September 22, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
PLEASE NOTE: There are some gameplay spoilers in this article.
Undertale is a game where no one has to get hurt. As a human that's fallen into a realm filled with monsters, you'd think you'd have to fight your way out. Most of the monsters just seem content to go about their lives, though, walking with their children, having a meal with their friends, or telling jokes. Even the monsters that challenge you as you walk around aren't that attached to the idea of fighting with you.
But you can fight them. You can punish them right back, hitting them with found weapons until their bones snap. Their bodies crumble to powder. Their hearts break forever. And you? They can send you back to the loading screen. Make you walk a short distance and repeat a little bit of gameplay. They can inconvenience you. Even in death, at most, you're slowed. Stalled. A force that will slowly overwhelm them no matter what they do.
Or you can try to become friends with everyone, making peace with every enemy you come across.
I don't consider myself a pacifist in games. I've done considerable damage to the Locust in Gears of War. I've beat up countless neon-clad thugs in Final Fight. I might have even shot a guy in Call of Duty once but I'm pretty sure I missed and said a bad word instead. Violence doesn't bother me much. But back when I played Metal Gear Solid III and had the option to tranquilize my way through the game, I did. The idea of completing a game without hurting anyone appealed to me.
When I had the option not to hurt anyone, I started thinking about the characters differently. Sure, they're just clusters of polygons that a program sends to antagonize me, but being able to finish the game and let them live made them feel, well, alive. I could see them with lives to go home to. Families. Hobbies. Things they would never get to do again if I chose to kill them. It didn't make much difference to my playthrough if I killed them or not. I could sneak past a corpse as easily as a snoozing guard.
But killing them just meant their lives were over. I imagined the soldiers' bodies lying on the ground, radios hissing as voices called out to people who were friends and colleagues. I heard the flies buzzing. Saw the blood on the grass. Saw the people looking at front doors, waiting for someone to come through who was never coming home again. In being able to spare a life, I saw all the consequences of taking one in jarring clarity.
I've ripped out people's spines in games. I've shot people with a rocket and watched all of the torso chunks flying around. I've used a gun chainsaw on a guy and watched the bloody bits come flying out, close-up (in HD), and didn't bat an eye. I may have even laughed. Yet here, the pop of red blood from a silenced gunshot drummed up images in my head that I couldn't scrub away. I wanted to finish my mission, but I also wanted all of these people to go home again at the end of the day.
Still, I was only imagining those soldiers going home. It was all in my head. Undertale doesn't leave you to imagine the lives these monsters have outside of combat - it shows it to you. You can see who gets to go home again by the game's end.
Undertale uses turn-based combat straight out of Dragon Quest, giving the player menus to choose from. You can choose to fight, slamming the creature with whatever weapon you have on hand until it dies. You can also act, which gives a couple of options of things you can say or do. Maybe you want to try patting that giant armored dog instead of hitting it. Maybe you want to say something kind to that monstrous bully, showing him that not everyone has to be mean. If you choose the correct act, then you can choose the final option, mercy, which ends the fight without anyone needing to get hurt.
The pacifist's life is not an easy one. The enemies still attack you while you're trying to win them over with witty conversation, and Undertale has an unusual combat style. When an enemy attacks, you have to guide a small image of your heart around various hazards that come shooting toward it. These can be tears falling from the enemy's eyes, muscly arms that flex along the sides of the screen, or the word 'bark'. It sounds funny, but the sheer amount of projectiles flying at your heart makes it hard not to get hurt while you talk the monsters out of fighting you.
Not every monster accepts peace easily, either. A few of them are really out to get you, and you'll have to slog through their multiple attacks while trying to see which act will soften them up. Some need you to offer mercy dozens of times, and others just require that you survive turn after turn of brutality before they accept that you want peace.
Did I mention that you don't get stronger if you don't kill your enemies? The only way to be able to take more hits from enemies is to kill them. You still get a little bit of money from them to buy healing items and equipment to survive off of if you let them live, but you'll still only have those twenty hit points you started the game with eight to ten hours later if you choose not to hurt anyone. Undertale gets harder and harder and harder if you choose to do no harm.
