VIDEO GAY-MER | Undertale and the abstract family

Sometimes you need more than just LGBTQ+ characters to make a game resonate with your audience.

I've harped a lot about representation in my last couple of articles. Representation is an important part of all media. The lack of representation in media, video games in particular are notorious for a serious lack of representation. This week, I decided to take a step back and talk about a more niche element of the LGBTQ+ community: The "abstract family". It sounds dramatic - and it is. It's a real and tragic part of being someone who isn't straight and cisgendered. Even today, it's still something that I struggle with.

How does that apply to Undertale?

Opening screen!

As a gay person, I learned early on that I had to make my own family. This isn't to say that I don't love the family I have, because I do. The issue lies in the lack of understanding - they will never be able to understand me and what I'm going through. So, I have to flock to people that do. And through those people, I create what I call my "abstract family." They love and support me, and above all else, they understand me.

Undertale shows that. It's a story about a child going around and building a family through understanding and supporting them. It's half the reason we feel so connected to these characters by the end, because you see their problems and you help them confront them head on. You take their tragedies and you make them your tragedies. In the end, they become an important part of your life.

The main character, Frisk - whose name you don't learn until the end of the game - is mysterious. We don't know their background or their gender. You do know that Frisk is a child, and that Frisk's head is wanted by the "evil" king of this strange underground world of monsters they've fallen in. You get to decide who Frisk is, and how they interact. Are they good or are they evil?

Where Frisk fell... source (origin)

I decided to go with the good-ending route. In Undertale terms it's referred to as the Pacifist Route. That means you go through the entire game and don't kill anything. You spare them, and you don't collect any EXP or gain any LVs. It sounds crazy, but that's the game.

When I did my first play-through, I thought it was a work of genius. Its system took of lot of inspiration from older RPGs (like Earthbound, which I wrote about earlier this week) and even games in the bullet-hell genre. The meta story felt intense, and depended on player choice. Killing someone had consequences - killing everyone had very bad consequences. The story felt deeply personal to me for reasons I couldn't describe.

I'm an emotional guy, but in video games the connection just isn't there. I'm usually playing a character that's very different from myself - or whose story is very different from my own. Connection happens, but on a superficial level. Like, when I played The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn, I was drawn by the characters' stories. They were interesting and the gameplay was phenomenal, but that's it.

One of the many incredibly fun battles! source (origin)

After I recovered emotionally from Undertale's astounding ending, I saved my local files in a separate hard drive (trust me, do this before you replay), and started a brand new game. I did not focus a lot on the extra stuff, and there's plenty of that, instead I focused on the story. I read every bit of dialogue intently, and even on the second play-through, I felt such a primal connection from the very beginning.

For example, Toriel's entire first section really broke my heart. In the game, you find out that Toriel, the goat mom from the beginning, was the former queen of this underground monster haven. She lost her child and, due to reasons I won't reveal, left her husband. She's lived alone deep inside of the ruins of this mysterious place. When you decide to move on - it's heartbreaking. She's terrified for you to go out into the world, and she gives you warning after warning, but you have to keep going.

I couldn't help but remember the first time I came out to my parents. It was warning after warning - they told me that I would go through all of this pain and suffering. But in the end, it was just a journey that I'd have to take. Admittedly, Frisk's journey to survive is very different from mine. The parallel still hit me hard, and opened up the rest of the game for me. I looked at this game through the queer lens for the first time.

Frisk and a friend. source (origin)

It didn't always work. This game isn't about being queer - and a lot of the connections I made were through a more personal context. That's how art works though! And this game is art.

On a macro level, this game builds an abstract family. We don't know what happened to Frisk's real family. We do see that Frisk falls down a hole, and when they come out, they don't go back to anyone. They stay with this odd, new family they've built themselves. And if that's not gay culture, I don't know what is! Realizing you're gay or trans or queer is like falling down a hole. You realize your life is going to change, and it's hard. Sometimes it consumes you and terrifies you - and you don't know what you're going through.

But you don't have to go through it alone - and that's a huge part of Undertale's ending. When you think everything is falling apart, the people you love come and they protect you and they tell you that they're always going to be there for you. If I didn't have people in my real life tell me that same thing - I don't where I'd be right now.

That's the abstract family. They are people I flock to, who love and support me no matter what. They aren't bound to me by blood or by any real form obligation. They just love me. So, finally, I understood. On a primal level, Undertale is unintentionally much more queer that it originally set out to be. I'm not saying it's only a queer story, nor am I saying that this is the game's original intent, but goddamn it, it really hit me hard.

Shann Smith is a lover of video games and writer of plays and screenplays, based in NYC. Do you guys have a game that you think is significant to the LGBTQ+ community? Email me, and I'll give it a look!

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