I often hear complaints about Undertale to the effect that it is a “progressive” or “Social Justice Warrior” game. A lot of people despise the game because of this, which I find pretty odd because, having actually played Undertale, it really doesn’t present itself as any such thing. And in fact, upon reflection, I think Undertale is most effective by not presenting itself as being amazing, radical or progressive, but rather humbly including characters that happen to be diverse.
Undertale…doesn’t care. And that’s a good thing, because it doesn’t care about things it shouldn’t have to care about. They’re just there. And maybe we should all care a little less.
Spoiler Alert: I won’t go into TOO much detail here, but it’s pretty impossible to talk about characters’ diversity without some minor spoilers. So if you haven’t played Undertale there could be some spoilers about. Watch your step.
Headcanon Alert: No I didn’t write Undertale and yes it’s possible I’m reading too much into certain aspects, but IMO a lot of this smacks as very deliberate and even if accidental I find the results effective and important.
Table of Contents
An SJW Game?!
While searching twitter for “Undertale SJW” to understand why such claims were made (and, admittedly, to bask in a bit of Schadenfreude), I stumbled upon the following tweet which I’ll quote anonymously to protect the author:
The game just looks boring to me. All this diversity just looks like its just rammed down your throat
There’s a lot to pick apart, here.
First is the glaring “I haven’t played the game but hate it” aspect, that’s just always a winner. Next, we’ve got this “too much diversity” which, well, I’m honestly a little speechless about. It’s that sort of “I actually kind of know I’m a bigot but I’m still a bigot” thing that’s amazing to see spoken non-ironically. But then there’s this “rammed down your throat” comment that really got me thinking.
Undertale doesn’t care enough to be a “warrior”
Undertale rams many things into the player. Mostly repeated gags, or rather excessive tutorials. But Undertale is completely unassuming from any “social justice” or “progressive” standpoint.
Let’s start with the way the game presents itself. No where on the About Page, Steam Store Page, or Release Trailer will you find chest-puffing about diversity, gender identities, progressivism…the closest thing you’ll find is the word “unique” applied to the monsters. It does, however, mention the number of dogs. Several times. ᴳᵒᵈ ᵈᵃᵐᶰ ᵈᵒᵍ ʲᵘˢᵗᶦᶜᵉ ʷᵃʳʳᶦᵒʳˢ⋅
It does all this despite having homosexual, bi, and trans characters (though not trans in a sex/gender sort of way. More on that later…it’s complicated).
Undertale doesn’t care whether it’s progressive or not
And that’s fine. Actually, that’s awesome. But let’s run down some of the included diversity and note how heavily the game actually emphasises it.
Undertale features a rather gender neutral protagonist. This is…basically never highlighted. You’re just a young child of indeterminate gender. This fact is never even so much as played for a joke to the best of my recollection. It certainly isn’t rubbed in the player’s face to prove some sort of Progressive Agenda.
Undertale simply doesn’t care about Frisk’s gender.
Then there’s a date with a male skeleton. It’s entirely possible this is a homosexual interaction should the player/Frisk be interpreted as male by the observer. This is never called out or referenced. It’s a date between two interested parties…and that’s all.
It’s not a big deal if Papyrus is gay…or if he isn’t.
Later we meet Mettaton. He’s flamboyant, definitely male, definitely presents feminine. No one…no one really cares. He’s super flamboyant but this is never really used against him. In fact he’s simply extremely popular, and the only negative trait he seems to have is being very self-centered.
If you buy the Mystery Key and examine Mettaton’s house (not in the genocide route) you’ll actually find he’s a ghost, and that most ghosts are attempting to transition into another form, as explained by Mad Dummy. It seems likely this is an analogy to being Trans but in a non sexual/gender context; in his diaries he makes some pretty clear references to him becoming excited to transition once he finds a body he feel really suits him.
Despite this being a pretty major and personal thing…it’s really not called out explicitly in the main story at all. In fact, finding Mettaton’s diary is an easter egg you have no real incentive to do, it’s just a little backstory. It’s certainly part of his personality, but once again it’s not brought out for show the moment you see him. It’s just stuff you piece together.
