03/02/2017 EDIT: It took over a year, but I finally worked out how Undyne fits into the mirror dynamic of Alphys and Undyne in terms of the theme of depression, and have added this understanding below! DAMN, does it feel good to have figured that out at long last! Having done that, I now declare this rant officially finished!
For God’s sake, don’t read this if you haven’t thoroughly played Undertale. This rant has as many spoilers as a Bethesda game has bugs.
Also, many thanks to my pal Angahith for being a sounding board on this rant. As always, sir, you are a prince among men.
Oh yeah, and, uh, today’s rant is kinda dark. I mean, you can probably tell from the title here, but...yeah. You’ve been warned.
When it comes to RPGs that inspire theories, Undertale is pretty high up on the list. Pretty much any RPG can inspire at least a couple fan theories to explain its lore, characters, or events a little better, of course--I’ve shared a few of my own before, and I’m certainly not the only bloke who comes up with them. But there are some RPGs that just seem to invoke a huge number of theories from players. Sometimes this is because the game’s events and setting are rich, interesting, and/or subtle enough that it not only inspires love, but also creativity, from its fans, like Chrono Trigger. And sometimes this is just because the game’s plot and/or characters are sloppy and don’t make enough sense, and the players are forced to do the writers’ job and come up with some logical rationale for the idiocy they’re witnessing, like Final Fantasy 8, or Mass Effect 3’s ending.* Undertale falls into the former category, and in a major way.
Undertale’s got all kinds of fan theories being thrown around, on all kinds of websites. Theories about what’s up with Shyren’s body, theories about the backstory for Frisk, theories about the backstory for Chara, theories about why Mettaton NEO is a pushover, theories about the river person, theories about what went on in the True Lab, theories about Sans and Papyrus’s history, theories about the histories of the other 6 humans, and loads, bucketloads, craploads, truckloads, entire cargo-ship-armada-loads of theories about W. D. Gaster. And, whaddaya know, I’ve got a theory of my own to add to the mix.
Let it never be said that I was immune to peer pressure.
So, here’s my theory: Frisk is, or at least was at the beginning of the game, suicidally depressed.
“Goddammit, The RPGenius, you festering pile of bovine fecal matter!” you mutter to yourself now, which hurts my feelings, by the way. “I’ve ALREADY heard this theory from like every Undertale discussion board, chat room,” (those are still a thing, right?), “and Youtube video comment page I’ve come across. Stop wasting my time!”
You silly person, I’ve been wasting your time for like 10 years now. I’m not gonna stop now.
But anyway, yes, I am not the first individual to think that Frisk might be suicidal. Many players have inferred this possibility from a few telling lines that Asriel says during the ending of the True Pacifist playthrough. During this ending, you have the opportunity to go all through the game and talk to everyone you encountered along the way, as was the case in Earthbound, and if you go all the way back to where the game starts, you can actually find Asriel there, tending the bed of flowers that originally broke Frisk’s fall. Asriel has a good conversation with Frisk, within which he notes that people don’t usually go to Mount Ebott for happy reasons, and makes the implication that this might have been true for Frisk. That, combined with the fact that Mount Ebott is publicly known as a place where people have disappeared, makes the possibility that Frisk came to Mount Ebott to end his or her life very plausible. The implications made elsewhere in the game that Frisk doesn’t seem to have parents or a home to return to are suggestive, too, giving a potential glimpse into Frisk’s life that does not seem a happy one.
The thing is, though, that, as far as I’ve seen online, this is the end of people’s verifiable theorizing about Frisk’s potential suicidal nature. The general fanbase does not seem to have much else to add to this theory’s pool of evidence. And that is where I come into this. Because I’ve noticed a lot of things in Undertale beyond Asriel’s words and Mount Ebott’s reputation that relate to this subject.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that severe, life-threatening depression is a major theme of Undertale that underscores its entire plot!
Point A: The Neutral Pacifist Ending. This was what tipped me off and made me think there might be more to the idea of Frisk as suicidal than just Asriel’s words alone. This ending comes from your first run as a pacifist, not killing anyone but not having the ability yet to visit the True Lab. Essentially, this is the best ending you can get on your first playthrough. In this ending, like every other neutral ending, Frisk receives a call from Sans, and you learn about what the underground has been like since Frisk’s adventure through it.
Well, there are a couple of lines in this ending that stand out as slightly weird. Not completely out of place, exactly, but at the same time, they don’t quite sound like a natural part of the conversation, either. During the 1-sided conversation with Sans, Papyrus, and Undyne,** Undyne will tell Frisk, “So, where-ever you are...you have to try to be happy, okay!?”, and Sans will tell Frisk, “So, uh, hey...if we’re not giving up down here...don’t give up wherever you are, ok?”
