makes that Soul more powerful than a Monster Soul. In the case of the protagonist, it allows them to Save and Reset whenever they die: a nice little bit of fourth wall meta-fictional play there to explain the physics of the world that Toby Fox builds when you lose the game. It also means that a Human Soul tends to last longer than a Monster’s after death and can potentially be preserved and harnessed for its power of Determination. We will get back to that point as well.
The apparent goal of your character is quite simple: you need to escape the Underground and return to the Surface. King Asgore apparently wants to kill you and take your Soul in order to free his people from their imprisonment. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems fairly straightforward. You are the hero of this story. Your sprite even looks like the archetype of a child hero in a video game, or a cartoon child like Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown. Your character could literally come from Peanuts. You must solve puzzles and defeat all the Monsters in your way, until you confront Asgore, destroy him, keep the monsters from escaping their ancient prison, and return to the land of humankind which you have saved and where you can have your happy ending. You will gain EXP and level-up, increasing in power, skill, and gold to purchase, find, or take items that will only make you stronger.
This is the trope of almost every JRPG that exists, at least from the 1990s. These are the genre requirements. In fact, you can take this even further into literary tradition. Your brave child character is literally the poster child of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces: just another mask for the hero that comes from a simple place, finds themselves in adversity, improves themselves, fights the monster and the Other, faces their darkness, dies literally or figuratively, but eventually triumphs as the symbol of humanity.
However, it is fairly clear that Undertale has different expectations out of both the character and you as their player.
In Part II of this article, we will see just where these expectations might take the player, the different sequences of artistic interaction that could occur, and just who it is that they might be playing in the game of Undertale.