This is an essay I wrote for a Video Games As Literature elective course in college way back in 2016. The grammar sucks and it’s also a giant block of text, the formatting and subject matter is very unlike anything else on this blog. It does, however, pretty much mark the point in my life where I officially decided to focus on journalistic and discourse writing… although I didn’t consciously realize it at the time… it is pretty obvious in retrospect.
I completely blew off a few of my other school projects, including one from the same class, so I can focus on this essay which must have ended up being, like, twice as long as the required length. I was hit with that writing fever and really wanted to make some tea about my thoughts on the whole non-violent video game discourse.
Although the grammar and boring college-style formatting makes me cringe, I resisted the urge to edit this for the sake of posterity. All I added is hyperlinks to my citations so you don’t have to scroll down to the bottom of the essay every time (except in the case where I could not find the original source).
CW for extreme internalized ableism on my part in some of the sections where I discussed the Woshua and Vulcan monsters, these sections have been left unedited. I am now also conflicted about my section on the Amalgamates for similar reasons.
CW for a discussion of euthanasia towards the end.Now, enjoy this artifact of mine
How do we want games to empower people? What makes a good female character? What about male characters? Do we even need to particularly care? Can we say a character is a bad character just because they are always running away from fights? Or because they solve ALL of their problems with a bullet to the noggin? All of these are current and important questions, and most of them have not done a good job of answering themselves. At the very least, most will agree that female protagonists have become more numerous and arguably varied, from Claudia, a young, physically handicapped engineer apprentice in a combat j-rpg/match-three hybrid (Legend Of Fae), to ‘The Crypt Of The Necrodancer’, and Chell from Portal. Expansions and re-boots on and of old female characters have been met with success and acclaim (well, most of theM, emphasis on the M1, if you get what I mean). However simultaneously there has been a large influx of new non-combat games, some call them the ‘first person walkers’, the indie phenomenon, IGN seems to think that they know why “non-violent games are taking over an industry” (Donnelly). But unlike the other questions at the beginning of my introduction, the question of how non-combat mechanics really serve a game’s ideology has not really been directly and critically asked very much.
Non-combat mechanics in games themselves are not necessarily new. In fact, there have been games that rely entirely on non-combat mechanics in the past. Cake Mania qualifies, since even through time travel shenanigans it seems you can apparently solve all of your problems by baking cake (Cake Mania 3). Super Granny was non-combat (I think, I’m not sure if I remember… I feel old.), Tetris was, Candy Crush is, the Harvest Moon series has been around since 1996, there was Oregon Trail (reportedly a very difficult game at that), and a lot of the numerous hidden object games would likely qualify. But it’s important to differentiate between non-combat, and kid-friendly. Dating Sims, while usually non-combat, are not always kid friendly. Mario on the other hand… It might be ‘kid friendly’ but calling it non-violent or non-combat at all could seem a little silly. You throw fireballs at things and are encouraged to do so for points, and for fun (because seriously who doesn’t like throwing fireballs?).
Let’s take a closer look at one of the more interesting case studies of a game that seems non-combat, but on an ontological level might not be. Pac-Man is a game were the goal is to eat all of the little yellow dots, avoid getting killed by the ghosts, and get a high score. The only mechanic is movement, Pac-man happens to eat whatever he runs into that doesn’t eat him. In order to eat all of the yellow dots, you need to avoid getting killed by ghosts by doing one of two things, run from them, or use the powers of a big dot to eat them (which, by the way, gives you a lot of points). But what do you do most of the time? There are only 4 big Dots on a level, the power of the big dot is only temporary, and if you do eat a ghost they do come back. By and large you spend much more time going after the dots and running from the ghosts than eating the ghosts… or do you?
Before we go any further we need to make an important distinction. This distinction is based on agency. Fast-forward for a minute to present day, where the distinction I am about to make actually is not entirely new. Several people have praised Mirrors Edge for being focused on its non-violent core mechanics rather than fighting. James Clements specifically states “At its heart, and at its best, the gameplay is non-violent and free flowing: two things combat heavily contrasts,”(Clements) making an argument that combat is aesthetically undesirable because it breaks the flow of what you are doing in Mirrors Edge. Also the game gives you an achievement for never shooting anyone. This would make the game non-combat on an ontological level, right? Well, yes and no. The problem is, despite Clements’s aesthetic preference for the non-combat route, there is a much more obvious reason why players may resort to the non-combat mechanics that was left unsaid. Like, say, you need to either RUN or DIE?
Why is the conclusion of that last paragraph important? Blooger XY feminist has responded to a similar question with a question of his own, “Does Faith ever really make the conscious choice not to resort to violence?”(XY feminist), he then responds to his own question by describing how in Mirrors Edge you are in fact, forced to complete a ‘boss fight’, and a scripted portion of the game in which you “are forced to use a sniper rifle to shoot at an armored truck, which kills the driver once the vehicle crashes”(XY feminist). (Notice they have an achievement for “not shooting anybody” as opposed to having an achievement for not killing anybody). So Faith does kill a few people through indirect means, and she can get into a fist fight, but this alone would not significantly change the ontological nature of the game. After all, she is still making the choice to run when she could otherwise fight right? Well, there’s a compelling argument otherwise.
