Credit: Sam Woolley
Undertale's stigma as a toxic fandom arose after incidents involving harassed YouTubers, pornography, and fans who plastered the internet with in-game jokes. Over time, a game that started out as heartwarming and loveable gained infamy for supposedly having one of the worst fandoms on the internet. Undertale's descent into online infamy was largely due to the pervasive thought that there was only one way to play the game.
The Roots Of Undertale's Fandom
Toby Fox, Undertale's creator, rose to fame as the composer for the popular interactive webcomic Homestuck. In the past, people have criticised the Homestuck fandom for overrunning the Internet in the same way Undertale does.
After working on the comic, Fox drew inspiration from EarthBound in order to produce the basic concept for Undertale. In May 2013, the demo for the game launched. Judging from the comments section on the game's Kickstarter, it quickly became popular with both Homestuck and EarthBound fans who liked the idea of an RPG where you do not have to kill anyone. A month after that demo was released, Fox created said Kickstarter, requesting a humble five thousand dollars. The same day he launched the Kickstarter, his funding goal was met, and by July 24th, he would reach over 10 times that amount, thanks to the fans who loved the demo.
Undertale's YouTube Problem
Undertale was officially released in September 2015, and was met with an overall positive response from critics and fans. In the months to follow, countless YouTubers, including jacksepticeye and Cryaotic, posted full playthroughs of the indie RPG, contributing to its immense popularity. That's where Undertale fans started gaining a reputation for being internet bullies.
Gaming YouTuber Markiplier played through the game that November, but soon quit after only uploading two episodes. Numerous fans complained about how he gave Sans a "redneck voice," and otherwise harassed him for the choices he wanted to make in the game.
Markiplier wanted to do the genocide route, where you kill every possible monster in the game. The mere idea of a violent playthrough irritated the fans, who wanted the YouTuber to play through the pacifist run specifically. Beyond being one of the big selling points of the game, a pacifist run of Undertale has wide-reaching consequences that go well beyond that specific save. As hardcore fans knew at the time, killing all enemies in the game altered the endings, and more importantly, the game remembered if you ever tried to save scrub or reload files. To play the genocide route was to miss out on the "real" ending to the game.
While few of the comments were threatening, the sheer number of the comments made it look like Undertale fans were ganging up on him:
Markiplier would not return to Undertale until October 2016, when he and his friends streamed their playthrough for YouTube Primetime. Markiplier explained his reasons for quitting his original playthrough in the first episode of the livestream.
"Everyone was disappointed in the way I was playing it, and ordinarily I would just be like: 'Y'know, I'm doing it my way. I'm gonna do this,'" Markiplier said. "But unfortunately, it was so pervasive that it made the entire experience not fun for me. It was literally just a moment where I was like: 'I'm not having fun making these videos because I know that no matter what I do, everyone will think I'm wrong.'"
Markiplier was not an anomaly: Undertale fans demanded gamers to play the Pacifist route on other YouTube channels, too. In early January of 2016, YouTuber Fraser Agar (known as farfromsubtle on YouTube) posted a playthrough of Undertale where he killed a couple of monsters. Later on, that decision affected his ability to hang out with a different character -- which gave viewers an excuse to criticise his playthrough. Agar became frustrated at the responses, and argued that it was unfair for people to expect new players to just know how to play the game from the get-go.
"Everybody just acts like that's common knowledge when we've been playing it from the beginning as though 1 million fucking Internet people didn't say, 'Hey can you play Undertale make sure not to kill anything k thanks bye.' I don't play games like that."
The "Correct" Way To Play Undertale
For viewers, there was only one "right" way to play Undertale, and it was straightforward. In the game's description on Steam, it directly states, "Killing is unnecessary: negotiate out of danger using the unique battle system." For these fans, the clues were everywhere: one of the monsters in the tutorial section of the game also gently suggests that you should "Use some mercy, human."
Arguably, the game's spirit is grounded in the idea that you can be forgiving even towards those who mean you harm, so for fans, it was a no-brainer to play the game in the friendliest way possible.
BabyCharmander, an Undertale fan on Discord explained that other routes, such as the genocide playthrough, actually gained a stigma with fans.
"It got kinda ridiculous for a while -- people insisting that people playing the Genocide route were legitimately horrible people," she told Kotaku in a Discord message. "I was seeing people being 100% serious when they compared people who played that route to child abusers and murderers. As someone who actually played the Genocide route and felt immensely guilty for doing so (the game does a pretty good job at making you feel like an absolute monster), I felt even worse after seeing posts about things like that."
Players who dislike the Genocide route view the player as part of the story, so when someone makes "bad" choices, it's a reflection on the player's character, not Frisk, the protagonist. Undertale actually breaks the fourth wall and communicates to players that they are evil for choosing to kill monsters. Some fans took it to heart. BabyCharmander said at one point the idea of the "player being evil" became so pervasive that she started making posts to counteract that belief, where she made fanart and blogs that encouraged people to not judge others for how they play the game.
