In Part I of The Demon With a Thousand Names and One in Toby Fox’s Undertale, we focused on some of the game’s background, its medium and genre tropes, and began the process of illustrating how the player interactively affects the character’s, and the game’s, sequential narrative. In Part II, we will be looking at how the game subverts traditional conventions, accounts for Saving and Loading options in a sequential narrative, and most importantly just who it is you are playing: and how your actions will determine the answer.
We already know that Undertale is different from a generic Japanese role-playing video game. We see it has Act and Mercy options for the protagonist character. The player can figure out how to resolve a conflict peacefully, without using the Fight button, and even get the protagonist to know the Monsters, the usual enemy non-player characters, as people.
But King Asgore, the supposed final Boss of the game who’s collecting Human Souls, is evil right? I mean, when you get to his palace you see a series of coffins with different colour Human hearts on them, including one with your character’s red heart. Even their name is on the coffin. It is pretty clear that despite everything you’re told about Asgore being kindly, helping all the Monsters and their children, and “a big fuzzy pushover,” doesn’t apply to you and your situation.
But Asgore also has a back story. He and his Queen had a son named Prince Asriel. They met a human child who fell into the ruins, a lot like your character had done. This child was adopted by the family and was going to be “the hope of all humans and monsters.” But then they died and Asriel took their Soul to get to the Surface: only for Asriel to also get killed. This was when Asgore decided to proclaim war on humanity again: especially given how the humans had instigated war against his people on the off-chance that one of them would get a Human Soul and become godlike.
Yet for all the quirky humour in Undertale and the poignant pacing of storytelling, it does not prepare you for the ultimate joke. This is truly a sequential game. Each death of yours and resulting decision is like a choose your own adventure alternate reality in pages that only you can access. Simply put, loading an ordinary Save already puts you in different branches of a graphic interactive narrative. That is the power of Toby Fox’s storytelling: to take a Save option and show you just how much you take it for granted.
There are also many different endings to Undertale itself. While the Neutral Ending has many branches depending on your actions, the Golden Ending, the Pacifist Ending – the happy ending – is harder to get. You have to not kill anyone. And I mean anyone. That is fairly counter-intuitive to a game system that primarily functions on killing allowing you to gain more power. In fact, if you do this, you never level-up in the entire game. From a certain perspective, you are weak and vulnerable. It may well be that Toby Fox, when he was designing one of his songs, was also inspired by the Bakumatsu Chapter of Square’s Super Nintendo game Live-a-Live: in which you play as a ninja trying to get through the puzzle and trap-ladden Ode Castle. You can get through the Castle on a No-Kill run and this actually forces you to play differently, and even encounter alternate bosses and routes.
Undertale is easier, in that levels are ultimately an illusion when you play on the Pacifist or some of the Neutral routes. It challenges the fact that you need to power through your enemies, or that you even have foes. But at the same time, it is harder. There is nothing soft or pleasant about not fighting back. It is unpleasant and horrific. It’s non-violence in a narrative where violence is the norm and you will still need to defend yourself. It isn’t necessarily a negation of the Hero Myth, but it is different: especially in the medium of the video game and the genre of the JRPG.
But it is only when you go through your first play through towards the Pacifist Ending that you find a secret lab with monstrosities waiting for you. Yet there is one room in there that is utterly more disturbing. In this place where a Monster experimented with Determination, you find a room with a television set and VCR. If you place the cassettes in the VCR, you don’t see anything but you do hear people talking. And then you see your name being mentioned. You realize that these are tapes of Asgore, his wife, Asriel, and … you?
Yet how is that possible? You just came down from the Surface right? It’s 201X right? Yet where are these memories coming from? And your character doesn’t even react when they see them: even when one of the tapes shows Asgore specifically telling a person with your name not to give up, that you are the hope of all Humans and Monsters, and that you should stay determined. He is saying the same thing you hear, in his voice, when you die and get a Game Over on the tape. Apparently that person was dying, and engineered their own death.
What is going on?
It’s only when you reach the end of the game, resolving it in the peaceful way you’ve chosen in this arc, that you realize something. The name you gave your protagonist isn’t their name. Your character’s name is actually Frisk. I know. I was very confused when this happened as well. In fact, I found it a bit of a cop-out as I had no idea what this even meant, or what this should have signified to me. It just seemed to come right out of nowhere. Who is Frisk? Who are you? Why did you even bother naming a character that had their own name?
Here is what you realize as you keep playing. The child you named was the first child that Asgore and his wife adopted into the Royal Family of Monsters. They became the step-sibling and friend of Asriel. They poisoned themselves so that Asriel could take their Soul, go above ground, and take six more Souls to free Monsterkind. But something went wrong. It takes some doing by the player, but you find out that the human attempted to hijack Asriel’s transformed all-powerful body and kill all the humans they encounter in a village on the Surface. The human’s Soul was stopped by Asriel and both they and Asriel came back to the Underground to die.
Asgore buried them in a coffin that you found in the palace basement. You realize that no one else, except for the antagonist that turns out to be what’s left of Asriel, calls your character by the name you chose. You also realize something else. Your character’s Soul and the first human’s Soul are the same colour: red.
It also goes much further than this. There is another main route you can choose in Undertale. It is called the Genocide Route. Basically, you play the game like it is a normal JRPG and you slaughter everyone and everything in your way. It becomes about grinding: about finding Monsters just to kill them and gain EXP. It is a bleak, soulless, and horrific thing to do.
