Undertale and Social Justice Themes: Is “That” A Human?

The monsters met in Undertale. From left to right: Napstablook, Mettaton Ex, Dr. Alphys, Undyne, Papyrus, Toriel, Sans, Asgore, and Monster Kid. All of these monsters differ in personalities and values.
The monsters met in Undertale. From left to right: Napstablook, Mettaton (in his “Ex” form), Alphys, Undyne, Papyrus, Toriel, Sans, Asgore, and Monster Kid. All of these monsters differ in their personalities and values.

Undertale is a role-playing game taking place in the Underground, a realm monsters settled after being banished from the surface of Earth by humans. A barrier separates the two worlds, but one human—the protagonist of the game—accidentally falls into the Underground from a mountain, the only existing link between them. Throughout the protagonist’s quest to return home, they meet a cast of quirky monsters who all embody a range of personalities and motives. Depending on the choices the player makes, the protagonist’s personalities and motives are different as well.

One major aspect of Undertale that makes it different from other role-playing games are the realization of social justice themes while playing. Gamers in our globalized society today may find a character that they can relate to personally, based on traits that make characters deviate from the norms of society. However, these themes are very subtle in comparison to the humor and shenanigans of the Underground inhabitants. These small details, in this society, promotes acceptance and inclusion. The Undertale world deserves praise for its inclusive environment as we would like to see in our own world.

Ambiguous Traits in Humans

On the left, Frisk. On the right, Chara. Note the similariities in their appearance.
From left to right: Frisk, Chara. Note the similarities in their appearance and stature.

The stories of two humans are woven together: one being the protagonist, who is revealed to be called Frisk later in the game, and the other Chara, a person on a destructive mission. Looking at both characters together, there are several similarities between them. These similarities are traits that make both characters appear without gender—both have mottled medium-length hair, neutral-looking clothing and faces, and a slightly wide body type. These humans could be of several different ages, ranging from kindergarten to possibly around puberty or older. Another interesting trait to point out is that Frisk’s skin color is also not very suggestive of any one definitive race.

When seeing Frisk for the first time, his gender-neutral looks might bring up all the questions above. Unlike in games such as Pokémon, it doesn’t ask if the player is a boy or girl, but rather are asked to “name the fallen human” upon starting a new game. This dialogue occurs just before the screen fades to white and Frisk appears. Because the character is named before being seen in the game, any implied gender in their name doesn’t matter if the character doesn’t appear male or female. These neutral looks are important to point out because it welcomes players of all different genders, ages, and races to connect with Frisk.

Use Of Personal Pronouns

Mettaton sings in a dress. About your impending death.
Mettaton sings in a dress. About your impending death.

Not only does Frisk appear to be without gender, but the monsters in the Underground recognize his genderless traits on several occasions. These monsters use personal pronouns, or describing words that indicate one’s affirmed gender. Ambiguous terms such as “they,” “them” and “that,” all being non-gender specific, are part of interacting with Frisk. On meeting Papyrus and Sans, Papyrus asks Sans if “that” is a human, rather than using gender-specific terms such as “him” or “her.” When in the Hotlands, Muffet, a spider monster, will taunt the player while calling them “they,” saying that “‘they’re’ awfully stingy with their money.” Social media posts from Dr. Alphys also show Frisk is referred to as “the human” in spite of the choice of words the scientist had.

The monster population recognizes that other characters have personal pronouns, in addition to Frisk. Napstablook, shown above, has an unnamed gender and is referred to as “they.” Mettaton was the result of an experiment by Alphys, in aiding someone who wanted to live out their dreams in a body they would be more comfortable living in. This sounds very similar to what a person who is transgender might do by choosing surgery and hormones to make their lives more comfortable for them. Despite that Mettaton is a robot, they are still referred to by his creator as “him.”  He also cross-dresses, choosing to wear clothing such as a gown and pink heels. These characters are mixed in with monsters whose genders fit more into boxes of “male” and “female;” for example, Alphys is referred to as “she” and Papyrus is referred to as “he”. Personal pronouns play a small role in Undertale, but are naturally part of how Frisk and the monsters interact with each other.

