Contains Mild Spoilers
As human beings, we all possess bias of any kind. There are two forms of biases that shape an individual’s thinking; a bias that clouds their better judgement and a bias that can be put aside if they are willing to take a step back and evaluate the situation. In either case, biases are formed by the life box package. Whatever the individual experienced in their early life shapes their behaviors and thoughts in their later life. In my previous essay about Sam Barlowʼs Her Story, I discussed how the life box package played a role in the fictional murder case from the game. The protagonist, Hannah Smith is convicted of the murder of her husband, Simon. Throughout Her Story, the player is listening to the women being interviewed by the police, but never sees any other characters. The police, detectives and portrayal of the mainstream media are completely removed. Just this one character who the player is taking piece by piece of her backstory in order to make sense of why she did what she did.
I approached my interpretation of Chara, the Fallen Human from Toby Foxʼs debut as a game developer, Undertale similarly to how I pieced my understanding of Hannah. Much like how Hannahʼs early life lead up to the moment in the interrogation room, the events of Charaʼs early life within the game build up to the moment s/he breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the player as an over world sprite upon completing a Genocide run more than once. Taking in the context clues, Charaʼs enigmatic nature is shaped by what goes into the life box package of the both the character and of all things, you, the player. Because little is known about Chara, what if the entire story of Undertale was written solely from his/her perspective similar to that of how Her Story is written? What kind of story would be told if the narration was telling you his/her story instead of serving as commentary on your actions and thoughts (assuming the in-game narration is Chara)? For an in-depth character analysis on Chara and his/her back story, the main aspects to consider are his/her reasoning for running away from home, the purpose behind the plan s/he and Asriel plot together and what the character tells you about yourself as a player. Such details contradict the popular belief that Chara is the villain of Undertale and there is a deeper meaning behind his/her role both within and outside the story.
During the introduction, Chara is first seen running towards Mt. Ebott where humans banned monsters to years or centuries earlier upon claiming victory during the war. It is never directly confirmed why s/he runs away. During these flashbacks, his/her face is always covered or s/he has his/her back turned to the viewer. Asriel, a goat-like monster child and the son of the royal leaders Asgore and Toriel, take Chara in. The king and queen treat Chara with equal love as they do their biological son. They find out a bit about the anguish s/he went through. At the end of the True Pacifist Route, Asriel tells the playable character, Frisk what he knew about Charaʼs sentiments towards other humans:
“It wasnʼt for a very happy reason. Frisk. Iʼll be honest with you. [Chara] hated humanity. Why they did, they never talked about it. But they felt very strongly about that. Frisk… You really ARE different from [Chara]. … The truth is…[Chara] wasnʼt really the greatest person. While, Frisk…Youʼre the type of friend I wish I always had.”
The context in which Asriel insinuates Charaʼs animosity towards humanity does not delve deeply into the characterʼs mindset, but there have been subtle hints of self- destruction. At a first glance, it appears when Chara makes his/her way to the mountain, s/he is seen tripping over a vine or branch of a sort, rendering it an accident. However, there are slight indications around Torielʼs house. Every sharp object has been removed or cut. In the Pacifist or Neutral Routes, Frisk will notice the sharp points on the fire irons are “filed down to make them safer”, which seems odd from a complete strangerʼs perspective. In the Genocide Route, red text will read ʻ[w]here are the knives” while exploring the kitchen. One might interpret this as Chara attempted to or did harm or kill any monsters at some point during his/her time living Underground. But if that is the case, wouldnʼt it have been a forewarning for the Dreemurrs or any of the other monsters a long time ago?
Granted that if the player kills any or all the monsters in the Ruins prior to the battle with Toriel, she seems blinded until you choose to kill her with a single attack or when she is sparing you, you choose to kill her off-guard. It should be noted however, the time Chara spends with the Dreemurrs is much longer than the time Frisk spends in the Ruins. This supports the notion that Chara used sharp objects to hurt him/herself. Charaʼs hatred for his/her own kind can also be seen as self-loathing. Humans expressing bigotry against the monsters also abuse a child of their own kind. Hence why Chara ran off towards the forbidden Mt. Ebott. Nowhere does the game indicate Chara tried to hurt any of the monsters, let alone Asriel or his parents. All Asriel tells Frisk is that “[Chara] wasnʼt really the greatest person”, but doesnʼt say that s/he was malicious.