If you know you can get killed from just one or two punches from this guy, what kind of statement do you think it makes when you run? Likely it’s more about weakness than it is about pacifism or non-combat. XY feminist argues that the game is not really non-violent because of this, “While a few stray bullets won’t even phase Faith while she’s running away, she is nonetheless easily knocked back, stunned, and KO’d after only a few punches from a lone police officer, forcing a restart… Disarms also don’t help you against groups of enemies, as the disarm move stops you dead in your tracks, leaving you vulnerable to enemy fire… So Mirror’s Edge makes combat undesirable not by personal or moral choice, but by underscoring the fragility of their female lead” (XY feminist). While I do have my reservations on the conclusions of his article regarding how we should define non-violence, he does identify a very important distinction between how non-combat mechanics can be portrayed in video games.
It is necessary to separate non-combat mechanics into two distinct natures. When non-combat is forced as a necessity, non-combat as disempowerment. Or when non-combat is either a choice or portrayed as most desirable, non-combat as empowerment. Cake Mania 3, for example, can be interpreted being non-combat as empowerment because even though you, the player, don’t really have a choice, the non-combat actions you are taking are portrayed as most desirable. However, it gets complicated when a non-combat game such as “Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons” ends in tragedy, which should presumably be undesirable. Needless to say it is often impossible to designate an entire game as strictly adhering to one of the above categories. But the above categories are a very useful tool in analyzing the mechanics in a game for the purpose of looking at the ontological whole.
Back to Pac-Man now, what do you really spend most of your time doing in Pac-Man? Pac-Man is forced to run from the ghosts out of necessity, after all, he doesn’t want to die. It’s no small detail that what gives Pac-man the power to eat the ghosts is just yet another big dot that needs cleared from the level. It’s a goal, and its power is automatically activated. Additionally, there are many reasons why the player will want to make an active effort to eat the ghosts. It is first of all, the easiest way to deal with them, as opposed to running away. But even if you are good at running from the ghosts, there is a feature that encourages players to actively lure the ghosts into a particular position before eating the big dot, so that they can eat all 4 ghosts at once. It might seem alien to some gamers today, but once upon a time getting a high score was actually a pretty big deal. Your score was used to determine how good you are at a game, and the fact that your score is shown prominently on your ‘game over’ screen, made it easier to remember than the number of the level you died in. Additionally, there really was no conclusion in your games back then, the only closure you get is the achievement of your highest score. So now that we understand that one’s score, in the original context of the game, is an important measure, let’s do some math. The first ghost you eat gives you 200 points, but the second gives you 400 points, it continues to double. If you can eat all four consecutive ghosts using the same Power Pellet, combined you end up with a total of 3,000 points from all of the ghosts. 3,000 points in 5 seconds or less. For some perspective, the little pellets, will earn you at most 100 points is 5 seconds, or ten points per pellet. It doesn’t take a psychology major to realize why eating the ghosts is so appealing.
Furthermore, the ghosts being enemies you are really supposed to be eating is backed up by a cut scene shown after stage 2 (fun fact: Pac-Man was one of the first games to feature cutscenes, which were called ‘intermissions’ back then. (Pac-Man/Getting Started)). In this scene, we see Pac-Man closely followed by Blinky (The Red Ghost), they both leave the screen. However, in a humorous but also notably triumphant conclusion, we see vulnerable Blinky running back across the screen, followed by a super-sized Pac-Man in close pursuit. Almost every player will see this cutscene, since you only need to beat one level, furthermore, most will see it more than once through multiple attempts at the game. Even just mechanically, due to the large point bonus, expert players are going to purposefully lure the ghosts where they want so that they can eat at least 2-3 of them at once.(***) In this case, Pac-Man is only feigning running away. One of Pac-Man’s primary goals is to ‘battle’ or eat the ghosts, in a way that involves physical harm and/or combat. Pac-Man wants to eat the Ghosts. It’s a somewhat similar scenario to what can happen in an rpg like Final Fantasy. Let’s say you are low on health, are out of healing items, and you know that you are going to die in the next turn. Do you ‘Run’? So you run from a demon from hell in order to avoid a game over screen and losing your progress. Could Final Fantasy be considered a non-combat game because of this? Not really… I asked my mom, who was a Ms.Pac-Man expert back in her day, about this topic, and she said simply that in Pac-Man games, “You are trying to eat the ghosts,” when you play Pac-Man. (Garrow)
Technically, Running is a non-combat mechanic. Specifically, these examples of running in video games are non-combat as disempowerment. Several Horror games do in fact capitalize on this type of mechanic to back up its core ontological message. However, the case of Pac-Man and Final Fantasy, rather than the mechanic defining the game, the game is defining the mechanic.
Just like Mirrors Edge might be attempting to send the message that combat is impractical, “having Faith choose to flee from enemies that can easily beat her is merely a statement of common sense”(XY feminist), it can also go the other way around; impractical or otherwise non- impactfully2 (relative to the game as a whole) implemented non-combat mechanics in an otherwise combat game can make a negative ontological statement about non-combat, or fail to make a positive ontological statement for non-combat within the game’s universe.
