Undertale as Digital Literature: Initial Thoughts

Yesterday I finished a run-through of the Steam platform game Undertale, created by Toby Fox. Of course, even before then I’d heard of and fallen in love with the characters and story—thanks to friends, and then numerous fan animations/comics online. Going into my full experience thus far with Undertale would take a great deal of explanation and digress from the topic hinted at in the title for this piece. For truly, what struck me the most while playing Undertale was that it had all the features of digital literature.

I got introduced to the emerging area of digital literature during a creative writing workshop in graduate school. Our professor there strove to help us understand recent developments in literary studies, on top of the usual feedback and group discussions on our creative pieces as writers. For one of our sessions, he gave us links to the “Electronic Literature Collection,” hosted by the Electronic Literature Organization (http://collection.eliterature.org/), and told us to have fun reading through the texts provided in those archives. In other words, our professor asked us to get a taste of what digital literature included, in its various shapes and forms.

Digital Literature, I found, meant more than placing written narratives online. They were works born from our digital era, which often combined video clips, photographs, music, or other media to tell a coherent narrative. In the “Electronic Literature Collection,” I came across examples of digital literature sweet and simple as Robert Kendall’s Faith—a poem that got revealed bit by bit as you kept clicking the screen—to very complex adventurous narratives like Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice (which deserves its own blog post sometime in the near future). All these texts counted as digital literature, working to tell narratives in unique ways and placing their readers in more of an active role within narrative.

Undertale provides a narrative experience that has all the appearance of a conventional game, at least on the surface. The player (or reader) controls a child character who falls into an underground realm of monsters—sealed behind a barrier there after a war with humans—and must then journey to the monster king’s castle to find a way out. Along the way, the child character encounters various monsters, and must choose how to handle them. But the player gets encouragement almost right away (by a motherly goat monster) to Act or communicate with each monster, rather than Fight them. Choosing to Act often involves reading the dialogue of the monsters in the encounter, learning their motivations (reading comprehension), and choosing appropriate actions to take in order to appease or befriend them. And when the monsters no longer consider the child a threat, they allow the player to Spare them (which is different than simply running away or fleeing from the confrontation; you even still get money from it). By befriending each monster in such a fashion, known as the “Pacifist Run,” the narrative plays out very much like a fairytale.

Treating Undertale like a convention RPG game, however, where the player fights monsters to earn experience points and levels, provokes a “Genocide Run” and a much different narrative. Characters who would have been your best friends in the Pacifist Run turn into often unwilling enemies. Meanwhile, your own child character gradually transforms into a serial killer figure. Rather than simply tell a different narrative about the child triumphing over scary monsters if you choose to fight them, the narrative stresses the player as a destructive force in the underground. An awful creature that the main monster characters (in either run) must defend against. Thus the narrative for player who completes a full Genocide Run quickly spirals into a tragedy.

The focus on narrative that Undertale takes, in the semblance of a conventional RPG game, only scratches the surface of its many layers as a text. But it is one of many features that marks Undertale out as an example of digital literature.


What does everyone think? Do you agree with me?

Please feel free to comment below!


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