1 occurrence of such a line I can pass off as just an oddity of conversation, but 2 lines like that in the same conversation? It gets my attention. The way Sans and Undyne are talking to Frisk, it’s not like they’re just describing the challenges they and their society face, which is, otherwise, the focus of the conversation. It’s more as though they’re saying that not only do they and their society face difficult times ahead, but also that they know that Frisk will, as well. With no explicit indication of what difficulties Frisk could be facing that would cause him/her to need encouragement such as this, my instinct is to relate it to 1 of the only things we’ve been able to infer about Frisk: the implication that the kid came to Mt. Ebott for unhappy reasons, the most likely being to take his/her own life. And if we are to connect that possibility with these slightly strange lines...they suddenly make some grim sense.
“Try to be happy.” “Don’t give up.” Are these not the words of encouragement that someone gives to a friend they know to be going through a rough time? Someone they know, or at least suspect, is depressed?***
It’s an interesting possibility, that these lines represent a further indication of Frisk being dangerously depressed, particularly when you consider that it would be a very appropriate bookmark were it the case. After all, in this scenario, you would basically have a story which starts with Frisk alone, and in that solitude depressed, and ends (Neutral ending, remember) with Frisk alone once more, with Sans and Undyne’s comments hinting that the depression threatens to return now that Frisk is once again left without anyone else.
That, however, would definitely be reading a LOT into things, so much that it’s barely a theory at all, more like an idea. But, it’s not the only point I have to make.
Point B: Having opened with one of my stronger arguments for this, we’ll take care of a minor, largely speculative detail now, though one which still can work toward the idea of an overall theme of depression and suicide. Consider how it is that Frisk gets to the land of the monsters to begin with: by falling down a hole.
Now consider: when you think of suicide, methods of death come to mind? Toaster in the bathtub. Gun to the mouth. Not being white while within a mile of a police officer in the USA. Medication overdose. Cutting ahead of me in line at a pizza place. Yes, there are a lot of well-known methods associated with taking your own life, but there’s definitely one that’s going to be pretty universally on any mental list: jumping from a fatal height. People usually think of this in terms of leaping off the top of a building, or doing a catastrophically unsuccessful reenactment of when George Bailey met Clarence, but, y’know, when you boil it down, it amounts to this: choosing to fall from a height you’re sure will kill you.
So if we were to say, for a moment, that Frisk IS suicidal when he/she goes to Mt. Ebott, that he/she IS climbing the mountain with the idea of disappearing like the legends say children do there...and that Frisk happened to see a hole in the ground, a deep, dark hole that seems almost surely a fatal plunge...doesn’t it start to seem like Frisk might not have fallen into the monster kingdom, so much as jumped?
Now, note, I do acknowledge that this is a small piece of evidence. It really only serves to bolster another, legitimate piece of evidence (Asriel’s words combined with Mt. Ebott’s reputation), rather than stand on its own, and it’s certainly somewhat iffy. After all, even considering the possibility that Frisk was suicidally depressed, he/she really might just have accidentally fallen in the hole; it didn’t have to be intentional. We know, after all, that 6 children have fallen in that hole before, and it stretches credibility way to far to try to assume that they ALL were trying to kill themselves, so we can only logically assume that the hole leading to the monster kingdom is legitimately difficult to notice (at least, until you’re falling in). Still, it’s something to think about, and lends at least a little more backing to this idea.
Point C: Think about something. When we get depressed, when we are truly at our lowest, what is it that keeps us going? What is it that a suicidal person lacks? Something in their lives to live for, perhaps, or at least, something good enough. A hope for the future. Enough survival instinct to stop themselves. When you get right down to it, though, those are reasons one turns to suicide, but not the bottom line. The bottom line is that what drives the reasons for a person to, in depression, take his or her own life, and what allows them to go through with it, is that they lack the strength of will to continue to suffer. What keeps us alive, depressed or not, from day to day is our willpower to continue living, our perseverance to meet our essential needs and see the day through to the next. In other words, what keeps us, as human beings, moving forward with our lives, overcoming obstacles, providing our bodies with the means to keep going, is...Determination. The Determination to live.
The choice to continue living is, barring the eventual and inevitable fatal circumstance that takes the choice away from us, a matter of our Determination to do so. When we go through difficult times, it is our Determination to get past those times and arrive at better ones that sees us through, if it is strong enough. When we are in pain, it is our Determination that allows us to endure that pain to endure that pain that sees us through it, if it is strong enough. The difference between someone who can keep going, and someone who simply cannot take it any more, is that one person’s Determination has been able to outweigh their difficulties, and the other person’s Determination has not.
