Undertale is charming in a way that I found surprisingly refreshing: it’s telling a story, the story leads off with a major conflict but almost immediately shrinks to a personal level, and then the personal level gets a lightweight touch. And that doesn’t combine to make the game feel slight: it makes the game feel human.

And that’s all pretty remarkable, but I don’t have much to say about that aspect of the game. So, instead, I’ll talk about another design choice Undertale made: your ability to make it past enemies by empathizing instead of fighting.


I’d heard about that going into the game; I’d also heard that a pacifist route was quite difficult, and so for a first playthrough you probably shouldn’t go full-out pacifist? But it wasn’t that bad at the start: confusing, yes, because I got out of a battle but I didn’t get any experience so I couldn’t tell at first if I’d instead triggered some sort of escape mechanic?

Eventually, though, I realize that there were changes in the UI (yellow text, basically) that signaled that I’d triggered the ability to resolve battles peacefully; so yes, I was resolving conflicts, I wasn’t just avoiding them. I did wonder about the consequences of not gaining experience, but I figured I’d worry about that more when the time came.

Then I hit a boss battle, and Undertale seemed pretty insistent that talking wouldn’t work to get past that conflict; after trying a few times, I concluded that the game was telling the truth about that fight, so I switched over to fighting. Which wasn’t too bad; and, after that, I jumped from level 1 straight to level 5 (and from 20 to 36 hit points).


That was pretty clearly the end of a chapter of the game, and it seemed like a surprisingly large jump in my level, more than would be justified by a single fight. So at this point my mental model was that the game levels you up somewhat at the end of chapters even if you’re taking a pacifist route. Which makes sense as a design choice; hopefully the game won’t descend into the BioShock approach of making the two paths numerically identical, but being able to continue in the game as enemies get leveled up seems like a good idea.

My mental model was not, in fact, correct, however: there is actually a hidden pacifist approach to that boss. (Which annoys me a bit — I don’t really like that sort of active misdirection or needing to resort to GameFAQs — but only a bit.) But it took me quite a while to realize that I’d misunderstood what happened: my one instance of leveling up was after a special event, so I wasn’t sure what qualified as a chapter ending boss fight in my hypothetical model. Eventually, though, I’d made it to enough sorts of areas and fought enough unusually strong enemies that it was clear that I wasn’t going to be leveling up every so often, and a look at GameFAQs confirmed that I’d missed a pacifist approach to that boss.

Which made me a bit sad, if only because that one boss was a quite nice person, and probably the nicest person that you actually fight against, so I wish I hadn’t killed them! The thing is, though, having 36 hit points instead of 20 hit points was really useful: it let me make it past strings of normal enemies even as I approached the end of the game, and while, as the game went on, I did have to retry boss fights and use items during boss fights to boost my health, the boss fights remained doable.

So, ultimately, the game probably would have been much less pleasant if I had gone completely pacifist; and, if I hadn’t, my choice would have been to occasionally slaughter non-boss enemies even though that probably wasn’t necessary (which wouldn’t have felt right) or to fight one of the other bosses (which might still have been difficult, and which might have been less fun given that I actually enjoyed some of the boss fight interactions). Given all that, I probably accidentally mostly made the right choice (which, of course, the game strongly nudged me to do); I just wish that first boss hadn’t been such a nice person!


Ultimately, though, it turned out that 36 hit points wasn’t quite enough: I made it up to Asgore, one of the final bosses of the game, I was already on the edge at the end of my abilities, I was a little low on health items, and there wasn’t a shop nearby to allow me to easily replenish. I took a couple of swings at him, but I decided that I wouldn’t enjoy the combination of backtracking to get items and repeatedly fighting Asgore to improve my skills that would be required to make it past him. (In retrospect, I guess the third option would have been to level up by fighting some wandering monsters; for whatever reason, that didn’t even come to mind at the time.)

So I decided to give up then and stop playing. I almost always complete games that I start, so in general I would expect this to leave a bad taste in my mind. But, with Undertale, somehow that actually felt satisfying. Basically, I was playing as a kid going through a world of monsters: I was trying to talk my way out of trouble, and I’d made friends along the way, but ultimately, there were a lot of scary folks around. And also, the monsters had been treated quite badly by humans, and hence had reasons to want to attack those humans. So having the game come down to a final battle between a king who wants to do best for his people but who doesn’t feel good about killing a human kid and a human kid who’s gotten surprisingly far but is really over his head, and then having the king kill the kid, seemed to hit the right note of melancholic response to a situation that’s bad for everybody.


That’s how my playthrough of Undertale went, and it left me with a huge amount of respect for the game. Because the almost-universal default for RPGs (and, indeed, for a wide range of games) is for you to play as a mass murder; usually as a psychopath, occasionally as a person who expresses regret but then returns to slaughter. And I don’t feel at all comfortable with that these days.

One possibility for dealing with this is to allow a “good” route, and to provide mechanisms where the good route isn’t that hard, or, in the worst cases (BioShock again, though I wouldn’t call that game’s good route actually good in any serious moral sense), isn’t any harder at all than the bad route. But a choice like that is, from my point of view, a moral abdication: it’s letting you feel good about yourself without seriously grappling with the nature of the mass-murder route. And, of course, not letting you have that choice is a different sort of moral abdication: only allowing the possibility of choosing horrifically immoral behavior or not playing the game at all is not successfully confronting evil either.

Undertale, in contrast, confronts you with a choice but doesn’t sugar-coat it: you can be a decent person, and in fact there are a lot of other people in the game who are also decent people and who explicitly decide not to attack you even when told to do so. But, if you do that, the game is going to be quite a lot tougher; you can choose what sort of person you want to be, but that choice is going to have consequences, and you won’t like them.


I’m not going to present Undertale as the ultimate state of what I think moral choice in games should be like. For one thing, the RPG legacy of constant violent encounters is still there; for another thing, in the real world, decent behavior generally does actually have an impact, it’s just that the impact is unpredictable and plays out in a way that is often functionally quite different from the impact of bad behavior.

Though of course, in the real world as in Undertale, lots of people don’t benefit at all from good behavior in the sense that RPGs like to measure, with some clear external number (e.g. your bank account balance!) going up. So actually maybe Undertale is doing better than I gave it credit for in the previous paragraph: maybe it’s doing a good job of modeling the experience of structural oppression, where you’re constantly under attack, where you might be able to make it out of some individual instances of that attack with your soul intact by dancing around cleverly enough that you don’t get hurt too much, but where, ultimately, for almost everybody, the sum total of those assaults will wear you down too much for you to win. (Or at least Undertale’s pacifist route is behaving that way; the route embracing violence becomes much less realistic in that reading, because that route should also turn out difficult.)


Interesting game. (And charming, too, even though I didn’t talk about that much!) I’m very glad it’s out there, I’m very glad I played it, I hope it will spark thoughts in other game developers.

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