Sexuality and Romance

Two of the Royal Guards end up breaking the silence about their attraction for each other, once you tell the guard on the left to say what's on his mind.
Two of the Royal Guards end up breaking the silence about their attraction for each other, once the protagonist tell the guard on the left to say what’s on his mind.

Throughout the game, recurring characters indicate that they have feelings for someone at one time or another. Monsters that are gay, lesbian, straight, and pansexual all participate in these smaller love stories. One of Asgore’s guards, who is male, has secret feelings about his partner, another male guard who works next to him every day. Alphys struggles trying to talk to Undyne, a female and the head of the Royal Guard. Papyrus also falls in love with the protagonist, with no definite idea if they are male, female, or another type of gender outside of those boxes. Even as the protagonist, one has the ability to choose their preference to some of the monsters they meet.

It’s important to note that Undertale shows more than just how characters feel, but puts them in situations where their romances can unfold. After the second guard takes his armor off, the first guard starts sweating nervously and leads to him admitting his feelings with the protagonist’s help. Players can watch as the bond between Alphys and Undyne grows, to a point where Mettaton outwardly begs them to kiss. Papyrus and the protagonist can go on a date with each other too. Heterosexual romance also occurs between Sans, a male skeleton, and Toriel, a female monster who exchanges jokes with him. Past love stories have also come into play, as Asgore still feels regret about the choices he made in his relationship with Toriel. The variety in the circumstances of these relationships mimic what today’s world is becoming, where people are following their hearts no matter what they feel.

The social justice themes in the role-playing game Undertale are not to be left undiscussed, as it provides depth to an already interesting gaming experience. The humans in this game are inviting to many different identities due to their ambiguous looks, the use of personal pronouns shows how monsters embrace identity, and romance between characters of different sexual preferences has established itself as a societal norm. Undertale makes a substantial effort to make the society of the Underground relate to as many players as it can. This particular society is built upon the choices that its inhabitants want to make, rather than an established way of life everyone is expected to conform to. This includes the choices players make, and each choice leading to a different ending based on how players feel. It takes a lot of courage to build an inclusively-designed game in an ever-changing society. As we move into the future, we need to consider what inclusiveness means, and the determination it takes to enforce social justice for all.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I’ve played games that have moved me (Journey, Persona 4, the Last of Us) but no game has ever managed to make me breakdown into tears in my life. The final battle (true ending) is one of the most powerful moments in videotapes, and doesn’t go the route of “character x that you like so much dies tragically” it does something much more clever and well executed.

  2. This is a great game. The only thing wrong with it is it’s bad punctuation.

  3. Emily Deibler

    This turned out great! Excellent job on looking at how Undertale approaches gender identity and sexuality. I agree with an above comment that Undertale has effective emotional moments while being mostly light-hearted.

  4. Undertale is a rather unique experience (even though the influences from Earthbound, Off, Mirai Nikki etc are really heavy).

  5. Rosenberg

    Tried it, couldn`t see why it was so `special`, bored the hell out of me.

  6. Please help …i can’t stop loving undertale….

  7. Francene

    I truly don’t get all the hype this game is getting, i’ve been fan of RPG my whole life, (Chrono trigger, Mario Rpg & FF VI are my fav to name a few) but this game is silly and boring, terribad graphics, and the story is not that good to be honest, not as epic as many people think it is, the truth is not a bad game but not nearly as good as anyone who’s fan says it is, i would gladly point to anyone who likes this game to play one of the 3 i mention before and you’ll see why this game doesn’t deserve all the attention is getting, don’t believe the hype people.

