Welcome to the first edition of 1Up Culture for 2016! I gave myself the month of January off so I could relax a bit, and in doing so it gave me some time to catch up on media I had for one reason or another missed. There’s still a mountain of stuff I’m behind on, but the time away from 1Up did give me a chance to check out one of the most hyped games of last year: Undertale.
For those who don’t know it, Undertale is an indie RPG that since its release in September has garnered critical acclaim and acquired a loud and passionate fanbase. You play as a human who falls into a world filled with monsters. Some are friendlier than others, but like you’d expect from a role playing game, you find yourself battling many of these monsters. The decision you as the player have to make though, is how you go about dealing with those threats. And in doing so, Undertale raises some very interesting questions on the nature of violence in video games. There will be some spoilers here, more so in regards to the game mechanics than story, but the Undertale experience benefits from going in as blind as possible, so if you’re definitely going to play it, maybe leave this for until you’re finished.
When you enter a battle in Undertale you’re given two ways of winning: you can choose to fight and defeat the monster, or you can choose to show mercy. In order to achieve the latter, the player needs to respond to the monster in certain ways to win them over, all the while avoiding their bullet-hell style attacks. It is this decision here – whether you fight or show mercy – that shapes the core narrative presented in Undertale. Mechanically nothing changes. Showing mercy is often achieved through the same concepts as you would picking an attack in any normal RPG, and working out the right combination to achieve mercy is akin to picking the right elemental move in Pokemon. It’s a simple concept, but it’s the way the story of Undertale handles your playstyle which makes a fascinating discussion point surrounding violent video games.
The issue of what effect violent games have on its players isn’t a new discussion, especially if you follow sensationalist news journalism. Personally, I don’t believe that video games normalise or dilute the reality of death or violence. The vast majority of gamers can differentiate between the real world and the game world, and understand that just like in movies, you shouldn’t necessarily replicate what you experience at the hands of your controller or keyboard. Can it be influential on younger children? Yes – that is because a child is still piecing together how the world works at a base level – but that is why violent games have restrictions on them. However for a fully functional adult they should be able to recognise that GTA isn’t an example of how to life your life.
So what makes Undertale special in this discussion? What it does is point out is how commonplace violence is within the video game world. As you enter a battle with a monster you’re automatically given a choice: Do you fight, or do you try and deal with it through other means? In most games this wouldn’t be a question. A monster approaches, you dispose of it, you move on. Whether it is through the barrel of a gun like in Gears of War or by jumping on them in Mario, that’s just what you do in video games. It’s to be expected. But Undertale wants you to stop and think. And if you choose to spare consistently, this decision becomes increasingly more difficult the monsters make it harder for you to show them mercy. Many enemies are far easier to deal with through violent means, so taking the perceived ‘higher road’ becomes a decision you have to consciously make.
Once you’ve played Undertale, especially if you go through more than once so you can experience both sides of that coin, it’s hard not to notice how the go to in most games is to be violent. It is hardwired into the framework of modern gaming. And while we’re seeing more and more games choose to tell non-violent and even non-confrontational stories, it’s still not necessarily representing the concept of choice. In games, our extent of choosing whether to be violent or not comes down to the game we pick. If we pick Sleeping Dogs, then we’re choosing to hack up Triad members with a meat cleaver. If we pick Tetris, then it is only violent if we feel the blocks are sentient (I recognise there are other games that allow ‘pacifist’ runs, I’ll address that a little later). We don’t choose to be violent or otherwise within that game world, we make that decision outside of it.
Undertale makes that choice matter, and in a big way. One of the big complaints about games that use ‘choice’ as a narrative element is that they don’t actually give the player all that much choice. The Telltale Walking Dead series is an incredible story, but it sells itself on the idea that ‘your decision matters’. But these decisions end up offering only minor branching arcs, and the story tends to twist and bend regardless of your decisions in order to bring you to the same situation you would be in if you had chose differently. Mass Effect 3’s ending was lambasted because of how little the player’s choices in the game actually mattered, and Bioshock Infinite actually intentionally subverts this concept, intentionally giving players a couple of ‘choices’ that offer at most a minor visual alteration and nothing more – and in doing so uses that to discuss concepts of free will.
For those games, the choices tend to be a way of giving the player a sense of shaping the world and character, while still fitting into the pre-set narrative the developers want to tell. But in Undertale, how you act will drastically affect the flow and narrative presented. Going into the game blind you’re quickly made to feel like the world of Undertale is kill or be killed. If you choose to not follow that idea, certain monsters will comment on this, and you have to prove to them you want to do things ‘the right way’. And if you were a ‘monster’ in a video game, wouldn’t you expect just that? We’ve been conditioned to respond in games with a strike first ask later attitude. We’re almost encouraged to kill for nothing more than the acquisition of purely aesthetic bonuses (like a fresh new coat in Fallout 4).
PBS Idea Channel put it perfectly. By choosing the path of violence in Undertale, it becomes arguably a more violent game than a Call of Duty or Borderlands, because unlike those games you have a choice. It’s not that you end up killing more monsters than you would in other games, or even that it is visually gruesome or realistic (quite the contrast, the graphics are rather simple). The game theoretically becomes more violent because you aren’t using violence as a simple game mechanic to get from point A to point B anymore. By deciding that it is the easier or ‘better’ course to take, you’ve made a conscious decision to be violent. Presented with two options, you’ve chosen the one that claims lives.
I mentioned before that it’s not the only game to offer what is known as the ‘pacifist’ route. Games like Dishonoured and Thief can be completed without bloodshed (often offering weapons like tranq darts that subdue instead of outright kill). But when you play both sides of Undertale, as a bringer of violence or of peace, the story adapts drastically, and the way you’ve played truly shapes the world you’re in. Many of those games choosing the pacifist option is less a narrative choice than a mechanic based one. Completing a game through the pacific route is an achievement to brag about, choosing to intentionally handicap yourself to make it more challenging. But the story itself tends to stay more or less the same, just with a slightly different ending. With Undertale, your decision becomes more important than a mere mechanical one. You get two vastly different in-world experiences depending on how you go about the game.
Death isn’t that meaningful in games for the most part. Whether it’s the enemies you mow down or the countless deaths you suffer, there’s little weight to it unless it serves a narrative effect. If one of your squadmates in Mass Effect is gunned down, they don’t die, they’re merely incapacitated for that part of the mission. Once you’re back on the Normandy, it’s like nothing has changed. It’s only when the story deems it necessary for someone to die that they do so. Sometimes that death can be avoided through choice, sometimes it isn’t. But death by game mechanic and death by game narrative serve as two different sides of the coin. Undertale will flat out call you out on how many lives you’ve taken, and it does so in quite an genius way. Your actions, more or less every single one, will influence the game world and its inhabitants.
Undertale is a fantastic gaming experience. Don’t let the simplistic graphics fool you, this is both a deep gaming experience and a utterly hilarious one. But it also presents an interesting way of looking at violence through gaming. Even if it doesn’t affect how we interpret violent actions in real life, we are still desensitised to how it is portrayed in media. That is partly because we can detach ourselves and recognise the difference between fiction and reality, but in doing so it becomes difficult to have a discussion on it. Undertale helps to bridge that gap. It’s still a game, but you think about the course of your actions here unlike in many other games. If video games want to grow as a medium, there needs to be games like this that can be philosophical points of discussion and not just a means of entertainment. And Undertale has also proven that you don’t need hyper-realistic graphics in order to make a story or its gameplay matter.