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  • 7 Nudges & Manipulative Techniques Present In Undertale

    - Mattia Podini
  • In order to successfully engage the audience and deliver the desired aesthetics, games take advantage of specific processes peculiar to the human mind. Influencing the player means keeping control, and the degree of this condition is ultimately decided by designers.

    Part of the success of the indie RPG Undertale resides in its skillful control of in-game mechanisms and information. The aim of this article is to present 7 cognitive biases and psychological effects, providing game examples observable inside Toby Fox's most successful videogame.

    1. Norm of Reciprocity


    People tend to return positive treatments and ignore or repay with hostility negative ones.

    This social norm states that we pay back what we received from others, creating a network of obligation. Reciprocity is universal, and stand at the very roots of human society. The social pressure created by this effect can also lead to an unbalanced interaction between the parts: an initial favor can be followed by an action with a bigger positive effect. Moreover the urge to reciprocate decreases over time.

    There are three main types of reciprocity:

    • General reciprocity, with limited expectation of a future reward.
    • Positive reciprocity, balanced or unbalanced (between the parts).
    • Negative reciprocity, balanced or unbalanced (between the parts).


    In the opening segment of Undertale the player can experience this nudge:

    • Flowey presents himself as a positive guide with useful tips and friendly intentions.
    • Within a minute from his first appearance on-screen he reveals his murderous intent.
    • This encounter solidifies the image of Flowey as an insidious antagonist in the mind of the player.

    The game as a whole subverts the norm of reciprocity with its pacifist ending, and can be seen as a critique of the law of retaliation.

    2. Hawthorne Effect


    Individuals tend to modify their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.

    Observing or judging human subjects can alter their actions due to the attention they are receiving. The extent of this alteration is linked to the feedbacks received from the observer: explicit intents can lead to a stronger alteration of a subject's behavior.

    Three other main factors can arise concurrently with this effect:

    • Demand characteristics. Displaying clues of the expected behavior can increase the likelihood of it happening.
    • Novelty effects. Be under experiment can lead to an initial increase in performance.
    • Performance feedback. Increased attention from the observer results in increased performance feedback.


    After leaving the Ruins the player is observed by a mysterious presence, which will turn out to be Sans the skeleton. Two elements are used to trigger the desired effect:

    • Sound effects and eerie music.
    • Repetition of the trees, both in background and in foreground.

    Characters that break the fourth wall, such as Flowey and Sans, can also modify the behavior of the users, judging their actions.

    3. Apophenia


    Human tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things.

    It can also be described as "unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness". Apophenia refers to our inclination to see patterns and meaning in random information. This bias can arise from various inputs, especially from complex topics and vague data.

    There are four subcategories of apophenia:

    • Pareidolia. Seeing visual patterns in random visual information.
    • Gambler's fallacy. Perceiving meaning in random numbers.
    • Clustering Illusion. Looking at large amounts of data, people tend to see patterns in it.
    • Confirmation bias. Testing a hypothesis under the assumption that it's true.


    W.D. Gaster and the legends created around his figure are a perfect example of this bias:

    • The only certain information is that he was the predecessor of Alphys, responsible for creating the Core inside the Hotland.
    • There are three NPCs, that can only be seen during certain runs, whose dialogues contain hypothesis about his disappearance.
    • He doesn't have an officially known form, the community tend to believe that this sprite (found in the game files) represents Gaster. Looking at the sprite upside down can trigger the pareidolia effect: the pattern on his body can be perceived as a second face.
    • He's commonly associated with Sans and Papyrus due to his name and aspect.


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