Undertale: is Sans a Nihilist?

About time I got to something Undertale-related.

So yeah.  Undertale was an absolutely fantastic game.  Despite a fandom that, for many people, over-hyped the game to the point of absurdity, there was pretty good reason for it all.  Between the hugely innovative gameplay, the unique story, great chara- you’ve heard this all before.  And of course, even if you HAVEN’T played the game, you must know about Sans.  That one smiling skeleton that’s literally everywhere?  Get dunked on?  Of course.

What you don’t know, is that Sans is linked with a Nihilistic view on life, and despite being one of the most relaxed, fun characters in the game, is lowkey a badass suffering through an exis- oh.  You’ve heard this already too?  Damn.

Well then.  Guess I gotta do a new take on this.  Everyone loves to throw around the idea that Sans the skeleton is a Nihilist, but I thought, is he really now?  Philosophy is such a touchy, crazy subject after all.  So I did some research, and came to an interesting conclusion.  If I may have a few minutes of your time, I’d like to give you a little briefing on philosophy, and how Sans, really, doesn’t seem to be a Nihilist.

This goes without saying, but there will be spoilers for Undertale spread throughout, but at this point, does anyone who’d be reading this NOT know about Undertale?  Regardless.  Let’s get some philosophy up in here!

What’s the Score?

We have Sans, perpetual slacker, cryptic, mysterious figure, and secret badass, who has become infamous in the Undertale fandom for hiding his extreme intelligence, his casual judgement of the player, and  having, bar none, the toughest boss battle in the game.  Throughout said boss battle, as per Undertale standard, he has different lines of dialogue throughout the fight that explain more about his character, and what the player learns is extremely, extremely interesting to say the least.

Sans is aware of the player’s resets: perhaps not having full memory of them, but he is at least perceptive enough to tell exactly how many times you’ve died (up till eleven at least).  He has knowledge of some sort of quantum physics, enough to know of differing timelines, and how it affects the entire underground.  More importantly – at least for our current purposes – we learn that this is the reason why Sans is so laid-back, despite the hope that monsters have to escape the Underground.

It doesn’t matter whether they escape or not.  And from this series of interactions, people theorized and concluded that Sans had a Nihilistic view of the world: that is to say, he had concluded that life inherently had no meaning, and nothing mattered, due to the thought that everything would be reset someday anyways.

That’s the score.  But now, we’re going to get into just why Sans might not have a Nihilistic philosophy.

What’re We Dealing With?

We’re going to take a look at some straight up philosophy, starting with just what Nihilism is, since I’m sure you’ve heard the term thrown around everywhere, but really, just what is it?

To define Nihilism, one only needs to look back on the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who popularized this specific view.  From the Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology, I quote: “‘Every belief, every considering something-true,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘is necessarily false because there is simply no true world.’ ”  Essentially, all values are baseless in the end, existence itself is denied as having meaning, and any attempt to ask “why” would result in failure.

Now this sounds familiar doesn’t it?  No true world?  Nothing mattering anymore?  Yeah, sounds exactly like Sans.  So, it’s understandable that many would believe that Sans is a Nihilist.  However.

Nihilism is just one of three views that philosophers have held, concerning the inherent meaningless of existence.  The second then, is Existentialism, which holds that humans are in charge of their own meaning, that life, despite having no meaning, is given it by humans that choose to create one through knowledge, reason, and free will.  Obviously now, this does not seem to relate to Sans in any way, shape, or form, but is perhaps a thought that many people may appreciate.  Now, what we’re looking for in considering Sans is not Existentialism, but Absurdism.

The idea, pioneered by one Albert Camus, is that in life, there are two things that are important in regard to meaning: “the Absurd”, a fundamental lack of meaning, in spite of our desire for meaning, and  “Revolt,” a desire to defy the Absurd, an assertion that human nature exists and should continue existing, acknowledging that it doesn’t seem to make sense.  In his own words:

I‘m filled with a desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither.” 

An odd idea for sure, but I believe this is what Sans exemplifies more than anything in the end – a desire to keep living despite apparent meaninglessness.

Nihilism or Absurdism?

So essentially, the difference between Absurdism and Nihilism is rather simple.  The view on the universe as having no meaning is the same, but the way the two philosophies treat life is drastically different.  When looking at the behaviors a Nihilist would exhibit compared to an Absurdist, you might notice something rather interesting.  Quoted directly from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.”

This sounds a lot like a certain genocidal savage in the game, doesn’t it?  Perhaps it doesn’t fit absolutely perfectly, but considering Chara’s knowledge of resets, Flowey’s treatment of the Undertale world as a game, it’s reasonable to presume that Chara’s desire to destroy is taking Nihilism to its ultimate conclusion.

To contrast this, an Absurdist could only live in defiance of what is considered meaningless- fighting tooth and nail for the sake of living, if not anything else.  Such an act aligns much more with the behavior of Sans, wouldn’t you say?  Caught up in the meaninglessness of ever trying, yet when it comes down to it, he’ll do all he can to prevent the destruction of it all.  Perhaps he gave up a long time ago, but that doesn’t stop him from appreciating the basics of life, it seems.  Perpetual jokester, slacker, able to acknowledge the value of friendship, I believe that if Sans was really a Nihilist, he wouldn’t be the way he is portrayed in the game.

Again, both philosophies treat existence as meaningless, but it’s what someone decides to do with that conclusion- living on in spite of it, believing that there is meaning that you can create yourself, or simply accepting the pointlessness of it all- that’s what differentiates these philosophies.  Ultimately, that is also what separates characters like Sans, Frisk, Chara, and Flowey from each other.  They all share knowledge of resets, and react to it accordingly, creating their own philosophies as a result.

Basically.  Undertale’s a good game.  Good characters.  And Sans is an Absurdist, not a Nihilist!  Any thoughts?  Any ideas on what to write next?  Write a comment, I’d love to hear thoughts on this idea!




Published by Aaron C

Just a guy with a love for stories.

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