I’ve slain a lot of fantasy creatures in my time. That’s the way most role playing games work: you kill monsters, you gain experience, you level up, and eventually you fight the last boss of the game and you win. Toby Fox’s indie RPG Undertale subverts a system that I’ve become quite comfortable with over the years and instead offers you the option of seeking a nonviolent resolution to every single fight in the game, from random encounters all the way to the final boss.
The story of Undertale is beautifully simple: you play as a human child of indeterminate gender who has fallen down into the monster world, and has to choose whether to save or destroy it as you find your way back home. It’s a ghostly Alice-In-Wonderland story with characters that are every bit as outlandish and memorable. But this fairy tale’s Alice has some heavy choices to make along the way.
Even though my fantasy trophy room is lined with the heads of slimes and cactuars by the hundreds, I do tend to play the kindhearted role in games when I’m given the choice between choosing an good or evil path. But usually even taking the “good” path means killing a lot of random monsters, or bandits, or postapocalyptic raiders. It’s only the big dramatic decisions that decide whether you are a hero or villain, not the thousands of insignificant creatures you kill in the name of gaining levels and powering up. The world of Undertale works differently, though. Every monster is treated as a life, with insecurities and motivations of its own. Whether it’s a wannabe commedian trying to tell jokes to you even as he attacks you (and worrying that his father is right and he won’t ever make it as a comic), to the adorable Tsunderplane (a sentient airplane that might have a crush on you, and is only attacking so you won’t realize she actually likes you), every random encounter has a soul. Right from the start, the game appeals to the player’s sense of empathy, humanizing the enemies it throws at you and challenging you to find peaceful ways to end the encounter instead of butchering them for the experience points.
Empathy is in short supply in gaming. From all the First Person Shooter clones that train you to see human beings through the scope of a rifle, to RPGs that send armies of fantasy creatures after you, most games reward you for not caring. Undertale’s empathy-based gameplay is a refreshing change, but by being the exception it throws a glaring light on the rule. Adventure games train us to mow down hordes of foes without a second thought, and they reward us for doing it. In fact, Undertale‘s gameplay is so counter-intuitive to me that when I realized after sparing my first few monsters that I wasn’t getting any experience points for it, I strongly considered abandoning my original plan to complete the game nonviolently. Because I wanted to go up a level and see my stats increase. It sounds horrible when I think about how much I came to care for all the characters I encountered, but my first instinct was to feel cheated that I was going to miss out on growing more powerful. Where does that instinct come from? The answer, of course, is that a lifetime of Final Fantasies, Dragon Quests, and Mass Effects have taught me to enjoy the feeling of gain that comes from killing enemies without a care. I like getting cool new weapons and having my strength and health points increase. The phrase “Level Up!” is music to my ears. And that’s because most games don’t work at making you feel that your bloodthirsty actions have any cost. Well, in Undertale they do.
If you kill monsters in Undertale, eventually they are gone for good. The weird deer creature whose antlers kids draped in gaudy Christmas decorations? Gone. The dog knight that really just wants to be petted? Erased from the world. You can kill everyone. The game’s bosses? Each one can be destroyed, just like they are in countless other games, but in this world it’s going to cost you, because if you choose to play nonviolently, to do what the fans are calling a “pacifist run” of the game, they can become your friends. You can have friends that are skeletons and ghosts, a mermaid knight and a reptilian scientist that loves anime, all monsters that you can turn into allies and get to know better and have fun with. And all it costs you is some silly experience points and level-ups. Who cares about things like that when you can go on a date with a puzzle-loving, pasta cooking skeleton dork? And that’s Undertale‘s secret: it finds other ways to reward you. A peaceful playthrough of the game can be tough. You never seem to have enough health because you never went up a level, so the 20 health points you start with are the 20 health points you enter the final battle with. You get hurt. You die a lot. But you get friends and the reward of knowing you are doing the compassionate thing. And that is something that thrills me. Violence is the easy answer to problems. Love is harder, and leaves you hurt, but it is the power that saves rather than destroy. I’d rather make friends of these cool characters than kill them. They are monsters, but they are also people.
Having finished my pacifist run of Undertale, I can say confidently that love and kindness are rewarded in ways far better than merely making your character more powerful. It stands in stark contrast to the sea of games that encourage the player to put personal power and advancement over friendship and kindness. If that sounds sappy, well it fits the charm and humor of the game, but maybe we should question why love in gaming sounds silly to us, but killing a score of enemies to gain a level makes perfect sense. In a way, playing Undertale is like retraining your gaming brain. It rewards player empathy and caring, and it leaves you wishing there were more like it.