[FIGHT] or [MERCY]? Challenging Player Morality in Undertale

Powered by Geek & Sundry

Undertale, a turn-based RPG from  Toby Fox has hit the internet like a hurricane. I haven’t been able to browse anywhere without seeing some fanart, joke, or reference to the game. Having finally finished my third playthrough, I now see why. With a lovable cast of characters, funny yet heartfelt writing, bumping tunes, and a fight-system that is both retro and innovative, Undertale has easily become one of my favorite games of this year.

Photo Credit: tobyfox

What makes this quirky little RPG stand-out is that it succeeds where a number of games that promise “moral choice” fail: by presenting the player with true choices, merging those choices into its gameplay and narrative, and being consistent and firm about the consequences of those choices. Before I get into Undertale though, I want to survey the current landscape of moral choice.

For some time now, the ability to make moral decisions in games has almost become a staple. How many games have you played where you can spare a major baddy or kill them? Or where destroying the city gives you red points while rescuing kittens give you blue points? Infamous, Overlord, Fable, Red Dead Redemption. The list of games that feature some kind of morality meter goes on and on.

The ultimate gauge of whether or not you’re a good person.

Photo Credit: Bioware

At the end of the day, these choices are fairly simplistic. While they may alter the ending, they lack weight. You can be a saintly goody goody or puppy kicking baddy, but the game never changes in a meaningful way. Other games are inconsistent about morality across different facets of gameplay; you can butcher legions of mooks in a dungeon, but as long as you save enough kittens, you’re still a squeaky clean pacifist.

While poor use of moral choices has nothing to do with the quality of these games, or even their overall narratives, in a world where the executing even vicious criminals is a complicated and hotly debated topic, this simplistic of morality feels juvenile. It doesn’t hit the complexity that great novels or films have reached in challenging our sense of right and wrong.

RPGs tend to take their expressions of player morality a few steps further–whether it’s a Bioware or Obsidian game, The Witcher, Shin Megami Tensei or a legion of JRPGs–these games present the player with a myriad of options in terms of conflict resolution and in-game ethics that hold sincere weight. They opt for thoughtful grey and grey where most games opt for black and white.

Photo Credit: Bethesda Game Studios

Yet many RPGs still struggle with player morality and usually it’s because of consequence. Your choices may change the flavor text of the ending, but nothing else. A major decision may tear up your insides, it may have nasty short-term fallout, but a minute later it’s back to the status quo. Your character can plead for world peace, then kill 10 bears for their asses and the game never calls you out. If the previous games I listed are too simple, then many RPGs I’ve played can be complex yet too shallow.

This is where Undertale shines. Every battle, from a random encounter to a major boss, is an opportunity to show mercy or to kill, and there are consequences throughout. Think the game doesn’t care about you slaying a lifeless dummy? Wait till you get to the junkyard. No one will notice that you accidentally killed two Froggits, right? Go and try to befriend Undyne. Dialogue changes, NPCs change, the story and tone of the game changes in reaction to your choices. The game’s narrative is directly linked to the decisions it presents, along with its theme of non-violence (or the ultimate consequences of violence) and there are no disconnects or deceptions. It is just as difficult to kill everyone as it is to spare them, with a number of variations in-between.

Photo Credit: tobyfox

The effect on the player is visceral. Throughout the game, I constantly found myself reflecting on what I’d done and the consequences it led to. I was heart broken for being unable to prevent Toriel’s fate on my first playthrough, then overjoyed when I did on my pacifist run. I remember the jarring dissonance of seeing enemies as nothing but free EXP on my first run only to view them as cute, quirky characters and later friends during my pacifist run. Only to watch all the games’ warmth, humor and joy disappear during the genocide route.  All of this done effortlessly, with a huge amount of humor, heart, and even outright terror.

Me too, Napstablook.

Photo Credit: tobyfox

This is the true power of a video game and any form of art: the ability to challenge the viewer even as they are entertained. To make us examine ourselves not through comparison, but direct participation–through cause and effect. By not only presenting clear moral choices (to kill or not to kill) but by presenting long-term consequences for those choices, Undertale is able to challenge the player on where they stand in regards to violence. This is what makes it such a fantastic game and I’m hopeful that other developers will take notes in regard to their own use of player choice and morality.

Photo Credit: tobyfox

If you want to play Undertale for yourself, you can purchase it on Steam. Please feel free to discuss the game in the comments below. Just be mindful of spoilers.

Feature Image Credit: tobyfox

Top Stories
Trending Topics