UNDERTALE: Second chances in morality
This piece was originally published on November 29th, 2016 as a 4 star review of Undertale, it has been transferred over to Medium unedited for preservation reasons.
There’s a slight anxiety that comes with hopping abroad a hype train long after it’s left the station. With an instant phenomenon like Undertale it feels like the entire world has already made up its mind for you, with any dissent from that opinion written off as “trolling” while simply concurring would be pointless. Within that context, it seems impossible the game could live up to its own promise, and if it doesn’t then well that’s your fault for not “getting it” bucko. So either you’re going to have a great time and be in danger of having an incredibly boring opinion, which isn’t a problem at all unless you’re some jerk on the internet who likes to pretend to write about games sometimes. Or you’ll end up not liking it at all and feel a little bit more detached from the rest of humanity.
What’s remarkable about Undertale is how easy it is to go through both those experiences. It’s instantly charming, but then appears to be too morally simplistic and mechanically contrived to be worthy of the praise it has received, only to reveal its true colours later on and validate itself. It truly is a game that you have to play at least twice to properly appreciate it, and whatever you feel about that statement is probably enough to tell you whether this particular hype train is for you. It’s a strange hill to die on though, especially with a relatively short game (approximately 4–6 hours, depending on what choices you make and scenes you skip) that’s designed around this. It’s fair to say that regardless of how much your first experience with any piece of art or entertainment affects you your first reading of a work is always going to be the least complete, and a videogame adapting itself on second playthrough to those willing to dig deeper is an unique and valid use of the medium.
Oh no! Those two paragraphs were a big bowl of nothing weren’t they! Perhaps it would be best to start from the beginning.
Undertale begins with an opening prologue visually reminiscent of 8-bit Nintendo games, with the colours and narration providing the vibe of a children’s storybook or fairy tale. The game briefly explains the backstory of a war between humans and monsters, with the humans victorious and the monsters trapped underground on the other side of a magical barrier. You play a human child who has fallen into the land of the monsters, with the only hope of escape to find a way through the barrier. From there the game takes on the form of a traditional JRPG, with Earthbound being the obvious main influence, and you walk from room to room meeting characters, experiencing mini events, fighting bosses and occasionally getting interrupted by random encounters.
The main hook of the game is that you can “talk to the monsters”, by which it means you don’t actually have to fight anything. Every single enemy, bosses included, can be spared through the solution of a puzzle and unlocking Undertale’s “true” ending requires you to clear the entire game without killing anyone (as well as some other conditions). The game establishes two binary routes immediately, the first two characters you meet are Flowey, a sadistic flower who tells you this world is “kill or be killed”, and Toriel, a goat-like monster woman who wants to protect you and encourages you not to hurt anybody. There’s a third “neutral” route, which there’s many slight variations of, to take if the player fails to meet all the requirements for the “pacifist” or “genocide*” route, but it’s clear Undertale is encouraging you not to hurt anyone on your playthrough…but is also giving you the option to not do that so you can find out what that feels like.
*(Note: the term “genocide” route was apparently initially coined by a livestreamer making Holocaust jokes, so from now on it will instead be referred to as the “Bad Time” route.)
The message Undertale is most interested in promoting regardless of how you choose to play the game is the importance of empathy. Enemy monsters are portrayed as either cute or having a bad day and never as anything worthy of destruction, boss monsters are only fought after you’ve hung out with them for a section of the game and understand their motivation for fighting you before the battle even begins. No-one is supposed or deserves to die; you’re meant to feel bad when you kill them, and you’re meant to like them enough that befriending them is a greater prize than crushing their skulls for the sweet experience points. Although it’s important to note that this is not merely a case of choosing “kill” or “mercy”, in order to spare monsters you have to solve the puzzle of finding a way to make them unwilling to fight you any more. This is not always immediately obvious, but that won’t stop the game making you feel bad for doing it “wrong”. This is the part where Undertale loses some people.
For most of the basic enemies it’s simple enough, a random encounter will throw the game into the battle screen and the monster will say “don’t pick on me!” with the solution being to go to the “Act” menu (next to the “FIGHT” button) and choose the option “don’t pick on”. It’s a cute joke and an easy key to a lock once you’ve figured out that’s how you calm down that particular monster. Later on the game might pair that monster up with another kind to make their Touhou bullet hell style attacks more challenging to avoid, but generally speaking combat against regular enemies is simple and breezy. It’s the bosses that throw a lot of people off, in most of the major battles in the game the “Act” menu becomes almost useless, merely offering an option to talk to the monster with little or no effect on the fight.
