An Examination of Leitmotifs and Their Use to Shape Narrative in UNDERTALE - Part 2 of 2
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Original post here: http://jasonyu.me/undertale-part-2/
This article is the 2nd half of a 2-part article on leitmotifs in UNDERTALE and how they inform the narrative. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, it is highly recommended that you do so before reading this article.
Leitmotif to Represent Characters, Their Development, and Their Relationships to Each Other
And now, we come to perhaps the most common use of leitmotif---the representation of characters. Nearly every major character in the game has an associated leitmotif, often spanning multiple tracks in the soundtrack, with each variation of the leitmotif revealing something new about the character.
Undyne's Theme at 0:00:
Though most people think of Undyne's battle music as her theme, her leitmotif actually is established much earlier, during your first interaction with her in the high grass in Waterfall. This iteration of the theme is the most rhythmically simple, which makes it easy to pick out variations on this theme in other tracks.
Undyne's Theme at 0:00:
Appropriately, the theme returns during Undyne's pursuit sequence---this time in a frantic, off-balance version of the Theme, using groupings of 6+6+4 sixteenth notes in 4/4 (separated in red). There's a "compressing" effect of having of groups of 6 notes turn into a group of 4 at the end of each bar, which drives the feeling of increasing tension and urgency.*
045. NGAHHH!! / 046. Spear of Justice
Undyne's Theme at 0:00:
Finally, Undyne's battle theme---which, as I mentioned before, is a combination of not only her leitmotif, but of melodies and ideas from other parts of the game.
The track starts out with several strong statements of Undyne's leitmotif. Then, at 0:36, we get the return of the melody from Waterfall/Ruins:
045. NGAHHH!! / 046. Spear of Justice
Ruins Melody at 0:36:
You may be thinking the material at 0:47 is new. But let's take a look specifically at the melody that's played by the horns there:
Now listen to this passage in 031. Waterfall starting at 1:07---and listen especially to what the strings are doing at 1:12 and 1:17:
In fact, this little melodic figure actually goes all the way back to 005. Ruins:
098. Battle Against a True Hero
Undyne's Theme at 0:00:
Ruins Melody at 0:45:
Waterfall Strings Melody at 1:35:
In the Genocide Route, we hear 098. Battle Against a True Hero. To me, this track (and the accompanying battle) represent an Undyne that has been maxed out, stretched to her limits. Structurally, the track is actually the same as 046. Spear of Justice in terms of the order in which we hear the Undyne, Ruins, and Waterfall motifs. But the difference lies in largely how much more decorated and expanded these melodies become, to the point where it can be difficult to trace to its source.
The opening melody, while quite different from the original Undyne motif, retains some key distinctive features---namely the initial drop in the melody of a 4th followed by another drop of a 3rd (in red). At 0:45, we hear a simplified but still very recognizable Ruins melody. Then, at 1:35, we get this beautiful piano interlude, which hides inside it a reference back to the strings melody in Waterfall.
Taken piece by piece, there is actually not a single idea in Undyne's battle themes that are new---the tracks are simply a combination of her leitmotif and a slightly altered version of Waterfall, sped up. But it's perfect: wonderfully representative of the track's meaning and situation within the context of the game, and different and altered enough to be its own outstanding track.
Alphys' Theme at 0:08:
Certainly one of the most straightforward themes in the game---but I love it because to me it represents Alphys' personality so well. The first melodic phrase is just a simple and happy "do-re-mi-fa-so", but the second phrase, almost as if in an attempt to outdo the first, jumps to a higher key halfway into the melody---which is actually an amazing musical representation of Alphys' overeager personality. That's all that there seems to be to her character, until you find the True Lab...
083. Here We Are
Alphys' Theme at 0:00:
Here, Alphys' happy melody has been transfigured and corrupted into something quite scary sounding. By simply adding Major thirds above each note of the original melody (in red), we get a haunting, unsettling version of Alphys' Theme that perfectly complements the terror that is the True Lab.
Aside from these two obvious appearances of Alphys in the soundtrack, there a few others:
035. Bird That Carries You Over A Disproportionately Small Gap
Alphys' Theme at 0:06:
Considering how enthusiastic Alphys is to help you throughout the game, I'm not too surprised to find her theme here as well. I call the bird "Alphys' Bird" now.
082. She's Playing Piano
The "she" referred to in the title of this track is Undyne, as this track plays when you visit her house with Papyrus for your "playdate." It's a cute little foreshadowing of the nature of her relationship with Alphys---the song she's playing is none other than the bridge of 048. Alphys!