As you go on and increase in power, you notice that your character sometimes does things without your input. They will stalk towards someone, or sometimes even just automatically kill a Monster in combat. Your narrative descriptions change as well and your character starts to refer to themselves as “Me.” It’s akin to watching Himura Kenshin change from modest third-person pronouns to aggressive first-person address when he flirts with embracing his vicious Hitokiri Battousai persona in the manga series Rurouni Kenshin: but much worse. The dialogue symbol above your character even has a disturbing smiley face on it and sometimes your descriptive boxes are in a lurid red font.
This new character of yours recognizes the year 201X as the year they originally came to the Underground. You eventually realize that they are what seems to be the first human having subsumed Frisk’s mind and they want to destroy all reality. You find out in the other routes that EXP actually means Execution Points and that levelling up means LOVE or Level of Violence: the latter of which distances the character from their sense of empathy and a dig at what some might consider to be a stereotypical “gamer.”
At the end of the Genocide Route, you finally see the first human. Their default name is apparently Chara, short form of Character, but they are what you call them. The first human has a striped beige and green shirt. They are pale with rosy cheeks. They also have brown hair like Frisk. But they have red eyes. And they are smiling at you. Their resemblance to Frisk is uncanny to say the least.
The first human explains that they were confused when they came back and wondered if their plan had failed. They also wondered why they came back. But then they explain to you that it was your Soul and your Determination that reincarnated them and gave them purpose: namely, to seek power. Then they give you the choice to destroy the world, or not. Either way, it is going to happen. You gave up all of your choices. All of your hostile and aggressive actions have fuelled this caricature of the first human.
If you want to play the game again, you can’t unless you give the first human your Soul. At this point, the line between you and Frisk is pretty much gone and it becomes clear that the first human – or whatever is appearing as them – is talking to you, the player. There is something really jarring about identifying with what are generally heroic impulses and actions in a JRPG and being shown how horrific and brutal they truly are against thinking and feeling beings like the Monsters. Your character gets so bad that even one of the game’s Bosses becomes a hero to save the entire world from you, while failing with the same amount of heroism.
The Hero of a Thousand Faces becomes the Demon of a Thousand Names in an extremely disturbing message of morality that translates over to the replay of the game itself: where you can never get a happy ending again for satisfying your curiosity at the cost of your empathy to these characters and this world. The idea is that you, the player, are the Demon and that the first human simply embodies these impulses, this feeling of “that you can, means that you should” and it is a form of sequential and brutal step-by-step literature that forces you look at and live with that.
But fourth-dimensional morality lesson aside, there are questions to consider. The first human, or Chara for the sake of naming, calls themselves the Demon that comes when you call their name. Yet we’ve heard of no Demons in the world of Undertale: only Humans, Monsters, and one soulless being. What is Chara? And what is Frisk?
And here is where the fan in me really comes out. I look back at everything I’ve seen so far. Think about it. How does Frisk know details about the Underground by Checking? Who narrates to them? How does Frisk dream Chara’s memories of Asriel and their own death? How is Frisk able to read books from the “Librarby” in Snowdin, or even the language of the ancient Waterfall Glyphs outlining the Human-Monster War, the nature of a Monster and the Delta-Rune Prophecy of the Saviour or the Angel of Death that gains a Human Soul? And then, there is the final question: what happens to a Human Soul when its owner dies, or if it’s combined with a Monster that also dies? Where does it go? What are the chances that Frisk and Chara both have the same colour Soul? Or fell right into the Underground from the Surface? Then, there is the final piece that Chara themselves say if you get the Genocide ending: that your Soul and Determination helped them reincarnate.
Many fans believe that Chara is a spirit that possessed Frisk after they fell near their grave in the Underground, or that they were implanted in them somehow by their Locket. But according to the lore of Undertale humans can’t take other Humans’ Souls. Yet they are more than a split-personality as Frisk remembers past events that are seemingly not their own. My own theory is one of cycles. Saving in Undertale is a cycle, as is replaying a game that is the game’s universe. Even the Hero Myth is a cycle of birth, adversity, death, rebirth, and triumph. But perhaps you can add one other element to this cycle: redemption.
In mythology, which might apply more to gods than heroes, a mythical being has both a dark chthonic aspect, and then a light ouranic characteristic. It is a duality of existence that becomes as situational as the cycles of the sun and the moon, which are mythical in their own right. There are legends of the sun going into the underworld as the moon ascends to the skies, only for both take their places once more. But what’s happening in Undertale is more than that. There is one event, one path in a series of decisions, that changes the player-character forever.
In the Neutral Ending, there is no closure and you can just replay the game again: giving everyone another chance. In the Genocide Ending there is just darkness, and a return to darkness that will continue like an ouroboros for eternity. The worst of your past, of human nature rises up, and will perpetually destroy you and everyone around you.
But in the Pacifist Ending … you might have had another life. Perhaps there are snippets of someone else’s existence informing you of the world, but this time you make the right decision. You play the Ball Game that would’ve been denied you in a Genocide Run and you realize you have all seven traits of the best in humanity. The Delta-Rune of the Monster Dreemurr Royal Family symbolizes an Angel that will “save” all Monsters or utterly destroy them. And you make your decision. You accept your darkness but you love your friends more.
And I think in addition to the nostalgic factor that is why players love this game so much: because of the mythology, the storytelling, the mystery, and the sheer human heart that Toby Fox has incarnated into a video game. Chara might have a thousand names and aspects, but there is only one Frisk. But they are each a part of each other, of the player, of us, and a part of the game of Undertale.