[Intangirble: Another guest post from Whisper here, with some of my own thoughts towards the end. I’m planning on my own, longer post at some point, but for now, have this from the two of us.
The following will contain spoilers for many of the gameplay mechanics in Undertale, which can be considered a significant part of the game.]
I gave in and played that cool new indie game that all the kids are talking about. Undertale has managed to impress pretty much all my experienced, thirty-something gamer friends, though we began by not expecting much. Although this is “a blog about videogame feelings”, I’ll spare you, except to say that I may or may not have cried uncontrollably the whole way through the ending and for thirty minutes afterward.
Hearsay makes it sound like a “message game”, as if it weren’t worthwhile to see a ripping good telling of a message no one would disagree with. But there are way more subtle messages to it than the surface “violence is bad, in case you didn’t know that” and “have sympathy even for those who don’t have sympathy for you.” Those messages are flatly stated in the first ten minutes of the game; then it moves on to say other things. The whole structure of multiple routes is used not just as a way for the player to indicate their preference, but as commentary about the way we game and the expectations games are set up with. It goes far beyond just a demonstration that fun battle mechanics don’t have to boil down to “kill the monster or be killed”.
There’s a critique to be read about the direction the game industry is going, and the passive way that gamers have been letting it happen even to their detriment. So many of the games I’ve played in the past few years expect the player to grind for better gear, unlock bestiary secrets by killing a certain number of monsters, and generally run on the assumption that doing more things in a game is an effort that should be rewarded in and of itself. They lead you to assume it’s worthwhile, and then reward it. In a certain RPG I’ve been playing recently, unlocking extra worldbuilding data in the bestiary is more interesting to me than the polished movie sequences or complicated political story. Which says something, because I love RPGs for their epic stories in the first place. It may be an attempt to shift more of the game’s content to be accessed via active gameplay, but linking story and gameplay falls rather flat when it basically just doles out lore tidbits as a reward for grinding.
Really devoted fans want a metric to measure the amount of devotion they have to a game. Often, it has to be measured in levels or in completionist data collecting. How else can you show your passion for a SNES RPG, if not reaching level 99 unnecessarily? But although it shows hard work and the desire to spend time inside the world of the game, it isn’t really playing the game “correctly”, to begin with. Chances are, if you love a game that much, you don’t love grinding at endgame; you love to play it the whole way through the way it was designed to be. It would be neat to see games have a “completed x times” counter to replace that. It might be a more meaningful statistic of how much time you wanted to spend playing the game as it was meant to be played, viewing the story multiple times and spacing gameplay appropriately. It would be more enjoyable than grinding, would provide a virtually unlimited way to raise your devotion tally, and would provide a better reflection of your fondness for the entire game.
Anyhow, what with the increasing move towards games that are meant to be continually updated with DLC to keep gamers busy on the same game, grinding has become a huge part of today’s gaming world. All the devs need to do is hand out some better gear that’ll take time to get, and a bit more to the game that requires you to do the work of obtaining that gear. These days, we hardly expect anything else of the devs. Achievements have also changed the landscape; for any content existing in a game these days, there’s probably a trophy you can get for viewing it, which makes the act of gaming a meta-game in which you collect trophies to show how much gaming you’ve done. Common achievements include grinding to high levels, collecting all of a certain kind of weapon, viewing every possible scene, and accumulating trivial data in the game encyclopedia. There are even trophies for obtaining all possible trophies, leading to a mindset of Total Completion as the ultimate goal of every game. No longer is it considered completion to “beat” a game and see the ending; the goal is now to unlock everything possible, see every potential way the story could have turned out, even after the fun part of the game is exhausted. Gamers are encouraged via achievements and micro-rewards to cultivate the drive to show that they are really enthusiastic about a game by unlocking every possible bit, even if it means they spend time doing repetitive and boring game tasks. Achievements also change the way we deal with game endings. These days it’s typical for games to have multiple endings, and achievement trophies for obtaining them all. Sure, that at least gives you story, but it also eradicates the concept of choice, of playing the game your own way to align with your preference. You’re still just watching the story that’s fed to you and having no effect on it– you’re just watching multiple outcomes. And most likely, you have to replay a chunk of the game to do it, which you’ll probably end up redoing right after you’ve just finished that part. Are we having fun yet?
Undertale does not reward unlocking everything. In fact, after a satisfactory ending is achieved, the game asks the player not to replay it. After completing the No Mercy route, the game upon reloading, one of the game’s meta-aware characters appears and acts confused that you want to restore something that you just took the effort to destroy, and even demands that you sell them your soul in order to proceed to the game’s menu screen and start a new playthrough. It’s directly against our instinct as gamers to think a game would punish us for wanting to see all the endings, yet there it is.
Consistency and making a committed decision on play style provide some of the best gameplay experiences in Undertale. The really solid and finished-feeling endings are only achieved by relentlessly choosing the same behaviour throughout, with no deviation. In the True Pacifist route, one of the characters appears and asks the player not to reset the timeline and undo everything. He urges you to let the characters go and enjoy their happy ending. (Heartbreakingly, it is a happy ending for everyone except the character asking you not to do it over. I may have mentioned some post-game tears…) The Neutral route– which is what you get if you are not fully consistent– is the only one that requests you to replay the game, and it’s made of dark screens with no graphics, phone calls, and unsatisfactory circumstances; it’s the ending you get when you don’t commit to how you want to play, which is what the game really wants you to do. It wants you to make your choice.
And stay with it: even if you choose violence, commit to living out your choice. An aborted No Mercy run chides the player for not having the guts to finish what they started. Some of the bitterest and darkest things that happen to your character in Undertale is when you complete one non-neutral route, and then go back and complete the other. Characters who are aware that the timeline is repeating mock you for being inconsistent, act baffled that you changed your mind, and accuse you of not even knowing what you want. And it’s the characters who seem to have the clearest understanding of saving and loading files who act the most confused and irritated, sometimes even disgusted, at your inconsistency. Even when it occurs to them that you “wanted to see everything before destroying it”, they go on asking why you would do that, or why you have such interest in a world that you also want to destroy. The behaviour that’s treated as normal completionism in most games– interest in playing through two very different routes– is treated in Undertale as the kind of inconsistency we’d see it as in real life, an inability to decide on how to approach the world or even to stick to a coherent moral code (or lack thereof).
“You think you are above consequences,” a character says to the player in disgust. Consequences don’t disappear just because you reset the game; once you play the No Mercy route, the state persists on your save file even through resets. Against all our expectations as gamers, the game punishes you for wanting to see all of the endings, and your True Pacifist route becomes Soulless Pacifist, in which the happy ending turns horror-movie creepy. True to its nature, though, Undertale will forgive you even if you’ve been a terrible person. You can remove the permanent Soulless status by going into your Windows directory and deleting the save files. However, you can’t delete your own knowledge that you did it, and furthermore that you even hacked the game to cover it up. Undertale forgives you; will you forgive yourself? You will know in your mind what you’ve done– and that, after all, is where a game’s impact matters.
But what is it that you have learned? Is it knowledge that you killed some game monsters? Yes, but even if you choose a pacifist route you’ll undoubtedly realize how many monsters of this sort you’ve been killing in other games. The thing you realize you’re doing in Undertale uniquely, the surprising thing to suddenly become uncomfortable with, is acting like the best thing you can do is to play through every possible bit. In the longest ending, you wind up fighting against your opponent’s stated desire to wipe everything out and reset the timeline yet again. You end up being forced to take the position that you won’t let him send everything back to the beginning for a do-over, and when that’s what the game says you’re really fighting for, you have to at least consider– if not passively accept– that you might agree. Undertale manipulates you into the position of saying that you don’t want to be forced to do it over until you lose, that you want to have a satisfying ending and stick with it.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that Undertale critiques level grinding, and it’s not just because you have to kill monsters to level up. The game character who represents (your own) violence, speaking to the player directly, refers to themselves as “the demon who comes when you call its name”, and identifies themselves with stats and gold. “Every time a number goes up, I am there.” What does it mean when we obsessively accumulate these numbers, and what is sacrificed? If we love an RPG and its world, why do we think we can best show it by slaughtering its wildlife in order to boast of high numbers? And why do we consider this repetitive, meaningless violence a good use of our time, when we have many games and many stories yet to see?
Just after playing Undertale, I turned on a different game I had in progress, and it was jarring to have my character run around slaughtering things for loot. It didn’t mesh with the mindset. I turned it off. I want to finish that game, but is it really worth doing all that just to see every possible bit of data? I’ll worry about it some other day. For now, I want to enjoy this feeling…
I wanted to add a little companion piece of my own to this post. Some similarities, some differences.
