Having A Bad Time: The Theory of Undertale
Last year, I wrote a post gushing about why everyone should play the indie game Undertale, which you can read here if you haven’t played the game. This post is chock-full of spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Maybe I have a bit of an analysis addiction. Because although Undertale is an amazing, heartwarming, heartbreaking, thought-provoking video game that I think everyone should experience, my favorite thing about it isn’t the characters or the humor or the music or the story. It’s how darn meta it is.
Undertale is a game designed to make you think about games. It takes all our assumptions about game mechanics, about our roles as players, about how we are supposed to interact with and think about videos games, and rips them apart, forcing us to examine them in more depth.
Most of Undertale‘s meta-ness comes from the Genocide Run, which is the run that comes closest to traditional RPG-playing behavior. Kill all the enemies who attack you. Grind areas in order to level up. Keep fighting those tough bosses over and over until you defeat them. You can’t take more than three steps into a Genocide Run without feeling like a completely heartless monster, but the mechanics of it are nothing players haven’t seen and done many times before. The only difference here is that the bosses you destroy are portrayed as good people, and all the towns ahead of you evacuate in terror. If you play Undertale like a traditional RPG, you can’t actually fully play Undertale, because almost every element beyond killing people disappears as a consequence of your murder spree. While the Pacifist run takes around twelve hours to experience, the Genocide run takes about three (not counting fighting Sans, which we’ll get to later). You get lots of new plot information, but you don’t really get the game.
In fact, by the end of the Genocide Run, the player isn’t really even in control of the game at all. They’re helplessly watching the story unfold. One of Undertales‘s biggest horror elements is its subversion of the idea that the player always gets a say in what happens. They move the character around the screen. They pick the dialogue options. They’re the ones directing the game. But just as the Pacifist Run reveals that the player character isn’t named what the player thought they were named, the Genocide Run reveals that the player character was never under the player’s control in the first place. It has a mind of its own, and it just happened to want to share your plans for total annihilation. It starts with the player character walking forward without any instruction from the player, ignoring any puzzles entirely, and if the player ignores the many opportunities to stop being evil, it ends with the player character slaughtering any character who appears in front of them without a single button press from the player. When the player character finally turns and addresses the player, they give the appearance of one last choice — destroy the world, or stop. “Since when were you the one in control?”, the player character asks if the player attempts to back out, before giving them a jump scare, and destroying the world anyway.
The player character isn’t the only self-aware character in the game, not the only character with a mind of their own that stretches beyond game mechanics. The infamous fight with Sans is almost unbeatable precisely because Sans acts with an awareness of the player and their motivations. He knows the enemy can keep fighting until they win, thanks to save files, so he doesn’t aim to kill the player, but to make the fight so difficult and frustrating that the player eventually gives up instead. The only way to stop the progression of the story is to convince the player to stop playing. So he cheats with game mechanics. He attacks the player first, before they have chance to make their move. He attacks the player out of turn, inside the menu. He refuses to take his turn, because if he doesn’t move, the player can never move either.
Of course, no one plays the Genocide Run when they first start the game. People who know about the Pacifist Run, or pick up the hints from Toriel, don’t kill anybody, and “regular” players will end up on some form of the Neutral Run, killing some bosses and enemies, leaving others, before realizing where they went wrong and replaying it as a Pacific Run. Most people come to the Genocide Run because the internet told them that it revealed more of the story, or that it unlocked a different experience in the game. They do it either out of a sense of completionism, or out of pure curiosity.
Basically, you erase a save file where you gave everyone a happy ending, and then go back and kill all the characters you spent hours befriending, just because the option is there. Because you have to complete it. Because you have to know.
It makes me think of my Skyrim game, where my non-magical character was head of the mages, and head of the assassins, and the thieves, and a werewolf, and murdered someone in front of a guard in every town, and killed people to get evil magical items, and, and, and… all because these things were achievements, and so needed to be done. Undertale doesn’t have any achievements, perhaps as part of the idea that your decisions have consequences, and that you shouldn’t just recklessly replay the game and make different choices for the sake of doing every possible thing.
Because Undertale is, at its heart, about how we approach video games. It’s about the assumption that we have to go through and fight and kill everything we encounter, even if, as in this game, we’re technically the invader in the world. It’s the fact that we might be willing to kill Toriel, even if we don’t want to, just because we feel that we need to progress in the game, we can’t possibly stay in the ruins, and we can’t figure out how else to get past her. It plays with our knowledge of how we’re Supposed to play an RPG — that the red bar means kill, that EXP must be collected, we have to level up, grind for experience, that being more powerful is an achievement worth pursuing.
In fact, if you take a Pacifist Run, you’re taunted about your refusal to play by an RPG’s rules. Flowey promises you that you can’t possibly finish a Pacifist Run, because you’ll get too frustrated. Some of the enemies are really hard, and pacifists never gain any HP in the game. At a certain point, the player has to ask themselves — do I keep trying, and dying, and getting frustrated, or do I just kill this enemy and progress? I have to admit, I came close with Muffet. I really regretted eating that spider donut.
I didn’t do a Genocide Run. Honestly, I would never have been able to finish a Genocide Run, because I’m not that good at dodging attacks (thanks, Sans), but I decided that it would be too horrible to kill all the characters I love. So, feeling slightly smug about how nice and good I am, I sat down to watch a Let’s Play of it, because I still wanted to know all the plot stuff hidden there.
Of course, the game had a message for me as well. I sat through Flowey’s creepy speech calling the player evil because they’re murdering people just because they can, feeling so good about myself that I wasn’t playing a Genocide Run… and then immediately got punched in the gut when the game turned on me. “At least we’re better than those sickos that stand around and WATCH it happen. Those pathetic people that want to see it, but are too weak to do it themselves. I bet someone like that’s watching right now, aren’t they…?”
Well. That told me.
And the game does not forgive. As players, we’re accustomed to the idea that we can return to previous save files to fix our mistakes and re-make decisions, and, if that’s not available, that we can at least start a new game and wipe the slate clean. Not in Undertale. If you finish a Pacifist Run, the game begs you not to reset things and take everyone’s happiness away, and if you do, people will have vague recollections of you. If you finish a Genocide Run, the game won’t let you reset things entirely. You reopen the game to a black empty wasteland, nothing left at all. If you want the chance to erase your evilness and play the game again, you have to sell your soul to the Fallen Human, and you can never do a true Pacifist Run again. You will always have that evil inside you, affecting the plot of the game.
Because actions have consequences, even if you try to erase them.
Undertale’s greatest strength is the way it forces the player to question the very nature of RPGs and the way we approach them. It takes the inherent mindlessness of the genre, which tells us to attack anyone marked as an enemy, that drives us to do things simply for achievements or completionism, and makes us ask why.
And also lets us go on a date with a skeleton. It can’t be philosophy all the time.