Now look at Undertale. The human will, the drive to continue and succeed, is immensely important to this game. Determination is the mystical, indeed the divine, attribute in Undertale that allows Frisk to use save points, and return from every defeat. Determination is literally what keeps Frisk alive in Undertale!**** That which keeps us from killing ourselves in real life is also what staves death off in Undertale!
In fact, when you think about it...the only way for Frisk to honestly, permanently die in this game would be to voluntarily opt not to use Determination to resurrect. Or to put it another way...Frisk can only die by choosing to stop living.
Point D: In your final conflict with Asriel, he will taunt Frisk (and you the player) that he’s going to keep killing Frisk, and Frisk is going to keep coming back to be killed again, and again, and again. Why? Because Frisk (and you, the player) wants a happy ending. You can practically see the way Asriel spits this at Frisk in malicious mockery, but it’s certainly true enough, right? If you didn’t care about getting a happy ending, you and Frisk wouldn’t have gone through the trouble all throughout the game of not killing anyone. It would have been much easier to play the game like a regular RPG, and thoughtlessly kill anything that happened to get in your way--but you’re here, at the true final battle of the truth path of the game, because you chose not to. Indeed: you want that happy ending.
Well...isn’t this essentially a metaphor for life? What is it that we strive for, ultimately? Why do we seek to enjoy our lives, and/or give our lives meaning? Isn’t it, in the end, so that we can die without regret? By continuing to live even when we know it can’t be forever, aren’t we, in a way, trying to make it so that our death is as happy as it possibly can be? Isn’t the hope that the future holds better things, and good conclusions, that which gives us so much of our Determination? Couldn’t you say that the hope for a happy ending is something that keeps us from taking our own lives--or, in other words, from giving ourselves an unhappy ending? We keep our eyes on the prize in life to keep us going...and without a happy goal, it’s hard to keep our Determination.
Point E: “You called out for help...
...but nobody came.”
This line, found at a few places in Undertale, is a great reference to Earthbound, which used the line when enemies called for reinforcements unsuccessfully, and used a similar line during the final battle when Paula’s praying and seems to have run out of people who can answer her call for aid. Undertale, of course, expertly turns this seemingly innocuous battle text from Earthbound and turns it into something dark, a simple phrase that denotes the terror and despair of being alone, in need of help, and having your cries for a savior go unanswered.
But beyond the reference to Earthbound, and beyond being a perfect representation of the way Toby Fox took the Earthbound/Mother method and brought it to amazing new places, could there be more to this? When Frisk calls out for help in the fight against Flowey, calls out for someone to please come and save Frisk from this terrible conflict that he/she cannot overcome him/herself...when Asriel called out for help at discovering that he was alone, and not the way he should be, and could not find humanity (monsterity?) and hope within himself...could there be something more, than just an emotionally gripping phrase that expresses the true terror of danger, fear, and loneliness?
Well, let me ask you something: what would be another way to say “called out for help”? A plea for assistance. A request for aid. A shout for reinforcements. Or maybe you could say...
A cry for help.
You know. That thing that people do, as a desperate last resort to stop themselves before they fall to their inner darkness and do something terrible? The phrase used when we talk about the ways that a suicidal person tries/tried to let others know that they need(ed) help, in the hopes that those others would find a way to help them before it was too late?
Yup. That line that Toby Fox already made chilling and dark might be still darker that you thought.
Point F: The theme of serious depression runs pretty deeply through the triad of friend pairs in Undertale.
Let’s look at the first pair, Toriel and Asgore. The king and queen of monsters lost their children, a loss which is, from what I’m told, the single most horrible psychological and emotional pain that can be experienced.***** Essentially, this is something that can, and frequently does, cause serious, long depression. And how they respond to this loss is telling.
Asgore’s first response is momentary anger, as he lashes out and declares that the monsters of his kingdom will from now on kill any and all humans that find their way into the kingdom, and work towards destroying the barrier so they can make war against humanity as a whole as revenge for this loss. But afterwards, he becomes paralyzed by indecision, as his anger faded and he realized that violent revenge was not the right answer. He could manage neither to actively pursue his plan, nor take the hope away from his people, who were all just excited about finally leaving Mt. Ebott and experiencing the freedom of the surface world. As Toriel chides at the end of the game--if Asgore had truly wanted to follow through on his angry plan, if he had really not been held by indecision, then he could have done so after acquiring the first human soul (since he could use it to pass through the barrier himself, kill and collect more human souls on the outside, and bring them back to destroy the barrier altogether).
