The new smash hit Undertale is an RPG which adds the ability to befriend nearly every foe you encounter instead of killing them (though you can do that too). As such, it politely inserts itself into the discussion on violence present in video game systems by design. The player’s choices to slay or save certain enemies lead to one of three general story routes:
- Pacifist, in which you might attack, but do not eliminate, any monsters, and instead discover their unique triggers to non-violently end the battle. You also need to complete the various friendship/dating segments with the boss characters.
- Neutral, the catchall route if you don’t go to either extreme.
- Genocide, in which you eliminate every common enemy in the first area until a new message is triggered, and continue doing so in every new area.
Y’all know me! I will take the option to turn an otherwise non-horror game into a spook fest any time it is given! I was eager to explore this infamous third option, which would likely convert an otherwise comedic and fluffy game into something refreshingly uncanny. Perhaps because I am such an indie horror fan, I found the Genocide route to be the most profound, engaging, and well executed part of my Undertale experience, which clocked in at about 32 hours total.
What surprised me, then, was the unwillingness of most other players, who consider themselves fans of the game, to experience this content first-hand — content which, I would argue, is story-crucial, even for players who don’t like horror.
Update 2020: How many people played the Genocide route?
Update in 2020: When I first wrote this blog post in 2015 (holy crap! 5 years ago?!), my assumption that “most” players did not attempt the Genocide route was based purely on anecdotal evidence. Interestingly, however, in February of 2016, the Undertale Wiki ran a poll on this very question. Though this population may not be representative of all Undertale players, with 41502 players reporting, it may well be our best data.1. For your consideration, here are the results!
Based on the data collected as of this time of writing (March 2020), we can pull together a few stats and observations:
- The number of self-reporting Undertale players who have not played this route, or have not played it yet, is about 60%.
- If we instead divide the results to include players intending to try it in our “Genocide players” category, the results are very close to an even split, with 49.9% outright refusing to play the route. While technically a minority, this is still nearly half of the playerbase!
- “I have attempted the route” is an interesting category. Players in this category did not select the more specific option, “I am on the route or stuck on it.” Undertale allows for a single save file. If they are not presently “on the route or stuck on it,” we can conclude therefore that they have either deleted this file in favor of another route or altogether abandoned the game. This may be because they found the route too difficult (boss battles) or tedious (having to prompt 20-40 increasingly rare enemy encounters for each area). However, this category may also include those who attempted the route but found it too emotionally disturbing or distasteful. Props for open-mindedness, though.
It is very strange that a significant number of Undertale players refuses to examine about a third of the game’s content, especially at times when these players espouse their aproach as the superior and ethical way of playing the game. Genocide players are the moral scapegoats so that Pacifist players can view the content without the baggage of having participated in it!
Death in gaming is usually commonplace, and not just in explicitly violent titles like Call of Duty and this “Pong” thing I keep hearing so much about. Even most Nintendo protagonists send their enemies to the void. When Undertale gives us the chance to circumvent this behavior, are those who try Genocide anyway morally reprehensible? Did Toby Fox intend for only those few players to go through the Genocide route, or was it meant as an integral part of the complete Undertale experience? Are Pacifist players truly blameless by comparison?
To those feeling terrible about their Genocide run, to Undertale fans who believe only horrible people would try this route, and to parts of the game itself that attempt to lay down guilt, I humbly submit my reasons as to why you’re not really a monster for doing the Genocide run:
1. Undertale is not a murder simulator
To get the obvious out of the way, it’s interesting the extent to which this aspect of Undertale has figured into the “ethics of playing a game” conversation. We have the technology to make simulation of unpleasant activities much more evocative of real life — infamous cases like GTA V’s torture scene, Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission, and games like RapeLay put the relative unreality of Undertale’s Genocide route in a humbling context.
Contrast violence in 3D first-person games, then, to the abstract violence of lo-fi RPGs, where magic and surrealism are more commonplace. Enemies dissolve bloodlessly when defeated, their wounds are depicted by a number on a bar which can often be raised again by similarly abstract mechanics, and the actual means of inflicting harm are through magical weapons and abilities for which we have no real-life analogue.
This is especially true for Undertale, in which even the Genocide battles are represented by your character’s soul (a heart shape) dodging whatever unique and lovely shapes your enemies summon with their minds(?). Enemies become recyclable dust upon defeat. And what is this weird attack canoe even supposed to be?