  8. This prove that graphics really don’t matter in making a great game.

  9. overated tale

  10. washo

    There’s a lot of things in this game you don’t expect, especially the endings and the stories within the overarching story. All the little details just leave you wanting a little more every time you play.

  11. I love a great Story but at the same time i also expect my games to look decent..I mean, whats the point of keeping up with technology and having a great gaming rig if i play something which looks like it is 20-30 years old..

  12. Undertale a game that has actual story, characters with feelings that you’ll grow attach to, and deciding to whether to kill or spare monsters…..meh not my taste

  13. This game is really special.

  14. ChristelleMarie Chua

    I haven’t played Undertale yet, but it certainly is tempting. I read in an article in Gameinformer, however, that a team is working on a 3D remaster of Undertale that will clarify the gender identity of the protagonist. I wasn’t sure what to think about that, since I always thought the ambiguous gender was a deliberate move, not just a stylistic limitation.

  15. I’m glad we have a game that doesn’t focus on graphics. I hope more devs will do this specially the big ones.

  16. Doloris

    I beat it last week: +insane characters +Solid story +writing/dialogue +kool spin on gameplay +SOUND TRACK IS AWESOME

  17. Lexzie

    Congratulations on an article well done!
    I haven’t played the game, yet. I do intend to now though. This article really showcases how video games can tackle social justice issues.

  18. Though it seems to me that, of all the topics to focus on throughout the game, choosing focus exclusively on the treatment of gender seems a little narrow.

  19. I would agree with some other comments, in that Undertale is surprising at times, as well as available to a wide range of audiences. My boyfriend and I are playing through the game together. He is a seasoned video game veteran since early childhood, and I only got into gaming in my mid-teens. There are things about Undertale that surprise and delight both of us, such as the dialogue between the protagonist and NPCs and the variety of “battle” choices. Undertale’s success, in my opinion, relies not only on its themes of social justice but also on its ability to include a variety of aspects that appeal to many gamers. It is difficult to create such a game without rendering it too generic, but as you point out in your article, Undertale does this well.

  20. Maxwell

    Something new comes out, Gets really popular really fast, People start hating on it. It’s interesting because people say they’re tired of COD and other repetitive games yet when something new comes out no one gives it a chance. The only thing I’ve seen people say about this game is how they hate the fanbase, something unrelated to the game. It’s honestly quite pathetic.

  21. I am considering more and more to play it thanks.

  22. My best friend has been gushing about this game for awhile, though I had no idea what it was. This article’s analysis helped shed light on some of the underlying progressive/inclusive themes, so my interest is piqued. Now I just have to hope that it comes to a platform that I play on (PlayStation). Here’s hoping.

    Good job!

    • washo

      JaredT, thank for reading! Unfortunately, Undertale’s original development platform doesn’t allow for it to be available on gaming systems like PSone or XBox. At least, not yet. For a PC game though, the controls are much more simple than in other games; you only use Z, X, C, and arrow keys!

  23. I have yet to play the game or see any gameplay of it, so I was curious why it blew up so much, but all these subtleties are surely why so many people are drawn to it! I appreciate this game for that and I appreciate the commentary that brings it to light, because I feel like some of this could go unnoticed, especially if you’re not the type of person who is actively seeking this kind of content out!

  24. Hey! Cool article that brings up a lot of interesting points on the Undertale ethos. I actually didn’t notice a lot of the tactics employed to ensure inclusion. I definitely feel that these are large reasons why the game is so widely loved and has been so successful.

    Skimming the comments, I see a lot of talk about the graphics. Personally, I think intentional “realistic graphics” only work against the longevity of a game; if anything, it serves as a way to date it. Stylized graphics are the way to go! Think about how great Wind Waker still looks compared to Twilight Princess?

  25. It’s ironic how many people are commenting on Undertale being boring or not as good as other JRPGs that the game homages heavily. I think it’s a fresh take on the JRPG, along with those themes you discussed in the article and interesting metanarrative ideas.

