Undertale, despite being a niche game created solely by independent developer Toby Fox, has quietly become one of the most talked about games of the year. It starts off as a simple role-playing game where you and various enemies take turns attacking each other (if you’ve played Final Fantasy or a Pokmon game, you get the gist), but turns almost every aspect of itself on its head, never content to leave you bored or unhappy with what it’s doing. And it’s wonderful.
One of the most notable ways Undertale defies standard gaming conventions is by allowing you to avoid fighting anyone you don’t want to. In much the same way that games like Metal Gear Solid V and Dishonored allow you to complete the game without ever killing anyone, Undertale allows to be friendly to the monsters you encounter instead of fighting them. In the game’s first area, a character named Toriel teaches you that fighting monsters isn’t the only way to “beat” them. You can also spare them or simply run away. She not only teaches you to do this, but explicitly asks that you not hurt anyone. As a whole, Undertale wants you to learn a lesson: be nice to people. But it’s never more successful at teaching this to you than when you decide to ignore Toriel’s request.
Before I get to why that is, you need some context. You can beat all of Undertale without hurting anyone, but it’s not easy. Eventually, Toriel asks that you stay with her instead of venturing into the outside world, and if you insist on leaving, you’ll have to fight her. You can spare her, too, but the challenge is realizing how to do that—the “Spare” command doesn’t work at first, and it takes quite a few uses for Toriel to begrudgingly send you off into the outside world. Undertale then implies that taking the “Pacifist” route is the harder one; If you don’t kill anyone throughout the entire game, you’ll be stuck at level 1, making each unavoidable boss encounter harder than it might otherwise be.
Critics and players have praised Undertale for allowing you to play it this way because it coincides with its message of nonviolence. Undertale wants to get across the idea that you should always be nice, and it goes out of its way to create situations that make it harder and harder to do so. The first character you meet in the game is Flowey, a flower monster who betrays your trust immediately by telling you the bullets they’re firing at you are “love pellets.”
They turn out to be the game’s “true” final boss, responsible for most of the hardships other monsters have endured throughout the game and acting cruelly and without regard for anyone else throughout the story. But you must spare even Flowey to get the game’s “real” Pacifist ending. Most players will probably opt to try for this, not only because most players tend to choose the “good” choice when it comes to making moral choices in games, but because the game nudges you this direction by giving you the option to be extra nice to your enemies.
At first, I took issue with Undertale’s simplistic approach to the act of kindness. Choosing to be “nice” often correlates to not showing aggression, or acting in an agreeable way. I took issue with the idea that you should always choose to acquiesce, to be passive, because that’s not always a helpful way to act; when you’re in a situation where someone’s taking advantage or impeding on you, being “nice” isn’t the right answer.
Undertale then gave me its biggest twist of all by agreeing with me.
At the end of a successful Pacifist run, you eventually find out Flowey was actually Asriel, Toriel’s son. After freeing him but before heading into the game’s final cutscene, if you make the long trek from the last area of the game all the way back to the first you’ll find Asriel, tending to a patch of flowers. When you talk to him enough times, he eventually gives you this advice:
“Be careful in the outside world, OK? Despite what everyone thinks, it’s not as nice as it is here. There are a lot of Floweys out there. And not everything can be resolved by just being nice…Don’t kill, and don’t be killed, alright? That’s the best you can strive for.”
At first I figured this was just general advice, meant to make sure the player takes some of the themes of the game with a grain of salt. But Undertale’s commentary on the nature of morality and what it means to be “nice” as both a person and a player goes much deeper.
Opposite the Pacifist route is an alternate path of choices: the Genocide route, in which you opt to kill every enemy in the game instead of sparing them. This means sticking around in most of the game’s areas longer than you normally would, fighting monster after monster until there’s no one left to fight.
It also means killing off major characters—even friendly ones. The plot completely reworks itself to accommodate the absence of these characters. The game starts treating you like a sociopath. The characters who are still alive know that you’ve been killing their friends. You also get an early warning to stop killing everyone. Right before you fight Papryus, his brother Sans scolds you: “If you keep going the way you are now…you’re gonna have a bad time.” Of course, most players who are dedicated to a Genocide run will trudge along anyway, since these sorts of runs are done more out of curiosity after beating the game once than as a natural instinct.
What happens if you’re not nice, like the game tells you to be? You get a completely different ending. Killing every enemy in the game makes most of the bosses ridiculously easy, save for two. One is Undyne the Undying, whose boss fight changes its rhythms and becomes much harder on Genocide. The other is Sans himself, who you only fight on Genocide. It’s a nightmarish fight, by far the most difficult in the game, but also its most creative, and worth seeing for how many tricks it throws at you. Sans sneaks attacks in during his introductory monologue, throws bones at you in the game’s menus, and breaks sequence during his own attacks, jump-cutting between different attack patterns before you have a chance to recognize what they are.
This is Undertale standing up for itself, as you’ve invaded its world and taken advantage of its trust in you. It’s being nice to itself by defending its characters from you.
But with enough determination, Sans buckles, and you get to kill everyone else in the game with ease. Then Undertale makes its most poignant, most lashing commentary of all: it rewards your murder spree by summoning a character named after you—or rather, the character you named at the beginning of the game, which you eventually realize wasn’t the character you controlled throughout the rest of the game, but rather a child who had previously entered the monsters’ world and died.
Long story short, the character you named is the very embodiment of evil, the feeling of making progress in all video games by killing other living things. After having killed everyone in the game, you’re asked to delete Undertale from your computer and venture into other worlds in order to continue killing and increasing experience bars and numbers. If you refuse, the character kills you and causes the game to crash. You can then launch the game again and strike a deal—sell your soul to this character in order to play the game again. If you do this, every subsequent playthrough of the game, no matter how “nice” you are, is tainted by the glowing red eyes and murderous intent of this character, and it’s implied that even if you achieve a Pacifist ending, the character you sold your soul to will go back and kill everyone again anyway.
A CURIOUS THING
It’s a curious thing to include. On one hand, there’s the obvious condemnation of video game violence and how violence is often seen as the only marker of progress in games (a topic that’s worth its own article). But on the other hand, it’s strange for the developer to have put so much effort into a path the game actively discourages you from taking. If the game wants you to be nice, why save some of the most interesting things for the run where you kill everything?
It’s enticing to think that the effort put into the Genocide route means the game is ambivalent about morality, making it worth your time to kill everything just to see a new ending. But that it acknowledges player violence to this degree doesn’t devalue its initial position that you should be nice as often as you can—it only strengthens it. The game will let you do what you want, but if you violate its trust, it pushes back. In the Genocide run, Undertale teaches you what to do when confronted by something (or someone) that takes advantage of your kindness: stand up for yourself.
Undertale wants you to be nice. But if it didn’t offer you the option to ignore it, its mantra would fall flat. “Be nice” isn’t a good lesson to to teach unless you can really drive it home for someone. That’s what the Genocide route does: it reveals that your actions have consequences, while also saying that some people aren’t worth being nice to. It’s Asriel’s advice in a nutshell: Don’t kill, and don’t be killed. It’s a lesson worth teaching, and Undertale teaches it better than just about any other game I’ve played.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’s more than ok with *Undertale replacing Portal as the game people won’t shut up about. He’s written for Playboy, Paste, Kill Screen, and more. You can follow him on Twitter*
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