Undertale is pretty blasé on Mettaton’s expected/actual identity/presentation mismatches.
Then there’s Alphys–often considered to be a lesbian due to her obvious attraction to Undyne, Mettaton’s responses to her “crushes” state she’s attracted to Asgore as well. Alphys is mocked for sure, and it’s kind of one of the few things in the game that make me a little uncomfortable, but she’s mocked for being obsessive, secretive and terrible at expressing herself, not for being straight, lesbian OR bi.
Late in the game Alphys finally, entirely accidentally, confesses her attraction to Undyne. Undyne is shocked and upset…not because of homosexuality, but because Alphys was worrying about a bunch of stupid crap Undyne didn’t care about. Alphys also transitions between her fake date with the possibly male human and the definitely female Undyne without missing a beat.
Alphys is probably bi. And no one really cares.
Some Things Just Shouldn’t Matter
Undertale doesn’t particularly care about gender, sexuality, whatever the crap. You’re never told or shown how amazing, daring and powerful these characters are because they’re whatever. They just are what they are and that’s that. Alphys and Undyne liking Anime is way more important to their characters than that they happen to like each other.
And there’s the thing about true, real “progressivism” from my perspective: ideal progressivism is mostly about not caring at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I care about racial equality, I care about diversity, about women’s rights…but the end goal of it all? No one should care. No one should look at a (X) person’s resume and think “pretty good for an (X)” nor should they think “Oh finally, an (X) candidate, we need one of those!”
And the point of all this isn’t that Toby Fox didn’t care about diversity when writing Undertale either. I’m sure it was a consideration. But there’s a big difference between caring to include diversity, and making a world where diversity is trumped around as being a Big Deal. Diversity is not a Big Deal in Undertale’s world, it simply…is the way things are. Like it should be.
The problem with diversity, and why it’s often divisive, is that people do care about all this crap they really have no business worrying about. It shouldn’t really stand out that someone has a different sexual identity than you, skin color, whatever. Some forms of diversity may be less common than others, but most of this stuff…doesn’t really matter in 99% of situations and should really be ignored much more often than it is.
The only particularly radical thing about Undertale is that it includes traditionally “diverse” characters without really making a big deal of it. And honestly, no one should make a big deal about it. The ideal world, in this regard, would be one where no one really cares and these are just characters that happen to have…traits that aren’t really all that god damn interesting or unusual. They’re people, not a circus act, and any “diverse” qualities they have are only a small part of very colorful personalities.
This is also why I’ve tended to use lots of scare quotes around the phrase “progressive” in this piece. When it comes to treating people with respect and ignoring crap that doesn’t affect you, I don’t like calling that “progressive”. Some people use it as an insult, some people use it to pat themselves on the back, but to me the feelings expressed in this piece aren’t progressive, radical, whatever, it’s just how you should act.
To call it “progressive” to be reasonable doesn’t sit well with me. And the SJW label is extra silly, as it should be abundantly clear that Undertale is waging no war. I recall a time, many ages ago, when SJW tried to mean a very extreme form of activism. It seems we are well beyond that point and it’s just another meaningless slur.
So when you’re designing characters: be radical by not giving a single damn. Including a character of a certain race, sexual identity or whatever shouldn’t something you brag about, nor should it generally be a significant part of that character’s personality. (Unless, of course, your work focuses on that particular subject–Writing a book about being Trans is a very different thing from shoving in “That One Trans Character” just because).
A big part of this may simply be Toby Fox’s nature–from what I’ve seen on Twitter, he’s a very humble person and despite the massive success of the game he doesn’t seem to have changed much in how he tweets. But the result speaks for itself, and Undertale is a very diverse game that makes it feel effortless. Because diversity should be effortless.
Now, as humans, we’re not there yet. There are Problems™. But you know what, fiction doesn’t have to reflect reality. If you’re making a game, a story, a painting, you can pick all those nasty bits out just as easily as you can focus your work on those nasty bits. It’s up to you. Maybe we’d all be a little happier if more stories just took those nasty bits right out and pretended they were never there in the first place. Maybe it would help some people realize there’s really nothing radical or dramatic about letting people be different.