An Undertale Reading List

Better late than never, an entry-level-if-not-exhaustive roundup of where to read up on Undertale.

Coherent Situational Music in Undertale | by Alex Gleich (WE AUDIO) | Game  Audio Lookout | Medium
Images from a musical post by Alex Gleich on Game Audio Lookout

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!

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

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:

From the Undertale: Reflections post on art and design

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!

Camp Zelda: Teaching Video Game Discussion Classes

Earlier this summer, Outschool put the word out to teachers that one of the most sought-after class topics, based on search frequency, was Zelda. They were also requesting summer camp-style courses for their upcoming advertisement push. For me, it was a golden opportunity. Maybe it could be for you, too–now they’re looking for semester-long course offerings!

For a long time, looking up to people like Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, I was interested in trying to teach online classes about video games. The work he and others are doing with fantasy literature, philology, and classics at Signum University led me to get involved with their programming for kids. Over the past few summers, we’ve offered the model of live, interactive discussions of fantasy literature to a wider audience of all ages through Signum Academy.

Connecting people wherever they are around shared interests like hobbits and wizards and writing has been delightful and rewarding, since my day job substitute teaching tends to involve considerably less interesting topics. The pace of events since everything shut down (except for Animal Crossing and Twitter, it seems) only rendered that leap from in-person to online education more urgent. Now we meet on Twitch every other week to talk about storytelling.

The Signum motto, learn what you love, has a slightly different meaning in that context. For adults, it means learning more about what we love already and sharing that with others; for kids, it’s more about learning what it is that they love, in company with others.

Exploring the Lord of the Rings - Episode 22: Frodo's First Dream - YouTube
The good professor teaching from within The Lord of the Rings Online

The idea of discussing video games the way we do fantasy books, with a certain amount of rigor but also playfully, by suggesting fun activities to engage with the story, doesn’t entirely fit within the Signum Academy mission, which is primarily about promoting reading–reading books. Plenty of games do involve reading and interpreting text, but others, though well worth discussing, really don’t. Perhaps it’s a matter of broadening our understanding of reading to include the kind of imaginative participation that playing video games entails. There may be room for that in your local school, library, church, or non-profit. At all events, there are plenty of platforms to try it out on your own. Podcasts, Twitch, and YouTube are all ways to release content relating to video game discussions. They’re relatively low-barrier to entry. Plenty of people around Signum and The Well-Red Mage have good advice about how to get started. Patreon and Kickstarter can help monetize your project and provide that extra source of motivation.

For a more structured academic experience with more freedom to teach classes about video games, I’ve found Outschool to be a great balance. On Outschool, I started out teaching Tolkien under the Signum banner, since they initially reached out to Corey for content within our wheelhouse, but soon I found that I could branch out and pursue my other interests, too. Now, along with literature classes I also teach Spanish conversation and, as of this past summer, courses on classic video games.

Public Domain Review is a great resource for quirky, out-of-copyright images to accompany the course description

In the three-week Camp Zelda course I came up with in response to the search-query-attested demand, groups of up to nine students at a time explored with me the history and development of the series from the NES original up to the present. I spent the summer learning just enough about Shigeru Miyamoto and programming to be able to talk at least a little about cultural and technological aspects of the games. Of course, simply tracing changes in the gameplay and story from one game to the next provided more than enough material for our three hour-long sessions.

I also had an excuse to get around to playing Breath of the Wild, since I figured it would be a good idea to devote a whole class period to the most recent and popular game with the kids. The prior two classes, on the original Zelda and then highlights (and low points) from intervening sequels, showed them some ways to approach the games and set a tone for the discussions. Then in the final class, the students were encouraged to take the floor and teach me about the gameplay, the open world, the recipes and outfits and tricks they’d discovered in their hours within the world of BotW.

Applying to teach, creating your courses and getting them approved, scheduling class sections–all these steps precede actually teaching the live sessions. Once you jump through those hoops, you can approach the class however you like. Some people just get together and play games. For my discussion-based classes, I use screenshot images and thematic questions to guide the conversation. I like to start with a warm-up question, just to get everyone talking: have you played the original Zelda? What did you think? Then I scale things up with comparisons–how do elements from the first Zelda recur in BotW?–and steer us into analysis: how do the memories help connect gameplay and story?