This brings us to the next point regarding the motives behind the plan s/he and Asriel devise to free the monsters. It all begins when Chara and Asriel surprise Asgore with a butterscotch pie baked especially for him. Trying to make sense of the recipe, they mistake buttercups for ʻcups of butterʼ. According to the third of a series of imageless VHS tapes Frisk finds in the True Lab, after eating the pie, Asgore falls seriously ill. During his recovery, Chara “laughed it off”. In that same tape, Asriel intentionally leaves the lens cap on after failing to catch Chara make his/her “creepy face” in the previous video. Chara is “smiling for noooo reason”. From there it prompts him/her to remind Asriel of the incident and then asks him for his help. “[W]here are you going with this? Huh? Turn off the camera…? OK.” Asriel briefly does as he is asked to. Despite his skepticism, he and Chara strongly confide in one another, not only as best friends, but as siblings. No matter how repugnant this plan would sound, he trusts Chara has all the right intentions. Asrielʼs reaction is revealed in Tape 4, where he replies:
“I… I donʼt like this idea, [Chara]. Wh…what? N-no, Iʼm not… … big kids donʼt cry. Yeah, youʼre right. No! Iʼd never doubt you, [Chara]. Never! Y… yeah! Weʼll be strong! Weʼll free everyone. I go get the flowers.”
In the fifth and final tape, Chara is surrounded by his/her entire adoptive family. As s/he lays dying, Asriel expresses his fears, but agrees to continue with the plan anyway:
“Psst… [Chara]… Please… Wake up… I donʼt like this plan anymore. I… I… … no, I said… I said Iʼd never doubt you. Six, right? We just have to get six… And weʼll do it together, right?”
Although none of Charaʼs own words are ever depicted in the tapes, his/her actions are somewhat obvious based on Asrielʼs dialogue. Tape 3 documents that Chara finds away to use the buttercups to his/her advantage. Asriel knows Chara has something important to tell him about the poisonous flowers, but for some reason, it seems s/he doesnʼt want the details of the plan to be documented. The fact that Chara tells Asriel to shut the camera off while they discuss the procedure privately along with him/her making light of the pie fiasco seems ominous. Does it sound like Chara enjoys watching Asgore suffer the way he does and is s/he using Asriel to get what s/he wants? One might decipher the scenario that way at first, but what about the other charactersʼ reactions to pain?
For example, upon killing Toriel and Undyne in the Genocide Route, both these characters die laughing while in pain as a means to ease it. Snowdrake, a teenage, bird-like monster comes from a family of comedians, who make light of their misfortunes they best ways they know how. The fan favorite, Sans the skeleton, is known to joke around with other characters despite his state of mind. During the battle with Sans in the Genocide Route, he tells the protagonist that he “gave up trying to go back a long time ago” and the dream of returning to the surface was no longer enticing to him anymore because of your control to reset the timelines. The monsters donʼt see the use of quarreling over situations that are beyond their control especially since they have grown used to their misfortunes over the decades. Having been accustomed to unpleasant situations, Chara only knew how to respond by laughing.
S/he then realizes by consuming one, s/heʼd die and Asriel would be able to absorb his/her SOUL and possibly increase his power. Collecting six more human SOULs would be required to break the barrier. When Chara tells Asriel about his/her plan, his horror-stricken tears are not coming from pressure s/he is enforcing upon him. Heʼs devastated because this was something no monster nor human attempted before. Realizing there are no other alternatives to freeing the monsters, they go through with the plan, which results into both their deaths. Upon absorbing Charaʼs SOUL, Asriel ages from a child monster to a powerful young adult beast. Carrying his/her body to the village flower bed sends the wrong signal to the inhabitants, misleading them to think that he killed the human child. They attack him without hesitation, thus reenforcing Charaʼs prejudice against his/her own kind. S/he strongly beseeches Asriel to fight back, which was not in Asrielʼs nature to do so. He refuses to attack the humans, no matter how brutally they beat him, sealing both the Dreemurr childrenʼs fates. Asrielʼs body shatters to dust and losing his SOUL as all monsters do when they die. Eventually he is brought back to life in his new soulless form, Flowey the Flower. Toriel buries Charaʼs corpse where Frisk falls to at the start of the game. Reading this exchange in dialogue, Charaʼs plan is morally misguided despite it intentionally attempted for the right reason. Nonetheless, it is still significant to note the why s/he laughs, the purpose behind the plan and why s/he needed Asrielʼs help.
