Toby Fox’s Undertale presents players with an odyssey of moral choices, conveyed through irreverent humour that parodies the tropes of the RPG genre. Undertale’s innovations on morality mechanics have made the game a sensation by providing players with a sophisticated system of choice based on morality. After being hounded for weeks by half a dozen friends to play the game, I finally sat down and devoted the necessary hours to doing so. I went for the so-called ‘pacifist’ route first, where the player must not only avoid killing any NPCs, but also befriend specific ones, before starting a second playthrough where I treated the game like and run-of-the-mill RPG and killed every monster I came across.
Mechanisms offering moral choice in video games before Undertale were, at best, intriguing side-notes that slightly altered certain outcomes, and at worst, nuisances or self-parodies of their respective games. Fallout 4’s dialogue system has recently been parodied and undermined, its banality lambasted online by gamers criticising the game’s illusion of moral choice (essentially the player’s tone-of-voice is all that changes with each choice in the vanilla game, culminating most often in a presentation of three different ways of saying “yes” and one way of saying “no” to an NPC’s request).
While many games have been heralded for taking the mechanism of the moral choice up a notch (the Fable series, the Mass Effect series, the Infamous series, the Elder Scrolls games, Papers Please, etc.), these games still succumb to the transparent binary of good vs. evil, a standard package often delivered differently or in degrees, but ultimately crafted using the same ingredients. As Paul Suddaby points out, “this system only gives the illusion of choice, since the best and most interesting abilities can only be unlocked by becoming extremely good or extremely evil, it is in the player’s best interest to pick an alignment at the beginning and stick with it until the end” (Suddaby). The Escapist’s Chris Rio further notes that, of the two polar choices such games present, there is almost always “no consequence for either choice other than a small change in karma” (Rio).
In Undertale, the player’s choices affect virtually all aspects of the narrative’s progression, NPC dialogue, available choices, and the game’s conclusion. Additionally, once the player completes the game, choices made in the previous playthrough affect the following one. Certain endings can only be achieved after completing the game and restarting. In other words, Undertale coaxes players
“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” (Charles).
Completing a pacifist run of Undertale is considerably more difficult than playing through the game as if it were a conventional RPG. Ultimately, the player is charged with redeeming themselves from the start.
Undertale presents the player’s character as a fallen figure, one who must prove themselves in order to escape the chthonic realm they have found themselves in. In addition to a fallen protagonist (one steeped in the ‘killing machine’ mentality of conventional RPGs), Undertale also utilizes biblical and satanic imagery (goat monarchs, a ‘primrose path’ introduction to the game’s underworld, and bosses loosely tied to the seven deadly sins). The game’s rejection of conventional morality mechanics seems to contradict its use of such morally binary imagery, however the game’s efforts to garner sympathy for the monsters of the underworld, who lack the souls of humans but also lack the human capacity for sadism and violence, displaces the conventional ‘hero’ status of the protagonist. The player in Undertale is invited not to slay monsters that approach them with hostility, but to understand and identify with them. Presented with this choice, players soon realize that “these fights can be won non-violently, but only through puzzle solving” (Muncy).
In Undertale, figuring out how to resolve each monster encounter non-violently requires a degree of emotional manipulation of each NPC the player encounters by exploring the options available during each encounter. This manipulation, coupled with the game’s themes of mass-surveillance (cameras hidden in bushes, a town names ‘Snowdin’, etc.), reinforce a disturbing premise: the costs of non-violent resistance. As Jake Muncy puts it, “Non-violent resistance, after all, is a performance of sorts: resisters play a role in response to an aggressor, ceding one type of power in the hopes of gaining another. In doing so, [players] submit to significant constraint and the possibility of intractable failure. Being beaten or jailed is not a failure of non-violent resistance, it’s a state that’s planned for and accepted as a possibility” (Muncy).
Undertale’s moral mechanic avoids both the easy binary of good vs. evil, and the simplistic systems employed by other games with moral mechanics, systems which confine moral choices to subsidiary and superficial categories that only affect gameplay tangentially. Undertale innovates upon the notion of moral choice in gameplay by offering players a world where their moral inclinations have fundamental implications on the game’s narrative.