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

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.

‘The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask’: How Nintendo’s creepiest video game deals with grief

Nintendo is known around the world over for its colourful, innovative and family-friendly video games—from Pokémon to Animal Crossing, there is a Nintendo game out there for everyone. But what you probably didn’t know is that the Japanese company wasn’t always as politically correct (PC) as it is today. If we head back into the 90s and the early 2000s, you’ll see many themes and features that just wouldn’t fly in kids’ games nowadays. One such game is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (MM) which was made for the Nintendo 64 (N64) and surprisingly dealt with the five stages of grief. But before we get into that, let me first give you a bit of backstory.

What is ‘Majora’s Mask’?

MM was released in 2000 as the highly anticipated sequel to 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (OoT). As mentioned just above, back in those days, Nintendo didn’t have its family-friendly policy in place, so pretty much anything—as long as it wasn’t too graphic or traumatising—was good to go. The developers that worked on MM, however, clearly didn’t get the memo. And, oh boy, were the fans not ready for what this game had in store for them.

The story of MM follows Link directly after the events of OoT when he departs the Kingdom of Hyrule in search of an old friend, Navi, who he parted ways with at the end of OoT. While trekking through the Lost Woods, he is assaulted by a mischievous imp wearing a creepy mask—known as Skull Kid—and his two fairy companions. The imp eventually ends up stealing Link’s precious ocarina as well as his horse and escapes deeper into the forest. When he tries to chase Skull Kid, Link falls down a very deep hole, Alice in Wonderland-style, and this is where things start to get really freaky.

Skull Kid uses his mask to turn Link into a Deku Scrub—one of the many species that inhabit the Zelda universe—and disappears, accidentally leaving one of the fairies behind. Link and the abandoned fairy escape the strange subterranean area and encounter the Happy Masked Salesman. He offers to return Link to his former self if he can retrieve his ocarina and, would you look at that, a mysterious mask that was stolen from him by a certain imp.

The Happy Masked Salesman gives Link only three days to complete this objective, as that is when he will be leaving the land of Termina which the game’s hero now finds himself in. But it’s not until the end of the third day when Link finally gets his hands on the mischievous imp that he realises the gravity of the situation. Using the power of Majora’s Mask, the imp brings the moon crashing down on Termina, annihilating anything and everyone in its path. Using the ocarina he managed to get back from the imp—and seconds before the world is destroyed—Link plays the Song of Time and reverses the flow to the beginning of the first day when he initially arrives in Termina. And so begins the quest to stop a deranged imp from destroying the world.

You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?

Phew, a lot of backstory there, but stick with me, because this is where things get real juicy. As you may have already guessed, this adventure isn’t as simple as ‘beat the bad guy and save the princess’. The stakes are so much higher—if Link fails, the moon will literally crush everything.

While not immediately obvious, each area of MM explores a different theme. All these themes come together to represent the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Oh, and in case you forgot, yes, this is a game aimed at children.

Clock Town: denial

“The first stage of grief is denial, a defensive mechanism against ill circumstance typified by an inability to rationally acknowledge that something has happened or is happening.”

When Link arrives at Clock Town on the first day, residents are preparing for the yearly Festival of Time to celebrate the harvest. Overhead, the moon looms, threatening to destroy everything. As a Deku Scrub, the inhabitants are reluctant to part with any information or even speak to him yet our hero is confined to the town. However, it’s through a quick stop at the Mayor’s house that Link discovers a very different side to what the rest of Clock Town seems to be feeling.

“You cowards! Do you actually believe the moon will fall? The confused townsfolk simply caused a panic by believing this ridiculous, groundless theory. The soldiers couldn’t prevent the panic, but outside the town walls is where the danger is! You want answers? The answer is that the carnival should not be cancelled!” Mutoh, boss of the Carpenters is heard saying.

On the surface, this just seems to be a simple squabble between townsfolk, but on further inspection, it’s actually presented as a metaphor for denial. Rather than facing up to the threat of the moon falling, the Carnival Committee ignores it and instead laughs in its face. Similarly, the Sword Master tells Link that if the moon does indeed fall, he’ll just slice it up with his sword techniques. Both parties fail to face up to the very real danger they’re in and let their fantasies take control.

They can only deny this sombre reality for so long, however. As the hours tick by and the moon gets closer, the Carnival Committee must face up to what they have foolishly been ignoring this whole time. By the night of the third and final day, all of the Committee and the merchants have fled, except Mutoh, who simply refuses to leave. The Sword Master, for all his brash and bravado, has taken shelter in the back of his dojo, trembling in fear. They are doomed, and their fate is sealed.

Woodfall: anger

“The second stage of grief is anger. When denial is no longer possible, it is replaced by misdirected feelings of despair and envy.”

Arriving at the Deku Palace in the Southern Swamp, other than the rancid water plaguing the region, Link comes across another issue, and the second stage of grief. The Deku Princess has gone missing and the grief-stricken Deku King, instead of using his energy to bolster efforts to find the lady in distress, is hell-bent on punishing a monkey who he believes has fed his daughter to monsters in Woodfall Temple.

