Words: 2812 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes
Spoiler Warning: Quite frankly, I imagine everyone who ever was interested in playing Undertale has done so. I doubt that anyone reading this will only just now be learning of the game’s existence or will play it just to read this essay. Nonetheless, I obviously need to reveal important plot points and mechanics.
Perhaps one of the first games that really hooked me as a matter of how storytelling can work specifically in video games was Undertale. Before then I’d certainly played a lot of games – I was in my mid-20’s when Undertale came out. And when I’d played story-heavy games, it was often classic role-playing games. The kind of stuff with a strong narrative throughline, but which was often incredibly linear. The equivalent of a movie where you get to press buttons now and then.
I’ve mentioned Undertale a couple of times before, and would genuinely say it was a formative experience when it comes to my ideas about video games and game design. It exists in that special list of games that I would recommend that everyone try. Whether a person winds up enjoying or beating the game is irrelevant; each person who likes games as a medium should at least make an attempt to get as far as they can and experience what they are able. The reason I have this list is that these games help showcase what video games as a medium can do or be.
Getting to this essay has been something that I’ve been eager for since I started these thematic essays, because it was Undertale’s narrative that really reached out to me. I had at this point already played Dark Souls multiple times and had fun, but it wasn’t until after I’d played Undertale and started thinking about narratives in games that I was able to go back and reexamine anything else.
The nice thing about Undertale is that it wears much of its theming on its sleeve. The core theme is pretty out in the open, and what ultimately makes it interesting is how that theme gets woven into the gameplay itself and how the player interacts with the game. So without further ado…
If you’ve played Undertale, you’ll see this word a lot. Every save point in the game ends by saying “X fills you with determination.” A lot of characters mention “determination” at one point or another. Determination even becomes a major plot component near the end of the game.
The core reason for this is that “determination” is not a mere concept within the game’s world, but an actual substance that affects the world itself. As you play, you learn that “determination” interacts with the magic of the world, and the most determined creature in the world is able to essentially manipulate the flow of time itself. Hence, saving and loading. Which means that the descriptions on the save points are not accidental, but in fact diegetic. By saying “this sight fills you with determination,” it is explaining why you are able to save at this spot.
Determination is also a physical substance within the game’s world. Near the end of the game, you arrive at a secret lab where the scientist was performing experiments using “determination” on various monsters in the game.
So determination is a key concept in the game, and we want to think about what the game is ultimately trying to communicate about it.
Let’s cover the basic narrative of the game, first.
The backstory to the game, presented through the opening cutscene, is that the world used to contain humans and monsters. They lived peacefully together, until eventually a war began between them. The humans won, and trapped the monsters underground with a magical barrier.
A small child falls through a hole in a mountain, and arrives in the underground, now becoming trapped as well.
As you make your journey through the underground, you encounter a variety of monsters. Some of them attack you, and some befriend you. How you respond to all of this is up to you. You can attack and kill the monsters, or you can run away, or you can interact with them so that you can “spare” them.
And through your journey, you learn that your character is not the first human child to fall into the underground. In fact, it turns out that monsters and humans both possess “souls,” symbolized by a cartoon-looking heart. And monsters are capable of absorbing human souls (this, incidentally, is the reason why the war occurred: humans were afraid of monsters absorbing their souls and becoming more powerful). This fact is relevant because in order to destroy the magical barrier trapping them, the monsters need to collect seven human souls and absorb them. And it turns out that six children fell into the underground and were killed. Thus, the monsters have six souls, and just need one more…
So the character’s journey is marked, like any other journey, by progression towards a fixed goal. And of course, that progression requires determination: a sense that you will keep moving forward despite the obstacles in your way. There’s nothing inherently special about this. Strictly speaking, whenever you play through a game and get to the end you are exercising determination. Undertale is simply bringing that fact to your attention and reminding you of how important it is.
What does it mean to save and load in a video game?
