The Living and the Dead in Art and Undertale
In my efforts to get as many people to play Undertale (one of the best games I have ever played) as possible, I have tried to avoid spoilers in this piece. However, for a truly fresh Undertale experience, you might want to avoid reading this until you’ve played it.
As a child, I didn’t comprehend death until a whole bunch of it hit my family all at once. When I was five years old, over a six month span aunt died at 23 of bone cancer, my grandfather died at 62 of pancreatic cancer, and my uncle died at 30 after he was struck in his car by a drunk driver. I learned then, before I knew much else about anything, that death was permanent, that death disabled entire families (some temporarily, some permanently), that death presented a wall of grief that simply has to be endured until every individual affected has the strength to move on, on their own terms.
As I grew older, the stories I consumed pretty much ignored all that.
In stories, death is typically a device. It is an obstacle for a hero to avoid. It is a convenient way of setting stakes. It is a means of taking large numbers of enemies out of the equation and assuring that they will not bother you again. It is a way of showing how much a character has changed, for the good (in how and why they face death) or for the bad (usually in inflicting it). This is not inherently a bad thing. Storytelling relies on tension. To create tension, characters need to have something to worry about. Death is hard to beat in that regard. Of the greatest TV dramas of all-time, how many didn’t rely on the possibility of death to provide impetus for the plot? Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood- all had death and killing around every corner. The same for Lost, The-X-Files, 24, and Game of Thrones.
Or what about films? Of the AFI’s top 50 films, by my count 35 feature death as a major plot point. Citizen Kane opens with the protagonist’s final breath. The Godfather is about a man’s descent into cold-blooded killing. Shane is about a man’s inability to escape a life of killing. Some Like it Hot is about two men who witness a murder and go on the run. Death moves stories forward. It’s natural to use to it to that effect. But sometimes, I wish more stories reflected on the aftermath. Sometimes, I wish more stories were about what happens when it feels like everything is crashing down at once, because someone you know and love has died. The way death affects the living is different for everyone. Stories are rarely about this.
That video games feature killing and death goes without saying. Ludonarrative dissonance permanently entered the gaming thinkpiece lexicon a few years ago as it became harder and harder to sympathize with a protagonist who commits mass slaughter simply to move the plot forward. I remember checking the stats while playing Uncharted 2 and seeing that I had amassed more than 900 kills and wasn’t close to finishing the game. The sheer absurdity of the number made it impossible not to imagine Nathan Drake- the game’s jovial and good-hearted protagonist- as a harbinger of death, wiping out entire bloodlines. It’s easier to make no attempt to reconcile the dissonance. It’s easier to accept it and get back to having fun.
My favorite work of literature about death is James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It’s title is up front about its theme, no? And yet the story itself meanders through a day in a man’s life, not broaching its titular subject until the very end. You’ve probably read it. If you haven’t, please do so now. It won’t take that long. The plot isn’t really about death. It’s about a man named Gabriel who builds his ego up a bit too much over a speech at a Christmas party. He hears someone singing “The Lass of Aughrim” in another room. He gives the speech. He is proud of himself. He is flushed with affection for his wife, Gretta. On the way to their hotel for the night, he asks her how she feels. Gretta reflects sadly on a boy she’d loved when she was young. He sang “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. Got caught in the rain. Died. Snow falls. Gabriel reflects on how this young man whose life was so short, who accomplished so little during it, could still so deeply affect his wife. They are all still bound together. The dead never really abandon the living. Humanity is in a perpetual state of overlap, those who knew the dead keep living, passing on their memories to others who never knew them. Joyce writes: His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
We never leave Gabriel’s point of view. Somehow, by the story’s end, we know Michael Furey. Time stopped for Gretta when he died. Sometimes, it still does.
Undertale. What does that title evoke? Graves, perhaps. A vague sense of the unknown. It takes place in a world of monsters. You are thrown into this world with no preparation. Early on, one monster asks you very kindly, to please have mercy when you get into a fight. This is easier said than done. You play the game as you are accustomed to doing with these games. Fight monsters, defeat them, level up. Progress through the story. But this game gives you options. You don’t have to fight. And if you do, you don’t have to fight to the death. Granted, it can be hard. But you don’t have to. You are reminded of this regularly. A character you kill might be referenced by someone else later on in the game. Characters you speak to might mention a frightening entity who has come down from above, killing innocents. But this isn’t new. You move on. You reach the end, beat the game. There’s much, much more to it than that, but I’m trying leave this experience as fresh as possible. The first playthrough of Undertale took me about six hours, and I enjoyed every minute.
After winning, the game does something that was surprising when it happened and, in hindsight, is sort of remarkable.
It asks you to play again. With absolutely no killing.
Is this a gimmick? It might look to be. It’s not. It’s where Undertale becomes something truly remarkable.
One of my favorite films about death is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Have you seen it? There’s a good chance you haven’t. It was directed by and stars Tommy Lee Jones, and written by Guillermo Arriaga. It generated some buzz at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where Jones won best actor and Arriaga won best screenplay. It came and went in February 2006, earned mostly strong reviews, grossed less than $10 million. I believe it’s one of the best films ever made about the living and the dead.
Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cellido) is a rancher in southern Texas. Pete Perkins (Jones) is his work partner and closest friend. Estrada (this isn’t a spoiler, look at the title) is killed senselessly by a border patrol agent (Barry Pepper) who, as men in positions of power and holding weapons that kill often do, fires without regard. The agent attempts to cover up the killing. Pete digs deep, finds out what happened, and exacts justice. A normal telling of this story would involve revenge. Eye for an eye. A killing for a killing. Death as a device. Jones and Arriaga have a better story to tell than that. Pete wants the agent to see what he has done. To honor the life he stole. Pete kidnaps the agent and takes him on a journey to Melquiades’s home town in Mexico. To say any more would be to spoil the quiet richness of this film. In refusing the easier path, it finds truth and beauty. Revenge makes for shallow stories. Pete’s method of justice accomplishes something deeper. He makes sure his friend is not forgotten. He ensures that Melquiades will survive for unforgiving march of time.
On my second playthrough of Undertale, I noticed a detail in one of the first locations. A diary. Its contents were amusing at first. Knowing their full context is impossible without beating the game once. Seeing it again, I felt my spirits lift with a sort of happy recognition, its meaning coming full circle., before falling back down with sadness, knowing its full context.
I found myself being more careful. Not just refusing to fight. Getting to know characters I hadn’t talked to before. Talking my way out of conflicts that I thought could only be resolved through violence. I found myself unlocking new relationships, new stories, and even new places in the game. I was more than happy with the novelty of this experience, of how different the game was with this approach. Then I neared the end.
A character who’d been my adversary in both playthroughs found themselves changed by my actions. They wanted to change. But time was running out for them. I hadn’t fought them. As in life, death comes to all, one way or another. I was given the chance to reach out to them, to forgive them for our differences. They reached out physically and embraced me. I don’t want to let go, they said.
They were the first character to die in this playthrough. I was moved to tears. Screw that. I was sobbing. Games are so often rife with death. Undertale, more than any I’ve ever played, is about the dead, as well as the living. It’s a game where the dead are meant to be remembered. And for the living in their wake, time stops.