Talkin’ bout Undertale Part 2: Undertale and Morality
Let’s address this right out of the gate. Both the narrative and the gameplay of Undertale are built around an inherent morality system. If you know anything about the game, you know that much.
And if you don’t, you shouldn’t be reading this.
Play the game first. Then read Part 1 of this series. Then come back here.
It’s a relatively simple morality system: kill enemies or don’t kill enemies. Murder or don’t murder. In the real world, it’s a very clear distinction. In the game world, it’s a little fuzzier, since it’s rare to find an RPG (or video game, in general) that doesn’t at least imply mass murder.
Undertale makes it a little clearer. And after a while, it is… less than subtle.
So let’s talk about the “morality” system of Undertale. In doing so, we’re now fully into spoiler territory, and I’ve told you enough times to stop reading and play it yourself if you haven’t already, so I’m going to stop keeping up the pretense of even trying to not spoil the plot. We’re getting in there now.
But first, we need to cover the usual form of “morality” in games.
Plenty of video games have deployed some variation of a morality system, usually as some kind of level-up or dialogue mechanic. The Fable and Infamous series, pretty much anything from Bethesda or Bioware, and even obscure puzzle-platformer Catherine, have (at least at one point) used binary morality systems in which your character generally moves toward “good” or “evil” based generally on dialogue/gameplay options you choose.
But this isn’t really indicative of player actions, just player choice. With few exceptions, this option is generally presented to you in a situation where the game literally pauses and asks you, “Would you like 20 blue points and this gun, or 20 red points and this armor?”
Usually, that choice is more about what’s better to power up your character than what’s morally right or wrong. It’s less a decision based on actual morality and more about unlocking powers or equipment.
As a result, the idea of a binary “good guy/bad guy” system is considered rather trite at this point, simply because the choices involved are often contrived and comically extreme.
In most of those games, the gameplay revolves around attacking and killing thousands of people (or sentient creatures, at least). Naturally, most of those situations are presented as self-defense or justified violence to protect innocents, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
But it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim “Paragon of Virtue” status with copious amounts of blood on your hands, and it isn’t as though those games typically make you feel some sort of moral recompense for the act of taking down those enemies.
If anything, the games generally tend to mask the idea of your protagonist murdering thousands of people by de-humanizing the antagonists. Give them helmets, armor, masks, foreign languages, alien features. Anything to make them faceless “bad guy objects” instead of actual breathing creatures with thoughts, emotions, and families.
Spec Ops: The Line touches on this concept, as I discussed some time ago.
But Spec Ops: The Line and Undertale, while they have similar styles of “judging” their players, go about their messages differently. In Spec Ops, playing the game at all is what makes the player a monster. The plot is on rails, the violence is largely unavoidable, and progressing through a series of increasingly questionable moral decisions to advance the story is what the game starts directly criticizing the player for.
In Undertale, there is choice and agency involved. The game gives you the option to play the game through as a soulless genocidal maniac, or basically Gandhi. And that spectrum covers a bunch of stuff in between. The game’s story, music, and environments will respond drastically in kind.
Here’s Grillby’s, in Snowdin Town, in the midst of a Pacifist playthrough.
But what happens if you go through killing everybody? Well, then you get this:
But what about if you’re playing through on a neutral run, but have still killed a bunch of monsters? They shouldn’t be in the bar, right?
Undertale doesn’t tell you why certain characters are missing from the bar. It doesn’t have to. You know.
The “Pacifist,” “Neutral,” and “Genocide” routes of the game have different dialogue, music, encounters, core stories, and of course, endings. Rather than separate playthroughs of the same game, they are different enough to almost be considered separate games entirely. Even the basic mechanics change – you rarely use “fight” in the Pacifist run, and you rarely use “Act” in the Genocide run. The battles, at least, are as different mechanically as a rhythm game and visual novel.
But what’s notable here is that the decisions you make to earn these endings are neither incidental nor explicitly presented to you. You’re provided the choice in every single encounter, whether random or scripted, to either kill monsters or not kill them. The game simply reacts to your decisions. There’s no frozen time with a choice labelled “BIG DECISION” in front of you. Nothing pops up and gives you red or blue options.
This doesn’t happen. You just play the game the way you want to, and your regular gameplay actions are your moral decisions.
Now, in a way, that might be unclear in and of itself. It isn’t the norm for a game with a morality system to judge your actions before first asking you nicely what kind of playthrough you’d like. And it doesn’t even give you a meter to show where you are on the “good/evil” spectrum. The fact that the morality of Undertale isn’t measured in plain sight (at least, that you know of at first) makes it “hidden,” in a sense.
In most games, the player’s “moral” choices inform gameplay to a limited extent, but the nature of that gameplay (beating up/shooting/blowing up bad guys) remains basically unchanged. You gun down/beat up a few dozen (hundred?) enemies, then are presented with a scripted choice allowing you to choose whether you want to be good or bad.
In Undertale, the gameplay is the morality system. By the time you’ve finished the battle, the game has already registered your choices. Irreversibly, in some cases.
Now this still isn’t all that special by itself. It’s nice that Undertale is able to join gameplay with narrative, morality, and theming in a natural and elegant way.
But what’s special is the commitment it demands from the player to their decisions.
