I'll be completely honest. I have never enjoyed the Undertale Handplates AU. I've tried to, but every time I read it, I left feeling like I would vomit. And it's not because the content is upsetting, no-- it's more about how it's handled.
For context, I have grown up in an abusive environment. I have witnessed a loved one being physically abused. I, myself, have been emotionally abused for a long time. While this doesn't give me authority, it gives me context and a deeper understanding of how abuse can affect people. I've gone to therapy to handle these issues, so they no longer affect me the way it did before.
When Handplates AU was introduced, it was at first introduced through a single comic of Frisk discovering the plates on Sans and Papyrus's hands. Papyrus and Sans blush, expressing that they're very private. Papyrus tries to elaborate on why, but isn't able to recall. We, however, are able to see why through brief flashes, showcasing that they were artificially made and abused by Gaster, who is holding a drill. The drill implies physical abuse and torture, and we do get that later on. Unfortunately, though, the way it's used in the narrative feels... really exploitative on the reader.
I'll explain in detail later, but overall, I feel like Handplates uses abuse not as a narrative tool to explore these characters and how it affects them, but rather as a tool to provoke the readers and nothing more. I don't have an issue with redeeming abusive characters, either. Life has shown me that well-meaning people can be abusive. I was abusive to my friends, because I thought that was how you showed love. Abusive characters can be sympathetic, but the way it's handled is incredibly important. You do not want to erase the impact of their actions. However, Gaster is often treated by the comic as someone who had altruistic motives who just made the wrong move. The way his actions are framed makes it feel like his actions have no impact at all, despite the absurd amount of physical and emotional abuse we see displayed onto the brothers.
In the first few pages of the comic, we see Gaster emotionally distance himself from Sans and Papyrus. Despite his multiple comparisons of the brothers to children during their first stages of development, he intentionally strikes out any language that gives them agency. However, his goals are incredibly unclear. Not once is it explained why Gaster needs Sans and Papyrus alive. He even says in Try tapping the glass that without life, they're more like "calcified magical exhibitions." What makes his goals easier if the brothers were alive? What... ARE his goals?
We know that the brothers are linked to breaking the barrier. In You need to stop, Gaster's conversation with Asgore sheds some light on this. There, he even emphasises how he wants to prevent Asgore from ever killing another human child. However, we aren't sure on how. I first thought that the brothers were made as an attempt to artificially create human SOULs, but it's never stated where. Without any clear goals, it makes it really hard to sympathise with Gaster beyond isolating himself. It makes it harder for me to understand why he chose this path. What makes it even more frustrating is how in Bad choices, we're TOLD he has his reasons for his actions against the brothers. His motivation includes how his entire family and race were killed in the Monster-Human war, which fuels his tendency to isolate himself and refuse any outside help. However, that's as far as we ever get in terms of his reasons.
Reading the comic while Gaster is around is horrible for me. We only ever see the brothers be emotionally and physically tortured. There's only so far I'm able to take "the greater good" as a reason and suspend my belief. Also, upon re-reading Handplates, it hit me that in If I didn't know you, Gaster just is... casually ableist. Papyrus was previously given a Rubik's Cube as a reward for healing Sans from the brink of death and Sans in this page questions Gaster about it. Puzzle toys are often given to children with autism to help them enhance their motor skills. Papyrus is also implied to have strengths outside of whatever contraption or situation Gaster places him and Sans in. So, for Gaster to say, "2-P is an idiot," just gave me a huge double-take. For what it's worth, I don't think it was intentional and was more meant to signify Gaster being a jackass, but as I learned about my autism throughout the years and read this line with more context and information on autism in mind, it just absolutely stunned me in a weirdly hilarious way.
Handplates wants us to feel sympathetic towards Gaster. We constantly get glimpses of his past and how they frame his actions. He tends to isolate himself, as we've seen him push away Asgore and Alphys when they notice him rarely ever coming out of his lab. We also see his backstory, where his entire family was killed in the first Monster-Human war. These fueled his motivations to be self-sacrificial. He internalizes the result of the war and blames himself for not being able to do anything about it, despite being young at the time. He values Asgore deeply as well, as he helped Gaster back onto his feet. As mentioned before, you can have abusive characters be sympathetic without erasing their actions. However, the comic fails to do that for me. While his history contextualises his self-sabotaging behavior, it does not explain why he insists on abusing the brothers. It does not help inform us on his goal and how abusing the two will get him to it.