Breath of the Wild 2: Release Date, Trailer, Story, and News | Digital Trends

Even having set some ground rules for the conversation up front–raise hands please, listen to one another–it’s still occasionally necessary to mute a student if they’re interrupting or talking over people, or going on and on about Lynels… I always let them know they can use the chat to raise other topics among themselves, but monitoring that is still a good idea.

As far as the platform goes, Outschool has a policy about secular, age-appropriate, objective content. There’s no grading required, no disciplining–basically, you get all the good parts of teaching, and none of the headaches. Generally, classes tend to be about enrichment, not replacing core curricula, though there are still plenty of math and English classes. The platform has begun partnering with local districts and offering financial assistance to appeal to more families. They take a 30% cut of teacher earnings, but with the recommended $10/hr/student rate, proceeds from a few full class sections a day compare favorably to a real job (with no benefits, of course).

Overall, it’s been a great summer job, and I’m planning to keep teaching with them if my schedule permits. The next course I’m offering is an ongoing format, where students sign up week to week if they’re interested in the topic. We’ll be starting out with a three-week module on Undertale and EarthBound, two of my favorite games. But I expect the enrollment will really take off once Breath of the Wild 2 comes out.

Undertale and EarthBound: Characters, Music, and Meaning

Saving the world this fall, and none too soon

Following up on this summer’s Camp Zelda, a new discussion of games old and new beings Wednesday. Undertale, EarthBound, and Beyond will take place weekly in an ongoing format, meaning students can sign up for as many sessions as they’re interested in attending. Everyone can access the course page for extra resources, but to join the live discussion, be sure to sign up on Outschool.

Wherever home is for you, pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable

NB: Outschool courses are designed for younger students–see course page for suggested age ranges. In the patreon classroom page, and in most of our podcasts, we’ll have room for the grown-ups to talk about video games.

Into the Field -Intro to Video Game Studies

Mario and Zelda: hearts and 1-ups. The opera scene, the music box. A god the final boss. An open world…

Image taken from a lovely essay, ‘Breath of The Wild and The Emptiness of Ma,’ by The Bokoblin

A few times over the years I’ve started writing and re-writing Raccoon Tail Opera, my philosophical treatise on video games. Or that’s the working title; those are just some of its possible chapters.

It’s been on my mind lately, and with the time freed up by schools being closed I wanted to give it another look. But this time around I thought I’d start at the other end of the academic world. Instead of writing dense, orotund paragraphs for scholars and cognoscenti, I thought I had better try out my ideas with school-aged kids. It won’t be any easier, but it will mean I have to make sure what I’m saying is not only interesting, but also makes sense. I’ll have to hold their attention, and they’ll keep me honest.

Our first meeting is today on Outschool; check out the course page and follow along.

Lucca at home, hard at work

The first thing we’ll want to get straight is what we’re all doing here. The goal of becoming a programmer, or otherwise getting involved in making games, while admirable, is a little beyond my abilities. All I can speak to is the history of video games so far–unless that includes within it some hint of guidance about the sorts of games we might want to see in the future. I can give some context, some cultural and theoretical points of reference for anyone who likes playing games and thinking about them. Hopefully, that would also include people who want to make games one day, but it could serve just as well to help others enjoy them, and lots of things in life, a little more deeply.

My first serious foray into game studies came with the Humble Bundle by MIT Press a couple of years ago. An alternative to the expensive journals and impenetrable specialization that render most scholarship intentionally inaccessible to most people, the book series on video games fit in nicely with a like-minded project doing the same thing with the university as a whole: Signum U, founded by Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor. Around the same time, I started my EarthBound podcast in imitation of his Mythgard discussions, and began looking around for other people doing work along the same lines to collaborate with and to learn from. That led me to writing for The Well Red Mage, and eventually to getting back in touch with Ben. Now we’re putting together this Academy as a way to set out what we’ve found.

In the first class, aside from brief introductions to get to know one another, including what we’re each hoping to learn, we’ll look at some philosophical underpinnings of video game studies. In short, what do we mean by ‘games’ and ‘play’? What can we point to as the important turning points in the history of video games? And who has shaped our understanding of that history? We’ll try to establish a conceptual framework, putting terms like ludic and narrative, art and violence, gamification and the magic circle into our own words, giving examples from our own experience of gameplay and flow states. And having fun while we’re at it.

Each the following weeks, we’ll look at a couple of games in depth. One newer, one older, they will provide the basis for our discussion of the elements that make video games fun to play and to study. In the process, we’ll encourage one another in our individual endeavors, whether blogging, reading and researching, making youtube videos, designing games… or writing books.