The game’s early litmus test for the player is the Toriel fight, who acts as the first boss. She is attempting to protect the protagonist by sealing off the only exit from the first area of the game, thereby preventing them from continuing their journey and getting killed by the stronger monsters later on. The protagonist resists, which causes Toriel to challenge them to a fight and demanding they “show her that they’re strong enough to survive.” The first variable of this fight is how the player interprets the word “strong” within the context of everything they’ve been told up to this point. The second is figuring out how to execute the result you want; fighting Toriel is extremely simple as you bash her again and again until she’s dead like any basic JRPG battle, but the solution required for showing mercy is much more unorthodox. In all the basic fights leading up to this sparing enemies required a simple key to lock where the game informs you that an enemy is ready to be spared via changing the colour of the text to yellow, then choosing the “Spare” option exactly once ends the battle with that monster. In Toriel’s fight the text colour does not change, and the only solution is to hit the “Spare” option approximately two dozen times until her conscience overwhelms her and she decides to let you go on ahead peacefully.
Some consider this to be deceitful on Undertale’s part; after all it spends the majority of the tutorial being very wholesome and sweet as your new goat guardian leads you through the ruins by the hand while lecturing you on the merits of showing mercy. Then in the first major encounter of the game it dangles the peaceful option seemingly out of reach with a counter-productive solution, and regardless of how the Toriel fight goes the next screen is Flowey commenting on the outcome of the battle, so on their first run a lot of players would have experienced killing Toriel and getting called a huge jerk for it. It does come off as a little manipulative.
On the one hand, it can be argued that attempting to “Spare” Toriel a handful of times and then opting to immediately kill her as soon as that doesn’t work shows a lack of commitment to the pacifist sentiment and works as a commentary on the nature of violence in game design in its own right. In a real life dispute would you just beat someone to a bloody pulp the second your attempt to calmly defuse the situation failed? On the other hand, Undertale is a videogame, and videogames are a medium heavily reliant on abstraction, so directly applying real world logic to them is often not helpful. Regardless of how “””immersive””” a game may try to be, everyone playing them understands them to be a collection of rules, variables and solutions. So for a problem like the Toriel boss fight the thought process might go something like this:
- “what do I want to do here?”
- “what can I do here?”
- “what does the designer want me to do here?”
- “what is the designer allowing me to do here?”
Depending on how much the player paid attention to some of the subtle hints from the tutorial before the Toriel fight, it’s likely they may conclude that “Spare” in this scenario doesn’t do anything and may opt to attack Toriel instead in the hope that this would cause something event to trigger. Maybe they’d think that it’s like capturing a Pokémon and weakening her would somehow unlock the ability to show mercy, in which case that player would probably end up recoiling in horror as the final blow causes significantly greater damage and finishes her off much sooner than expected. It feels like a trick, and you’re left there thinking was this supposed to happen? Was the stuff about being able to save everyone a lie? Was there actually any choice to be made here? There’s no way to tell on your first playthrough without looking it up. Going by anecdotal evidence (including my own) it seems like the majority of players do end up killing Toriel on their first playthrough whether they want to or not. There’s a scene much later in the game where one of the protagonist’s closest allies Sans tells a story about talking to a woman on the other side of a door who asked him to watch over any humans who would come through, it’s immediately obvious that the woman he’s referring to is Toriel and this scene is a much more effective gut puncher when she’s dead by your hands. With all this in mind, the player killing Toriel on their first run appears to be Undertale’s creator TobyFox’s intention…or at least hope.
This raises some questions about what Undertale is attempting to achieve and the method of which it goes about it. If the game is attempting to say that killing or hurting people is wrong because empathy should be a major lens on how you view the world then essentially tricking you into killing someone so you don’t want to do it again out of guilt feels a bit off message. And besides, where does the game get off judging you anyway? It’s difficult to conceptualise random battles in games in a way that isn’t monsters jumping out of bushes to glomp you for no real reason. The dozens of battles you’ll experience in a single run of Undertale are all instigated by the enemies and not you, yet the game is stressing that you shouldn’t kill anyone if you want a true happy ending. There’s a problem with how the violence is framed here within the game’s moral compass, because Undertale seems to suggest that the burden of pacifism is always on the oppressed and not the oppressor. Sadly, we all know that just because you’ve got your hands up that doesn’t mean they stop shooting.
On the path towards the game’s final boss, a bunch of random encounters will concur detailing a major part of Undertale’s backstory. It tells a tale of the monster royal family adopting a human child who fell into the underground and later died of an illness, which led to their monster brother consuming their soul and using it to pass through the barrier to return the body to the humans. The humans were terrified and assumed the monster had killed the child, so they attacked it and the monster refused to retaliate despite having the power to overwhelm all of them. The story ends with the monster walking away with a smile, and returning home to collapse dead in the palace. Undertale seems to present this refusal to retaliate or defend yourself as something inherently noble, and that it’s okay to be horrifically murdered as long as you’ve got the moral high ground. When you fall down this particular rabbit hole of thoughts, Undertale feels less like an earnest appeal for the value of empathy and more like…if you’ll forgive the terminology…hippie-dippy bullshit.
The requirements for achieving a True Pacifist or Bad Time ending are very specific, so most players going in raw will end up with one of the neutral endings on their first run. Here you’ll be forced to fight the monster king Asgore, and there’s no room for misinterpretation of what to do since the first thing he does is destroy the “Mercy” portion of your battle interface and the game makes it very clear the Act menu is not helpful here. After defeating him, the game will present you with the option to kill him or show mercy, the same option many were hoping for at the end of the Toriel battle but never got. No matter what you choose Flowey shows up and force crashes the game. You’ve failed to take control of the game this run, so now it’s Flowey’s, and a horrifying boss fight featuring more forced crashes and save file shenanigans dominates the Undertale program until Flowey is defeated. Once again, the game teases you with the previously absent binary choice between killing and showing mercy to Flowey. If you choose to save him, Flowey will look straight at you through the screen and tell you what you need to do to get the true happy ending.
Playing Undertale for the first time is a joyous experience, it’s bursting with charm and wonderful moments as well as some genuinely inventive mechanics and methods of storytelling. There was a lot to love about it, but after one session the messaging felt too messy and too manipulative. The lack of clarity regarding the boss battles and how the game’s variables worked came across as a deliberate trap; you’re supposed to feel bad about killing people, you’re supposed to kill characters so you miss scenes, you’re supposed to fall into Flowey’s trap at least once, and you’re supposed to go through it all over again. Is tricking the player into making wrong decisions and punishing them for those mistakes really an effective way to communicate empathy?
Well, much like a videogame review that proudly boasts a perfect 4 out of 4 star rating at the beginning then racks up a strong combo of negative paragraphs, Undertale has not yet finished making its case.
The morning after I finished my first playthrough of Undertale I was heading to my nearest town centre to get crushed (might have accidentally rubbed shoulders with someone once) at the Black Friday mega sales (I think I saw Knack 20% off somewhere).Twenty minutes before I had to leave to catch the first bus of the morning I realised my wonderful Samsung Galaxy Ace phone thought it would be funny to delete all my music so I would have nothing to listen to for the whole day. My fabulous, endlessly lovable and oh-so-wonderful Samsung Galaxy Ace doesn’t understand how to talk to my computer when there’s a USB cable attached to it, so I had to tip my room upside down looking for my Micro SD card reader. In the time this took the angle of the clock hands had jumped from acute to obtuse, so in a panic I threw the entirety of the Undertale soundtrack (even the Tem Shop) onto the phone’s SD card and ran for the bus.
Listening to that soundtrack that morning might have played a huge part in my change of opinion on the game. Every single track, with the exception of ones that play during scenes I missed on my initial playthrough, had some kind of memory attached. Undertale, despite my personal conflicts regarding it, was festering inside my brain in a way so few games do. Mettaton’s game show, meeting Sans, Papyrus’ puzzles, the sweaty knights, the dogs…so many DOGS, the mad dummy and so much more all came flooding back. I had a fun experience during my first time with Undertale but I wasn’t feeling the enthusiasm that’s followed the game everywhere since its release. Only after it was over did I realise that Undertale had already familiarised itself to me like it was an old friend.
A huge part of it is the soundtrack’s use of leitmotifs; which as a potential result of the composer being the same guy who wrote and directed the game might be the most effective use of them I’ve ever heard. A lot of tracks in the game are obvious variations and remixes of each other, but there’s countless examples of little melodies and chords appearing across multiple songs. It’s incredibly effective at conveying ideas, the music whispers connections between characters, themes and ideas through not only composition but choice of instruments and soundfonts at you in a way that fires directly into the core of your brain whether you realise it or not. And hey, most of it is pretty damn catchy music too.
It also helps that Undertale is superbly paced and designed too. Every screen of the game is notable in someway with very little dead weight, unlike a lot of its meatier JRPG cousins there’s no part where you call into a cave and fight rats and blobs for five hours to make your numbers big enough to not die at the next boss. Random encounters are limited and usually over and done with fast so they don’t distract from the space. Characters and jokes are distinct and memorable enough for your brain to process the layout of the environment as “oh, this is X where Y made a joke about Z, and if I go that way there’s screen A where B made a joke about C”. Later on in the game there’s some efficient fast travel which helps you process the geography of the underground as a whole. Combine all this with the fact most people play this game more than once as well as watch additional Let’s Plays, then the world and moments of Undertale become something of legend. It’s the kind of game where you can look up the tiniest change or variable on the Wiki and immediately understand what it’s referring to and why it matters. With all of this in mind it’s very unsurprising that the Undertale fandom has exploded like it has; it’s a game where everyone who has played it knows enough to talk about it, but there’s enough excessive detail for there to always be something new to discover.
If you’ve read the Titanfall 2 review on this very website you may remember a comment towards the end of the text that expressed despite its genuine greatness in a lot of aspects that game wasn’t nearly as endearing as it could have been because it didn’t have enough fun with its own fiction. This is a department where Undertale excels in a way that few other games can even compare to, and it’s difficult to describe without making a trite “they sure were having fun when they made this game!” observation. The characters and writing all burst with a personal touch, and every idea that TobyFox comes up with for a secret or new way to play around with form seems to serve as a platform for five new ideas to be built on top of that.
This isn’t only limited to the writing or structure of the game though, even the combat excels from a constant creative drive. At first, the 8-bit heart that you steer around inside a white box with the arrow keys as a representation of your soul to avoid enemy attacks appears to be the most visually and mechanically simple approach possible, but the game does everything you could probably think of with it. The box will grow, shrink and reshape for enemy attacks, you’ll be chased from the bottom of the box along a track, gravity will kick in and suddenly the box will turn into a platformer game with precision jumping, your heart will turn upside down as be able to show lasers like a spaceship, enemy attacks will fly out of the box and directly hit the monster’s sprite at the top of the screen, your cursor will become trapped inside the box and you have to drag the box itself over the buttons to finish the fight. It’s endlessly creative, and with the consistent language of steering the heart with the arrow keys combined with the constantly changing rules makes Undertale feel more alive without ever becoming incoherent. The attack patterns themselves may resemble something like Touhou, but the shortness of the attacks and the relative simplicity of the movements required to dodge each one make it feel more like a rhythm game than a bullet hell.
Sitting back on the bus, after wondering why I didn’t just think to bring my 3DS instead of going through all that hassle with the Micro SD card, I thought about how much I liked all the elements of Undertale individually and how I liked them all combined even more. I thought more about what Flowey said at the end of my first playthrough, he looked right at me and said clear as day to get the true ending I needed to get back to that point of the game without killing a single person. There was no mystery or lack of clarity any more, I know what I did wrong, the game has explicitly told me what to do and that it’s possible. I hadn’t “beaten” Undertale at all, there was unfinished business and I was going for that true pacifist ending as soon as I got home.
Undertale, unless you pull some shenanigans with your save files, remembers everything you do even after you reset your game. The differences between a neutral and true pacifist playthrough are fairly subtle but meaningful nonetheless. The game starts once again with Flowey, this time reminding you of your objective to not kill anyone instead of taunting you, and small changes in lines of dialogue and scenes later on give you nudges that the game is aware you’ve done all this before. After you reach the end of the game with no blood (or dust) on your hands and everyone you can hang out with has been befriended, this time the fight with Asgore doesn’t happen at all and all the major characters show up at the barrier instead. With everyone gathered together, Flowey shows up again and captures everyone, and reveals himself to be Asriel…the monster who collapsed dead from the story told to you in the hallway earlier. After he transforms into his true form, you defeat him in a spectacular and borderline perfect climatic boss fight and he reverts back to a child, destroys the barrier and the game gives you the option to forgive him for everything he’s done.
After that fight Undertale gives you the option to explore the entire world again to say goodbye to everyone you met along the way and find out what they plan to do now the barrier’s open and they’re free from the underground. Travelling all the way back to the first screen of the game you’ll find Asriel taking care of the golden flowers that the protagonist originally fell onto when they arrived. After a long speech, Asriel tells you that there’s “a lot of Floweys out there” and “not everything can be resolved by just being nice” before offering a reversal of his Flowey form’s original philosophy “Don’t kill, and don’t be killed, alright?”
That’s when it all clicked! It’s understandable why some people might be frustrated with how the game presents its choices, or the supposed dishonesty of the design for causing you to make choices you didn’t necessarily want to, but it doesn’t matter because the game isn’t interested in judging you for specific decisions you make. Undertale never called you a jerk for killing Toriel, Flowey called you a jerk, because he’s an asshole who views his power over the game differently, and the reason you felt bad about it is because you didn’t really want to do it.
The only time Undertale explicitly judges you is the meeting with Sans shortly before the ending of the game. If you’ve killed enemies at any point in the game, you can reload a save and talk to him, causing him to make some comment about the amount of experience points you’ve earned up to this point (the game defines EXP as “execution points” and LV as short for LOVE “Level Of ViolencE”). The more you’ve killed the more disapproving he becomes, but most of his dialogue contains either some acknowledgement it wasn’t entirely your fault or an appeal for you to do better. If you haven’t killed anyone Sans will praise you, and say that even if all your actions weren’t perfect, you kept a certain tenderness in your heart throughout. And honestly, that’s all the game cares about, this isn’t a Telltale game trying to make you feel anxious about every decision, Undertale just asks you to approach the world with the best of intentions.
When you first start Undertale, you’re playing a human child who’s fallen into a world of monsters, and it’s ambiguous how Undertale works both as a world and a game. With that in mind, most players are going to make mistakes on their first playthrough and feel frustrated about that. But after the initial confrontation with Flowey on the neutral route, you understand that Undertale’s existence as a game means it fully embraces the ability to save and start over as part of its inner workings. On that second playthrough the context for the same series of events has changed, because now you’re armed with the knowledge that you can change things and the ability to do it. After that first playthrough, you’ve overtaken Flowey in terms of your power over the game’s world, and now it’s up to you to decide what to do with it and how that’s going to make you feel.
Contrary to some initial impressions (including my own) from the first run that assumed Undertale is only interested in presenting a morally over-simplistic endorsement of unbroken pacifism, the game is instead arguing that genuine good faith intentions combined with the ability and willingness to take action is the answer to creating a better world. It’s fitting that a lot of people who don’t like Undertale refused to play it more than once, because Undertale doesn’t really like them either. There’s a happy ending clearly in view that anyone can grab, but you’ve got to want it, you can’t magically fix everyone’s lives just by showing up and going through the motions. Whether you want to kill everyone or spare everyone, getting the result you want all comes back to that one word; Determination. The story and true pacifist route of Undertale is merely taking advantage of videogame form to present an idealistic fantasy of a perfect ending, which the game openly admits may be too idealistic to be applied to the real world with Asriel’s final speech, but the appeals for empathy and action remain effective nonetheless.
In this regard Undertale might be a bigger achievement for the medium than we realised; between its rapidly expanding fandom, storytelling and use of the form it could be argued its the world’s first true original interactive fairy tale.
After completing a true pacifist route, launching the game again will cause Asriel to reappear as Flowey and beg the player to leave the world well alone. Everyone’s out of the underground and happy on the surface, and resetting the game will cause them to be ripped from their timeline and sent back to the beginning. It’s astonishing how effective this plea is; no-one feels guilty about restarting a book or rewatching a movie, but the idea that these you interacted with are all living happily in this save file that you have to ability to destroy is strangely unnerving.
That plea actually worked on me, since despite writing 6,000 words trying to articulate why this game is good is still not something I entirely understand. It pushed me to make my mind up that I was going to watch a Let’s Play of the Bad Time route instead of playing it for myself.
Watching that Let’s Play is what cemented this as a four star review.
