Fair warning, this post is going to be pretty heavy. Additionally, it contains spoilers for Undertale.
What’s all the fuss?
I discovered Undertale almost a year after it made its grand debut. Before I waded in and decided to give the game a go, I had tried to watch it via stream on Twitch and YouTube. For the life of me, despite the reviews, despite the fanfare, I couldn’t see the appeal.
Around the time of my birthday it was marked down to $10 on Steam, so I figured what the heck. My wife asked me if there was anything that I wanted for my birthday, and I told her about the game, so she got it for me.
I fired it up and started moving through the ruins. I kept waiting for that moment where the game would click for me, but I didn’t feel it. I moved beyond the ruins (after sparing Toriel) and crossed paths with the skeleton brothers, a fish-lady who wanted to kill me, a blood-thirsty robot obsessed with TV-ratings, and an anime-obsessed dino scientist before I met the king of the realm. I struggled at times to spare all of the monsters along this route, but I did it, and I befriended those who I could as well. Finally, after defeating the psychotic flower, I got a text-based ending that made me fear that I had forgotten truly finish the pacifist route. Still, I kept waiting for something to click.
By the time I befriended the last ally and made my way towards the game’s true ending, I felt the same sinking feeling manifest itself in my mind: was this game really that great? I was I missing something that others had seen or experienced with it? What I didn’t realize it then, but I realize it now is that Undertale had surreptitiously gotten its hooks in me. The characters who I initially thought were quirky but unrelatable had actually grown on me throughout my journey. When I made it to Asriel and he trapped my friends’ souls, I was completely invested, and legitimately moved when I was able to make them recall who I was by using moments we had shared throughout the game.
As the final credits rolled, I sat stunned. A game that I had truly gone into with complete and utter skepticism, and one that graphically doesn’t have the “wow” factor that is associated with so many modern games, had completely wowed me. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited to dive right back in and play back through the story.
Once Again, This Time with Feeling
I played through Undertale’s true pacifist route four more times over the next three months and began to dive into the wiki and fan communities. As I read more about the deep character development, I became particularly intrigued by Flowey/Asriel’s story. Throughout forum posts, wikis, and more of the documents I came across online, I kept reading about his depression and attempted suicides. I hadn’t encountered any of these plot points, and as I dug deeper, I realized that they were associated with the genocide route play through of the game.
For those not familiar with Undertale, the genocide run is achieved when the player kills all of the enemies in each area and the respective boss of that area (if any). There are two major challenges along the way during this type of run:
- You, the player, will be actively killing the endearing characters who you met along the way, and
- Your misdeeds will lead you to face two of the toughest foes in Undyne the Undying and Sans
At the end of the journey, your character would awake Chara, the human who fell to the underground previously, and together you would have the option of erasing the world. I remember watching playthroughs of the genocide run, I saw how difficult the two bosses, I thought about how much the characters in Undertale’s story meant to me. I knew that didn’t have the skill or the conviction to do it. I just couldn’t bring myself to destroy this world and all its charming characters.
But that was before my world, my life, was destroyed.
Trying to Make Sense of It All
It was July 2, 2014, and a friend of mine had come up from out of town. My wife and I were looking forward to meeting up and hanging out with him. That evening, my mom called me to tell me that my sister had been rushed to the hospital with abdominal pain. Scans revealed that a cyst had caused one of her ovaries had swollen to the size of a soft-ball. The doctors had scheduled an operation for the next day, but all of the preliminary signs suggested that this was an isolated incident and that the cause was not cancer. My mom told us to hold off jumping in the car and driving down until we had more information.
On July 3, my sister went into surgery, and we went to the movies to try and take our minds off of everything until there was more news. The disaster that was Transformers: Age of Extinction seemed like the right kind of loud, dumb action to keep us distracted. Every time my phone would vibrate, I would step out of the movie theater to see what my mom said. The texts were informative with bits of encouraging news spread throughout:
“In surgery, doing fine.”
“Doctor says there is fluid, but no signs of cancer.”
