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