The interesting recent turn of events regarding this relationship is within the last few years there has been a large influx of primarily non-combat games within just the past three years or so. A while before this, Pheonix Wright Ace Attorney has maintained a niche but well sustaining fandom since the early 2000s, a game that is based entirely around non-combat detective, word-play, and hidden-object mechanics. Pheonix Wright has had many sequels and spin-offs, and crossovers (both fan-made and canon) also the main character has been featured as a playable character in Marvel Vs Capcom 3. But what was likely the real pre-lude for the current success of non-combat outside of the Casual market is a first person puzzler, Portal, becoming the surprise hit with hard-core gamers. Puzzle Quest (A match-three game that appealed outside the typical casual market) came out in the same year as Portal, but it wasn’t until after 2010 that the awaiting fad really took off. Journey, The Stanly Parable, Papo and Yo, Life Is Strange, Dear Esther, Gone Home, Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, and Ether One all came out in quick succession. The trend seems like it will continue at least to some extent with the upcoming Tacona, a Mirrors Edge reboot, a non-combat MMO called Wander, and VR capabilities in general.
However, the most notable of which I will focus on is Undertale. It’s actually an oddity among the bunch. But could be a harbinger of some radical changes if other developers decide to follow their lead or develop responses. Spoilers up ahead btw, for Undertale I mean. At first it seems like a traditional pixelated looking combat J-RPG. But once you start playing, you will realize that it’s anything but traditional.
You walk around the game over-world exploring the world, solving puzzles and talking to people, exactly like a normal j-rpg except with more puzzles. There are ‘random encounters’ with ‘monsters’, just like in a normal J-rpg, where different music plays and your game-space changes until you can resolve the situation. In Undertale you have 4 options: Fight, Act, Item, or Mercy. The last option is what is radically new, taking the spot that ‘flee’ usually takes in other j-rpgs. If you click on it, you will find that you have two options: Spare, or Flee. The Act options, one will quickly find out, aren’t really fighting options like they are in most rpgs (which usually consist of offensive or healing magical spells), to ‘fight’ a froggit, your Act options are either ‘threaten’ or ‘compliment’.
An npc Froggit monster will inform early in the game about these mercy mechanics: “If you ACT a certain way or FIGHT until you have almost defeated them, they might not want to battle you anymore. If a monster does not want to fight you, please… use some MERCY, human, ribbit.” Sounds reasonable enough. If a monster does not want to fight you, be a nice person and let it go basically. Additionally, Due to a ‘random encounter’ Froggit’s high defense, it is actually quicker to resolve the situation by threatening it or complimenting it, than by fighting it. I have no doubt that the Froggit’s high defense stat was very intentional on the part of TobyFox, Undertales’s creator, and was meant to inform the players instincts and actions for the rest of the game, even if they won’t ultimately spare everyone given some inevitable extraordinary circumstances. So far Undertale’s Mercy mechanics are mechanically practical.
The victory screen you get upon defeating a monster vs sparing a monster is virtually the same, with only one difference. If you spare the monsters, you won’t get any exp. Exp is required for leveling up which will boost your attack and defense. But it’s not actually necessary to level up at all. What usually happens in a j-rpg, is when an enemy attacks the character just takes the hit, and the player has no power over this. However, in Undertale, during the monster’s attacking turn, the interface undergoes a change. The first thing you learn in Undertale, is neither fighting, acting, mercy, nor even solving puzzles. The first thing you are taught is how to dodge. You see a little heart inside a large box, which is explained as the culmination of your being. Harmful monster attacks will occur in this box, and you must use the keyboard to make your soul heart avoid them. Your ability to avoid attacks is not ever effected by your lvl, it is based on your skill alone. In a hilarious bit of irony, TobyFox went out of his way to program and write an entire plot arc that occurs when you kill every single monster in the game (which any sane person, even someone who likes killing things in other games, will not do in their first try fyi, just take my word for it), and in this plot arc, the final boss has only one hit point. Yet it is one of the most difficult boss battles ever. Because he DODGES ALL of your attacks for like, the first 10-20 minutes of the fight. I’m not even entirely sure exactly how long since as I write this I still happen to be stuck on this boss fight. He might not have a lot of defense, but he just refuses to be hit. In fact, compared to this final boss monster the player has it easy in the sane person plot arcs. Because the difficulty curve was designed in such a way that even at the final boss it takes more than 1, or even 3-4 hits to kill you at level 1. You periodically pick up new armor to compensate for the fact that you are not leveling up. Ultimately, your ability to dodge is more important that your defense stat, leveling up more than a bit seems redundant (and not to mention often morally unappealing).