“Getting ready to remove the cyst. Should be finishing up soon.”
Then they stopped. We left the movie and I texted her if there was any more news. She replied back that she was waiting for the next update. My friend and I went to mall to kill time as we waited for the next message.
I still remember my exact location in the mall when I got the call from my mom. We were at the top of an escalator overlooking a Dillard’s. I answered the phone waiting to hear the good news: “The operation had been a success, she’s recovering now.”
Except the good news didn’t come.
My mother is one of those steel-voiced, mama bear types. Despite her smaller stature, her stoic demeanor and unwavering composure can make her one of the most formidable and intimidating people to talk to. Internally she is filled with nothing but unabated love, which she showers upon her family and friends, but you have to get to know her first to understand that. I tell you all of this because it broke me when I answered that call and here my mother’s voice, not its normal razor focused tone, but one quivering with tears and sadness.
“It’s cancer.” Was all that she could say.
My sister was always hard-headed. From a very young age she demonstrated time and time again that when she would do things, she would do them on her terms. The more my parents told her not to do something, the more she had to do it just to verify that what they told her was true. This was true with everything from school to work to her personal life. However, no matter how much she pushed and pulled at boundaries, her goal was always consistent: live life to its fullest with no regrets.
This ambition and drive, along with her willingness to push the envelope are what ultimately caused her to flunk out of college during her sophomore year, only to then turn around a matter of years later and graduate summa cum laude first from community college, then from college, and then from an international graduate program that took her continent hopping on the road to her master’s degree.
Every choice she made, every misstep, every success, and the rewards or consequences that followed were always done on her terms. So why should a cancer diagnosis be any different?
From the first day she was diagnosed I saw her cry for all of about three minutes, and then she picked herself up and started planning what she was going to do when she was cancer free. For three years, she fought her battle, and refused to let her diagnosis own her.
Treatments cause hair loss? Unacceptable. She found a way to keep her hair despite her treatments. White cell count not where it needs to be so that she can go out? She was looking to have a Mario Party night with friends and family anyway!
Here positivity during the whole thing was infectious. Her doctor couldn’t understand or describe why he saw the healthy young woman standing before him when her most recent scans looked the way that they did. With each successive treatment we awaited the news, hoping against hope that she was going into recession. Her chances of survival initially were in the 90 percentile as the doctor felt that we had caught it fast enough. Then they slipped to the 70 percentile, then the 50 percentile. Each time they dropped, we would see her clench her jaw tighter and tighter, not from fear or stress, but from determination.
Through all the treatments and all the diagnosis updates and all of the health insurance woes she maintained a focus on living her life to the fullest. In January of 2017, she decided she was unhappy at her job, and so she picked up, moved to Florida, and started a job with a company that she adored. She had been to Disney World several times and loved the atmosphere of the park and the people who she met there. Now it was in her backyard, so she could be found there almost every weekend.
Then in May of 2017, things took a turn for the worst. We managed to fly her home, to a hospital in our home state where they gave her a matter of days to live. The metastatic tumor in her ovaries had spread to her liver, which was in the process of shutting down. She had hypercalcemia, which is an influx of calcium in her body, and that caused her to be discombobulated. Despite the impairments this development caused, my sister still had moments where she was perfectly lucid, and during those moments we saw that same determination.
During one of these lucid moments she made her final request, her final act of defiance. If these were her final days, if she was living her final moments, she didn’t want to do it a hospital surrounded by beeping machines and hospital staff she didn’t know. Her request was simple.
She wanted to go home.
On May 15, 2017, my sister passed away. She was in the room where she had spent her entire childhood in my parents’ house surrounded by my parents, my brother and his wife, my wife and I. The loss broke me. It broke all of us, and over the last year each of us has been doing our best to support each other while we all grieved in our own respective ways.
There is a reason you continue to recreate this world. There is a reason you continue to destroy it.
My brother and I were on a flight to Florida. While the rest of our family stayed behind to handle my sister’s affairs in our home state, we were headed to Florida to handle any remaining affairs that she had there.
