REVIEW: Undertale offers an allegory to our current political climate


The Steam header for 2015 indie game UNDERTALE.

Justin Farris

“You idiot! In this world, it’s KILL or BE KILLED.”

Remind you of anything?

For those of you who have played the hit 2015 game Undertale, the answer should be obvious. However, this little quote is applicable on a wider scale to the current state of the United States, like much of Undertale. Allow me to explain.

Undertale. A somewhat unassuming name for an unassuming game. A retro-pixellated art style rpg game from six years ago. Made mostly by one man, Toby Fox, with help from a few others such as Temmie Chang. It began development on Kickstarter, asking for $5000, and received over $51,000. That was an early sign of something special. Still, it didn’t prove anything about the game itself. On Steam and Kickstarter it touted itself as “the friendly rpg where nobody has to die.” When it was released in September of 2015, practically nobody expected it to blow up like it did. 

But blow up it did. The unique and captivating characters and interesting treatment of morality in violence versus peace and compromise versus conflict struck a chord with many gamers. The game fostered a large online community that is still producing high quality fan projects such as the Glitchtale and Underverse series, even six years out.

There are many aspects that make Undertale what it is, but arguably the most impactful are the characters and how the game deals with conflict between them and the player. Unlike most games, the mechanics of saving and loading files to replay game sections, or the process of leveling up to become more powerful, are actual rules of the game’s universe, like physics and chemistry, not abstract rules there just to make the player’s time easier. 

Beyond that, the characters are all very interesting people in their own right. The game is touted as “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die,” but the implied flip side is that you can also kill anyone in the game, and that’s just about true. Everyone from the lovingly narcissistic Papyrus to the fanatically loyal Undyne can be dealt with peacefully, or killed by the player. Knowing this, the average player might immediately assume that they’ll just go through the game without killing anyone- a so called pacifist run. It’s not that simple. At multiple points in the game you will be faced with an enemy who cannot be peacefully dealt with like most other monsters. In these instances, the game tests your resolve, and how long your morals will last when faced with a difficult obstacle. There is always a peaceful solution, but it is not always immediately apparent. 

Most of all, Undertale is a game that prompts introspection. How much do you truly believe in non violence? Is self-preservation a justifiable excuse for killing? When is it ethical to lie? And last but not least, does everyone deserve forgiveness? All of these questions will come up in the course of the game, and you’re never told an answer. You’re left to decide for yourself what is right or wrong and work with the consequences.  When you finally face Undyne, what will you do? She is unrelenting in her philosophy, unwilling to listen to reason, and determined to end your life. Will you persevere in the hopes of finding a peaceful solution that seems impossible? Or will you decide that she is too far gone to reason with, and finally end her life? Both are options. It’s up to you. What do you believe?

But we’ve come, at length, to the purpose of this breakdown of an indie game from 2015. As hinted at in the opening, Undertale is a game that holds interesting ideas about the nature of conflict and compromise, violence and pacifism, and the difference between fighting and killing. They are especially pertinent in the modern environment of America. To show what I mean, we return to the character of Undyne. The unrelenting warrior. Unwilling to change or compromise, and willing to fight against anyone who falls into a category she’s deemed a threat. Undyne is a political extremist. Political extremism and polarization are increasingly driving the people of America apart. But obviously, not everyone is the type to murder those they disagree with. Undyne’s unwillingness to change, however, is something many of us are intimately familiar with.

In the era of Biden and the aftermath of Trump, politics are, as always, a sensitive subject. The difference is the increasing number of people who refuse to seriously consider the opinion of those who disagree with them. When everyone is convinced that those who disagree with them are either malicious or being manipulated, actual discussion becomes very difficult. This attitude is becoming more and more prevalent. What Undertale tries to remind us of, and a lesson critical now more than ever, is that even major differences can be reconciled on a personal level, and that is the most important takeaway of it all. If we can remember that people we disagree with are still people- that though yes, they have been lied to by the media, they still have past personal experiences that shaped their opinions- that they can still have good ideas even if they have different opinions- we’re already a long way towards a peaceful resolution. Treating each other with respect despite our differences is the basis of meaningful compromise. 

And as shown with Undyne, even when conflict must happen, it does not always need to be fatal. Bad ideas can be defeated by better ideas without bloodshed. Undyne also showcases how a person can change due to personal experience. If you save her, show mercy to her even after she’s tried to hunt you down, and when she’s exhausted and defenseless, an easy kill, she actually changes for the better. That one-on-one experience with a real member of the group she hated eventually serves to make her realize she was too stubborn and extreme, and change for the better because of it. May we all leave our hearts open to being changed, and never let them be locked off by hatred. May we all, when faced with evidence that we were wrong, entertain it instead of shutting it down. That is the best first step we can take.