“Undertale and The Overstory: How Metamodernism is Changing Narratives” by John Tompkins

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[An editor accosts a writer about an essay regarding the connections between Undertale, a video game and a novel The Overstory.]
Q: Ok, this is silly. You’re seriously going to compare a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel with a video game?
Do you:
1) Walk away because you’re pretty certain they’re not going to get it?

2) Pretend like it was a stupid idea and you were thinking out loud?

3) Tell them they have the wrong writer?

4) Go with it and hope they hear you out?
“4” “Enter”
A: I know. Stick with me though. These two works, I feel, have become great examples in what some critics are calling the cultural shift from the Postmodern Era to the “Metamodern” Era.

Q: Ok, now you’re getting sillier. What is the Metamodern Era even?
A: Well, loosely speaking, Metamodernism is an era whereby the general outlook on the world is one that is not overly pessimistic (as with Postmodernism) nor overly optimistic (as with Modernism). Metamodernism is the Golden Mean between the two as the world tends to be more realistic about outcomes rather than always expecting the worst or the best. It’s far more nuanced than that and there are better descriptions. It’s the cultural equivalent of “meh.”
Q: Well I have to question how realistic you’re being if you’re going to compare The Overstory with Undertale? I mean really, it just seems you’re fascinated by the prepositional dichotomy in their titles.
A: Ok, admittedly, I liked the wordplay of the yin/yang titles. And, yes, it may come off as a stretch. They may have wildly different fan bases and they seemingly don’t intersect at all. I think they do, though. I feel it is important to point out the connections of these narratives.
Q: If you’re admitting that the connection is tenuous, then what is the purpose?
Do you:
1) Ultimately realize you’re wasting their time and bail?

2) Ultimately realize you’re wasting your own time and delete?

3) Take umbrage to the word “tenuous” and storm off?

4) Walk away and pretend like the conversation never happened?

5) Stick with it anyway because you’re committed?
“5” “Enter”
A: I suppose my purpose is that of any essay, to point out consistencies in two creative works that demonstrates a shift in how we tell stories, regardless of medium.
Q: Fine. So let’s see what you have. I have to warn you though, I don’t have much patience and I’m likely to click to something else if you don’t make sense quick.
A: Undertale is an RPG released to critical acclaim in 2015. It was an atypical game in that the player could finish their journey through a dark underworld merely by avoiding conflict. Players could also choose to go what is called a “neutral” route where they fight some enemies while fleeing or extending mercy on others. There’s also the “genocide” route where players can win the game by defeating all of their enemies in combat.
Overstory was released in 2018 and is a radically comprehensive series of characters who lives are transformed permanently by trees. The novel starts with the roots of its main characters and grows into the gargantuan stalks and leafy branches before settling again into small seeds to germinate for the future. Each character’s life is somehow affected by their love for the arboreal as they discover the trees’ role in the world ecology. Trees are depicted not as sprawling, unthinking life but as complex beings that communicate and respond to the world around it. The humans in the novel respond to that complexity by adjusting their lives to support and defend the rights of vanishing tree species.
Each narrative is built on the growing need to develop empathy for the environment surrounding the characters. Two characters in Overstory fall in love with a gargantuan sequoia and the ecosystem fostered by the tree’s network of limbs. It is so large that it grows huckleberries and supports a small pond with fish. They name the tree Mimas. The characters rename themselves Watchman and Maidenhair. They live in the upper branches of Mimas for weeks as they plead with a looming squad of loggers to spare their beloved tree. The point is not win, lose or draw. The story is about advocating for the world as it is and preserving something bigger than human progress.
The main character of Undertale is a child who has been marooned to an underworld of monsters (relegated to that world after a mythic defeat in battle by humankind). The Undertale character (you) is taught to navigate the underworld not by conquering opponents but by talking to them to resolve disputes. Sometimes the character uses flattery. There’s also the option to console your enemies. In those instances when an opponent won’t back down from a fight, you can “flee” without consequence.
The game and novel are both focused a person’s journey to love and respect the world around them. Both are an abrupt departure from Joseph Campbell’s ubiquitous Hero’s Journey: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Undertale and Overstory are built not on affecting change, but changing who they are.
Q: Well this is all fine and good, but what does a non-traditional RPG and a hyper-connected literary novel have to do with metamodernism?
A: Both tales end with the same moral: if you don’t strive to understand and respect the world in which you’ve found yourself, you will lose something beautiful. And that something can be the world you live in or the lives of those who live in that world.
Metamodernism is described not as a philosophy or a movement but as a cultural structure. One of this structure’s characteristics is realizing that opposing forces should co-exist or as Metamodern Studies editor Seth Abramson put it, “Metamodernism reconstructs things by joining their opposing elements in an entirely new configuration rather than seeing those elements as being in competition with one another.”
Undertale and Overstory are both built on a premise that one shouldn’t have to conquer the world around them in order to be a part of it. The story doesn’t have to be about a hero’s journey but a person’s capacity to respect the world around them in all of its complexity.
Q: I’m not convinced. It’s all still a stretch. This won’t survive a pitch.
Do you:
1) Box them in the nose and run?

2) Just delete the story and start making soap-cutting videos on Instagram?

3) Rewrite the whole thing as a conventional essay?

4) Send it anyway because you’re too lazy to rewrite?
“4” “Enter”


John Tompkins is a writer living in Texas. He has published fiction and non-fiction in print and online with a variety of outlets including Levee Magazine, Glass Mountain, Metonym, and the American Philosophy Association.

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