Beyond the battles’ tangible outcomes, their relation even to physical reality is thus unclear. Some characters, like Undyne, have weapons, but most of them don’t. When you enter a battle, the background scenery is replaced by a black screen, so… do these battles take place in a shared imaginary space? To my knowledge, it’s never really stated, and is instead left to the creative liberties of fan comic artists everywhere.
Because of the abstract way in which it is depicted, killing in Undertale is much lower an emotional hurdle than, for example, cutting off your finger in Heavy Rain. I think it’s a bad faith argument, then, to suggest that Genocide players engage with this content because they are callous towards, or even enjoy, committing acts of violence2, given the abstract and fantastic means through which this violence is carried out.
Furthermore, Undertale is not really a game about battles for their own sake. In a Genocide run, most of them are a repetitive chore which paves the way to interesting experiences and story content. Even in cases where Genocide bosses have elaborate movesets, these are as much an instrument of gameplay as they are a tool for demonstrating a character’s depth and the strength of their convictions, rather than simply to make the process of violence fun and exciting.
2. Frisk is not you, especially not after the first playthrough
In 2010 Brazilian psychologist Nicolau Chaud made an RPG Maker game called Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer. This was intended as an admittedly clumsy critique of rpgmaker.net’s review system and, by extension, the arbitrary devaluation of creative efforts to a rating on a five-star scale.
(Don’t close the tab, I’m going somewhere with this.)
You play as Verge, an amateur member of an international community of torture artists known as the Dungeoneers. Members design elaborate trap layouts and film their victims’ attempts at escape for others to watch. The ideal dungeon leaves its victims alive, but with irreparable psychological damage — the “beautiful escape.” Dungeon layouts are planned via tower defense system, but first a victim must be lured via dating sim — which is easily the most horrifying part of the game.
Verge observes his targets in public. Then, based on what he’s gathered about their interests, worries, strengths and fears, he strikes up a conversation with them. In order to successfully win their trust, you have to tell them exactly what they want to hear. If they’re interested in football, you must also be. If they’re worried about something you agree is horrible, you reassure them instead. Basically, you construct a pretend personality for each person you encounter, based around what you think they want the most. Yknow… kind of like in most dating games.
Never before had it occurred to me, as someone who enjoys and has since continued to enjoy character-based games, the anti-social paradox of how you are supposed to relate to them. The mechanics for trust-building are actually less “fantasy scenario” than I had imagined and more just “operations of a sociopath.”
At their surface, a game’s dialogue choices appear to simulate real life trust-building through mutually sharing information and experiences. When viewed as determinants of the game’s ultimate vector, however, these choices, at their most realistic, number on a spectrum of rightness to wrongness, based on their scripted effect on the relationship. They become an instrument through which the player’s desired outcome is achieved.
The most organic playstyle, which I would argue is the most true to real life, and thus representative of the player’s personality, is the one in which all story-affecting choices are made without any definite knowledge of their scripted outcome. They are choices made based on what most reflects a player’s views, needs, and the information available to them at the time. In terms of communicating with virtual characters, we might call these motivations “micro-intentions,” small-scale conversational goals like answering a question, making someone feel better, hiding the truth, venting about a problem.
However, in many games, especially dating sims and, I would argue, Undertale, a micro-intention-based playstyle leads to a muddied and often undesirable conclusion — a regular or normal ending or, in Undertale, one of the 85-or-so permutations of the Neutral ending. Thus in gaming we must rely on “macro-intentions,” the need to achieve a certain pre-determined outcome or ending. At this point, we no longer make decisions based on what would be most logical or preferable to us in the same situation, but based on how we believe it will impact the final outcome, as determined by the game’s writer.
As much as we can argue someone is still “themselves,” even through a limited mode of expression, in their first blind run-through, the timeline-agnostic information they take with them into second playthroughs and beyond loans their interactions an omniscient quality absent from real life (unless some of you are time travelers). I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that most people, on repeated playthroughs, will make novel choices based on the feedback they received in their first run. If their natural instinct was to choose the A option, the next time, they may unnaturally choose B, because they want to see what happens, not because it is what they would most want to do in a similar real life situation.
In games like Undertale, where the requirements for Genocide and Pacifist runs are shockingly stringent, they may even choose B because they learned that A was the “wrong” choice for their desired ending. The playthrough becomes less about the process and more about the result. The Pacifist route, by design, counts on the player reaching a Neutral ending first, and thus gathering information on “rightness” and “wrongness” of certain choices in terms of how they contribute to achieving the desired ending. Each of these routes, therefore, is almost guaranteed to be informed by macro-intentions.