Alas, Undertaleʼs present timeline, where you, the player are given the choice to decide the fate of the characters. By hitting the fourth wall, this might tell you something about your own life box package and the type of games your mindset is adjusted to. The spotlight is given to you as you control Friskʼs actions throughout the gameplay. Chara then takes on a new role in the story. Depending on which route you choose, Pacifist or Genocide, Charaʼs responses will either be sanguine or fatalistic. The fourth wall is a literary device Undertale makes effective use of, particularly with Flowey and Chara. At New Home in the Genocide Route, Flowey describes what his life is like after inhabiting his new form to who he assumes is Chara.
“At first, I used my powers for good. I became “friends” with everyone. I solved all their problems flawlessly. Their companionship was amusing… For a while. As time repeated, people proved themselves predictable….Once you know the answer, thatʼs it. Thatʼs all they are. It all started because I was curious. Curious what would happen if I killed them. “I donʼt like this,” I told myself. Iʼm just doing this because I HAVE to know what happens.” Ha ha ha… What an excuse!…At least weʼre better than those sickos that stand around and WATCH it happen… Those pathetic people that want to see it, but are too weak to do it themselves. I bet someone like thatʼs watching right now, arenʼt they… ?”
This passage best describes why one would play a Pacifist Route, but then choose to test the waters with a Genocide run afterwards. It feels wonderfully rewarding to help troubled 8-bit pixelated characters solve their problems and befriend them in the process. Once it grows repetitive to see the same scenario play out, curiosity gets the better of the player. As gamers, we are given the options multiple options and find out ʻwell, what if I decide to go this darker path?”. Undertale gives you that freedom Flowey is illustrating. Like any other game where the player wonders after achieving a ʻgoodʼ ending, what happens upon purposely achieving a ʻbadʼ one. By player expectation, Frisk in canon ventures the True Pacifist Route, and bridges that gap between monsters and humans. Usually players expect that just because they play as the protagonist automatically means they are the hero and/or victim in the story, but as new storytelling techniques are being incorporated in todayʼs games, sometimes that is no longer the case.
Regarding UsTwo Games’ Monument Valley, Ken Wong, the lead designer of the hit puzzle game described its main protagonist, Ida and her role at It’s Nice That’s Nicer Tuesdays. She “isnʼt necessarily the hero” because of her actions prior to the events of the game. Analyzing an antiheroine character like Ida (which I discussed in one of my previous posts) reshapes oneʼs thinking of the playerʼs assigned role as the playable character and choices. The gameplay and narrative of Monument Valley is apparently different in genre and scenario than that of Undertale. What both games primarily have in common is that the player is assuming the position of a character who is not free from any wrongdoing, albeit Idaʼs crimes in comparison are nowhere near as foul and therefore, her redemption is justified.
Undertale harshly forces you to reevaluate the choices you make at the end of each Genocide Route when face to face with Chara him/herself. S/he is confused as to why s/he is reincarnated and thus realizes that his/hers and Asrielʼs “plan had failed”. All Chara knows at that point is that all you have left is the abyss and the power to destroy what is left of the world. S/he then offers you two ineffective choices, both of which lead to the same end result. Choosing to ʻERASEʼ the world makes more sense to Chara, but selecting ʻDO NOTʼ is questionable. Why would you choose this option than finish the job if you already chose to kill everyone in sight? Either scenario then forces you out of the game. Restarting it prompts a 10 minute wait until Charaʼs voice speaks out in the middle of nothingness. S/he reminds you that “[i]t was you who led the world to its destruction. But you cannot accept it. You think you are above consequences.” S/he grants you your wishes to bring the world back from the abyss after agreeing to give him/her your ʻSOULʼ. From there, the reset makes the game look like itʼs completely back to normal. None of the other characters, including Flowey remember a thing. From that point, you have the option to play a Pacifist run or play another Genocide run. Choosing to go full-Genocide anymore times will prompt Chara to return at the end and continue to question your actions. His/Her response by default will inquire and suggest the same every time:
“This SOUL resonates with a strange feeling. There is a reason you continue to recreate this world. There is a reason you continue to destroy it. You. You are wracked with a perverted sentimentality. Hmm. I cannot understand these feelings anymore. Despite this. I feel obligated to suggest. Should you recreate this world once more. Another path would be better suited.”
