A few weeks ago, a charming little retro-styled indie RPG named Undertale made its way to Steam. Its hook was that it wasn’t necessary to kill anyone in the game. In fact, it is probably a great idea if you don’t, at least if you want to get the amazing “true” ending. But that’s up to you. EVERYTHING in this game is up to you. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Every once in awhile we get games that advertise that the player doesn’t have to kill anyone, and that’s cool. I mean, gamers have a long, long history of shooting, kicking, punching, slashing, and generally murdering our way to good times, but at this point it’s become pretty obvious that it’s not really all that necessary. As games become more and more sophisticated in nature and increasingly complex in their mechanics, the constant barrages of violence are beginning to hold back the stories and immersion. I love me some senseless virtual violence, but it’s just true. Even the dumbest of action blockbusters doesn’t rely on violence nearly as much as the average video game.
Titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored have toyed with this concept before with pretty unimpressive results. “Press x to kill/Press y to render unconscious forever” is kind of a dumb distinction to bother with. It all ends the same way, with an enemy in a heap on the ground. It’s just a way to get an arbitrary achievement or feel like a bigger badass or better person or whatever. Whether you shoot a baddie with a tranquilizer dart or a bullet, knock him out, or snap his neck has no real present in-game consequences; you’re still using violence to resolve the situation. Plus when an enemy you knocked out hours earlier is still laying there when you come back later, it seems stupid.
Undertale challenges the need for violence directly by cutting to the philosophical heart of the matter, observing at one point that “the more you kill, the easier it is to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt; the more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.”
Nick in real life feels bad when he disturbs a cat in his yard and questions his decision to kill venomous spiders in his home even though he’s acutely arachnophobic. So why is it when you put a controller in my hand, I’m a bloodthirsty slavering killer with a thirst that can only be quenched via wanton massacre?
As a real life pacifist with an ironically powerful appreciation for fictional violence, exploring this concept was a must and Undertale scratched that itch and then some. If this was the early 90’s, this game would have been a timeless RPG classic of the era right next to the likes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. But it’s 2015 and instead of a widespread AAA console release to much acclaim, it will likely only be experienced by indie and retro enthusiasts, and that is a shame because more than a video game, Undertale is an experience that rewards the player in ways no other game has. Minor spoilers follow, but to properly convey the originality of this title, it’s necessary to discuss some specifics.
It seems a simple concept, making a pacifism-themed video game. And at first, it is simple. Almost tongue-in-cheek pandering simple. “Press x to pacifism” simple. There’s a character literally holding your hand and leading you around at one point early in the game, lest you stumble and hurt your precious self. After spending some time getting attached to your adorable matronly guardian, Toriel, this almost-excessively kind woman protectively bars your path to adventure with a stern look on her face. How much do you want this game to continue?
You fight Toriel and up to this point, you’ve been able to talk your way out of a smattering of non-threatening fights. But this one feels overwhelming and threatens to kill you if it keeps up, and Tori just isn’t listening to you. The last save was a ways back (and believe me, the game knows this) and I ended up lashing out at my beloved protector out of sheer gaming instinct, sure that if I got her health down low enough, she’d relent.
Even when her attacks suddenly seemed to be deliberately avoiding me, I kept on, my combat tunnel vision firmly in place. And then my next strike was suddenly and inexplicably super-powerful and reduced her health instantly to zero, striking her down. She used her last breath to encourage me, and my heart broke. Cue Freddy Mercury singing “Love of My Life” in my head.
It didn’t take long for Undertale to make me feel like a total bastard. I went into this game specifically determined not to harm a soul and feeling like this was going to be an easy thing to accomplish. I was led on and tricked into believing it would be, and then the game got me to fall right back into my violent gaming habits, assuming everything would be the way it always has been in RPG’s and turn out fine if I just hurt whatever or whoever was put in my way. I didn’t have to assume that. I didn’t have to fight back. Of course Toriel wouldn’t have hurt me. Not really. But I didn’t realize this until it was too late. And that’s how I learned in Undertale what I already knew in real life: that any time you resort to violence in a disagreement, you’ve already lost. Even when you win the fight.
And you know what? The game doesn’t forget. Reload a save, start a whole new game if you want. You can go back and make your different choice, but the murderous flower Flowey -instantly one of the best villains in gaming history- knows what you did and he will not let you pretend it never happened. He doesn’t need to break the fourth wall; it doesn’t even exist to him.