Even so, is choosing “get the Genocide ending” as a macro-intention evidence that someone is a bad person? I would argue not. What separates the people who complete a Genocide run, people who watch a Genocide run, and people who refuse to engage with it in any way whatsoever, is the way their curiosity for new content negotiates with their perceived relation to the game’s characters and/or their obligation to abide by moral standards in a simulated and inconsequential universe. It is not “how much the person is okay with murder.”
Completing a Genocide run is Undertale’s strongest version of making a deliberate change to one’s most probable in-game behavior because they are curious about the outcome. Most players find this sort of deliberate change acceptable at smaller levels (like choosing dialogue choice B over A because a character might say something funny), so what varies among the groups of players previously described where their line of “consequences of seeking new content” exceeds that of “desire to see new content first-hand.”
I bring up Verge’s MO earlier because it highlights the way our game choices are often means to an end rather than forms of self-expression like clothes on an avatar. In most cases, we construct a fake personality for benevolent purposes in these sorts of games. But the version of us we construct to date and befriend monster characters is no more accurate a picture of our true selves than the version we construct to perform a Genocide run.
Thus, I would argue, despite the implications of the game’s meta-narrative, Frisk/Chara is not your sole, personal representative in the Undertale universe, whose actions represent your irrevocable standing with its characters. Instead Frisk is more like the railcar on which you are able to cruise through, broadly speaking, three potential versions of the Undertale story.
3. RPGs about battling require violence by definition
Genocide route is granted and maintained as an “all or nothing” affair by some pretty broad true/false flags — e.g., “did you kill all the enemies in Hotland?” It is not a rating measured on a sliding scale based on the amount of damage caused. The text’s thematic objection to players doing a Genocide run is, apparently, not based on the amount of suffering inflicted on is characters, but to their presumptions, broadly, that monsters are just fodder to boost their stats. No wonder Disgaea takes place in Hell!
The steps to begin a Genocide run are only something that could be accidentally done by someone grinding. Does the typical RPG player then have an ingrained disregard for life, in favor of their own selfish goals? Not necessarily. In most RPGs grinding is not done simply for the satisfaction of raising numbers (see idle games for that), but as a means of preparing to face a powerful enemy by rivaling their stats. Undertale’s use of a bullet hell/platformer/rhythm game-based battle system renders such stat preparation unnecessary, as it’s possible in most cases to avoid taking any damage. Traditionally, however, sufficient attack and defense stats are not just helpful but necessary in order to progress in an RPG.
So why grind anyway in Undertale if it’s not required? For one thing, grinding still yields the benefit of increased HP, meaning more durability to getting hit if you struggle with enemy bullet patterns. More importantly, however, beginning a game that suggests in its marketing that players befriend all the encountered monsters — and ignore the set of features related to an obvious and constant Fight button — is like being told not to think of an elephant. Some people are just going to try pushing the game’s proverbial buttons.
Undertale has resisted the traditional RPG format from its earliest development. “If you think about it basically all monsters in RPGs like Final Fantasy are the same, save for the graphics,” explains Toby in an interview. “They attack you, you heal, you attack them, they die. There’s no meaning to that.”
He rides this thought train to its logical conclusion…
“I wanted to make an RPG game where you could befriend all of the bosses. Where not killing everything is actually a viable option. If you think about it, most RPGs are endless murder-fests… how many monsters do you kill? And to what end? Everything sort of naturally arose from that concept.”
Toby Fox, in an interview with Sean Hogan
However, the treatment of RPGs as “endless murder-fests” is based on the assumption that:
- the monsters killed are sentient, or more human than animal
- that they can be negotiated with
- that they are non-life-threatening.
Very often sparing the enemy is implausible not for love of violence but because the food chain cannot be placated and, more to the point, neither can the forces of evil. See also: any hostile overworld enemy.
In order to model the ideal “pacifist RPG,” Undertale takes a few liberties, humanizing the enemies and ensuring no pacifist boss is an actual threat, and thus making possible the luxury of ethics.
When there is an actual threat, here’s what happens:
And even with all its creative liberties, Undertale is still unable to attain the pacifist gold standard. When Asgore and Omega Flowey attempt to thwart your quasi-immortality by taking your soul, and thus appear as a genuine threat, the merciful veneer temporarily vanishes. Now that the enemy truly intends to kill you and there is no where to run, Frisk (and perhaps the player) are, for the first time, genuinely frightened for their own safety. Sparing your previous foes was only possible because they could do you no harm. While Asgore lacks the power to distort your save file, it’s only after the use of violence — lowering his health to zero, with the intention to kill or cause significant harm — that Frisk can again choose Mercy, this time with the pieced-together remains of the button Asgore originally destroyed.