Not only is non-combat mechanically viable, the plot actively discourages you from killing on multiple occasions. Early in the game, there is a mother-like monster character, Toriel, who rescues you from a less than friendly monster early in the game. She guides you and gives you advice, takes you into her home and gives you a room and even bakes you a pie, “Just walking around her house makes you realize she’s lost a child and has a lot of maternal love to give, and she’s been showering you with it this whole time, she is arguably the one character you want to kill least in this game” (Dookieshed). Countless YouTube and Reddit comments attest to resetting the game after accidentally killing Toriel. In a harsh bit of irony, the reasoning behind one accidentally killing Toriel is either from not understanding that defeated monsters die and stay dead, or by following Pokémon logic and attempting to convince Toriel to accept your mercy by lowering her hp, not realizing that her defense will drastically decrease when her hp gets below half. Dookieshed argues, and I agree, that killing Toriel in your first playthrough is purposefully and powerfully designed to teach the player what defeating a monster really means in this world. Undertale utilizes guilt famously (almost infamously) well in its design, often referring to monsters you may or may not have killed and giving you backstory on them when you talk to town npcs, or in the case of Toriel, several important characters mention her later on, “Now you’ll be careful because you F***ing murdered someone and it doesn’t feel great to have that on your conscience”. (Dookieshed) This kind of conscience shock works much the same way that games like Chrono Trigger taught you to take your overworld actions seriously through putting you on trial where your early game overworld actions are judged, and the poor man who’s sandwich you ate testifies against you, “It gets us to think of the game world as a real place,” and even doing this once makes us take the choices later in the game more seriously. (Extra Credits 1) For the rest of the game the player walks around with the knowledge that they need to take the moral implications of the non-combat and combat mechanics seriously.
Whether you choose to kill or not significantly impacts the plot. Even if the only monsters you kill are random encounter monsters, about halfway through the game, you are faced with what was in my experience a particularly powerful moment. Undyne, the mid-game boss, is basically the local hero, actually she’s one of the most bad-ass heroines I have seen in a while. Just before the fight, she gave me a piece of her mind. She sells you out to be the villain, and she does so pretty convincingly too. “Self-defense? Please. You didn’t kill them because you had to. You killed them because it was easy for you… Do you think it’s fun when people’s family members… never come home? …No. But your time’s up, villain! You won’t hurt anyone else. A knight in shining armour has appeared. And all the pain you have inflicted on the fallen… Every hope, every dream you have turned to dust… She’s gonna send right back through her spear!“(Undyne). In fact, after getting berated by her, despite how difficult the fight was, I refused to level-grind anymore. Putting myself in her shoes, I had no idea how to deal with this irrevocable situation, after defeating Undyne, being so strongly effected by her I went cold-turkey pacifist. I even spared Flowey of all things, (admittedly though I was wavering on this decision until the pathetically defeated plant started threatening me haha, nope, definitely sparing you bud). Most cleverly Undyne seems to be purposefully designed to embody what the gamer imagines themselves as in other rpgs: A fearless hero.
The boss battle with Undyne is unlike any I have ever experienced. It was difficult not necessarily because I could not defeat her, but because I was trying to get through to her, because I did not want to defeat her. I kept reloading again and again, I would fight her till she was low on health, plead and challenge her, but eventually despite the fact that I apparently ‘reminded her of someone’ as ‘the spears paused for a moment’, I would inevitably, by the slip of my hand get hit by that fatal blow myself. It was almost anti-climactic when I found out how simple the solution to this boss battle was actually, sadly not until on my second playthrough (though, in retrospect Fleeing does make more sense).
But what is most interesting mechanically about the boss battle with Undyne, is the conditions you need to meet in order to spare her. Quite rightfully so, particularly in the neutral plot arc, she will not accept your mercy under any circumstance. But there is a way to not kill her. You need to Flee. For the first time in my memory, the action of fleeing j-rpg style is not being defined by a primarily combat game. The familiar mechanic takes on a new meaning in this subtly but fundamentally new context.
In short, Undertale is the ultimate example of non-combat as empowerment. Not only are the non-combat mechanical options viable, usage of them is also encouraged at many stages of the game. Even when, in the case of trying to beat Undyne without knowing you have to flee, non-combat is not a viable solution, it feels like a failure that you must resort to dealing that final blow in order to save your own skin.
But in a particularly powerful ideological statement, not only is it possible to get through the entire game without killing a single enemy, this is also the only way to get the ‘happy ending’.
To be fair, the neutral endings you can get if you fail to spare the life of every single aggressive monster are viable as well, just bittersweet and ultimately leads you to keep replaying the game until you can get the happy ending. The true final boss of the neutral endings repeatedly makes fun of you as a player for wanting your happy ending. Of course, there is no better sure-fire way to get a player to want something, than by telling them they can’t have it. So, to simplify things, I’m going to focus on the ideological statements that the ‘true pacifist’ ending ultimately makes.
First of all, we need to realize how radically binary the morality in Undertale is when you meet the requirements for the ‘happy ending’. In order to get the happy ending, you are not allowed to kill even one random encounter monster. You must spare (or flee from, in the case of Undyne) everyone. Even the Vulcans, who think that their magma can heal people (It doesn’t).
I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing for a game to ontologically empower non-combat or combat mechanics, saying that would contradict myself, and render my empowerment/disempowerment distinction pointless. But we should be aware of what happens when we push that to a certain extreme.
At first, Undertale’s distinctly pacifist ideology seems relatively redundant given the game’s overall eventual statement. At the beginning of the game, most of the monsters are portrayed as fairly harmless, be they clueless frogs, timid fairy things, or annoying vegetable plants. The Frog, as said earlier, is easily and intuitively spared by threatening it or complimenting it, take your pick. But most of the other monsters in the area can be spared without doing anything. By and large, pacifism at this stage can be as simple as putting your hands in the air and saying that you don’t want any trouble.
