Undertale: An eccentric form of escapism or a playground for bullies and toxicity?

By Sam Wareing

Published Oct 8, 2022 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, when the indie video game sphere had the mother of all bombshells dropped on it. On a cold September day in 2015, Undertale was released and changed the face of gaming forever.

Its fandom exploded overnight, with fanart, alternative universes (AUs) and just general love for one of the most unique games of its time. Before we dive into the fandom however, we should first mention what Undertale is actually about.

What is ‘Undertale’?

Undertale was released on 15 September 2015 on PC. Developed by American video game developer Toby Fox, the game follows a young child who has fallen down a hole in a mountain, landing in the Underground, a place where monsters had been trapped after a great war with humans. From there, the child meets many eccentric and unique characters on their journey to escape this strange land.

What really set Undertale apart from its competitors is the fact that it took the role-playing game (RPG) formula and flipped it on its head. A typical RPG has you fighting monsters to level up and progress in the story—not Undertale. The game implemented a ‘Mercy’ system, in which instead of fighting, you could talk to your enemies, and if you said the right things, you could ‘spare’ them and avoid a fight altogether. Wholesome, right?

This unique battle system completely altered the way the game panned out and gave way to three different unique kinds of playthroughs available to the user. Regular, where you spared and killed however you saw fit. Pacifist, where you spared every single enemy you came across, even bosses. And Genocide, where you killed every single monster you encountered.

These choices gave the game great replayability, and provided players with different interactions and a hoard of unique fights and character encounters depending on the route they decided to take. The world hadn’t seen anything like it, and Toby Fox had the gaming world in the palm of his hand.

The fandom: Undertale’s Achilles heel

Now you’re up to speed, let’s talk fandom. There are fandoms for almost every kind of popular culture, and some are more inviting than others. For example, the League of Legends fandom is a place most people want to avoid, particularly because of the game’s prolific reputation for being incredibly toxic.

Unfortunately, Undertale has a similar myriad of issues. Problems began to arise after the game’s release, when countless YouTubers such as jacksepticeye and Pewdiepie posted full playthroughs of the title, all of which were overall well received. Unfortunately however, this was the initial breeding ground where Undertale fans began to gain a reputation for being internet bullies.

Popular gaming YouTuber Markiplier began his playthrough of the game in the November following its initial release, but then suddenly quit after only two episodes. It turns out that this was due to fans complaining about how he gave Sans, a very popular character, a redneck voice and fans generally harassed the YouTuber about the choices he made during the course of the game

For example, Markiplier wanted to do the Genocide run, irritating a lot of fans as most consider the Pacifist run to be the ‘truest’ path through the game. The online gamer started receiving threatening comments, and the sheer volume of Undertale fans sharing their increasingly harsh thoughts and opinions discouraged Markiplier from playing it altogether.

However, some time later, in 2016, he returned to the game and live streamed the whole thing, speaking to viewers about his past experience with Undertale. “Everyone was disappointed in the way I was playing it, and ordinarily I would just be like: ‘Y’know, I’m doing it my way. I’m gonna do this’,” Markiplier explained.

“But unfortunately, it was so pervasive that it made the entire experience not fun for me. It was literally just a moment where I was like: ‘I’m not having fun making these videos because I know that no matter what I do, everyone will think I’m wrong’.”

To make matters worse, the discourse surrounding which route was ‘correct’ grew even more malicious over time. Discord user and Undertale fan BabyCharmander told Kotaku, “I was seeing people being 100% serious when they compared people who played that route to child abusers and murderers. As someone who actually played the Genocide route and felt immensely guilty for doing so (the game does a pretty good job at making you feel like an absolute monster), I felt even worse after seeing posts about things like that.”

If you think that’s bad, things began to really escalate in December 2015. Just three months after its release, it won GameFAQs ‘Best Game Ever’ contest, knocking the previous title holder The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time off the prestigious podium. Undertale even managed to beat other classic beloved games such as Pokémon Red and Blue and Super Mario 64.

While it undeniably blew its competitors out of the water, many online gamers were upset, accusing fans of brigading and using bots to get more votes. Others believed the game was too recent to be eligible for such a title, some even claimed that it lacked originality due to its obvious Earthbound influences.

Finally, the issue of shipping needs to be addressed. For those of you who may not be aware, shipping is the act of pairing up fictional characters who you believe should be in a romantic and/or sexual relationship. The issue with this within the Undertale saga springs from the usually sexually explicit depictions of Sans and Papyrus, who are brothers, as well as the characters Frisk and Chara, who are litteral children.

Many fans have worked hard to combat the toxicity of others in the fandom, actively speaking out against “Fontcest/Frans,” as the ships were known, and discouraging others from participating in the problematic discourse.

The brighter side

Despite all the evidence against it, it could be argued that Undertale has some hope left for it. Fan of the game Manuela Ito-Loidl spoke to SCREENSHOT to share her experience in the infamous fandom. She was first introduced to the game by her son, who showed her videos of it on YouTube: “There was a video that showed the encounter with Sans and his brother Papyrus and I loved the puns and the humour.”

The fandom, despite its reputation, has a huge amount of creativity, as Ito-Loidl discovered. “The fandom is so creative. New AUs are being created every other day, even after seven years the fanbase is still alive and kicking,” she explained.

“Recently, Sans was elected ‘Tumblr Sexyman’ on Twitter and even the creator tweeted about it.” Despite its age, it seems Undertale developer Toby Fox is still engaging with fans—making for a very heartwarming online interaction. With the release of Deltarune Chapter 2the second part of Fox’s follow up game Deltarune released almost a year ago, there is still plenty of content for fans to get creative with.

Since its initial craze back in 2015, the Undertale fandom has calmed down considerably. It is a much more inviting space than what it once was. It has successfully squashed a majority of the toxicity, replacing it with a more inclusive, creative, and less elitist space. If you have somehow avoided the spoilers for all these years and haven’t gotten around to playing it, I highly suggest you do. It is a heartwarming, wonderfully quirky title that every gamer should have under their belt.

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