Playing the Bad Time route before getting any other ending permanently affects your save and corrupts the true pacifist ending. There’s a curiosity in doing that, but it definitely seems that the Bad Time route predominately exists as a “What if?” scenario for those who have already cleared the game “normally”. You can kill dozens of enemies in Undertale and still get a neutral ending, but to achieve Bad Time you have to kill literally everything. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting it accidentally, you have to pace back and forth for tens of minutes in a game that isn’t typically that battle heavy, grinding enemies that appear less frequently as their numbers reduce until the random encounter prompt takes you a blank battle screen with the words “But nobody came” written in a slightly smaller font than usual.
It’s genuinely horrifying watching it happen too, cute scenes and jokes are completely ruined or omitted, the protagonist refuses to play along with anyone’s shenanigans, most of the puzzles in the game are automatically solved. Bosses who you enjoyed befriending before are horrified and disgusted by you, several of them even make reference to feeling like you could have been friends and there’s hope for you. After you make it to Snowdin town almost all of the characters are missing, they’ve all fled from you, and the previously easily identifiable space is replaced with lots of interchangeable emptiness. The wonderful music slows down to the point of being barely recognisable, as if killing everyone is draining Undertale itself of life and causing irreversible damage.
Upon reaching the final hallway, where you previously heard the story of Asriel’s death, instead since all the monsters are dead Flowey shows up and tells you about how he once was nice to everyone and used his ability to save the load his progress in Undertale to change the timelines, exhausting every scenario of befriending and killing everyone. During this speech, he makes reference to “sickos that stand around and WATCH it happen” and claims that he “bets some of those people are watching right now”. Basically, the primary antagonist of the game directly called out anyone watching a Let’s Play of this route and implied they were even worse than the people actually doing it.
It’s a remarkable line, because the assumptions and thought processes TobyFox must have gone through to include show an amazing confidence in the project. That line not only shows an impressive understanding of player mentality and how LP culture works, but that he knew a lot of people would be too attached to his characters to want to perform the Bad Time run themselves. It bookends the message of the pacifist run perfectly; just as positive action informed by good intentions are the way forward, negative action (or standing around and watching it) performed just for the sake of it or “to see what happens” is Undertale’s definition of evil. There’s also key story elements and lore that can only be uncovered in the Bad Time route, including the truth about the first human who died and their true nature, but it’s so unpleasant and removed from the personality of everything else you’re almost better off not knowing. Undertale seems to say “work towards your happy ending then leave it be!”
Again, completing the Bad Time route permanently affects your save data making a perfect happy ending impossible, once you’ve seen how it turns out you’ve unleashed an evil in the world that can’t be reversed. This shows at least some nuance in Undertale’s mortality, on failed neutral runs and restarts the game will remind you of your past failures but ultimately forgive you for them if you’re willing to work towards a worthy goal. But if you allow your power as the player to become corrupted, and you use your Determination deliberately as a weapon against others in a manner devoid of empathy, then you commit a crime the game cannot entirely forgive. No matter what our reason was for making them, there are some mistakes that we can never take back.
Undertale is not a perfect videogame. Many have noted that the decision to incorporate bullet hell elements into the battle system, as well designed as they are, adds a layer of difficulty and inaccessibility to the game that prevents it from being the great ambassador for the medium as a whole that it otherwise could have been. And just to be a jerk about the story for a hot minute; the game is almost too chummy for its own good at times, areas like Snowdin Town are so pleasant you don’t get a strong sense of the monsters suffering underground which makes it less meaningless when they finally break the barrier to the surface. On that note, it’s not something worth dwelling on but it’s a bit weird that the monsters assume a happy and peaceful arrangement on the surface with the humans when they’re the ones who forced them underground in the first place. Okay, there’s a throwaway line of dialogue regarding the protagonist being an ambassador to smooth it over, apparently they go sort it out with the President of Earth who then orders everyone else to be cool with it.
Whatever, perfection in art is impossible and is therefore not a requirement for a perfect score. It’s hard not to appreciate Undertale, and it’s even harder to not want a hundred more games like it every year. Undertale comes from a bizarre potpourri of influence from Earthbound, retro games, doujin bullet hell games and ROM hacking, it’s the kind of game that only a unique voice with a specific vision could give us. Undertale is not only exciting because of its own accomplishments, but for the wave of personal games that are going to come in the coming years directly influenced by it. It’s got plenty to say about empathy, the medium it exists in and the people who play it, and even if you’re not willing to play along to fully digest all of it, it’s still a gosh darn wonderful little thing in its own right.