If you always choose peace, you're going to suffer. You're going to get frustrated. You're going to lose. All things that can be easily swept away with a little violence. If you start lashing out at your enemies, they crumble. You get stronger, and your enemies fall faster. You don't have to figure out what to say to these creatures to make them stop attacking. You don't have to dodge attacks over and over again. You can just crush these creatures under your heel and make your way across the game world. You can beat it without much trouble. You can win when all of the little clusters of code have been reduced to ash.
Undertale makes it easy to choose violence. The game makes it appealing, from a gameplay perspective. If your goal is to complete the game, then combat is the most direct route with the most benefits. Players often look for the most effective strategies as they play, searching for the simplest ways to defeat all of the things a game places between them and the ending. If this is the only angle you see Undertale from, then you will choose violence. When you are weak from enduring attacks and don't think you'll make it, you'll choose violence. When a monster just doesn't seem to be responding to your talk and you're about to die, you'll choose violence. It's easy.
I did it. I'm not proud of it.
It was a monstrous carrot at one point. I couldn't survive another hit, and I was lousy at dodging its attacks. Sure, death only really meant losing a few minutes of work, but I didn't want to do it over. So I hit it, and it died. I watched it turn to dust. To keep myself from being slightly inconvenienced. I gained a level and got a few more hit points. I felt a little surge of thrill. I was stronger. The game would be easier. I want to deny that little bit of excitement, but it was there. Undertale didn't judge me for it. I didn't gain bad points or receive a warning that it would affect the story. It just occurred, with nothing to mark its passing.
I didn't even pay much attention to it. I'd only killed a carrot. No big deal. I was sure the game would let me have a kill or two since I was mostly peaceful. I even managed to find a nonviolent resolution to a fight with a tough boss in a later area, getting him excited for pats (it was an awfully big suit of armor for such a tiny, adorable dog). When I made it to the next town, I smiled when I saw that same boss sitting at a table in the pub, playing cards with himself.
Then I thought about how that chair would have been empty if I'd killed him.
There were more enemies in the pub. A couple of executioners I'd distracted and befriended along the path. Some other creatures I'd already seen. Later, I got to go on a date with a hilarious, friendly skeleton who I'd tussled with but won over with my kindness. Late in the game, I saw a couple of knights going out for ice cream, something they'd said they would do after I convinced them of it through my actions in a fight. Near the end of the game, I went for a walk through all of the game's earlier areas and ran into all of the enemies I'd spared, hearing tiny snippets of silly dialogue from them as they talked about their lives. Everywhere, I could see the consequences of my kindness. It made me smile.
Seeing all of my previous antagonists all going about their lives reminded me of those thoughts I'd had while playing Metal Gear Solid III. This was the life my enemies had gone back to once they were done being my enemies. These were their homes and friends. I was seeing them in their day-to-day lives, returned safely because I'd taken the time and effort to show mercy to them.
The carrot monster was nowhere to be found.
I know it's silly to get bent out of shape over a dead carrot. I know it's even sillier to feel bad for a corpse that's only a few lines of code on a screen. Still, the missing carrot monster drove home what the cost of that easy violence actually was. I hadn't just removed an obstacle that was in my way; I had killed something that had a place in the world. I had scrubbed its presence, friendships, and life from existence because it made my life just a little bit easier to do so. Seeing all of the other enemies walking around, happily going about their days, made that impossible to ignore.
It seemed strange to feel so much guilt over it. After killing thousands of people while playing games, it was odd to have this stupid carrot monster drum up so much sadness in me. But it did, because Undertale makes the consequences of your violence clear even if it never directly judges you for them. It never told me the carrot was dead forever - it just let me see the empty space he would occupy and let me judge myself. I got to see the peaceful aftermath and the damage I had done to a life through omission. I had left that empty space. Me.
When violence is the only way to communicate in a game, you accept it. It's just part of the game. When you choose it when you don't have to, it tells you something about yourself, even in play. Something about violence and harm in general. It tells you that hurting people has a cost, even if it does make your life easier. It tells you that those costs may be invisible to you, but may one day leave an empty spot that a life used to inhabit.
And when you see that loss, even in the game world, you'll know who caused it. Who chose it.
UNDERTALE is available for $9.99 on Steam and the game's site (or $17.99 with the delightful soundtrack). For more information on the game and Toby Fox, you can follow them on Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr.