I’m not positive, but I feel like I’ve probably mentioned the video game UNDERTALE on this blog before. (Almost put “channel.” Can you tell I’m on YouTube too much?) It’s an amazing game with some of the best cause-and-effect mechanics I’ve ever seen in a video game. But more than that, I’ve always been impressed with their character development. The characters have depth, they change, they grow. And in at least two occasions, we meet characters who turn out to be very different indeed from who we thought they were the first time.
I adore characters who defy expectations. These two do it perfectly.
(If you couldn’t have guessed, there are MAJOR Undertale spoilers beneath the cut, for both the Pacifist and No Mercy/”Genocide” ending. You have been warned.)
Many of the characters we meet, particularly early on, have surprises lurking later on. We learn that Toriel was once queen of the underground, and that her absolute hatred of Asgore comes from the breaking of their relationship and his reaction to humans underground–and less from who Asgore really is. (I think Papyrus really has the best description of who Asgore truly is.)
But the first character I really want to talk about is the very first character we meet.
Yes, I’m talking about Flowey the flower, in all his happy…cheerful…homicidal glory.
It’s not the shift from “friendliness pellets” to “KILL OR BE KILLED” that I truly mean with Flowey, though that’s a good way to disconcert everyone from determining who he really is. Because Flowey is the first being we meet in this world, he automatically casts everything and everyone else into a tainted light. Is this goat lady actually nice? Can I trust this frog thing? Why shouldn’t I attack the dummy? No wonder the True Pacifist route is almost impossible to get without having previous knowledge.
But what I truly mean is what we see at the end of the True Pacifist route. After Photoshop!Flowey, after the trauma of too many fights and death…when it’s finally revealed who Flowey truly is. And everything slowly falls into focus. Asriel is a broken child, stolen from the life he knew, his sole dear friend taken from him, and then stuck into a soulless body and made to live like that. Yes, he becomes angry and bitter and vengeful. Particularly as he realizes he has the power of the gods, the power to “SAVE,” it’s little surprise that he becomes what we see. But as we see when we have the option to SAVE Asriel, he is not lost within the hatred. When he has a soul in him again, his feelings return to him, and he allows for the best to happen. It was such a shock seeing the change, and it was a wonderful piece of storytelling.
On the other end of the scale, we have the first person we meet when we exit the RUINS. A constant companion throughout the story, and a much needed avenue of comic relief in what can sometimes be a more somber tale. In the Pacifist route, he’s one of our closest friends, giving help and guidance throughout our journey. When we step into the No Mercy route, however, our dear friend is notably absent.
Until we reach our judgment. And judged we certainly are.
Sans. The comic skeleton who speaks in a font to match his name. Brother to Papyrus, the inept hopeful Royal Guard member. Wanders around in minimal footwear (I’ve seen debates on what exactly he’s wearing) and a blue hoodie with shorts. Other than a few ominous comments in Pacifist, we have no reason to believe that there’s anything terribly odd about Sans–at least, nothing that isn’t also odd with everyone else. Sure, he seems to teleport in odd directions. Sure, he’s said some strange things before. But he’s just Sans, right? Goofy little comic Sans?
How very wrong we all were.
For our final major battle in the Pacifist route, we are face to face with Sans. Particularly harrowing for anyone who’s run Pacifist before (which you really ought to…) because he recognizes, as Flowey does, that you’re not exactly who everyone thinks you are. He knows that deep within you, there is a person who could have once been a friend–had once been a friend, perhaps. Even when you CHECK Sans in battle, the game insists that he is the easiest enemy only able to do 1 DMG at a time. 1 ATK, 1 DEF. Simple. How is this the final boss?
How easily we were led astray. How easily he makes short work of us. And when we reach the halfway point in the battle, when Sans finally relents and tries to reach out to the friend in a former SAVE he once knew, and he gives us the option to be SPAREd…we see how vicious he can truly be. If we’re really friends, you won’t come back.
geeeeeeetttt dunked on!
It’s horrifying. After all that work, after we give up everything we’ve fought for in the No Mercy run, we’re left with hyper-speed Dogsong. And the knowledge that we have to do it all again.
But true to his nature, the end of the battle with Sans is perfectly in character. It’s not gonna BE your turn. Ever. I’m just gonna keep having MY turn until you give up. He decides that the only way to end this, to keep anyone safe, is to keep you locked in battle for all eternity. If he keeps you there, you can do nothing else, and he is willing to give up whatever that means for him to do it. (After all, what else does he have? You killed Toriel. You killed Papyrus. Undyne. All the villagers. Who does he have left?)
And at the end, when you do finally put an end to it all, he gives what I have always seen as the most heartbreaking line in the whole heartbreaking run. welp, I’m going to grillby’s. papyrus, you want anything? And he gives us a nice Greek theatre death, where we hear the noise from off screen and are left to pick up the pieces of our shattered heart alone. (Oh, and you’re level 20 now. Congrats?)
It’s such a wild switch, from homicidal to sympathetic–from goofy to terrifying–that makes these two of my favorite characters in the entire game. I love what each of them teach us about ourselves and our choices in the game. (Chara–or rather, No Mercy’s protagonist, whatever you named them–is also like this at the very very end, but Chara’s a bit one-sided. Intentionally so, methinks.) I like that they’re unexpected. I like that they’re pivotal. And I like that they remind me, the fellow storyteller, that sometimes the best character is the one we never saw coming. That a plot twist, a betrayal, a friend in disguise…when done right, can make the entire story.
And I like how hard we have to work to get there. Undyne’s fight isn’t easy; it shouldn’t be against the True Heroine. Sans’ fight is close to impossible. And it should be, to prove how heartless we have become at that point. Winning at genocide should never be easy. It shouldn’t feel good. (Though after so many deaths, a victory may warrant some celebration, at least at first.)
Good things to remember. Well done, Toby Fox. You are truly a genius of storytelling, and you are an inspiration for me to–you knew I had to do this at least once–stay determined.