Nobody who’s heard of Undertale will be surprised to learn that I really, really like it. It’s one of those games that almost everybody seems to like – or, perhaps more accurately, everyone who reviews and scores stuff on the internet (as of right now, it boasts perfect tens across a few sites, including Steam’s own store).
Undertale, for the uninitiated, is a retro-style RPG made almost entirely by one individual, Toby Fox. From what I can gather, he didn’t have an awful lot of knowledge or experience with making games before he set to work on Undertale, although you wouldn’t know it. Despite basic graphics and mechanics, it’s an intense experience; in fact, it might even be more effective thanks to its relative lack of programming complexity. Fox takes an extremely simple style of gameplay – you’ll spend most of your time walking around, talking to people and solving puzzles in Pokémon-style top-down 2D, interspersed with random encounters – and not only makes the most of it, but works it into the backstory in subtle ways, culminating in some big reveals about how the world of Undertale really functions. Hint: it’s probably not quite what you were thinking. It’s a bit like OFF, in that both games are visually similar, have excellent music, are dark but humorous and share a fondness for messing with the player.
Battles in Undertale are fun, although I have to admit at this point that I absolutely suck at them. Each battle opens onto a fairly standard RPG-style battle menu containing four options: FIGHT, ACT, ITEM and MERCY. FIGHT and ITEM are self-explanatory; ACT and MERCY are the interesting ones. ACT allows you to, as it says, make an action against the opposing monster. Depending on the foe, this might be telling it a joke, flirting, or rolling in the dirt to make yourself smell more like a friendly dog. (It’s an eccentric game.) These actions change the monster’s disposition towards the player character, which might result in you being able to use the MERCY option to spare its life, ending the confrontation peacefully. You can also run, but where’s the fun in that?
By this point you’ll have figured out that Undertale is one of those games that have been in vogue since at least the first BioShock: multiple paths and endings are possible, based on the player’s moral choices. In this case, it boils down to how pacifistic or how genocidal you happen to be feeling: kill more monsters, get more of a ‘bad’ ending, in essence. Without giving too much away, the particulars of how Undertale deals with the player’s mercy – or murdering, depending on how you’ve played it – form a big part of what sets it apart from other games of its ilk. I don’t want to go too far down spoileriffic roads right now, because I think that the specific facet of this game that I’m overthinking at the moment can be discussed without discussing the plot in much detail, so I’ll leave thoughts of the plot and overall structure of the game for another day.
Back to the battle system, it might have occurred to some that using the ACT menu to make a monster more amenable to walking away from a fight is probably more of a hassle than simply fighting and killing it. That’s true, probably more so in Undertale than in other games that employ a similar sort of checks-and-balances system to moral choice. Take BioShock as an example; the moral choice component of that game involved pressing one of two buttons to either spare or kill a little girl (or ‘Little Sister’) infested with a magic sea slug. Killing her would give the player more of the magic sea slug juice used to power up their magic sea slug abilities, but sparing her was just the nice thing to do. (It was also offset by rewards distributed by the grateful non-dead Little Sisters, which meant that a player gunning for the ‘good’ ending would actually end up with almost the same levels of magic sea slug juice as a child-murdering player in the long run anyway.) This was a decent enough system – and don’t get me wrong, I like BioShock a lot, if primarily for other reasons than its binary morality system – but it’s simplistic. Once you’ve done the hard work of making it to the Little Sister, an arduous task involving a battle with an angry drill-wielding scuba diver, the player’s only involvement with the choice of murder or mercy is a single button press. Compare this to Undertale. This is a game which makes you work hard not to kill anyone. And I mean hard.
Killing monsters in Undertale yields gold and experience, which increases the player’s level. Correspondingly, the more monsters you kill, the easier it gets to kill more monsters. This won’t be news to anyone who’s ever played an RPG; the maxim of ‘do a thing to get more good at that thing’ underpins pretty much any game that has some sort of levelling system, from Pokémon to Runescape to Dungeons and Dragons. Killing stuff in order to make oneself better at killing more stuff isn’t a new idea; in fact, it’s the norm.
It becomes apparent early on, however, that Undertale doesn’t really want you to kill stuff just because that’s what you usually do. One of the first characters you meet espouses the wisdom of ‘kill or be killed’, but he’s quite clearly not someone whose philosophy the game wants you to agree with. The first character to offer the protagonist affection and support is quite explicit about not wanting them to hurt anybody, teaching them how to use the ACT commands to make it possible to spare an opponent rather than fight. Sparing a monster will yield an amount of gold, but no experience, so a completely peaceful run will result in the player never levelling up.
This is about the point that one of the criticisms I’ve seen levelled against Undertale starts to present itself. See, Toriel, the motherly character who initially takes care of the player character, is trying to tell you (both the protagonist character and the player ipse) not to kill anyone. Problem is, she also tells you to stay in a room and not move at one point, and progression is impossible unless you disobey. You literally have to go against Toriel’s direct orders if you want the game to continue, which sets anything else she might ask you to do against that background of forced rebellion. Once you’ve started internalising that the only way to get things done might be to go against Toriel’s wishes, it’s hard to get out of your head. Or so the criticism goes. I’ll get on to whether I think it’s justified later.