Instead, Asgore simply sat and waited, and just feebly hoped that what he feared wouldn’t come. He was crippled by an inability to move forward or back, stuck in a limbo--too afraid, regretful, and defeated to go forward with his intentions, but too afraid to disappoint those who had put their faith in him to go back.
Isn’t that similar in many ways to someone seriously depressed, who can’t find the determination or energy to follow through with their wishes and plans, instead just drifting one day at a time?
Toriel, meanwhile, is the foil of Asgore. They are connected by the same loss, the same pain that can, and in Asgore’s case did, lead to depression. But Toriel takes her grief, and acts to overcome it. She opposes Asgore’s plan, and leaves with her child’s remains so as to bury him/her. To bury the dead is a very important ritual in their passing, for it symbolizes an acceptance of the deceased having passed. Although in reality it’s rarely so simple, to bury someone is to show that you have made peace with their passing, and Toriel does so in bringing Chara to the ruins and burying him/her where he/she first entered the kingdom. Additionally, Toriel makes herself active, and in the way that will allow her to move forward and be what she loves to be: she makes herself a mother to any human who falls into the monster kingdom, and shields them (or tries to) from Asgore’s intentions. These actions, actions of acceptance of loss and of moving forward to try again to find a new way to experience the joy that had been taken from you...these are the actions of one who overcomes depression. Asgore’s actions, sadly, are those of one who succumbs to it.
Next, you have the second pair of friends, Sans and Papyrus. They represent another pain of existence that leads to serious depression: loneliness. They are both people who have no connection to others, who are outsiders. As human beings, we need connections to one another, meaningful connections that enrich our lives and give our lives so much more worth. If there’s anything that pastel princess ponies and pale teens holding mentality-shooting guns to their heads have taught me, it’s that. Some of us may need (and prefer) fewer connections than others, but few of us can healthily get by without love, respect, and camaraderie from someone. And when we feel alone, when we feel cut off from all others and like there is no one who can understand and care for us, we are in danger of the deep depression that can lead to suicide.
Sans is fatally lazy, despite his great talents, possessing only enough work ethic to do the bare minimum, if even that. The fact that he’s all about comedy is telling, to me--comedians are, I believe, famously susceptible to darker thoughts. For many comedians, humor is their defense against the misery of existence. Tina Fey writes that her view on the world as a comedian, her focus on finding that which can be laughed at, was formed when she was very young (4 years old, I think; it’s been some years since I read her book). She was playing outside, alone, and a man came up to her, slashed her face with a knife, and left, giving no explanation and never being caught. If I recall her writing correctly, Fey says that her comedian’s mindset was forged in that moment...because it was the only defense strong enough not to fall apart in the face of such terrible, dark, senseless reality.
Anyway, back to Sans. He’s from somewhere else, as Papyrus is, here for a purpose that no one can know about (and it’s doubtful that many would understand anyway), with abilities that make him unable to take part in the society around him in any meaningful way. While others lose themselves to the moment, Sans has a mastery over existence that they do not, and it separates him from them in an extreme way. And so he sits, and lazes, and accomplishes nothing in a world that he very well may see as largely meaningless. After all, as Flowey points out, once you’ve seen the same thing over and over in all its variations, it becomes less real to you; you cannot connect to it any more.
Meanwhile, Papyrus is lonely and separated from others, as well. He has no friends, and it’s clear, though not explicit, that this fact really bothers him. Just as Toriel was the counterpoint to Asgore, though, Papyrus is the healthy contradiction to Sans. Papyrus may be friendless, but he takes assertive, determined action to change this fact. He seeks to join a group and find purpose, he bangs at the door of that group’s leader (Undyne) and throws himself (albeit in a clueless manner) into the work of capturing a human so he can become publicly known and liked--he puts his all into making people think he’s worth befriending. And, of course, he genuinely befriends Frisk, seeking friendship in an unlikely place when the opportunity arises. These actions, that of actively going out and being proactive in search of companionship, are those of a person who overcomes his depression. Sans’s, unfortunately, are those of one who is succumbs to it.
Lastly, we have the pair of Undyne and Alphys. Regarding the latter...do I even have to describe her side of this, really? She’s the most outwardly obvious in terms of dangerous depression. Alphys feels herself a failure due to her past mistakes, and runs from reality in various ways. She doesn’t answer the calls and letters of the families to whom she promised more than she can deliver on. She keeps the True Lab, the site of her failures, hidden. She lies to others to make herself seem better than she thinks she actually is. Alphys is paralyzed by the thought of the world seeing what she truly is; unable to gather the courage to face the potential consequences, she lets her failures fester and her true qualities remain hidden. The feeling that you are a failure, that you have let down those who depended upon you and/or had high hopes for you in ways that you cannot make amends for, are powerful sparks to ignite dangerous depression. Alphys loathes herself, and there are even aspects of her retreat into the True Lab, once you’re on the true path for Pacifism, that imply that she might be contemplating killing herself there.