If nothing else, I can relish in the comfort that the internet was actually right about something for once.
– Matthew Leslie (@Lesmocon)
EDIT: November 30th, 2016
Normally whenever I write something of this length my brain cools down on the topic and I can get back to sleep, Undertale is one of hooks I can’t quite escape from yet. So here’s a couple of extra thoughts on the Bad Time run and Undertale’s “binary” morality.
With the exception of the usually nonviable “flee” option, there’s only two “win” states for any given battle in Undertale; either you kill the enemy or find a peaceful way to end the fight (there’s often multiple methods of achieving both these states). Since the mechanics of the game allow you to choose between these two of options, there’s a temptation to compare Undertale to something like Bioshock and argue the game is presenting you a binary choice between two opposing moralities as it sits and awaits your decision before proceeding the following events. This argument assumes that Undertale neutrally presents the choices as equally valuable, watching you with a good ending in one hand and a bad ending in other depending on what you decide to do, which is not accurate.
In a lot of narrative driven games where choices are provided there’s an attempt to make the player pause for thought in what they want (or often don’t want) to happen. The choices are often not supposed to be easy, since the pressure put on you to make a decision that will (at least seemingly) affect the narrative forces you to engage with the fiction in a way that doesn’t happen in non-interactive mediums. Telltale games aim to provide the player with dilemmas where either choice seems equally viable with the same potential to go wrong, it’s “challenging” in a way that has nothing to do with mastering mechanics or skill. Their games log the decisions every player makes, if you’re playing the game while connected to the internet you can see statistics of what choices other players made, and Telltale seem to consider any decision that wasn’t close to 50–50 a failure. It’s a game of mental chess, you’re supposed to consider what you want to happen, what could happen, and what the designers want you to want to happen and be wary of how they’ll subvert that. It’s deliberately stressful in a way that a certain type of person will find captivating.
Undertale has no interest in any of that though. There may be two main paths to follow in the game, but that doesn’t mean Undertale is neutral is presenting those paths. Fighting enemies is less interesting than solving puzzles, killing them quickly prevents you from experiencing some of the funniest moments in the game, grinding enemies to complete the Bad Time route is incredibly tedious and the end of the path is blocked off by the infamous Sans boss fight which is going to be basically impossible for most players to get past. Undertale is begging you not to kill people, with completing the Bad Time run does irreversible damage to the game and strips you of the ability to achieve the happy ending. The Bad Time ending leads to a scene where the world of Undertale is destroyed and the program ceases to function, only by staring at a black screen for 10 minutes can you discover an option to reset the game. There is no moral ambiguity here, nothing to choose, Undertale does not acknowledge murder as a legitimate “choice”, it just doesn’t remove the ability to do it. The only reason to play or watch the Bad Time route is morbid curiosity, and these horrible actions that are performed for no real reason (or — lack of empathy) don’t only lead to negative “consequences”, they literally cause the entire world to stop functioning.
There’s a clear distinction here which must be considered when assessing Undertale’s morality; the game is not interested in you making a choice. It’s not about judgement of your actions or tricking you into feeling guilty; the game makes it crystal clear what it wants from you, what’s right and what you should strive for. It tells you there’s a happy ending but you have to work for it, sometimes that involves resisting temptation or doing things the hard way, and the game has confidence this is what you’ll do because you’ll care enough about everyone to want it. There is no reward for the Bad Time route, unless you consider extra content a reward, which Undertale certainly does not. You gain the levels and experience you would cherish from other JRPGs, but it means nothing when there’s no joy in encounters any more. Some boss battles triple in difficulty putting you at even more of a disadvantage than you were when you were playing nice, other bosses reveal brand new forms and promise epic encounters only to be anticlimactically slaughtered in a single hit. You got the empowerment you craved, what you usually expect from these games, and in the end all it did was take from you as well as everyone around you. You should have left it alone, all this path gives you is emptiness and stress.
It’s fine to judge Undertale as morally simplistic, but it’s not fine to assume that it doesn’t have genuine conscience and thought behind its message. It knows what it wants, it argues for what it values and it is very effective at communicating that message to the millions of people who have been able to connect with this game.