‘In 2010 Brazilian psychologist Nicolau Chaud made an RPG Maker game called Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer. This was intended as an admittedly clumsy critique of RMN’s game-critique system and, by extension, the meaningless devaluation of creative efforts to a rating on a five-star scale. 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 suffering through them en route to escape. The highest standard of design is that which leaves victims alive but with irreparable psychological damage. Dungeon layouts are planned via tower defense, but first a victim must be lured via dating sim — which is easily the most horrifying part of the game.
Never before had it occurred to me, as someone who enjoys and has since continued to enjoy character-interaction-based games, the sociopathic paradox of soliciting trust and, by extension, friendship from video game characters. The finite nature of games as written stories limits our faculty of interaction to a simplified handful of meaningful choices which, at their most realistic, can be placed on a spectrum of rightness to wrongness, depending on their contribution to the progress of the relationship. How is it, then, that I could feel motivated by compassion and a real interest in these characters as sympathetic persons, and yet willingly manipulate them to reach my own goals without remorse? It’s easy enough to dismiss when these goals are benevolent, but suddenly I was using my dating sim powers for evil. This was not Verge doing scary torture things to virtual strangers, easily divorced from my own personality. This was Verge doing things I do in most other games, eagerly and willingly, to people I loved.
I reflected on this during my various runs of the new smash RPG hit Undertale, an indie title which politely situates itself at the fulcrum of a discussion on violence in video games. Undertale is fairly unique in its approach to typical RPG combat, adding the ability to befriend every boss and species of enemy while maintaining the option to instead carry out an ordinary battle. The player’s choices to slay or save certain enemies lead to one of three general story routes: Pacifist, Neutral, and Genocide.
Obviously I seek out endeavors in indie horror, so I was eager to explore this supposed “Genocide” option which would likely convert an otherwise comedic game into something refreshingly uncanny. So what surprised me, then, was the contrasting unwillingness by most other players — usually those who had done the Pacifist ending — to embark on this route in a game they claimed to love. That the vocal majority of players who own and enjoy Undertale refuses to examine about a third of its content as a matter of principle struck me as strange, especially when these players espouse such an approach as the superior and ethical manner of playing the game. They might criticize Genocide players for their cruelty while also using them as moral sacrifices so “good” players can watch recordings of the Genocide content, without the Genocide guilt.
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 in the minority who choose to kill regardless really morally reprehensible, compared to the many players who took this unique opportunity? Did Toby Fox intend for only those few players to use the Genocide route, or was it meant as a part of the complete Undertale experience? Are Pacifist players truly blameless?
Here’s why you’re not really a monster for doing the Genocide run…
It wasn’t really you
Determination is wrongly identified as the agent which drives some of us to cause great despair — but determination by definition does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it appears as the product of desire. In Undertale, the desire which formulates our determination in perpetuating the misery of these characters must not be, as the game suspects, a “perverted sentimentality,” but a profoundly human curiosity. A what if? itch.
Undertale subverts the reasonable expectation that its software is not an entity which figures into the narrative, and invokes the player as the causal agent of the events in the story, rather than a mere spectator engaging with the program, as a reader might turn pages. When the true nature of Undertale is first revealed to be thus, however, for some what follows is not a sense of duty to the denizens of its universe, but a desire to assess where the developer has creatively anticipated players might push the game’s proverbial (and literal???) buttons.
I killed for the same reason I (and many Pacifists) rooted around Papyrus’s mailbox. To see if something was there. And if there was something there, it would have been spaghetti catalogs, and every last one of us would have taken them. This is a federal offense in the U.S., and yet — who cares?
The test of Genocide is not simply a litmus of whether someone is a good person or a cruel person. That this route has Undertale’s two hardest bosses at the halfway point and the finale was no accident. Undertale resists Genocide and yet it is that resistance which makes our curiosity stronger because, we feel there must be something good at the end.
What separates the people who watch the Genocide run from the people who play it is a hierarchy of needs, and how the player’s curiosity negotiates with their obligation to abide by moral standards. Curiosity for what happens requires a lesser sacrifice than curiosity for how it feels to be the person causing these events. And unlike in real life, where for most the value of maintaining ethics is fairly rigid, in games our capacity to express ourselves as a unique human being is limited — thus our desire to explore all options can more easily take precedence over this fear of consequences.
If I manipulate Undertale’s characters to become friends with me, it’s not “me” towards which these characters feel such fondness, but the correct answers. It would never even occur to me to lie to Papyrus about his spaghetti, and yet when given the option I am too frightened to tell the truth. I murdered him twice but I never once said I didn’t eat his spaghetti. The player with Undertale’s best interests in mind does not play intending to represent themselves, but rather to select the expected responses that will elicit positive reactions — without guilt. If it is not I who befriended these people, then, by extension I reject the Genocider’s burden of sin because it is not I who killed them.
The truly “moral” decision, for me at least, is to abandon those traditional ethics in favor of an non-traditional story experience. Video games are a control environment that can safely simulate unreal and dangerous scenarios. I had never taken out a nation’s population with a pair of dance shoes and an apron until I played Undertale, but the resulting experience, while often not enjoyable per se, provides a sort of Aesop on issues like violence and betrayal not possible with mere counterfactual thinking. It’s easy to say you are not a murderer; more difficult is the contextual “why” until a note is addressed to you which says, “Please don’t hurt my family.”