Selecting ʻDO NOTʼ will reinforce his/her point. “No? Hmm… This feeling you have. This is what I spoke of. Unfortunately, regarding this… YOU MADE YOUR CHOICE A LONG AGO.” By restarting the game and playing through the “better suited” route Chara encourages, you appear to have redeemed Frisk/yourself. There is a catch, however. After completing one or multiple Genocide runs, the Pacifist run will be permanently altered to show Chara taking Friskʼs place. S/he is seen facing the player with a sinister grin in either scenario, whether the player chooses to stay with Toriel or not. Indeed! Your ʻhappy endingʼ is sabotaged to remind you that no matter how many times you make up for what you did in the previous timeline and the other characters wonʼt remember it, Chara will always remember and consequences will always endure. As cruel an irony as it may seem (hence why itʼs often misinterpreted that Chara is a villain), the character using this tactic as punishment makes sense.
Examining Chara as a character and where the life box package plays a role for him/her leaves room for players to cogitate on theirs. Over the years, the engraved mindset and expectation gamers always stuck with is being the idealized hero, especially in the RPG genre. Charaʼs role in relationship to you as the player is to explicitly make you feel remorse for acting on your curiosity of what would happen if you decided to do away with the monsters and their aspirations. Toby Foxʼs writing style in that regard to the traditional RPG is similar to that of Sam Barlowʼs 1999 interactive fiction, Aisle. At a time when the interactive fiction genre would be lenient on the playerʼs foolish actions, Barlowʼs goal with Aisle, (which he discussed at the Fantastic Arcade panel, Sam Barlow on the origins of Her Story), was “to make people feel really bad about that kind of stuff”. When the player types a scenario where, realistically somebody shopping at a super market can get in serious trouble, “then the game reacts as if ʻwell what would happen if that really did happen?ʼ. So if you want to take all your clothes off in the middle of a super market what kind of story is going to emerge from that?”. You are rightfully scorned as a result. In that respect, Undertale is to the RPG genre what Aisle is to the IF genre in the late-1990ʼs. When Chara bluntly states that “[y]ou think you are above consequences” s/he is calling severity of your selected outcome to your attention other games would generally take lightly without applying real-life consequence. Being used to the familiar in games help make up the life box package of player suppositions. Chara may not be without fault as a character, but comprehending the circumstances behind his/her backstory, you are also being confronted with questioning your own actions within a virtual world and habits of mind.
The idea of a characterʼs backstory being told solely from fragmented recounts and subtle hints in-game elicits players to carefully read between the lines in order to solidly grasp what the character actually represents and more so on the options they usually take for granted. Close examination of the characterʼs backstory, from the reason s/he runs to the mountain and the basis behind the plan s/he conjures with Asriel, it is understandable even though it involved doing the wrong thing for the right reason. By taking those details about Chara into account, the choices the you make in- game can reflect your own life box package simply going by what you are accustomed to seeing in most titles. Charaʼs position, both in story and the fourth wall disputes your mindset on the playable character when playing a game. Players are always fond of being in control of the situation. When making a decision that results in negative consequences, theyʼd like to forget about it after resetting and that a game should just excuse players just because itʼs a game. Reflecting a piece of the real world in a within a virtual one, itʼs impossible to do so especially since playing a Post-Genocide Pacifist run is a depiction of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. In the end, the player is entirely responsible for what the character they play as does and his/her effect on the other characters because of how they choose to take advantage of the freedoms the game offers, not because of a character that is 99.9% off screen.