This blog, in many ways, is about dedication. It’s about twenty-, thirty-year-old games that we still replay, that still have hooks in our hearts. It’s hard, in the midst of that love, to turn around and call dedication a bad thing; and it’s not, entirely. But Undertale works hard to show us the seamy side of devotion treated as a terminal virtue, without thought to the reasons or results.
Undertale’s most violent path has been dubbed the “Genocide Route” by fans; and though some dislike the name, it’s hard to deny that that’s essentially what it is. To stay on the darkest path and see the content that comes with it, you have to not only kill everything in your way, but go out of your way to kill when you otherwise wouldn’t. You’re not just casually violent, you’re maximising your level of violence. It’s a drive; it’s a pursuit. (It’s Determination.)
And isn’t that what we as gamers often do? We “level grind”. That phrase’ll never sound the same again once you’ve played Undertale, which is aimed squarely at the hardcore RPG fan who’s loved, and memorised, games like Earthbound. As seasoned RPG players, we don’t just beat up monsters as they attack us; we actively hunt down opportunities to kill so that we can get stronger, or get better drops, or more gold. We are ruthless pursuers of violence, often up until level 99 – the maximum reward of power most games can give us. If there’s a higher level cap, people will grind to that. We’ll grind until the game won’t give us anything else, because we want everything.
In online games, this kind of completionism is necessary just to keep up, but we’ll do it even when there isn’t a need. I was proud of having a save in Final Fantasy VI where all my characters were at level 99, because it showed the many hours I’d spent playing it, and thus my dedication to the game, to the world. Or did it? Did it just show my dedication to violence? I don’t feel like that was what I was trying to do at all; not that one ever does.
I do think that’s where Undertale, maybe, could have been more explicit. Because while it may be in part a commentary on game design, the dialogue doesn’t feel aimed at devs, but very pointedly at you, the player. It feels like it indicts you exclusively for the violence done – and I’m not saying we’re not a lot of it, or that we didn’t do those things, that we’re not worthy of judgment. But I would have liked to see just a little of the criticism aimed specifically at the game industry itself.
Because when devs don’t give you any other way to show your dedication, when there is no visible marker for your love of the game other than L(O)V(E), then you’re going to maximise LV. Even if you’re not a completionist in the ending-getting, achievement-hunting sense. You want to show to someone that you spent time in the game. Devs don’t give us a lot of ways to do that. A game clock can be maxed out casually by standing there. A LV number shows you did something. You interacted with the world. And when you’re only allowed to interact violently, what else do you do?
But then – maybe that’s letting us off too lightly. Because violence is a choice. Prioritising your number, your appearance of commitment, over pacifism is a choice. Prioritising your sense of achievement and dedication over the harm you do is a choice – as Undertale makes very clear. Maybe “but I had no choice” is a cop-out, the oldest cop-out of all.
As gamers, we admire dedication, but it’s not always a good thing. When I was fifteen, I had, like many gamers did, a serious crush on Tifa from Final Fantasy VII; like many gamers did, I felt a passionate need to defend her in the endless Aeris vs. Tifa flamewars that plagued the fandom. I was certainly dedicated to that defence: I had an elaborate web shrine, a fan club you could sign up to, little buttons you could put on your site – and, of course, plenty of essays praising Tifa and denouncing Aeris.
But my short-sighted dedication didn’t really do anyone any good. Not me, not the people I senselessly argued with, and certainly not Tifa, who didn’t need to be defended – but who I’m sure, if she’d had the opportunity, would have found the whole thing childish and ridiculous. Just because I care, just because I want to show other people I care, doesn’t always mean I’m doing good. And I could have benefitted a lot from reflecting on what I was doing and why I was doing it, and whether the end result was worth it.
In Undertale, there’s a difference between love and LOVE. You can show love for the people of its world, enough to show them true mercy, and let them go; or you can demonstrate LOVE, the manifestation of a clinging desire to see everything, to stay with the loved one for as long as possible, even when that means doing things they’d never want you to do. From the outside, they look like two completely different things, and they are; but from the point of view of the experiencer, they can feel so similar. Undertale warns us not to mistake LOVE for love, not to act possessively and compulsively in the name of devotion.
I do think developers have a lot to answer for. I do think we need more options for showing non-violent dedication to those things we love. But perhaps Undertale is also asking us to reflect on whether dedication, itself, is that much of a virtue that we should pursue it at the expense of all else.