The problem is, this monkey is innocent. He was actually helping the princess investigate the toxic water that seemed to be coming from the temple, but in his rage, the King blindly directs his anger at the poor animal. Anger is depicted as the real enemy here. In other words, the evil influence of Skull Kid is manifested in the festering swamp, in turn, representing the toxic behaviours we all exhibit when gripped with anger.

But Link steps up and goes looking for the princess, raising Woodfall Temple from the swamp with the Sonata of Awakening (an act that symbolises the shrugging off of harsh emotions) and defeats the crazed warrior Odolwa at the heart of the temple—showing the internal struggle between controlled and uncontrolled emotions. The princess and the monkey are eventually rescued, the King brought back to his senses and the region is saved from a terrible fate.

Snowhead: bargaining

“The third stage of grief is bargaining, typified by desperate hopes or efforts to postpone or reverse suffering and loss.”

Upon reaching the Goron village in Snowhead, Link finds the area caught in the grip of a paralysing blizzard. The Goron tribe residing here is mourning the death of their patriarch Darmani. After some poking around, Link comes face to face with Darmani’s ghost who, unable to come to terms with his death, asks the hero to bring him back to life with the help of magic.

“As I am, I can only watch as Goron Village is slowly buried in ice… I may have died, but I cannot rest. So, you can use magic? The soaring one also told me that you are able to use it… I beg you! Bring me back to life with your magic!” pleads the ghost.

This is textbook bargaining. Unable to face up to his failure and his fellow Gorons, the patriarch turns to magic as a way of restoring his life in order to finish his fight with the demon residing in Snowhead Temple. The freezing cold blizzard is a representation of Darmani’s inability to move on, and is only subdued once doused in the hot spring water.

Link, taking on Darmani’s guise with the mask obtained from bringing him to rest, enters Snowhead Temple to take on Goht, a mechanical creature that runs in unending circles around an arena and can only be stopped by the power of a Goron hero. Goht’s infinite loop represents the futility of going round and round trying to cling on to a reality that is already lost. Once defeated, Goht’s endless rampage is brought to an end, much like how Darmani is only able to find peace once he abandons his desire to keep living, finally breaking the cycle.

Great Bay: depression

“The fourth stage of grief is depression. With the realisation that there is no escaping fate comes the desire to disconnect and retreat inward.”

Reaching the coast, Link then encounters a dying Zora—the aquatic race of the Zelda universe—called Mikau, who teaches him the New Wave Bossa Nova and grants him the Zora mask, letting the protagonist assume his identity. Just before dying, Mikau tells Link about his girlfriend Lulu and her missing eggs. The death of Mikau and the loss of her eggs leaves Lulu in isolation and unable to speak or sing. This reflects depression, and the fourth stage of grief.

Her maternal relationship with her eggs is a huge factor, and links to postnatal depression can be drawn from her emotional state. As with the other regions reflecting their stages of grief, The Great Bay area can be seen as a collection of Lulu’s tears. The only way Lulu can bring herself out of her slump is by reconnecting with what she has lost, and for her, this is through singing, the song born from her departed offspring and each note representing one of the eggs—giving a name to her lost children if you will. This provides another link to a different type of postnatal depression, one experienced by mothers who have had miscarriages.

In the Great Bay Temple, Link does a different type of reconnecting, fixing the pipes throughout the area and redirecting the flow of water which leads him to Gyorg. Defeating the monster, Link’s triumph is celebrated with a concert in the Zora Hall, mirroring Lulu’s own performance earlier in the story.

Ikana Canyon: acceptance

“The fifth and last stage of grief is acceptance. After passing through the other stages, all that is left is to examine one’s own self and reality and face the future.”

With nowhere else left to visit, Link heads to Ikana Canyon, the land of the dead. This whole area is devoid of life, with all its inhabitants—bar a little girl and her mummified father—being dead. There are no lost and grieving souls for Link to help, leaving him alone to reflect on himself and his own grief.

In order for him to complete this introspection, Link climbs Stone Tower Temple, a tower reaching to the heavens where he must use the Elegy of Emptiness to create empty copies of himself to reach the top. Each of these hollow shells, one for each of the four forms he has taken over the course of this adventure, represents each stage of grief. And as he leaves them behind, he is able to achieve enlightenment in the form of the Light Arrows at the top of the tower. By utilising the temple’s mechanics and flipping it on its head, Link effectively brings the heavens to his feet, assuring his ascension.

The boss of Stone Tower, the Garo Masters, is described in official text as “emptiness cloaked in darkness.” His battle with these creatures symbolises the struggle of light against darkness as well as his triumph over the desolation associated with the empty copies he left behind on his ascent. By overcoming the grief the emptiness brought him, and accepting it, Link is able to show that he is no longer troubled by the loss of his dear friend. He is free to be his true self, and that is enough.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask has always been an outlier in the Zelda franchise. It was so much darker and stranger than all of the ones that had come before it, and all that would come after. For this very reason, it has grown a cult-like following and is a lot of fans’ favourite entry into the series.

But as we’ve seen, MM is far more than just a spooky, weird Zelda game. There is so much depth to its story, and most of it comes from talking to and helping the residents of Termina outside of the main quest. For what is supposed to be a children’s game, there is so much hidden under the surface and it takes getting older to fully understand and appreciate the type of narrative the developers were actually trying to tell us. So if you played this game as a kid and didn’t get it, give it another go. It’s funny what a little perspective can do.