Sure, being morally sound was cool when it was convenient, but when it takes significant effort to choose the “pacifist” route or even to realize that is a choice, most players will choose the next best option. For the true RPG pacifist, the only way to win here is not to play because, and I hate to say this, doing everything to someone short of murdering them does not count as pacifism…
The fact that these battles must disrupt the pacifist pattern, both by disabling the mercy option and by suspending the logic that bringnig an opponent’s HP to zero will kill them, is an allowance that at some point a non-violent battle-based3 RPG doesn’t work. If Asgore can’t canonically defeat you, why not write an alternate diplomatic solution where you peacefully discuss the future of the Underground? Because it’s the final battle, and that would be stupid and boring and come at a sacrifice to the story? “Now you’re getting it!” says every other RPG!
The need to beat a minimum two characters — Flowey and Asgore — within an inch of their life, with no alternative options, in order to reach the Pacifist ending reveals the flaw of assigning the RPG a charged term like “murder-fest,” and the lack of consideration for having done this reveals the fallacy in certain players’ assumptions of possessing some moral superiority. Getting the Pacifist ending is like scoring 100 on a quiz where the “right” answers are, objectively, wrong.
4. All the timelines happened anyway
The Pacifist ending ambiguously reveals the innocent First Child, who brought so much hope to monster-kind, was actually abrasive, misanthropic, and possibly suicidal. This is mostly glossed over, however, in favor of a very crowd-pleasing epilogue, and only in the Genocide route is their real fate, a crucial piece of the Undertale plot, revealed.
Undertale plot summary
The player is asked to name someone called the “fallen child.” A human falls into a mountain and must make their way across the land to the only Underground exit, the Barrier, and by extension to confront the king of monsters, Asgore, who needs just one more human soul to gain the godlike powers needed to break it. Though they are challenged by many different monsters on their journey, the child chooses not to fight in self-defense, and ultimately ends up making many friends. A talking flower, named Flowey, mocks the human for this, claiming that in the Underground, it’s survival of the fittest.
After a long journey, the child meets Asgore, but finds the King will not accept mercy, instead opting for a fight to the death. Despite the child’s peaceful intentions, Asgore is finished off by Flowey, who steals the six human souls and ascends to power. The as the child cries out for help, and the souls of past human travelers come to their aid and rebel against Flowey, leading to his demise.
The timelines resets (either by starting a new file or loading from a Pacifist-eligible save). The child enacts the same journey as before, but further befriends the royal scientist, Alphys, who eventually flees a the hidden part of her laboratory, riddled with guilt. There, through a series of log files, the human learns of her secret experiment to imbue first monsters, and then plants, with a power called Determination, traditionally only found in humans. Determination allows the soul to resist death (represented by saving and loading files). Her experiments resulted in the creation of many fused together, undead Amalgamates, which the child must escape from. The human child then visits Asgore for another confrontation, but this time they are interrupted by Asgore’s estranged wife, Toriel. All of the child’s new-found friends emerge and resolve to work together to escape the Undergrund. Flowey appears and uses this opportunity to sap all the monsters’ souls at once, becoming even more powerful than before.
As it turns out, Flowey was formerly a flower from the field where the late monster prince, Asriel, died and turned to dust. Once this flower was given Determination by Alphys, he rose again with some of Asriel’s personality and memories, but lacking a soul — empathy for other beings. The child uses the power of hope and dreams to reclaim the stolen spirits of his friends, and with their encouragement, reaches out with compassion to at last save Asriel, who surrenders. Asriel knows that the human, whose name is revealed to be Frisk, also has Determination naturally, and reveals he intended to keep hurting people so the player would continue to save them in pursuit of a “happy ending,” and they would thus be together forever. He uses the power of everyone’s souls to break the Barrier and set the denizens of the Underground free, relishing the little time he has left with the ability to love, before all the souls revert to their rightful owners. The cast, save Asriel/Flowey, leaves for a new life on the surface. Maybe.
But there is something interesting to consider. Regardless of the nature of the player’s first run, Sans is very much prepared to scrutinize the fallen child, even going so far as to reveal that the only reason he didn’t initially kill them on sight was because of a promise he made to Toriel. But why? Maybe it’s because they’re all supposed to be capturing humans for Asgore’s plan, but not only is Sans incredibly lazy, he also knows Papyrus really wants to meet, and then capture, a human. There would be no reason to be so thoroughly committed to executing the fallen child under those circumstances alone. Outside of the final Pacifist battle, there is only one circumstance dire enough to make Sans give an effort: the destruction of the Undertale universe that happens at the end of the Genocide route.