Now, I personally think that, unlike Sans and Asgore, who pretty tidily stay confined to their single (though impressive) ties to the theme of dangerous depression, Alphys represents a lot of aspects of dangerous depression mixed together. She is more connected to the theme of suicide than any other character in this game, which is probably intentional and appropriate, since she's also the friend who requires the most effort to befriend, and whose friendship unlocks the path to the game's true conclusion. Nonetheless, 1 of these depression aspects found within Alphys is mirrored by Undyne: the reliance of other people upon oneself.
For Alphys, the expectations and hopes of Asgore, the families of the 'fallen' monsters she experiments upon, and even just the entirety of the monster populace, all overwhelm her, and drag her into an abyss of self-loathing and fear. She cannot handle telling those relying on her of her failures, and this sense of both failure and of disappointing others spirals into self-loathing, which in turn dictates how she conducts herself with her friends. She can't handle letting others down, particularly not when she fails as spectacularly as she does, and so the reliance of others upon Alphys drags her down into a depression she can't escape from, which feeds and fuels every negative thing she does, says, and feels about herself. Alphys shows us the way in which we allow our fears of disappointing others, of failing when others have high expectations of us, to utterly destroy us from the inside out.
Undyne, on the other hand, is a character for whom the concept of others relying on her does nothing but empower her. To make the hopes and dreams of the monster populace come true, she throws herself into her work as captain of the royal guard, and uses the idea that others are relying on her to bolster her resolve and fight harder against Frisk. In fact, others' reliance on Undyne quite literally empowers her, during the game's No Mercy path--in much the same way as RPG and anime heroes often do for their most climactic battle, Undyne takes on the hopes, dreams, and wishes of the entire world to gain the power of a True Hero in her attempt to stop Chara. Where the expectations of others are an anchor that drags Alphys down, Undyne uses them to push herself forward all the harder. Once more, we see the the major characters of Undertale showing us a mirror image of an individual who succumbs to a cause of deep depression, and an individual who healthily overcomes it.
Point F.5: My sister has made an insight of her own on this theme of serious depression. Not only do the pairs of friends in Undertale have this theme running throughout their character development, but so, too, does the game's villain, Flowey. When Asriel describes what it was like for him after waking up post-death and finding himself now trapped in a flower's body, he talks of the horror of being trapped in an existence in which he knew he was missing a capacity for emotion which he once had, knew that he should feel love for Asgore and Toriel, his parents, yet found himself completely unable to feel that comforting warmth. Truly a terrible situation...and one which is very similar to a common part of serious depression: a numbness to all that goes on around you, a loss of the ability to feel joy and passion for things that used to be important to you.
Flowey even talks of having attempted to kill himself as a result of this condition, in fact. He tells Chara (this is during the No Mercy run, in which Frisk has been consumed by Chara's spirit) that he discovered the power of Determination at a point in which he tried to end his life, and at the last, too-late moment, got scared and desired to keep living. So yeah, that's about as hard a piece of evidence as you're going to find that serious depression and suicide are a theme underscoring Undertale.
At any rate, that’s about all I have to say, but I think this theory holds up pretty well. Subtle though it is, there is a theme of depression and suicide that underscores a very significant amount of Undertale, and considering some of the other darker themes that Undertale possesses, it certainly seems to fit the standard. The possibility that Frisk is suicidal really does fit into the rest of the cast and game undertones very well.
Ahh, I do so love a game that challenges me to really think!
* I still maintain that if SquareEnix were to swallow its completely causeless pride and adopt the Squall is Dead theory as canon, it would transform FF8 from an incompetent, sloppy, insulting mess into...well, not a GOOD game, exactly, but at least one with some modicum of artistic value.
Even the Indoctrination Theory wouldn’t be able to save Bioware’s ass, though.
** And potentially Alphys, if you did the after-Neutral-Pacifist-ending date thing with her, but didn’t go to the True Lab. Very few people are going to see this version, though.
*** Mind, I am not saying that these are necessarily effective or useful words of advice. I’m aware that cases of depression--particularly cases strong enough to cause one to commit suicide, as we are speaking of here--can’t usefully be combated solely by thinking positive. I’m just saying that these are the common words of others trying to help.
**** Well, it’s what keeps Frisk from being permanently dead, at least. Same thing, essentially.
***** I reckon that playing Wild Arms 4’s probably a close second, though.