  26. A.C. Lewis

    Great article, I love this game to death because of the reasons you put forth. I also love how sexuality is never mentioned in regards to the romantic relationships.

    However I’m not sure why you referred to Frisk as he? I was under the impression their gender remains neutral throughout the game unless I missed a piece of information near the end.

    • Actually, the gender is up for interpretation. If you want them to be a girl she’s a girl, if they’re a boy congrats hes male. It’s whatever you want. I think both frisk and chara are girls

  27. It’s a real shame it’s taken this long for a high-profile, inclusive game like Undertale to come into the light. Hopefully we’ll see much more awareness of gender identity, both of characters in the game, and the player themself.

    And the irony of this comment is the fact that I specifically said ‘themself’ to avoid assuming the gender of the player, and it gets a red squiggly line telling me that it should be ‘himself’… Yeah, our world needs to change.

  28. I do enjoy the point you make about the indefinite gender of the protagonist(s), as I (and others in the comment section) did not recognize the quantity of those creative choices until after you mentioned them. Although I do think we are so often used to assigning gender to characters, the fact that they do not blatantly propose one is what makes it so easy to associate with the protagonist. Great article!

  29. Undertale was certainly a masterpiece, highly deserving of all the praise it got. Excellently crafted story and characters. If you love them, however…

    Don’t try a genocide run.

  30. This is a great article! I’m definitely going to check out this game!

  31. Undertale is a very interesting game in that it deals with very large issues (gender, violence, racism) in subtle and often wonderful ways. I think that it has the potential to open a whole new world of gaming where the values in games can begin to match the values of modern society and perhaps even help to open the minds of the players themselves. It’s especially amazing that no matter the player, they can find someone to identify with in the game, even if it’s not the protagonist. This game pushes the boundaries of gaming itself by making a game for the purpose of exploring its possibilities within modern society instead of trying to pander to what companies think their audiences want and just rehashing games of the past. Bravo Undertale and thank you Washo for writing such a great article on this game.

  32. This was a great article to write about Undertale! I played it a couple months ago and still couldn’t forget how subtle and smart the story plots, twists and turns were, and the underlying social issues that you’ve mentioned. Undertale is definitely a game that’s understated and needs to be talked about more. Excellent job in bringing out these issues to light, I’ve never really thought about it until I read this article, thanks Washo!

  33. Slaidey

    I haven’t played the game but after reading this I understand why it was so highly regarded as progressive… also why everyone has a crush on Papyrus.

  34. Eugene Lee

    I haven’t played Undertale, but after reading this article, can’t help but feel that there is something really special about Undertale. Maybe I should take a swing at it.

  35. OldxSoul

    I actually only played a little bit of this game the other day. I recognized the title and came to take a look. As I was playing it, I noticed that the fonts were the characters names which made me laugh. I haven’t played far enough into the game to really understand everything you mentioned, but I liked what you have to say.

  36. Undertale is so so excellent. The obvious, yet casual representation in this game is so perfectly executed. Yeah, it isn’t subtle that Alphys is in love with Undyne, but the gayness isn’t mentioned. The monsters just are how they are and experiencing a world where nobody questions different romances and genders is a delight in modern gaming.

    A particular moment I loved was the protagonist’s date with Papyrus. Papyrus is the most lovable character in the game (imho) and I can’t imagine playing through and not accepting his invitation to go on a date. His hilarious personality draws you in and then on the date he reveals that he only likes you as a friend! It’s such a great twist of expectations, that he felt pressure to date you and felt bad that you liked him so much. For a protagonist to not “win” a romance and to be left with a friendship instead is SO refreshing and so much more realistic than the hero winning the girl.

    I could talk about the great characters and relationships in Undertale for many hours, this article was lovely to read and to illustrate the importance of the game. I hope we are all still talking about it in the years to come.

  37. Nathan Webster

    you talk about how ambiguous frisk gender is and how they are referred to with they/them but u then used “he” I -… why

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