I can’t believe Undertale has been out for a full year! But it must be so; Toby Fox said it and I definitely remember getting my brain simultaneously busted wide open starting the game design program at the same time as my first play-though.
Spoilers for all routes of the game beneath the jump!
When I bought Undertale, I was excited to play something where killing and violence weren’t the only ways to progress in the game. It’s been a on-going frustration of mine to do quests or events needed to progress, particularly in games with player-created playable characters, that run counter to my personal ethics or the ethics of the character I’m playing. I decided to go blind into Undertale and play the way I felt was best.
That lasted until the first “boss”, that I killed by accident and thus, began carving out the section of my heart marked “Trauma – Undertale – mommy issues” (filed nearby: Trauma – Undertale – sentient AI – body dysmophia” Trauma – accidental harm – that time I broke my sister’s arm). I reset everything, double checked my instinct on how to not kill my newfound surrogate mom, and proceed in the game. I’d also never played a bullet-hell style game before, so the learning curve was steep on some of the fights. These walls, as someone who plays a wide variety of games and yet remains criminally untalented at them, I expected. What I didn’t expect was the depth of the interactions I had with the game.
It’s not just that the story itself is emotional – which it is – but also the ways in which the game breaks the fourth-wall, addressing the player regularly (“It’s me, [character name]”), messing with players expectations right from the tutorial, and eventually, wresting control from the player altogether to quit the game, corrupt save files, and general wreak havoc on your sanity and emotions. My interaction with Undertale didn’t stop when I closed the game (or the game closed on me); rather, the game lingered in my mind long after it was over. Undertale had presented me with a form of player-game integration that had nothing to do with augmented reality, or virtual reality, yet felt just as real as either. What were the characters doing outside the boundary of the game narrative? How were they dealing with the trauma or friendship the player may have bestowed? What was happening in other versions of the game?
The last one, I could at least find out – I thought. This time, I mercilessly slaughtered everything that came across my path, lingering in areas until I had wiped out every possible monster, and only the empty wind whistling through the space where the soundtrack had been was left. The game makes the killing solution gallingly easy, which plagued me throughout my abortive attempt to finish – after all, don’t we fall back on violence too easily? In games, and probably in real life? Most of the monsters you kill still encourage you to be the kind person they think you’re capable of being, which really hurt (Trauma – Undertale – feelings – self-loathing). Eventually you come up against a boss that is nearly impossible to beat without hours of effort, compared to the 2-5 hours the rest of the game takes. And when it’s over, you’ve changed the game world so irrevocably, you can never go back to the clean slate.
What makes the integration of morality & gameplay so deft in Undertale is that the explicit judgment for taking one path or another is never there. Characters of course criticize you for being too soft if a pacifist, or for killing someone they really cared about, if not – but others don’t notice, don’t react, or don’t care. One minor character says they’ve “lived too long to be afraid of something like you”. The character that eggs you into the murder spree cries for mercy at the end. It’s all over the map, and that’s very real, and therefore, terrifying. Where the judgment does come into play is the game itself is changed forever – if you play as a merciless killer first, you’ve forever tainted any attempts at pacifism by the echoes of your actions. If you play a pacifist run, you’re begged to never play the game again, and let the characters live out their best lives without your interference. It changes a person, and it changes how they interact with other games as a result.
Did you play Undertale? What type of playthrough did you do? How did it make you feel about the ways you play other games?