Another particularly notable monster character, whom I had called a timid fairy thing, is a Whimson. While most of the monsters have some arguably neutral ‘flavor text’ upon encountering (ex: “the Froggit Hopped Close”), Whimson upon being encountered instead has ‘flavor text’ which says “Whimsom approached meekly”. This inspires much more curiosity than the other monster’s intentions, as it simply seems less threatening. Upon using the “Check” action, giving in to curiosity, the player will discover that, and I quote word for word from the game, “This monster is too sensitive to fight”. But what is most powerful, and special about this monster, is that so long as you don’t move during their turn, they will not harm you. Furthermore, Whimsun can be shown muttering various things including, “I’m sorry,” “Oh no,” “I have no choice,” “Forgive me for this”. This extremely odd situation can encourage a player to experiment more with the interface (therefore discovering the mercy mechanics), or at least feel guiltier when they knock out Whimsun in one hit without trying. In fact, even in the context of Undertale itself, the situation with Whimsun is unusual. The only monster who will avoid hurting you to that extent within the actual gameplay space is Toriel, and she only does so when you are at 2 hp or less.
Like I said before, sounds reasonable enough.
Ideologies are not as simple as putting people into categories and saying they are this. Most sensible people will, in fact, be somewhere on a spectrum. Human beings are thinking creatures, and we are constantly negotiating competing interests and ideals within ourselves. Dr. Chris Ferguson, an associate professor of criminal justice and psychology at Texas A&M International, told Stefanie Fogel at VentureBeat about his theory on what role choices in games play in our lives. In Stefanie Fogel’s words, “Ferguson believes many use video games as a way to explore moral choices in a way that might be different from what they would do in their normal lives.”(Fogel Stefanie) This conscious role-playing, the need for people to explore their options of how they can attempt to meet their ideals given a context that they may or most likely not ever face in real life, demonstrates our awareness that we don’t always know what is best. I agree with Dr. Ferguson that players like it when games allow them to act like their ‘ideal self,’ but even when I’m trying to be my ideal self, I’m still faced with some complex decisions that I really need to sit down and think about. “You may say that you would make any sacrifice to save a child, but, when it really comes down to it, what would you really do?” (Extra Credits 2). After all, choice would not be so interesting in games if we already know what kind of action we would take regardless of the situation. Role-playing is not just about choosing to be the good or the bad guy, the experience of role playing goes much deeper than that.
Pacifism, as an ideology itself, can too be seen as a spectrum to a certain extent. The BBC archived ethics guide separates pacifism into 4 broad categories (some of which may overlap), absolute, conditional, selective, and active. Conditional pacifists describe those who don’t like war but may believe that war is more justified than not getting involved in particular situations. An example of this in action would be going to war against Germany over his treatment of the Jewish. Selective pacifists might be okay with regular war but will oppose use of biological weapons, or oppose a conflict that involves weapons of mass destruction. An active pacifist describes people who “are heavily involved in political activity to promote peace, and to argue against particular wars.”(“Pacifism”)
But the particular ideology Undertale specifically advocates gets more explicit in the second area, known as Snowdin. Enemies in the second area are portrayed more as aggressive, and there are no enemies that can be spared right away (Besides Jerry. (This is funny if you have played the game)). Even if you compliment the Ice Cap’s hat, he will still attack you, in order to spare him this way you need to compliment him multiple times all the while dodging his attacks. By the way, his attacks are very hard to dodge, even for an experienced player who has beat the game multiple times… such as myself… You can also spare the Ice Cap by lowing it’s hp to a certain point, but this is not an option for many enemies in the game. And eventually fighting becomes impractical because it wastes time you could be spending pacifying them, and taking non-combat actions to pacify them has perks such as lowering their attack. (But, sadly, none of these perks go to the same extreme as Toriel or Whimsun, in my opinion the game would have been more powerful if they did that more with stuff like that). Even when monsters are attacking you, you are not supposed to fight back. This is a clear action of Absolute pacifism, it carries a very particular statement that continues to be backed up at all levels of the game’s design and plot.
The plot further backs up an ideal of absolute pacifism starting with the second area, Snowdin. Early in the game you are told that the reason why the monsters are trapped underground in the first place is because a war between humans and monsters occurred many, many years ago, and upon losing, the monsters were sealed underground by the humans with a powerful magic. At first it just seems like all you are dealing with is a form of racism, since Toriel tells you that, “as a human in the underground, humans may attack you,” but then simply advises you to stall for time until she can come resolve the situation, almost like a white mother asserting her presence to a cop who has been hassling her black or mixed child. This seems effective enough since after the first time Toriel does this some Froggits begin giving you friendly advice in the overworld space. Also as already discussed most of the monsters don’t really want to fight you, especially the poor fairy things. But Toriel has no intention of letting you leave the first area, The Ruins, apparently because the Monster King will kill you, and has apparently killed many humans before. If this is not your first time playing the game, you will know that the king needs to collect 7 human souls in order to break the barrier, of course, he only needs one more.