On the most basic and mechanical level, it is a way for you as a player to do one of two things. Firstly, to pause a game and return to it later, in the same way you might use a bookmark for a novel. Secondly, and more importantly, to retry a section of the game because you’ve failed.
In the first sense, saving and loading doesn’t really raise any questions. But in the second sense, there is an important thing to ask: what does it mean for you and/or the character you are controlling to engage in this process of saving and loading? What does it mean to “retry”?
Think about it in the context of most other games. You save, go fight a boss, and die during the fight. So you load up the save you made, walk back in, and try again. And let’s say you die again. So you load again. And this cycle continues until you either beat the boss, or just stop playing outright.
But in this cycle, your character isn’t actually changing. Each time your character just picks up their weapon and charges in as though nothing has occurred. The character doesn’t remember any previous attempts, and they only manage to win because you as the player are using information that you have learned.
Which means that there’s a fundamental disconnect between the player and the character. This is one of the things that the specific version of Undertale’s save/load mechanic does well: it helps you to see the character’s journey as your own. When the character dies and reloads, they are the one dying and reloading. They are retrying to the same extent you are.
I bring this up because saving and reloading is an important component of determination within games. Failure is, to some extent, built into games. They are challenging, and being challenging they are challenges that we as players will often fail. The ability to retry is important, but even more important is our willingness to retry. If we were to fail once and then never bother playing again, most games would never get finished. So we as players need to have determination to just beat them. That player determination is just as important as the character’s determination for their own story-defined goal.
Undertale features three primary endings. There is a sort of “evil” ending, a good (usually referred to as “True”) ending, and a “neutral” ending. The neutral ending simply requires getting to the end of the game. But getting the good or evil ending requires putting in additional work.
The basic question posed to you as a player – and the character as well – is how you wish to interact with the monsters you encounter. You have two basic choices: kill them, or don’t. Different monsters have different strategies for dealing with them, but every monster can be killed, and no monster needs to be killed.
This fact leads us eventually to the conclusion that our endings are reached by sticking to one strategy or another: by killing everything or sparing everything. Indeed, the very first puzzle you encounter in the game (which is solved for you), hints at this.
But the issue is that each path comes with its own hardships. Your character has a limited number of hit points – only 20 to start with. And to increase your hit points, you need to level up, which requires killing monsters. But obviously, if you’re going to go for the good ending, you can’t kill anything, which means you’ll always be dealing with a rather limited HP pool.
In addition, there are bosses, and if you’re going for the good ending, you need to figure out how to get through without killing the bosses. Which means trying a lot of different things and probably saving and loading several times.
Similarly, to go for the evil ending requires a lot of patience. Firstly, because you need to kill everything. And that doesn’t just mean killing every monster you happen to encounter. In every area you go through, you need to specifically grind out encounters until you’ve cleared everything out (there is an indicator when there are no more monsters to be encountered in the area).
Secondly, because the game features two incredibly difficult boss fights if you take this route. Getting past those fights may demand spending hours trying, failing, and reloading (and in fact, the second fight brings attention to this).
Whether you’re going for either the good or evil ending, you as the player are going to need a lot of determination, because you are essentially making the game harder for yourself. To stick to your path requires a willingness to acknowledge those hardships and press onward despite the obstacles in your way.
Since there are quite a number of important characters in Undertale that you encounter, we can use them as lenses through which to view the primary theme of determination. By doing so we can see how the concept of determination is explored.
The obvious thing to look to is the player character themself. It is their journey, and their determination that drives them, so surely determination should be a good thing, yes? The game is telling us that we need to always remain determined.
But sometimes this isn’t true. For instance, in going for the evil ending, both we as player and the main character need to have a lot of determination. But is it the thing we should do? The evil ending in particular continually raises the question of whether it’s really worth continuing. Why not just stop playing? Just leave things alone? In fact, you as player are essentially called out for pursuing the evil ending because you think you have to, because you want to see what happens. But then, why? Why are we so determined to see everything a game has to offer, when a full and complete ending has already been offered to us?