Alphys puts it best: "Originally, I built him to be an entertainment robot...And, um...Now he's an unstoppable killing machine with a thirst for human blood?"
Mettaton's two driving forces to entertain and to maim and kill each get their own little theme, each of which come in at its appropriate time in the narrative.
049. It's Showtime!
Showtime Motif at 0:00:
In a great impression of old-timey game show themes, we get Mettaton's first theme, which we'll call "Mettaton Showtime" theme. Then, of course, he tries to kill you...
050. Metal Crusher
Crusher Motif at 0:20:
Keeping with the spirit of the game show vibe, 050. Metal Crusher gives us a mischievous, almost comical version of the previous track. The melody here is strewn with accidentals (all the Sharps, or #s in the score) which gives the feeling of the melody twisting and contorting.
057. Live Report & 058. Death Report
Showtime Motif at 0:03:
Next, we get a primetime news jingle version of the Showtime theme here, which gets a sped-up, frantic version during the bomb mini-game.
And finally, the Mettaton fight. After a short intro, which introduces the Mettaton EX motif, we get 068. Death by Glamour. Like the Undyne fight, we get a mashup of various themes we've heard leading up to the battle, as well as all of Mettaton's personal motifs.
067. Oh My...
Mettaton EX Motif at 0:00:
068. Death by Glamour
Mettaton Ostinato at 0:00:
Hotland Melody 1B at 0:14:
(Hotland Melody 1B)
Crusher Motif at 1:04:
Showtime Motif at 1:30:
The track starts off with a piano riff that combines the rhythmic profile of the Core Ostinato and the notes from the Mettaton EX motif (from 067. Oh My...) to create the backdrop for the song. At 0:14, the strings melody comes straight from 051. Another Medium (we went over this in the Overworld section). Together, these two sections make up what is really a long introduction section for the main melody to come in at 1:04--which is of course the immediately recognizable Crusher Motif, though with a more richly orchestrated instrumentation than before. Finally, at 1:30, we get the Showtime Motif on saxophone. This variation of the motif is particularly special because while its melody is unchanged, the harmony is more fleshed out than it has ever been before, which gives the motif a whole new dimension and richness it didn't have before---much like what Mettaton's new body has given him!
003. Your Best Friend
"Happy" Flowey Motif at 0:07:
Everyone remembers their first encounter with Flowey. The accompanying motif is happy, but in a juvenile (and subsequently creepy) sort of way---perfectly matching the interaction with Flowey. After this first encounter, we don't see him again until...
078. You Idiot
"Evil" Flowey Motif at 0:00:
The times we see Flowey show up are few, but so memorable. This time, it's all horror and evil. This track in particular is a slowed down, twisted version of the "Evil" Flowey Motif.
Of course, you don't just write two motifs for one character and not put them together. These two motifs come together in the fight vs Flowey and interact in a wonderful way that informs what's happening in the battle.
079. Your Best Nightmare
"Evil" Flowey Motif at 0:00, 1:27, 2:29, 3:28:
"Happy" Flowey Motif at 0:59, 1:15, 2:01, 2:17, 3:00, 3:17:
The music for the Flowey battle is actually a fun little Theme and Variations based on the two motifs above. When we are directly engaging with Flowey X (aka Omega Flowey aka Photoshop Flowey) we hear the "Evil" motif. As the souls of the 6 humans come to help us, we hear each time a different variation of the "Happy" motif.
Every time the "Evil" motif returns, it grows more and more frantic, eventually playing in double time (2:29), mirroring Flowey's increasing impatience and desperation as the fight continues.
Toriel and Asgore
Royal Ostinato at 0:00:
The relationship between Toriel and Asgore is one that surprised many players in their first playthrough. The way their relationship is gradually revealed to the player, starting with the arrival at New Home, to seeing Asgore, and finally noticing the covered throne, is an exciting and rewarding journey that is further corroborated and tied together by each character's respective theme.
One thing that's immediately noticeable is the similarity in instrumentation--saw and sine synths ("chiptunes"), strings, and tambourine. But of course there's more than just that. Above I've notated what I've called the Royal Ostinato, the low repeating figure that starts off the track 014. Heartache.