The game’s combat is unique and brilliant in a lot of ways. You have to evade creative bullet hell-style attacks while determining a non-violent solution to the conflict. The monsters all have some insecurity you can exploit and some don’t even want to be there. See that jock of a horse man flexing it up? Flex right back at him a few times and he will flex himself right out of the fight trying to show you up, bro. Those aggressive dogs? They just need an introduction to the art of petting. The greedy spider girl upset you didn’t buy her insanely-priced baked goods? If you lower her attack with some donations, you might just make it out. And those two knights sent to kill you can be distracted from you by their hidden love for one another. Don’t eat the vegetable monsters, though. It’s both rude and lethal (although delicious).
The various methods of overcoming the enemies in this game are often charming, hilarious, and even practical. But like I said, the game does not always settle for making it easy for you. While much of the game is quirky and silly in tone, it doesn’t fail to put the pressure on from time to time. You see, when you spare an enemy, your reward is 0 XP. That means, if you don’t kill anyone, you stay at a weak LV 1. The whole game. Make it to the end of your quest and you’ll find that XP isn’t “experience” like usual, but “eXecution Points” given for your dealing of death. And your LV is “Level of Violence”. The bigger the number, the more evil you are. And near the end of the game you will judged based on your deeds.
So you can’t get stronger without killing, and without getting stronger, some of these bosses are immensely challenging, especially for this console gamer used to thumbsticks now fumbling on a keyboard. You will die, and the game will mock you for it. Choosing the nonviolent approach is HARD. And you know what? That’s how it should be. Because doing the right thing and getting the richest rewards is seldom easy.
You know what the really cool thing is? You don’t have to deal with any of it if you don’t want to. There are numerous approaches and combinations of choices and events that impact this story and if you’d rather kill them all and let Flowey sort ‘em out, you can do exactly that. Having not gone full “genocide route” yet (and I’m not sure I could bring myself to do it) I can’t attest to the results firsthand, but supposedly if you choose to bring death to the adorable denizens of the underworld, the entire tone of the game changes to something much darker and more somber as you become the thing that goes bump in the night; the monster to the monsters. Even the music changes to match this change in theme. How many games have that kind of cred?
Throughout your journey the save points keep telling you about determination in amusing and random ways that quickly become a joke. But humor usually requires an element of truth to it. Apparently my determination wasn’t up to snuff at first since the first genuine challenge I encountered led me to abandon my commitment to non-violence and murder the sweetest character in the game in spite of my intentions.
Throughout Undertale, your commitment will be tested again and again. Some bosses will physically slash non-violent options from your menu and even wipe your saves. Yes, you read that right. This game holds nothing sacred. Even your save files are fair game. If you want that true pacifist ending, you’re going to have to work for it. And if you go full genocide..well, I hear they’ve got something nasty waiting for you there too.
It’s a shame that a game this jam-packed with wonderful characters, charm, humor, and creative ambition was released so quietly. But word-of-mouth is a powerful tool, especially in the gaming community. Undertale is an absolute must-play for old school RPG fanatics and a game that should be experienced by anybody looking for something unique that isn’t afraid to go where other games don’t. To make doing the right thing the hard thing while calling the player out on their lack of dedication or their commitment to solving problems with violence. To make a game where you can literally kill everybody, but probably can’t bring yourself to do it (they think anime is real human history…kawaaiiiiiii!). To then trick you into killing the last person you ever wanted to hurt so it can mock your stupidity.
It’s the kind of game that puts a shop cheat in that you can exploit to pay for the shopkeeper’s college fund. The kind that creates a punishing challenge to find solutions where everybody can be happy and pushes you as far as it can to test your determination as a gamer. But if you overcome everything it throws at you, the finish is so rewarding that having attained the “true” ending, the game will actually encourage you to let the characters live in peace and not to restart it. Did I just say the game asks you not to play it again? Yeah. And with the emotions that Undertale inspires with its cast of broken misfits, it does feel right. It wants you to remember that perfect playthrough with all of its trials, tribulations, and feels without bothering with the subsequent half-hearted noodling just to see what other outcomes you can find.
I’ve seen message board posts of players asking how to make copies of their save files so they can preserve their perfect playthrough and then go back and play the game again without overwriting it, talking as though the characters literally do live their lives within the file. Any game that inspires that kind of sentimental thinking has got to be something special. And it is. With any luck, it’ll be a massive success, be ported to consoles, and influence a whole new way of thinking in game design. Games like Undertale are why the indie scene will always be a necessity for true gamers; to show us that you don’t need massive budgets and amazing graphics to make us think, feel, and have a great time.