Let’s look at a couple of other characters.
Undyne is a fish-like monster who serves as the game’s third boss. She is initially introduced as a rather scary figure clad in armor, and her demeanor suggests that she is determined at all costs to kill you. Her character is driven by determination: she sets her mind to things, and works at them constantly in order to become better.
But of course, in being determined to kill you, she has a goal that is fundamentally at odds with your own. In fact, her speech before fighting her basically highlights the problem: why should your determination be the thing that wins out? Why should you get what you want?
And ultimately, you will prevail (unless, of course, you give up). And if you manage to do things right, you can even befriend her. By doing so, her goals change. By having you as a friend, she wants to find some other way to accomplish the goal of escaping the underground.
Goals change. Sometimes being determined by sticking to our previous ideas is wrong. The exact time when is unclear, but we need to be willing to change.
Conversely, let’s look at Asgore. Asgore is presented for much of the game as the final boss: you need to be careful that Asgore doesn’t take your soul. As the king of the monsters, he is the one responsible for ultimately breaking the barrier and allowing the monsters to be free. So when you reach him, it is a bit of a shock to realize that he’s actually a very mellow and gentle person, who really doesn’t want to fight you. He is conflicted, and it is his lack of determination that causes this conflict.
But related to the broader story is that Asgore is always this conflicted. The plan of collecting seven human souls by killing any humans who fall down seems plausible, but there’s one key problem. It is possible for the combined power of a human and a monster to pass through the barrier; not break it, but at least exit. So Asgore could have absorbed the first human soul they collected, left the underground, and then collected six more souls once outside. In fact, another character explicitly calls Asgore out for this.
The idea is that Asgore ultimately lacks determination. He was more concerned with giving the monsters hope than with actually helping them. He is willing to engage in violence (after all, he fights you), but not enough to just get down to business. Likewise, he could have made the decision that the monsters were better off underground and should stay there. He could have never come up with the plan to break the barrier. The plan he actually comes up with is a half-measure that is unsatisfying, because Asgore lacks the determination to actually take one path or another.
In a sense, Asgore exists as a sort of opposite to the player and player character. The player’s/character’s journey is marked by determination. The willingness to come up with a plan and actually do things to make it work. Asgore essentially doesn’t want his plans to work. We are supposed to look at Asgore as a sort of cautionary tale.
The interesting thing is that by pairing off Undyne and Asgore like this, we see how the idea of determination is rather messy. Sometimes, plans change and we need to be flexible. But also, sometimes we need to stick to our plans even when we might not like them.
The simple fact of the matter is that life is similarly messy. There are no clean dividing lines for when we should change and when we should stick to our guns. It is always going to be a highly contextual problem, something that needs to be solved according to our own situations and the circumstances surrounding them.
To be determined is to keep going. And yet, should we always keep going? The very end of the game raises the question of whether our desire to keep playing is such a good thing. Namely, the fact that we so often may want to see everything in a game, rather than just be satisfied with what we have. To refuse to accept the end of the game is to radically destroy our experience with it, and is that something we are willing to do just to see more?
I’ve been fascinated with Undertale because the good ending essentially asks you as the player to consider the characters. To think of them as real, and to think of what replaying the game would mean for them. And while we all acknowledge that these characters are mere lines of code and dialogue, the key to good writing is to make the player really think about that question. Sure, they’re not physically here, but to what extent are they real? If the characters are merely fake, then why are the feelings we have about them not also fake? If a game’s story can move us to anger or sadness or happiness, isn’t that feeling real? And if so, and if the story has an impact upon us, then what does that mean about the “realness” of the characters in it?
 This is because the barrier was created by seven human wizards. The premise reflects the common idea about magic that a spell can be counteracted by someone of equivalent or greater power.