We sat in silence on the plane, the air vents over our heads whispering in tandem, blasting our heads with cool air. The rings around our eyes were a testament to the exhaustion that I knew we both felt. We would talk intermittently, but mostly we tried to busy ourselves so that we wouldn’t dwell too much on our loss.
Desperate to find some kind of outlet to channel my grief, I fired up Undertale and started playing through another true pacifist run. I chuckled at all of the jokes that I knew, and raced to the finale. As I rescued each of my friends from Asriel, and ultimately saved Asriel himself, I felt empowered. Here was a situation where I could take action. Here I was able to save my friends, to bring them back from the brink. For a time, my mood shifted, my spirits lifted, and I felt like I could start to process and handle some of the grief. The strange thing about grief is that it is almost like a living entity, and as it transmutes so too must your approach to handling shift. When this shift happened, I found myself in a situation where the true pacifist run no longer helped me process my grief and, what was worse, playing the true pacifist run, with its relatively upbeat ending, actually started to make me feel depressed.
It was at this time in my grieving process when I began to muse on the genocide route. I was angry, I was frustrated, I was miffed and the unfairness of life. Why did we have to lose someone we loved so dearly? How was it fair? I wanted to break something. I needed an outlet. Something I could funnel my anger into. I need to be angry, and I need to act on that anger.
So, I began my route. Such a familiar route. Each path was a path I had tread before. Each character seemed to remember me, a happy me, from a different life, a different timeline. Each one of them fell by my hand. The music slowed, morphed, contorted until it was a bastardized version of its former self. The path I tread through each zone would alway culminate to the same thing: an empty battle screen and the dulcet, ominous tones that wavered in the background, a constant reminder of my mounting grief.
Undyne the Undying and Sans each were incredible challenges, and they each demanded that I study their patterns and have near perfect reactions during their battles. My mind was made up, and I was determined. I would not rest until they were both defeated.
Five months after my sister’s passing I finally beat Sans. Once he was gone, there was nothing standing between me and the destruction of the world. Without hesitating, I made my way through Asgore and Flowey. They were disposable, and the couldn’t help me. Beyond them was the person that I needed to meet: Chara. Chara presented me with the final choice, gave me the power to do what I had wanted. All of my anger, all my despair, everything that had been building in me culminated to the moment as I made my choice.
Together Chara and I destroyed the world. The screen cut to black and a second later I was overcome with guilt.
I was literally so guilty when I completed the genocide run, that I immediately deleted my saves and removed the game’s install. I didn’t reinstall Undertale for months after this. Instead I thought about why playing a game had made me feel the way that I was feeling.
Weeks passed and I slowly started to realize that my character’s journey during the genocide route, the distortion, the anger, and the hatred that they felt was a reflection of the feelings that I had towards myself. Why couldn’t I have done more so that my sister could still be here? I should have read more publications on her condition. I should have taken a more active role in trying to get her into some clinical trials. Why wasn’t I a better big brother.
Saving everyone during the true pacifist run and breaking the world destroying everything in it during the genocide run, each of these paths gave me what I needed during my grieving process: control. When I needed to feel empowered to save something so that I could lift my spirits, I took the true pacifist route. When I felt helpless and angry that I couldn’t save my sister, I broke the world down during the genocide run.
In a time when I felt like I had no control over aspects of my life, Undertale gave me a choice, and that choice gave me control. With the help of my friends and family, I realized that losing my sister was a horrible and painful thing, but that I also had a choice. I could let the grief I was feeling run my life, or, like my sister, I could steel my resolve and learn that it was going to be there, but that it would not stop me from living.
Every single day I wake up I miss my sister dearly, but every single day that I wake up, I am thankful for the time that I got with her while she was alive. She taught me so much about life and how to live it without any regrets. Today, as I remember her passing, I am thankful for the memories of happiness and joy that I have of her, I am thankful for my friends and family for helping me through it, and I am thankful that a video game about a human and monsters was able to help me contextualize and handle my grief.