You are being hunted down by royal guards for most of the game. In order to help you want to spare them, TobyFox went out of his way to make the first royal guards you come across look as adorable as possible (aka, he made then bi-pedal puppy monsters), and the music makes it hard to take the fights seriously. But make no mistake, the concept is still there. These guardsmen are carrying visible weapons, are often geared up in armor, and before the battle will explicitly talk about capturing or ‘eliminating’ humans. Given this heavily political context, the protagonist, whom I will refer to as Frisk from now on, choosing to refuse to resort to violence is a very powerful narrative choice.
The absolute pacifist, as described by BBC ethics archives, Is someone who “believes that it is never right to take part in war, even in self-defense. They think that the value of human life is so high that nothing can justify killing a person deliberately” (“Pacifism”). As nice as it sounds, truly adhering to this policy consistently is not always a comfortable moral position. An absolute Pacifist would deem it unethical to “use violence to rescue an innocent person who is being attacked and may be killed,” (“Pacifism”) the protagonist in Undertale is never even faced with such a scenario. And when Frisk is faced with a scenario where aggression or killing might be for the greater good, Frisk is usually either the victim in such a scenario, and/or the scenario literally retcons itself.
Remember the Vulcans? The little orange monsters who think that their magma can heal people? They are not the only monster that could be problematic. Not only do you have to deal with royal guards hunting you, you also end up braving aggressive germophobes, sexual harassment, and… whatever the Pyropes are. The game pretty much satires itself at some points. The Woshua attacks you with high speed and harmful sprays of water from a garden hose for no good reason other than you are not clean enough. Apparently, according to the epilogue of the true pacifist ending, this monster is suddenly well mannered enough to hold a janitorial job. Also Woshua has apparently been friends with the bodybuilder the whole time somehow. This does not line up with my first impression at all. The Vulcan is a curious monster, you have three options, ‘hug,’ ‘encourage,’ or ‘criticize’. To the game’s credit you do have the option to criticize, which informs the Vulcan of it’s mistake and subsequently reduces it’s attack for the next turn. But in order to spare it you need to either ‘hug’ or ‘encourage’ it, and the game will not acknowledge whether you informed the Vulcan that it is actually hurting people. Regardless of whether you criticize it or not, in the epilogue the Vulcan is still shown to have the same happy ending. Come to think of it, the game does not seem to care whether or not you tell Undyne that Anime is real or not either. In a game that mostly teaches through consequences and guilt, the fact that you are not penalized for anything other than killing people is a little odd.
And then there is Muffet. One of the boss monsters. The queen of the spiders. She is a politician/salesperson with a noble cause, but a very questionable moral compass. She is raising money to bring the spider clans who are trapped in the ruins, home to the Hotlands. She and the spiders in the ruins, do so by selling baked goods. Sounds innocent enough. The spiders you met in the ruins sold you spider donuts for a reasonable price. But Muffet on the other hand, her baked goods are set to Ludacris prices which you cannot afford unless you hack yourself the money. Muffet is known for intimidating people into buying her products, often with all of the money they have, this is easily found out by talking to an npc near her bake sale stand. Furthermore, when you come into her domain, she decides to capture you and make a pastry out of you (literally, that is not a typo) and sell your soul to someone. Can I just re-emphasize the fact that she was going to bake you into a cake and sell it? The only thing that saves you is a telegram from the spiders you met in the ruins. I would think it fairly naive to believe that she would not bake anybody else into a cake for shady reasons.
TobyFox did develop an alternate plot arc, I mentioned earlier that fans have coined as the genocide route. You must go out of your way to kill every monster in the underground, which is a fairly big undertaking, both literally and emotionally. Essentially, Frisk becomes a crazed psychopath, basically the villain. But the monsters don’t try to kill you at first. In fact, an important (and very likable) character, who would have normally been trying to capture you in the sane person’s plot arc, takes a pacifist method in an attempt to convince you to stop. He refuses to fight you and instead offers to take you under his wing and help you to become a better person. If the player chooses to kill him anyways, the genocide plot continues. Now, with you being the villain, the monsters are faced with a situation where they need to kill for the greater good. If you abort the genocide plot late enough in the game, you will get a neutral ending where a normally mild mannered character outright tells you that she should have killed you when she had the chance3. And you can’t really argue with her. This idea that someone should have killed you when they had the chance, would undermine Undertale’s entire philosophy. However the power of this lesson is somewhat mitigated by the fact that evil Frisk’s power is emphasized much more than the monsters unwillingness to kill. In fact, at face value it’s more of a story of the monster’s running for their lives because they don’t stand a chance against you, as you are killing most of the boss monsters in one hit, even if they do want to fight you (no joke, why do you think the final boss needs to be someone who dodges all of your attacks?). Although, due to you having the ability to load a save file as a player, the monsters literally cannot stop you by killing you. In fact the final boss makes it clear that he knows killing you is impossible, and they only way that you can be stopped is to be convinced to accept his mercy, or to make you so frustrated about the insane boss fight that you quit the game entirely. So, even in the genocide route, mercy is the only thing that wins. Most would say that you don’t even deserve it.
