‘Undertale’ and ‘Steven Universe’: The birth of the compassionate hero

Wednesday, November 4, 2020 - 2:50pm

NOSELL

Cartoon Network

The idea of the hero is nearly as old as time itself, reaching all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia with “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” through the Middle Ages and “Beowulf,” all the way to our modern society, itself saturated with tales of spandex-clad do-gooders saving both cats from trees and the day” itself. There are countless stories of brave individuals, real and fictional, facing a great threat and somehow managing to come out victorious in the end. The archetype of the hero may vary now and then, but the tried-and-true formula has rarely been challenged. Audiences want to see fights — they want to see heroes being knocked down and getting back up, they want the action with the drama. How could something be popular without it?

Enter “Steven Universe,” a cartoon centered on the titular joyous puffball of a kid and his three, non-gendered Crystal Gem warriors. Over its seven year run — full of five seasons, a movie and a limited sequel series — “Steven Universe” pushed a fair number of boundaries for animated television. Creator Rebecca Sugar made it priority to show a healthy lesbian relationship on TV, refused to gender an entire planet and brought diversity and acceptance to the forefront with the epyonmous Steven. There is no problem that Steven feels cannot be solved with hugs, a pep talk or a Cookie Cat ice cream sandwich. Even as the show ramps up its central conflict, Steven continues to put himself in harm's way to keep others from being hurt and empathizing with the supposed villain. Both inside and outside the show, Steven is something different, something … unusual in the world: He is a compassionate hero.

For Steven, it doesn’t matter how big the battles are (and they do get big) or how high the stakes are (and they get quite high), but how Steven can relate to what’s going on. He doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, but isn’t afraid to fight back; it’s just that violence is a last resort. Heroes aren’t normally like this. You don’t see Batman paying for the Joker’s therapy or Spider-man taking the Kingpin out for coffee. They may not kill, but these heroes certainly don’t hold back on serving a good ol’ fist of justice to the bad guys. But the bad guys in “Steven Universe” aren’t exactly bad guys, they’re confused and hurt Gems trying to make sense of a long, drawn out war. Steven asks us to put away the spears and whips and gauntlets (just keep them on hand) and prepare the hugs, kisses instead.

Two years after “Steven Universe” launched, video game designer Toby Fox and his small team released the wonderfully wacky and often terrifying game, Undertale, into the world to critical acclaim. The game became an overnight indie darling and was one of the first Kickstarter successes. Players control Frisk, a human child, as they wander through the underground kingdom of monsters. While it structures itself as a standard RPG, fighting enemies to gain EXP and level up, you can also talk to the monsters you are fighting and spare them, leaving you both alive and with no feelings hurt. Sure you may be in a tight spot when dodging enemy bullet-hell like attacks with low health, but sparing enemies just feels nice. In fact, it’s encouraged. The only way to get the best game experience and the “true” ending is to be a pacifist and not kill a single enemy. Fox crafts the game to be one of morality and places Frisk at the center of the compassion spectrum.

It’s rare that a game with a compassionate hero exists but they are popping up more and more on television — both Adora from “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” and Kipo from “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts” fit this mold perfectly. They may wield power, be it a sword or a paw, but both shows emphasize friendship and teamwork from the “villains” and the heroes alike. They argue that no one is inherently bad, and thus no one deserves less than our kindness and compassion. Adora is a dork, a traitor, a bad actress and a great friend who doesn’t give up on anyone who becomes the leader of a resistance against an intergalactic threat. Kipo, a lowly burrow girl, makes it her mission to unite the mutant forces of Las Vistas and allow mutants and humans to live together in harmony. Neither mission is easy and both face incredible difficulties and hit rock bottom, but their friends are always there to remind them to brush it off and get back up.

That’s the beauty of compassionate heroes, they don’t just save the world by stopping some big threat, but because they change the hearts and minds of those they interact with. Steven, Frisk, Adora or Kipo would crash and burn if they tried to go it alone, but they always have some support structure and it grows with each person they help. Give and receive, treat others like you would unto yourself. Sugar, Fox, Noelle Stevenson and Rad Sechrist don’t simply want their creations to provide entertainment — even though they all are brilliant and deserve your time — but they want to affect the world. To change it for the better not just for one of us but all of us regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. We all share this world equally, so why not share it with love and equity?

If this sounds like a call to action, to ask you readers to put any prejudices behind you about cartoons or video games and just experience them, you’d be correct. All three shows are brilliant examples of modern storytelling in the cartoon medium. They are the argument that cartoons aimed for children doesn’t mean they’re only for children. They’re enjoyable, supremely entertaining and heartwarming shows that everyone of all ages can get something out of. “She-Ra” and “Kipo” are on Netflix while “Steven Universe” is on HBOMax in its entirety, and “Undertale” is is on just about every platform. There’s no excuse not to give any single one of these a try. It’s worth it, I promise.

Shameless plug aside, we need more compassionate heroes. Not that I don’t love a good superhero tale of good vs. evil type story (because I have been known to dabble in binging the entire MCU during quarantine). But these types of stories can’t always change people's minds. It’s hard to advocate for love and affection while punching a criminal in the face. I’m not naïve, I understand that sometimes there are simply bad people, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated with less compassion. This is a radical statement that I don’t always agree with myself; it’s incredibly hard to believe it when people let a virus spread and argue against basic human recognition.

Whenever I fall, I look toward Steven and Frisk and Adora and Kipo and remember that making mistakes is okay. Being upset is okay. Being angry, furious even, at the world, at life, is alright. It’s natural. But that can’t stop you from being a good decent person. We have these monoliths of imperfect, genuine (read: cartoon/pixelated) humanity to look up to. The least we can do is try. Try to spread love, try to understand, try to understand and if they aren’t willing that’s okay. You’ll be there for the people who are. Let’s talk about love, right?

 

Daily Arts Writer Mik Deitz can be reached at mdeitz@umich.edu


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