Accounting for the anomaly
As the Pacifist playthrough somewhat reveals, saving and loading are but ancillary functions of a game file — the representation of one timeline in the Undertale universe. Despite the fact you can only have one file at a time, Undertale considers all your runs to be canon simultaneously. If you get to one ending and reset, everyone goes back to where they started, but the player retains memories of their experience and the data of their time-meddling apparently exists to be recorded.
Likely Sans, Alphys, and W.D. Gaster have been conducting research on this very subject, explaining the science equipment and quantum physics book in Sans’s house. In his Genocide fight, he says, “our reports showed a massive anomaly in the timespace continuum. Timelines jumping left and right, stopping and starting, until suddenly, everything ends.”
I would argue it was this report that motivated him to want to kill the next human to appear, knowing their Determination powers likely were the source of the anomaly. Because he made a promise to Toriel, however, he instead tries to merely steer you away from a path of violence, with varying degrees of success. Harm to his individual friends is not significant enough to inspire his actions, because he knows the timeline will reset and undo their deaths anyway. For this reason he keeps his promise even when you kill Papyrus, and only breaks it once it’s clear he is the last line of defense against the destruction of the world.
Erasing the Undertale universe isn’t actually permanent, though there’s no way Sans et al. would know this. You can ask Chara to recreate it — for the price of a human soul.
If the player does a Pacifist run after this point, most elements will remain the same until the epilogue, in which it is revealed that Chara is still with us, and still intends to kill everyone, perhaps permanently — the “Soulless Pacifist” ending.
This is the end of the player’s window of interactivity. Whatever power we have to impact the Undertale timeline does not extend before or after this timeframe. Because this ending marks Chara’s return to the physical world, this time with unprecedented power, the implications of this ending can only be guessed.
But because Sans is wary of the player before they meet him for the first time, we can likely surmise that the data of timeline jumping and ultimate destruction exists regardless of your ultimate actions in the game.
Furthermore, some fans argue that if one ending were to be the true ending, it would be that of the Pacifist route where everybody has a good time. This is the best “happy ending” Flowey can provide, it features an Earthbound-style epilogue world, and — the most often argued point — it contains an extended credits sequence listing the game’s Kickstarter backers. The Neutral and Genocide endings by themselves lack this credits sequence, suggesting they are designed to funnel into the Pacifist route.
However, if we accept this logic, then the Soulless Pacifist ending is “true” by the exact same criteria, except that this version requires having experienced all the game’s essental content.
Did Toby just slaughter all his Undertale characters for good? Even Burgerpants!? Probably. RIP in pants…
My issue with Undertale as the model RPG of moral excellence is the implication of the consumer — and not the author — as a perpetrator of undue suffering. But, if the player made “bad” choices, it’s because the developer provided them. It was not the player who first conceived an option to kill everyone in the Underground and then fleshed it out, beautifully. Games are a two-way means of telling stories. The player is deliberately divorced from the persona which embodies their “good” actions (Frisk) and united with the persona depicting their capacity for “evil” (Chara). The author gets to be a samoyed.
While the spare/kill mechanic is clearly meant to inspire conversation on the nature of violence in gaming, the decision to introduce self-awareness to a game, the storytelling medium most centered on user-interactivity, and involve the consumer’s world as a canonical extension of its own, is but a creative exercise. Using it to suggest that we owe consideration to the moral consequences of playing games would first require one to wage war against the very concept of storytelling, in all its forms.
For your further reading and amusement:
- The Christian Broadcasting Network (November 2015) discusses how to keep your kids away from demonic imagery such as Sans
- PopMatters (December 2010) talks player guilt in Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer
- Someone else started a Steam thread on this subject (2016)
- Toby Fox made the thematic choice not to include achievements until they were required for the game’s PS4 release, and the ones that were retroactively added for this reason are purposefully perfunctory. We therefore can’t get an idea of how players performed based on some sort of “kill everyone” marker.
- That is not to say no one did this route because they very passionately hate all the characters of Undertale. If this is you, however, I have no defense lined up in your favor, and you’ll just have to duke it out with your fellow Undertale fans on Amino.
- For the record, you could certainly make use of RPG mechanics to depict actions that aren’t physical battle, as Last Word (2015) does with verbal debates.