Earlier this year, my kids and I settled down to play Undertale. They sat at my desk, mostly not arguing over the decisions of Mango, their playable protagonist, with me cuddled up behind them on my cozy chair, offering advice here and there.

Not long into their journey, they met Toriel. After saving Mango from the deceptively evil Flowey, Toriel served as their guide through the Ruins.

Toriel walks, hand in hand with the protagonist. Undertale, Toby Fox, 2015

Toriel is a sweet creature, though she’s not adverse to showing some tough love when needed. She is kind and loving and eager to share her delight in bad puns. It’s not surprising that the kids quickly started referring to her as “mom.” Which got rather confusing for me.

“Mom!” my kids would yell at the screen.

“What??” I would yell back.

“Not you, mom! Toriel mom!”

This went on for some time, with their chatter ranging through all sorts of emotions as they directed the word “mom” at a pixelized goat creature, pausing only to demand that their real mom make them lunch.

Imagine my surprise when, several steps into the game, the girls discovered that, in order for them to continue further, they would have to fight Toriel herself.

The girls were surprised too, of course, though they initially took it in stride. They had fought several creatures by now and knew that there were several ways to get through a battle, including many options that did not result in the death of the opponent.

But momuhToriel was not going to make it that simple. She used her Paw Sweep, Fire Waves, and Fire Helix with deadly efficiency, taking Mango down to but a sliver of life. All the while, the girls were trying everything to avoid actually combatting her, but nothing worked. And worse, when they had little life left, Toriel’s Faltering attacks were purposefully avoiding their SOUL, Mango’s precious life essence. Clearly, she didn’t want to kill them any more than they wanted to kill her, but they could not figure out a way around this.

Undertale (Toby Fox, September 15, 2015)

We know that children learn nothing from mercy rounds. For children to learn and grow into resilient adults, they must experience the agony of defeat first hand, preferably from the people who love them most. Obviously, Toriel does not understand this important parenting concept. And so, after almost 15 minutes of fighting Toriel and finding no alternative, the girls gave in and killed her.

It was a painful experience. My elder daughter found it too heartbreaking to continue on for the time being. The younger shed actual tears and I held her tight and explained that this is what makes for good storytelling. Good writers will let their audience fall in love with such characters and, with heavy hearts, will allow those characters to be hurt or even die, no matter how much the audience might want otherwise.

With this lesson in hand, I could have alleviated their mourning by showing them that there was actually a way to exit the battle without killing Toriel. I could have shown them what I so easily Googled. But I decided instead to let them figure this out on their own.

And so, therein lay my next parenting lesson. A teachable moment in which I allowed my children to teach themselves.

Or maybe… suck it, Toriel. There’s only room for one mom around here.


Read the rest of the Gamer Mom series.