The other problem with Toriel’s insistence that the player should be peaceful wherever possible is that it’s genuinely really difficult to avoid killing some monsters, especially given that playing peacefully means that you’ll never level up. It’s a puzzle in itself working out which actions will result in each monster coming to be possible to spare, and between each action you’ll be sucked in to a bullet-hell minigame involving manoeuvring a heart around a cramped little square to avoid your enemies’ attacks. It’s not easy. I think I might be pretty terrible at it, so maybe it isn’t actually that difficult, but at least for me it’s a hard press to survive more than a few turns against harder opponents. You’ll need a fair few turns if you’re looking to end the fight without resorting to murder, too, since some of the trickier opponents take a significant amount of ACTing upon (not to mention that you’ve got to find the right actions in the right order, which is not always easy).
Indeed, that character I mentioned who lives by ‘kill or be killed’ (I’m going to refer to him as Murderous Cock from here on) actually touches on this, saying that he wonders how long it’ll be before you get frustrated of trying to spare your opponents and just kill something because it’s the easy thing to do. So here’s where we start having to wonder: is Undertale’s insistence on making it much harder to survive if you try to follow the peaceful path a didactic and considered element of the story, or is it a hindrance to the player’s enjoyment?
One reviewer, at least, opts for the latter interpretation. (Link to the article here, though beware spoilers.) It was so hard to avoid killing, they say, that they decided that the game must be telling them to just go ahead and kill, or they wouldn’t be able to proceed. I can see where they’re coming from. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve resorted to walkthroughs for specific enemies, just because I can’t survive against them for long enough to figure out how to spare them. The game fails, claims this particular reviewer, because playing the game on its own terms, as they’re presented, leads the player to believe that killing is truly the only option to proceed. (Let’s not forget that no moral system in games is ever truly open. You can only ever act in ways that the developers have put there for you, even if they give a few branching options.) This is a problem for the player who doesn’t want to use walkthroughs, because they’re effectively forced into going down the morally ‘bad’ route. Again, I don’t want to spoil too much, but killing even one monster in Undertale is a big deal. It irrevocably flags you as unable to get the good ending on that playthrough, and some characters even remember on subsequent playthroughs. (It’s sort of like Westworld; some of the characters are vaguely aware of previous lives they’ve lived, previous New Games the player’s met them in.) Basically, your choices have sticking power in ways you’re probably not used to when you steamroll through RPGs killing everyone one playthrough, sparing them all the next and not feeling any consequences for what you might have done before.
So the criticism basically comes down to asserting that Undertale fails on its own grounds, because it doesn’t make it apparent what the player’s options are. Most players are going to go in knowing, if nothing else, that there is some sort of moral system, but the game deceives the player into thinking that a certain path can’t be followed.
I won’t say this point doesn’t have legs, because I can understand it. I would never be able to make it through the whole game without killing a single monster without using a guide to minimise the number of turns I have to spend hopelessly flailing around trying to not die. But whether it succeeds as an objection against Undertale as the game presents itself is another matter.
See, Undertale knows it’s hard. You’ll get teased by Murderous Cock about your stubborn refusal to fight back; you’ll be tempted to resort to murder just because you can’t work out how to not murder; you’ll get frustrated as hell at the fact that you’re not getting any stronger and nobody’s hitting any less hard. But Undertale, perhaps more than anything else, is a story about determination. Heck, every save point features flavour text about how something in the area ‘fills you with determination’. Each time you die, a voice tells you not to give up. Murderous Cock even outright says to you that if you give up, if you stop trying (if you quit the game and don’t come back) then all the world will be his to take over unopposed. It’s almost reminiscent of the way Dark Souls linked its difficulty with a metanarrative link between its protagonist and the player: each death turns your character more ‘Hollow’, more zombie-like, and sends you into despair, but forging on and battling with determination will restore your character’s humanity, whilst giving up will mean that you, the player, have gone Hollow.
I don’t think Undertale minds being difficult. It’s an unusual sort of difficulty, to be sure. Dark Souls is difficult, Pac-Man is difficult, Super Meat Boy is difficult. But while those games are hard because you’ll die a lot in your quest to reach the goal, and the way to progress is to resolutely keep going until your skills improve enough to net victory, Undertale’s difficulty is about as close to a legitimate moral problem as I think games have ever posed. The difficult thing to do is to keep being determined. To say ‘I will not get frustrated and take the easy way out’. To try to understand every being you come across so that both of you can end the meeting peacefully. These are the goals of a pacifist run in Undertale. It might actually be harder for the player than the protagonist, for once.
I don’t think Undertale fails on its own terms. I think it’s open enough about what it is, about the fact that you are going to have to struggle like hell if you want to make it through without compromising your morals, to justify its opacity. And besides, even if you do kill someone, there’s always the Genocide route.