Better late than never, an entry-level-if-not-exhaustive roundup of where to read up on Undertale.
Just to reiterate right up front: this list is by no means the final word, but a work in progress. If you’ve found something helpful for deepening your understanding of the game or thinking about it in a new way, let us know and we’ll add it!
Clyde Mandelin has a new Legends of Localization book on Undertale‘s Japanese translation and reception. Beautifully made and illustrated, as always, with some lovely insights and facts for the fan and researcher alike. From the blurb:
Did playing UNDERTALE fill you with ketsui (Japanese for “Determination”), kesshin (Japanese for “Determination”), yaruki (Japanese for “Determination”), or ishi (Japanese for “Determination”)? If you’re not sure, but you’d like to find out, you’re holding the right book—even if you’ve never read a word of Japanese.
The best thing I’ve found, academic secondary source-wise, has to be Bonnie Ruberg’s “Straightwashing Undertale: Video games and the limits of LGBTQ representation”. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, in the author’s own words:
Abstract—A widely beloved video game, Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015) has proven popular with players, reviewers, and commentators from across sectors of games culture that often hold conflicting views. What makes Undertale’s broad appeal particularly surprising is its queer content, which can be found in both the game’s representational and interactive elements. As many have observed, homophobic attitudes have long characterized reactionary gamer subcultures, which are often explicitly hostile toward diversity. Yet these subcultures are also among those most vocal in their appreciation of Undertale. What explains this seeming contradiction? While it is tempting to interpret this phenomenon as a sign that gamer culture is becoming more inclusive, a critique of the discourse surrounding the game’s reception reveals that Undertale has in fact been straight-washed by many writers and fans. This straightwashing entails both an erasure of the queerness found in Undertale and a recasting of the game as one that jibes with the interests of heterosexual male gamers, such as innovative design, player mastery, nostalgia, and humor. At a moment when diversity has become central to academic and popular discussions of video games, increased LGBTQ representation is often presented as the ready-made fix to antiqueer discrimination. Yet the straightwashing of Undertale serves as a cautionary tale. It suggests that the cultural impact of LGBTQ representation in video games has its own limitations, and that a game with queer characters may not only fail to change the mindsets of straight players; it may itself be stripped of its queer potential by its reception.
The concept of straight-washing certainly challenged my take on Undertale. Analyzing the game’s reception situates our personal interpretation, whatever it might be, within a larger context. Ruberg’s references, in turn, provide a broad introduction both to more theoretical and more mainstream discussions of the game, so start there.
“The Rhetoric of Undertale – Ludonarrative Dissonance and Symbolism,” by Frederic J N Seraphine, proves much slighter in substance, but it’s a nice example of a more recent, less radical read of the game’s core mechanics.
As far as video essays, this documentary by ThatGuyGlen gives a succinct account of the game’s creation and impact. Again, there’s nothing too theoretical or novel here, but the list of sources (click “show more” in the description) provides a helpful rundown of where to look to start crafting a magnum opus of your own.
Among the sources is a piece in PC Gamer, whence the Toby Fox quote about learning to read from EarthBound:
“I was so young that it helped me learn to read, and also transformed my brain forever.” Seven years on, his affection would blossom into obsession when he started visiting noted Earthbound fansite starmen.net.
From another, an interview, he says more about reading and EarthBound (or here if you know Japanese)–
Could you please tell us about your first encounter with the game, EarthBound?
It was some kind of gift for my other brother. Like, Christmas or a birthday or something. I remember playing the game and learning how to read the words within it… I think how I discovered EarthBound is pretty normal; it’s really the things later that were more interesting.
Another memory I have is, as a kid, I distinctly remember sitting in the basement and reading the strategy guide in the dark, and my mom telling me reading in the dark was bad for my eyes. I guess it’s a bit related, but the Nintendo Player’s Guide for EarthBound is probably the best one ever. Besides having all sorts of info about the game (which isn’t always the most accurate, lol) it’s filled with images of the clay models (which I loved looking at) and photos that represent the areas in the game. There’s even fake facts about each area, like the population of Onett (3500 people, 2 dogs) and stuff like that. You can actually check it out online for free on Nintendo’s website. I highly suggest taking a look through it.
Anyway, I wanna make a strategy guide with clay models in it someday. And, I hope then some kids can read it and have extremely arbitrary, useless memories of their parents telling them not to read in the dark. That’s all.
Reading in the dark, raised by wolves–certainly some mythic potential there.
Finally, and always a good place to check, the curators at Critical Distance lift up these two from Pop Matters and Problem Machine as takes on the endings. See also:
For such a stimulating game, there’s actually not as much academic work on Undertale yet as I would expect (or I’m just not looking hard enough). The great test of determination, hopes, and dreams will be not just adding our voice to the scholarly discussion, as these authors have done, but figuring out how to integrate the game into our teaching. Thanks for setting out on the adventure with us!