When the bear in the orange sweater told me about the two missing dogs (the strength of their love for one another, their yearly ritual of placing a gift-wrapped bone beneath the Christmas tree and feigning surprise as they opened it) I just didn’t connect the dots. Yes, I’d slain a couple of axe-wielding dogs, and yes, they’d kissed several times mid-battle, and yes, when I killed the male, the female grew extra aggressive as she watched him fall… but those couldn’t possibly be the… unless… (I turned away from the bear now, to hide my shame)… unless I’d become a murderer? Taking the life of those dogs without a second thought? All for a handful of experience points? I suddenly remembered the words I’d read in a book in the Snowdin library: “Love, hope, compassion … humans have proven that their souls don’t need these things to exist.”
The other day I watched a guy hold a lighter to a public mailbox in broad daylight, using it to heat a bottlecap, from which he was freebasing a pellet of crack. As we passed him simultaneously, I shared a mock-astonished glance with a young Asian woman in lycra leggings, the kind of look yuppies all over the world shoot each other when they’re confronted with the realities of their local “transforming neighborhood”. In a few years that guy will be gone, rounded up alongside others of his kind, thrown into a bus and driven to the state line, another step taken in Downtown LA’s long march towards a Final Solution, that perfect rhinoplasty, a date with the quarterback in the steaming waters of a pooltop jacuzzi.
The morning of my second day playing Undertale, an ex-girlfriend told me that one of our mutual acquaintances had died. I hadn’t spoken to him in a long time, but I did remember him battling depression and alcoholism. After we stopped facebook messaging (I had almost arrived at the office, having passed the beggar missing half his face, a glossy patch of new skin where it should have been) I felt resolutely homesick. No, not homesick. Pastsick. I missed Paris, but more generally I missed life before Los Angeles. What was I doing here anyways, in this strange country, this ruined city, among these tent-dwellers screaming at the sun in agony, lurching from corner to corner, seemingly unnoticed by the people heading to their next appointment? My heart and stomach had melted into a single ache. That evening, after a long day at work, I met my girlfriend for a burger. It was juicy and left a trail of blood on my plate. We left the restaurant and headed home.
Home: where the computer is.
My first date with the skeleton went quite splendidly. He showed me his bedroom and I complimented him on his spaghetti. We fought briefly, but I had no intention of killing him, no wish to see his soul burst into a white dust and scatter into the void. Things had briefly seemed sexual between Papyrus and I, but his brother was functioning as a buffer, reminding me of the emotional issues involved, of just how important it was for Papyrus to feel useful, important. Who was I to get between him and his dream of becoming a Royal Guard by capturing and murdering me? Afterwards, as I left Snowdin, I realized how happy I was about our developing friendship, despite his annoying insistance on qualifying it as “platonic”. Ok, Papyrus, whatever you say! Skeletons…
By the time I quit the game that night, it had provoked such a deluge of feelings that I was experiencing something of an emotional headache… and of course the hormones in the beef… this city like a gastric acid eating through the lining of my stomach… the gnawing pain, the nausea, that smell of urine… the vague feeling that something was very rotten in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s the full-time job? (The number one regret expressed by the dying is that they worked too hard. Blah blah blah. When it came down to the wire I folded like the rest, and all for a couple of measly bucks.)
The next day I resumed playing, and today, after about 6 total hours in-game, I finished Undertale. Woah. So now that it’s over, and despite the third act feeling a little weaker than the first two (this is remedied by a beautiful ending)…
Undertale is to video games what Daniel Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You?” is to music. It rivals Twin Peaks in its ability to effortlessly embody the contradictions at the heart of the human condition while maintaining an absurd sense of levity and childlike wonder. It is simultaneously naive and masterfully crafted, and most definitely proof that games can be art. It defines an era in which digital tools have become so sophisticated that a single visionary (with the help of a friend or two for some stray graphics) is now able to design a classic video game and compose its entire score.
That is probably what makes Undertale one of the most interesting video games I’ve ever played: how extremely personal it feels. Every fragment of conversation, every melody and every pixel is swarming with the live bacteria of an undiluted, singular human mind. In the era of groupthink corporate culture where art is designed in the boardroom and A/B tested for maximum monetization, Undertale stands out like a sore thumb. I hope Toby Fox doesn’t read these last two paragraphs, because ego is the number one cause of death when it comes to creativity. I also wish for him that his heart and mind go untouched by the robotic simians in charge of the world. To them I say: stay away from him, you crumby morons, and go make a dollar elsewhere. To Toby, I say: grow a beard and move away from it all. Wait for the cumstorm to die down a bit, and let the murky waters of your mind swarm with new life. Then, three years from now, emerge from the darkness once more to show us how it’s done all over again. We’ll be waiting.