Now, let's listen to Asgore's fight theme:
Royal Ostinato at 0:34:
The reappearance of the Royal Ostinato is obvious---which made me appreciate it not coming in immediately, which would have "given away" the musical relationship too quickly. The differences between the two Ostinatos is interesting because it comes almost entirely from the 6/8 vs 4/4 time signatures. For me, the use of the same Ostinato pattern in a different time signature really highlighted the rhythmic difference between the two tracks.
There are some other neat things about 077. ASGORE that are worth pointing out:
ASGORE Theme at 0:00:
matches rhythm of:
The melody that starts off 077. ASGORE is of course based off the theme in preceding track 076. Bergentrückung (which, by the way, means "King of the Mountain" in German). It also has the exact same rhythmic profile as the Undertale Theme, which is a cool callback to the beginning of the game from the very end.
Undyne's Theme at 2:29:
Because it's at the end of the track, it's easily overlooked, but there's an appearance of Undyne's Theme---perhaps highlighting the student-teacher relationship?
But perhaps the coolest thing is what happens during the piano interlude in 077. ASGORE:
??? at 1:49:
Where have we heard this before? Does this sound familiar?
Determination Theme at 0:00:
That's right---it's the track that plays when you get the Game Over screen. But this isn't just a random callback or reference---it's deliberate. Because if you hadn't realized it yet, the voice that tells you not to give up at the Game Over screen is none other than Asgore himself!
While there are certainly other character leitmotifs that we could look at, at this point the remaining character-motifs are relatively self-contained or an obvious "remix" of an existing track. I want to list them nevertheless, but I will go into less detail for these:
Sans Motif at 0:00:
063. It's Raining Somewhere Else
Sans Motif at 0:20:
063. It's Raining Somewhere Else takes the mischievous, blues-y Sans Motif and transforms it into a melancholy ballad. Though the actual note intervals are quite different, the similarities in contour and rhythm are unmistakably Sans.
016. Nyeh Heh Heh! / 024. Bonetrousle
Papyrus Motif at 0:06:
Like Alphys, Papyrus' Theme perfectly represents his character. The exaggerated ups and downs of the motif (the highest and lowest notes of the melody are almost 2 octaves apart!) are a great musical analogue of Papyrus' over-the-top personality.
The two brothers' themes can both be found in the track that never actually gets any playtime in the game: 072. Song That Might Play When You Fight Sans:
072. Song That Might Play When You Fight Sans
Sans Motif at 0:00 (sped up):
Papyrus Motif at 0:42:
The Miniboss Trio (Napstablook, Dummy, Muffet)
010. Ghost Fight
Miniboss Motif at 0:17:
Miniboss Motif at 0:23:
059. Spider Dance
Miniboss Motif at 0:00:
While the Napstablook and Dummy fight themes are almost identical, the Muffet battle theme can get overlooked since it's not exactly the same melody---nevertheless, the big, recognizable features are all here (highlighted in red).
The Battle Theme, Dogsong, and Temmies
009. Enemy Approaching
Battle Motif at 0:10:
A boss fight where the boss is a cute puppy? Why not just take the Battle Theme and change everything to a major key relationship?
021. Dogsong / 044. Tem Shop
Battle Motif at 0:00:
043. Temmie Village
Battle Motif at 0:11:
Last fun thing to note---did you notice that all the female characters have some sort of triple meter for their motifs (Toriel, Alphys, and Undyne are all in 3/4 or 6/8), while all the male characters are in common time (4/4)?
The Endgame: Tying Up All the Motifs
The Endgame (which I'm defining as everything after the Long Elevator) takes all the different motifs you've heard throughout the game and wraps them all together in various ways, using their recognition as ways to get the player to recall certain memories or emotions associated with those leitmotifs, or to imbue additional meaning to a moment or situation.
New Home and Compassion
Easily one of the most memorable moments of Undertale is walking into what you think is Asgore's scary final boss castle, and finding yourself in New Home. Considering Home and New Home are the only areas of the game that feature the yellow color palette and the guitar instrumented background track, the callback to Home is unmistakable. However, there is one difference, which, depending on your past activities in the game, may or may not be apparent.
For those who figured out to shelter the statue in Waterfall with the umbrella, and took the time to figure out the tune to play on the piano puzzle, the guitar melody should immediately jump out to you:
For me, the act of sheltering another with an umbrella is the quintessential act of compassion---so let's call this the Compassion Theme.