Undertale brings up very tough questions about when it is right to kill, or heck, even to just criticize someone, but then fails to really go through with the repercussions. In real life, pacifism is a controversial subject regarding public policy, and it should not come as a surprise when we are forced to grapple with these questions in video games taking place in medieval Hyrule, the wastelands, or wherever. We should be asking players these questions, and we should let players ask it of themselves honestly. It’s all part of roleplaying. In 1941 an editorial in the Times Literary Supplement wrote about the real life crisis that was WW2. “We have discovered that there is something more horrible than war – the killing of the spirit in the body, the Nazi contempt for the individual man. The world reeks with the foulness of the crimes in occupied Europe, where a Dark Age has begun anew.”
Clearly, the exclusively non-combat ideology of Undertale has its limits. If this is not the first time you have read an article written by someone who has had the gull to question the scope of Undertale’s moral ideology, you are likely thinking of Nick Dinicola’s essay focusing exclusively on Alphys, ‘The Dark Side of Pacifism in Undertale’, “What does mercy mean to someone who hates herself? How can pacifism combat depression? How does euthanasia fit into Undertale’s moral code?” (Dinicola), is the cover-quote.
At first, Alphys seems like a harmless character. As the royal scientist, she had been observing your progress through her cameras (yup, she’s got a one-women NSA operation going for her), she was supposed to stop you, but by the time you got there she decided that she wants to help you instead. She then uses her hacking skills and all-seeing-eye to guide you through the next two areas via cell phone. Sometimes she’s helpful, sometimes, not so much, nobody is perfect right? But then her killer robot who has supposedly been malfunctioning all this time, tells you the truth. He is not malfunctioning. This is all an act orchestrated by Alphys. In fact she was also responsible for reactivating the traps and puzzles you had to deal with on the way too. What was her motivation? To get you to like and respect her. She had been endangering your life just so that she could impress you. The plan was that when Mettaton (that’s the robot) cornered you in this room, she would come in and pretend to de-activate him (yes the robot is a him. long story), thus ‘rescuing’ you. As if to prove the point, when mettaton locks the door, we hear Alphys knocking and asking what is going on.
After managing to neutralize Mettaton (who now legitimately wants to kill you because of reasons), with what has probably been the only genuinely truthful advice from Alphys you’ve received via cell-phone, Alphys is then finally able to enter the room and is initially more concerned for her robot than for your well-being.
You don’t need Mettaton’s help to figure out that the reason why Alphys resorts to these measures is because of low self-esteem. In fact, at some point before Mettaton, Alphys literally tells you that “B-before I met you, I d-didn’t really… I didn’t really like myself very much. For a long time, I f-felt like a total screw up. L-like I couldn’t do a-anything w-without… W-without ending up letting everyone down. B-but…! Guiding you has made me feel… A lot better about myself. So… thanks for letting me help you.” WELL then. As Nick Dinicola puts it, “She’s so introverted and unconfident that she becomes self-destructive… She then drags you into that self-destructive cycle when she puts you in danger so that she can save you and hopefully impress you,” (Dinicola) but how does Undertale resolve this plot arc? At first it doesn’t. Alphys doesn’t even admit to having tricked you. She just rattles on about some non-sense about how you must be excited to get home, then runs off. “Undertale establishes a conflict that can’t be solved through combat or mercy,” (Dinicola) because really, what is mercy to someone who is, probably suicidal? What did you really accomplish by merely going along with her charade without judgement?
It takes intervention from another character to help you resolve the situation. So Nick Dinicola was a bit excessive with his criticism on this point, at least given the factual points he spoke to have taken issue with. Apparently, Undyne and Alphys have had mutual crushes on each other. So Undyne asks you to deliver a letter, which turns out to be a love letter, to Alphys. In an extreme case of ‘silent protagonist syndrome’ (or maybe Frisk has just been a kunt this whole time, that would certainly explain all of the ‘flirt’ dialogue options) Alphys mistakenly believes that you wrote the letter, and she rattles on a bit on how she doesn’t deserve it after what she did to you. Then you go on a date. I’m not kidding.
In this date, it is made obvious that Alphys actually has a crush on Undyne, not you. And she eventually admits that she only went on this ‘pretend date’ as she thought of it to make you feel better. She then admits to how many lies she has told Undyne, then she asks you for advice. You can either tell her to keep lying or tell her the truth. But there is literally no penalty for choosing the former option. After that, Undyne walks in and Alphys rattles off to Undyne about all of the white lies she’s been telling her. Undyne then proceeds to give her a pep talk, literally tossing her into a nearby can and then yelling about how she doesn’t even care about any of that and that she wants Alphys to stop lying and be happy with who she is. And then she gets one of her friends to give her ‘self-confidence training’. So, Alphys character arc is resolved, either with your help or despite you telling her to keep lying, take your pick. Huh.
But this is not what is really bothersome about Alphys.
There is one final point about Undertale that needs to be made to complete my point. After the date, there is one more dungeon to explore before you unlock the happy ending. It’s the one more, very dark secret… It’s Alphys’s true lab. Nick Dinicola might have been a bit off base when he referred to this as a ‘war crime,’ given that according to Alphys lab notes that you can find lying around, the subjects’ families did grant consent for the subjects to be experimented on. But in all honesty that doesn’t make the situation any less disturbing.