A section of Baby Charmander's fanart, where using the voice of Sans, she encouraged people not to shame others for how they play the game.
She said that the stigma against the Genocide route was "a shame," because there are parts of the story that you can only get from playing the Genocide route. For example, you can learn about the role of Chara in the game and Chara also explains more about Frisk's human soul and determination. She disagrees with the idea that there is only one "true" route in Undertale.
"Undertale is a game played best by going into it completely blind, and not letting anyone tell you what to do," BabyCharmander explained.
This is a sentiment that's even shared by the creator of the game himself:
The problem is that going into Undertale blind makes it likely that players will kill an enemy, much like they would in any other RPG -- a design choice that creates a conundrum for anyone who wants to get a "good" ending, but also wants to jump in fresh. It's no wonder that the culture that arose around Undertale was so focused around how to play the game: in a way, players were trying to save others from a bad experience. Somehow, though, fans just traded one bad experience for another.
Screenshot taken from the game's store page on Steam.
Overtaking The Internet
Undertale jokes and references popped up everywhere after release, and others outside the fandom grew increasingly irritated at how fans were overrunning the Internet. Instead of "the cake is a lie" or "arrow to the knee" jokes, it was memes about how doing certain things filled them with "determination." In December of 2015, Undertale won GameFAQs' Best Game Ever contest, beating out the previous titleholder, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game also beat other classic franchise games, including Pokémon Red and Blue as well as Super Mario 64. Undertale undeniably dominated the competition, earning a whopping 90,368 votes. Several fans, who had aggressively campaigned for the game on social media sites such as Tumblr, rejoiced. But others were upset, accusing fans of brigading and using bots in order to garner votes. Some commented that Undertale was simply too recent of a release for it to be objectively compared to other blockbuster games. Others criticised Undertale for its lack of originality, given its obvious EarthBound inspirations. Regardless, it stood that Undertale won the contest, but and the fandom continued to demonstrate its overwhelming Internet presence.
Screenshot taken from the game's official trailer.
Eventually, hate for the fandom emerged in the form of cringe-videos. Search "undertale cringe video" on YouTube and you will get almost 700,000 results. These videos mock the worst art the fandom had to offer, with many acquiring tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of views. Several pieces were poorly drawn (likely by children or those with little experience) or were extremely disturbing. For example Frisk and Chara, who are both children, are drawn in graphic sexual relationships with other characters. Sometimes the characters are "aged up," that is to say they are drawn in sexual relationships as adults, but occasionally there are pieces where they haven't been, or where their age is ambiguous. More commonly appearing in these videos is the graphic depiction of Sans and Papyrus, who are brothers, in a sexual, romantic relationship.This ship draws on tropes found in anime, where shipping siblings is common, and the idea of "forbidden love" appeals to a lot of people. When one person asked on a Quora forum, "Sans and Papyrus are so darn perfect with each other. Sans, being the depressed and punny lazy skeleton and Papyrus, being the cheerful and loving brother… They complement each other so perfectly." But again, not every fan supports Fontcest, and this particular ship is contentious within the fan community, causing sharp divides. When it comes to shipping, Undertale fans have worked to combat the toxicity contributed by other users.
The Fandom Now
In August 2017, the Undertale fandom has become considerably quieter, though fanart keeps coming and cringe-videos are being uploaded all the time. Even so, some fans say the community does have a good side. Undertale, as Kotaku's own Nathan Grayson has argued in the past, is about community and building friendship -- to wit, Grayson mentioned that the game inspired him to be a better friend in 2015.
Some fans who reached out to Kotaku said that being a part of the fandom helped them improve their artistic skills, such as drawing and composing music, because they were able to receive constructive feedback from other fans. Discord user Stiv_oo told Kotaku that being a part of the Undertale fandom allowed them to get better at drawing and playing guitar. They said, "I did practice in front of random people in the /r/undertale voicechat. I wasn't that good but they cheered for me like no one else would do and that made me extremely happy." Really, Undertale fans do recognise problems within their community. Discord user Modern thinks that some fans have a tendency to be overwhelmingly obsessive, which they feel may give newer players "a negative view of the game and by extension the fandom."
Undertale isn't an entirely bad fandom, nor is it uniquely "toxic" -- fanbases, especially large ones, can misdirect their fiery passions and harass casual observers or even their own members, as we've seen with Five Nights at Freddy's and Steven Universe. Every fandom has "bad" fans, and "good" fans. With the new release of Undertale on the PS4, new fans are joining the fold -- and perhaps this will be a new opportunity to redefine the fandom.