It's the recognition of the Compassion Theme that makes walking through New Home such a rich experience. I love that the game makes a point to get this particular melody in your head, have it disappear for pretty much the rest of the game, before it finally comes back at this pivotal moment. At 0:37 in 071. Undertale, it all becomes clear---the Compassion Theme and the Undertale Theme were always meant to sing together, and that this is the final, truly complete version of the Undertale Theme---with Compassion. It's a perfect accompaniment to the moment in the game itself: our first exposure to the Undertale Theme at the game opening gave us a simple, black and white story about the conflict of Humans and Monsters. Here, in New Home, we finally hear the true story. It's an incredibly powerful sequence, mirrored perfectly by the set up of musical themes and associations that came before it.
Regret and Redemption
081. An Ending
This track plays during the epilogue of the Neutral Ending. It's immediately recognizable as a simply slowed down version of the Ruins theme. To me, this seems to be encouraging players to go back--to revisit the Ruins for a second go (to get the Pacifist Ending). The way the rest of the track plays out at 1:01, using a variation of the Ruins motif (above), sounds almost melodramatic, reinforcing the fact that you did not get the "right" ending and encouraging the player to try again. Let's call this the Regret Theme.
086. Don't Give Up
Regret Theme at 0:00:
The theme presented above in 081. An Ending appears again here, but this time during the Pacifist Ending, when all the monsters are being trapped by Flowey. This time, the tempo is driving forward, giving a feeling that even though the situation looks bad, there is indeed hope this time around. For someone who has gotten the Neutral Ending first and recognizes this melody, it's a reminder of what they've avoided this time around, and an encouragement to continue forward.
The Final Boss
087. Hopes and Dreams
Undertale Theme at 0:00:
"Happy" Flowey Motif at 1:19:
Cheerful Theme Bridge at 2:15:
The first phase of the Asriel battle takes the Undertale Theme and gives it its grandest treatment yet---with full strings, electric guitar, and drums backing. The Undertale Theme makes up most of the song, but we are reminded of who we're fighting at 1:19 as the "Happy" Flowey Motif comes in. What's surprising is what happens at 2:15---we get the Cheerful Theme, a theme we've only heard reserved for friendly encounters. It's foreshadowing how this encounter ends!
088. Burn in Despair!
"Evil" Flowey Motif at 0:00:
Then comes the 2nd phase of the battle---Asriel reveals his "full" power, and as he toys with us, we get the "Evil" Flowey Motif, again with the full heavy-rock instrumentation.
089. SAVE the World
Undertale Theme at 0:00:
"Happy" Flowey Motif at 0:04:
The final phase of the battle starts when you begin saving the Lost Souls---and we get this track, which thematically is a mirror of the 1st phase, just accelerated in terms of how quickly we hear each motif. (If you don't pay attention, the "Happy" Flowey Motif will just slip by at 0:04.)
The inclusion of the Cheerful Theme Bridge is not JUST for foreshadowing either---I think that looking at these three motifs and their order in particular actually represents the whole 3-part structure of the entire Asriel battle.
090. His Theme
Compassion Theme at 0:00:
The Compassion Theme returns in this track, once you've defeated Asriel. In this scene, through a series of stills, we finally see him coming to terms with his feelings. In this final conversation with Asriel he actually says, "However, with everyone's souls inside me...I not only have my own compassion back...But I can feel every other monster's as well."
091. Final Power
Asriel releases the souls of all the Monsters and sets them free, undoing all the evil he's done---and the track we hear is the last bit of 089. SAVE the World, literally played in reverse.
Everything Comes Together
095. Bring It In, Guys!
It's the home stretch! Thanks for reading, I hope you delighted in listening through all these tracks and linking all the motifs as much as I did. The credits track pulls no punches---we get pretty much every motif in here. Since I'm sure by now you're an expert at recognizing them, I'm sure you'll have no trouble catching them all!
Battle Motif at 0:14:
Papyrus Motif at 0:35:
Cheerful Theme at 0:54:
Cheerful Theme Bridge at 1:17:
Undyne's Theme at 1:30:
Ruins Motif at 1:48:
Mettaton Ostinato at 2:15:
Hotland Melody 2 at 2:44:
Hotland Melody 1A at 3:08:
ASGORE Theme at 3:27:
Undertale Theme at 3:47:
I hope you enjoyed this in-depth look at the soundtrack of UNDERTALE. Again, if you have questions, comments, things you loved, things you disagreed with, or future topics...please let me know in the comments below---I do read them!
*Thank you to @fontiago and "Ellie" for pointing out that I had erroneously notated "Run!" in 5/4 with triplets. This is now fixed.