You walk in alone, not knowing exactly where Alphys is. We learn by reading scattered notes that, by the request of her king, she experimented on the human soul, trying to figure out what made it persist after death. A bit of Undertale’s lore here, when a monster dies, its soul disappears and its body turns to dust. When a human does, it’s soul can be collected and used to break the barrier which keeps the monsters underground, specifically they need eight. Alphys managed to separate what she thought made the human soul persist, and called it ‘determination,’ and injected it into the bodies of dying monsters, hoping to use their souls to break the barrier (with the families consent). But what the families surely did not consent to, is what really ended up happening.
Instead of turning to dust, or even dying, the monsters melted. They melted together into a blob of flesh containing the souls, and most horrifyingly, the living consciousness, of multiple monsters. These monstrosities attack you as you explore the lab, most of them fairly aggressively. You can see text boxes stack up on top of each other showing the conflicted nature of the hivemind, but Nick Dinicola makes an astute observation, “The Alamgamates attack us on sight, suggesting that anger is the one unifying thought that drives the body to action”. Just let this sink in for a minute. Was it really right for Alphys to keep them alive? Sure she could not have known what would happen, but then again you could not have known that Toriel’s defense lowers enough for you to finish her off once she gets below half health.
For the first time in the pacifist run logic, you are forced by the plot itself to seriously consider the possibility that sometimes, maybe death is good.
But then the game completely retracts the dilemma.
When multiple Almegnites corner you at a dead end, Alphys finally makes an appearance, informing the almgnites that food is ready, and they leave you alone with Alphys. She attempts to lighten the mood by joking “They get sassy when they aren’t fed on time”. But that’s a little hard to accept after seeing multiple game-over screens thanks to her apparent pets. She then goes on to talk about how she is going to tell the world the truth about the results of her failed experiment. Which is noble.
However, apparently the game even tries to give the Almagnits an overly optimistic happy ending, saying that they ‘returned to their families’. Frankly, this is the most disturbing part. I am not convinced by the epilogue.
How does that even work first of all? Which family do they go back to exactly, if they are a hivemind, just, its… What is this, I don’t even… Yeah.
So undertale is an extreme statement on pacifism and knows it. Which isn’t particularly wrong. However, all of the near-flaws and the actual-flaws of Undertale demonstrate that every type of mechanic has its limits. If our argument is that lack of empowering non-combat options in violent games limit players, then we also need to acknowledge that the same can be true the other way around.
It would certainly be a shame if primarily combat games such as Fallout start retracting their historical implementation of non-combat options4, just because ‘pacifists have their own games to play now’. People are not binary, that’s why we need to roleplay remember? Such a binary division of gaming would be a mockery of its status as an art as both sides would limit themselves, and limit the players. What is art if we can’t relate it to how we really feel, as Bianca Batti explains, “My background, my context, my interests, my personality, my life all impact the way I play games and the way I think about them.”(Batti) Therefore, the question we need to ask is not just what games teach us, but about the consciousness we walk into the game with. I agree with Bianca Batti regarding how the relationship between people and art does not just go one way, it goes both ways.
Donnelly, Joe. “Why Non-Violent Games are Taking Over an Industry.” IGN. IGN Entertainment. 24 Apr 2014. Web 02 May. 2016.
Clements, James. “The Non-Violent Core Mechanics of ‘Mirror’s Edge’.” FilmGamesEtc. N.p. 03 Mar. 2016. Web. Apr. 2016.
XY Feminist. “Mirror’s Edge: When Nonviolence Isn’t a Choice.” Feminist Game Reviews. N.p. 27 Feb. 2015. Web. Apr. 2016.
“Pac-Man/Getting Started.” StrategyWiki. n/p. 24th March 2015. Web. 23 April.2016.
Garrow, Linda, Mrs. “Over Breakfast.” Personal interview. 23 Apr. 2016.
dookieshed, “Why You Should KILL Toriel * Undertale * [SPOILERS].” Online video clip. YouTube. 22 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.
Extra Credits, “What Makes Us Roleplay? – Why Game Worlds Feel Real – Extra Credits.” Online video clip. YouTube. 25 Feb. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.
Undyne, Ms. “Undertale.” TobyFoxGames, 2015.
Fogel Stefanie. “Playing the Hero: Why we make good moral choices in video games.” VentureBeat. N.p., 8 Sept. 2012. Web 30 Apr. 2016.
Extra Credits. “Choices vs Consequences – What Player Decisions Mean in Games – Extra Credits.” Online video clip. YouTube. 23 Jul. 2014. Web 30 Apr. 2016.
“Pacifism.” BBC Ethics guide. BBC. (Archived 🙂 2014. Web. 02 May. 2016.
Dinicola, Nick. “The Dark Side of Pacifism in ‘Undertale.’” popMatters.
Batti, Bianca. “On Art, Life, and Video Games.” Not your mama’s gamer. n/p. 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 02 May. 2016.
1: The failures of “Metroid Other M” is acknowledged by Extra Credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqFm1ei6mjo
2: “Impactfully” is a word according to the Wiktionary.
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