Undertale expects you, as a player, to make a choice, act on it, and commit to it, because it’s what you want. Not because it’s worth more paragon or renegade points. The only reason to choose one moral path over the other is because you want to do it. You want to see it.
And you have to really want to do it.
To earn the Pacifist ending, you go through the game and don’t kill a single enemy. Ever. That means getting through every encounter with a maximum of 20 hit points, all the while solving the puzzles of how to get enemies to back down from fighting you.
Naturally, the Genocide ending requires the opposite: Kill every enemy in the game.
Now, this is important. “Kill every enemy” does not mean you go through the game normally and never use the “mercy” option.
Genocide means actual genocide. It’s not just kill everyone you see, it means stay and search around in every single area, hunting, searching every corner until every single living creature in the area has been eliminated by your hand. Once you’ve done this, you will stop getting random encounters, because there is nothing left to encounter. You have killed everything.
As you might imagine, both of these extremes take a lot of work, and are not entirely intuitive. The result is that a neutral ending to the game (which qualifies as everything between “1 monster killed” and “1 monster left alive”) is almost guaranteed for most blind playthroughs.
To avoid it, you have to decide in the first 10 minutes of the game to either kill absolutely nothing and nobody, or kill absolutely everything and everybody, loitering in each area until you “finish the job.” And as I pointed out in the first part of this series, figuring out how to do either of those things with no prior knowledge can be really tricky.
Furthermore, if you do actually commit to either extreme, the game will try to throw you off of it. You’re not going to accidentally trip into either of the non-neutral endings. You’re going to be faced with your decisions at every turn, confronted and asked if this is really what you want. In some cases, it will look like what you want to do is impossible… or at least a bad time.
Because of the game’s tendency to constantly pull you towards the middle, taking either the Genocide or Pacifist routes means taking full ownership of that set of decisions, sometimes defying the game’s natural progression in the process.
And this is where Undertale starts to play with your head. Because it knows that you need to be going out of your way to be on either of these routes, it starts needling you for your decisions, trying to make you feel bad for what you’re doing.
On the Pacifist route, many of the monsters are openly hostile to you, and you’re eventually told that the ultimate goal of the game – escaping the Underground – will be impossible without killing at least one monster. Frequently, the route to peacefully pacifying an enemy is not clear (they can be like dialogue puzzles), and you’ll end up dead a couple times trying to figure it out. And maybe a couple more times trying to execute it (looking at you, Mettaton EX).
The Genocide route is even more hostile. In addition to needing to grind in every area for increasingly sparse random encounters, you can ruin the entire run simply by advancing too far before finishing each area. Encounters (especially boss encounters) become short and unsatisfying, except for two which are the arguably the most difficult, frustrating, and unfair of any in the entire game.
There is no way anyone would do this accidentally. It is a measured, calculated decision. And because the game knows this, it starts to treat you like a genocidal serial killer because you have started acting like one. You must have, and you must have committed to it and kept to it, or you wouldn’t be there.
This is the core of the matter. Because the Pacifist and Genocide runs are both impractical ways to play the game, the game goes beyond just reacting to your decisions and starts reacting to your thinking and assumptions that go into making those decisions. And in many cases, it’s right.
This creates a truly oppressive feeling of the game watching and judging all your actions, and you as the player begin to overthink every seemingly innocuous dialogue choice afforded to you. The game reinforces that by bringing a bunch of early-game decisions back to throw in your face – even things you may have missed entirely or not even thought twice about.
This isn’t always accomplished in a negative way. In fact, certain items you can obtain in the early part of the game (though more-or-less charitable actions) allow you to just immediately end a major boss encounter much later in the game, and others can be made easier. So the whole “actions have consequences” thing goes both ways.
Here’s something you encounter about 20 minutes into the game:
Buy a Spider Donut, keep it until the boss fight with Muffet, then eat it, and watch the consequences of an 8g purchase come into play about five or six gameplay hours later:
Boss fight over instantly, new friend made.
So I guess what I’m saying is that the world of Undertale feels very organic and alive. Because the setting of the game is very contained, your actions and their consequences have direct consequences on your very surroundings. Like being in any small town, if you do something bad, everybody knows about it immediately. If you kill creatures in the field, town populations get smaller. Everything about the game is designed to point and say to the player, “look, you did this.”
This is a good implementation of “choices have consequences.” There is, of course, value in black-boxing moral decisions like a TellTale game, often asking you to choose between “bad and also bad” without foreshadowing the consequences or fully explaining the link between your actions and their consequences.
But in many of those cases, it doesn’t really hit the player. By blurring the link between actions and consequences, these games create good drama, but fail to truly implicate the players for their role in it. They try, but it’s easy enough for players to throw their hands up and say “well, how was I supposed to know?” Players don’t feel responsible for outcomes they couldn’t have predicted, they just chalk it up to design and move on.
Undertale revels in telling you the consequences of your actions. But it tells you through good characterization, your direct effect on the game world, and needling into the player’s mindset to break down the fourth-wall barrier.
Once Undertale reveals that it is aware you have meta-level agency over the game world, it works very hard to ensure that you also feel the weight of that responsibility. It knows you are working against the tide, armed with your “Determination,” to achieve the outcome you want, and the game will stand in your way of doing it.
And you’ll do it anyway, and the game will respond in kind. It feels good. Or bad.
Either way, you decide.