The comic only gets enjoyable after Gaster is erased from time. There, we see the brothers navigate the world and learn about themselves as Sans and Papyrus, not 1-S and 2-P. They're guided by Asgore at first, but move out on their own and live together. It's a genuine fun read, and I feel much more emotionally invested in the brothers as they investigate their own history. There's some parts that I don't personally jive with, but unlike the abuse sections and Gaster, it's something I genuienley don't mind.
And then Gaster comes back.
When I heard about Gaster coming back, dread filled my chest. As I read the pages, I hoped with all of my heart that Gaster's actions wouldn't be minimalized and removed of consequence. Gaster recognizes what he did was horrible and awful to the brothers. However, what pains me is to see Papyrus insist that Gaster comes back and live as a part of a family together. Gaster recognizes Papyrus's desire as something unhealthy, as he even says in Just LISTEN, "Family wouldn't do such awful things to each other." It would be one thing if Papyrus wanted Gaster to have a second chance at life and to do better. People who have abused can choose to become better people. Again, not all abusers intend to abuse. However, Gaster went in creating Sans and Papyrus intending to abusive them. He knew the consequences, and he went through with it. We don't even know his exact reasoning for why he chose to do that, either, which makes this part all the harder. It just feels like I'm watching an abuse victim get back into an abusive situation, and it makes me want to vomit. Gaster wants to do better, which is admirable, but... augh.
For context, I have had a someone emotionally abuse me for years. They never intended to, but they still did. We worked together to mend our relationship and address our personal issues. Now, our relationship is incredibly strong. They don't emotionally abuse me anymore, and I've opted to forgive them. It would be incredibly amazing to see this reflected in media. I know this is what Handplates aimed to try to have, but there's too many reasons to why this cannot work. Gaster has almost killed Sans. He caused Sans to be blind in his right eye. Not to mention, the physical and psychological torment he PURPOSELY put Sans and Papyrus through... It would be one thing if it wasn't purposeful, but it is. For Papyrus to be able to forgive Gaster for almost killing Sans, alongside emotionally and physically damaging the brothers constantly, and for it to be framed as Papyrus being good-hearted, absolutely kills me in a bad way. This just feels like the romanticization of abuse. It frames intentional abuse as something that can and should be forgiven. Maybe it can be forgiven for some, but for something like this, it... it really hurts to read. His conversations with Alphys draw a parallel between making horrible mistakes and choices and being forgiven for them through her favorite anime. While the parallel is nice, at the same time, the idea of forgiving someone who, again, intentionally abused the brothers, sickens me.
It hurts even more as we see the consequences of Gaster being brought back. Due to being erased from time, only Sans, Papyrus and obviously Gaster remember what happened. Gaster's abuse on the brothers is intentionally hidden from Asgore, someone he has a very close relationship with. And it's shown that the brothers's nightmares about their past gets worse now that Gaster is back. They're reliving their abuse in their sleep. And, yet, the comic still frames it as a good idea that the brothers try to live as a family with Gaster. It... actually makes me sick. At one point, Papyrus asks Gaster about removing the plates on their hands, but upon Gaster merely HOLDING his hand, Papyrus recoils and shakes in fear. This strikes deeply with me as someone with PTSD. Both brothers demonstrate symptoms of PTSD, with various situations making them instinctually recoil in fear.
At the time of writing this, the latest page is I'm being totally objective, where Sans advises to Gaster that he shouldn't tell Asgore what he did to them or it would emotionally break him. Gaster says it doesn't sound right, which is nice to hear, but with the way abuse has been treated in this comic, I don't exactly expect Gaster to tell the truth. Even if he did, I expect Asgore to be written to forgive such horrible, intentional abuse.
Despite my opinions on Handplates, I don't hate anyone for liking it. I cannot like it or look at it however without feeling like the comic handles abuse horribly and utilizes it to make its readers feel bad instead of using it to explore its characters.