RPGs and Pacifism Don’t Mix
Given the fact that a Genocide run is triggered by a binary — that is, did you meet certain body count quotas at each checkpoint — rather than on a sliding scale of morality (even the neutral endings are not affected by the number of generic monsters killed), it can likely be said that Undertale’s objection to Genociders is not on the basis of suffering caused (at least not physical suffering) but to the regard of others’ lives as a means to boost stats — “looks like free EXP.” 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 (though this is also fun) 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. Think of that elephant. Think of a thousand elephants.
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 1.) the monsters killed are sentient, or more human than animal, 2.) that they can be negotiated with and 3.) 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.
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. This is what happens when you choose that option on an actual threat:
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 (perhaps infinitely) 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.
How concerning. This suggests that Frisk indeed had the pieces and thus could have used the option at any time. They chose not to at this time because now it was an option that came with risks. 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 is not to play.
The ways these battles break the established pattern (both the disabled mercy option and the fact that bringing HP to zero will conveniently not quite kill your foes) seem to be the game’s acknowledgment that at some point a non-violent battle-based 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!” said 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 represents the flaw of assigning the RPG a charged term like “murder-fest,” and the lack of consideration for having done this shows the fallacy in certain players’ assumption of possessing some moral superiority. Getting the Pacifist ending is like scoring 100 on a quiz where the “right” answers are, objectively, wrong.
You already killed everyone 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, but gets little thematic use out of this in favor of ushering in a very crowd-pleasing epilogue. Only in Genocide is their fate, a crucial piece of the Undertale plot, revealed.
The real story of Undertale is extremely unsettling.
Superficially, 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 the Barrier. 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.
The human meets Asgore, but finds the King will not accept mercy, wishing to 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 child returns to the world before and further befriends the royal scientist, Alphys, who eventually flees to the hidden part of her laboratory, riddled with guilt. There through a series of logs the human learns of her secret experiment to imbue first monsters and then plants with a traditionally human power called Determination, which allows the soul to resist death (or save and load) Her dead test subjects fused together and were reanimated as the horrific “Amalgamates” as a result. The human visits Asgore for another confrontation, which is interrupted by his estranged wife, Toriel. All of the child’s new-found friends emerge and resolve to work together rather than fighting, but Flowey takes this opportunity to sap all the monsters’ souls at once and become even more powerful than before.
Flowey was formerly a flower from the golden field where the late monster prince, Asriel, died and turned to dust. Once this flower was given Determination by Alphys, he rose again with Asriel’s personality and memories, but lacking a soul — empathy for other beings. The child uses 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 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.
However, the save/load power are but ancillary functions of game files, which are actually separate timelines of the Undertale universe. To use Determination is to distort and manipulate these timelines. Simultaneously the player has killed everyone in the Underground and then destroyed it, and in many more timelines spared or killed endless combinations of characters. The erstwhile jovial skeleton Sans, possibly Alphys, and another scientist named W.D. Gaster are aware of the nature of time travel in this universe, and Sans tries endlessly in vain to wrest the player from their path of destruction. After he fails, the player goes on to meet the fallen child, Chara, who erases the world of Undertale. Afterwards the player wishes to create the world anew and try another timeline, which Chara agrees to — for the price of a human soul.
Even though most of reality — including characters’ memories — is reset when a file (or in-game timeline) begins a new, entities outside the game dimension, like the human soul or the player entity, suffer permanent consequences. The player attempts to lead the world once again to its happiest ending, believing all as well, but in the very final moments of the epilogue seen on the surface, we discover Chara does indeed retain possession of Frisk’s body by owning his soul, and with this agency intends to kill everyone, perhaps permanently.
This is the end of the player’s window of interactivity. Whatever power we had to view and interact with the world of Undertale is no longer. Because this marks Chara’s return to the physical world, this time with unprecedented power, the implications of this ending can only be guessed.
Did Toby just slaughter all his Undertale characters for good? Even Burgerpants!? Probably.
Chara is a very innovative kind of character and different from those that merely possess awareness of the fourth wall. Unlike the story which exists independent of our participation — let’s call it static — Chara, the implication seems to be, is reincarnated only conditionally, based on whether or not you play the game — dynamic. His role is to converse with the player, and it’s a role that’s only given rational context if a player exists to begin with. Sans threatens Frisk in every non-killer playthrough, claiming that, were it not for Toriel, Sans would have offed the player — the heroic, pacifist player — on first sight. Why?
He’s got reports of a time-space anomaly which claim eventually things will go kaput. Even if you never finish the route, the world has already been destroyed. Destruction of the world, supposedly, has permanent consequences, so great that even the usually disinterested Sans had to step in. And if the world has already been destroyed without you personally seeing to it, then you’re acting out elements of the past which will inevitably reach that conclusion. Undertale will always be destroyed, by you, because you chose, when you first named the fallen child, to be a character in the story. The player completes the trifecta, next to Flowey and Chara, of those who able to transcend the timeline, who borrow souls, who are by themselves soulless, and who have at some point killed another being.
It’s commonly accepted the Pacifist ending is the true end of the game, because it’s the best “happy ending” Flowey could provide, features an Earthbound-style post-ending world, and is the only ending with an extended credits sequence. But by this logic, the Soulless ending would be an equally “true” absolute, seeing as they are identical but for the final Chara reveal in the last seconds of the game. Perhaps it is even more so, as Soulless requires completion of all three general routes, or 100% completion, if such a thing is possible in this kind of game. Perhaps it is because though we’re all killers, only “real” Genociders embrace the fact that in Undertale, everybody dies, all the time, and I’m sorry about that.
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. 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.” The author is 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.