20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique


EDIT: twitter user @akatookey alerted me that the “genocide run” (as it was referred to in an earlier draft of this post) isn’t preferred terminology of the creator, which makes a load of sense. i went along with what seemed to be the prevailing usage in the community materials i found but since i now have an alternative, all instances have been changed to “no-mercy.”  -ML


Undertale is a game by toby fox. it is very clever and entertaining, and filled with loads of cool characters and funny jokes. it is kind of a slog to play, because it has random encounters that lead to bullet hell segments, and these are my two least favorite types of gameplay. still, it’s worth it.


Undertale has received much deserved acclaim, but criticizing it has been something of a thorny issue. jake muncy’s review at killscreen for instance was met with a lot of derision, since muncy takes issue with what he sees to be as the unclarity of the game’s combat mechanics. the point that muncy ends up making needs to be considered, however: he is not admitting he is ‘bad at games’ — he is telling us that the game does not always clearly communicate to the player that pacifist options in combat are having any notable effect. indeed, i would add that this is symptomatic of Undertale as a whole: it is attempting to communicate a message about how to be a good or bad person in the world it presents for you, but in the end the game itself unintentionally muddles your ethical relationship to that world.


this is important because the game operates on a very unusual and fascinating moral calculus. in combat you always have the option of fighting a monster or peacefully placating them. the game tracks these decisions: killing any monster results in an eventual “neutral” ending, which gives you the option of trying again on a purely pacifist route, which will get you the so-called “true” ending. on the other hand, killing every single creature you encounter in the game results in the so-called no-mercy route. the game keeps in mind your previous playthroughs — thus the true ending is always preceded by a neutral ending — and if you complete a no-mercy playthrough, the game remembers this and, even if you attempt to do a pacifist route afterward, there are grave consequences.


there will be spoilers.


Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.


Undertale‘s no-mercy run is so incredibly tedious and difficult to complete, and the characters in the game shriek at you for being horrible so often, that these constitute in my view pretty clear disincentives for doing it. the game (and by extension its creators) are very obviously telling you you’re being an asshole, even as they allow for the possibility. by contrast, if you complete a neutral run, the game will helpfully offer you hints on how to get the “best” ending, ie, encouraging you to pursue it further and do a pacifist run. however, in the case of a no-mercy run, the game assigns you a persona of perverse willfulness in order to construct a sensible narrative for why you are carrying it out.


you play as a human child who has fallen into an underground realm of neurotic monsters. the monsters fled underground to escape human persecution, and have been plotting vengeance in their own incredibly half-hearted way for some time. things were set on this path, we eventually learn, when a previous human child fell into the underground and befriended the child of the king and queen of monsters. in a terrible tragedy, the human child and the prince of the monsters died, and ever since the king of monsters has been working to collect enough human souls to breach the barrier keeping his people trapped in the underground.


that is what you learn when you do a neutral run. if you follow the game’s prodding after that and do a pacifist run, here is what happens: you are not who you think you are. the first human child, it is implied, attempted to incite an open war between humans and monsters by emotionally manipulating the royal family, a ploy that resulted in the aforementioned tragedy. your player character’s name is “frisk” but up until this point, everyone has referred to you by the name of the first fallen child, who by default is named “chara.” in the pacifist ending, you peacefully resolve the conflict with the monsters, placate the unhappy spirit of the prince of monsters, and lead all your new friends back into the light of day. it’s nice.


if you complete a no-mercy run, you discover that the spirit of the first human, chara, is still lingering. after you have murdered everyone in existence, chara approaches you with a bargain: trade your soul for a chance to remake the world. not complying renders the game unplayable. agreeing seemingly “resets” the world. attempting to complete a pacifist run after this point results in the same ending and is mechanically no different, save for one thing. in completing a pacifist run after a no-mercy run, a brief stinger will reveal that frisk has been fully possessed by chara and still plans on taking out the surviving characters. short of messing with the game’s data, there is no way to undo this.


my biggest criticism of Undertale is that for a good portion of it to make sense you have to do the thing the game expressly does not want you to do; the implied player of the best ending just accepts things on blind faith and never questions or investigates the metaphysics of it all. doing a no-mercy run makes the best ending unobtainable. this wouldn’t be a problem, i insist, if not for the fact that the no-mercy run is the most expedient way of making sense of a few aspects of the story, namely, the role of the character of sans, and the only way to discover the nature of the original fallen human, chara.


sans is a short skeleton who maintains memories of your various playthroughs of the game through saving and reloading. this is because he was assisting a mysterious doctor with some secret experiments and now operates as some sort of guardian of the game’s timeline/reality. he will suggest the background on this only if you do a no-mercy run. you can discover roughly similar information in a pacifist run, but this requires you to save and reload several times in his presence, which is frankly obtuse since it is only through the no-mercy route that he openly admits to knowing something. though he appears to you as a moral arbiter no matter what route of the game you’re pursuing, without the hint from the no-mercy run, his anomalous knowledge seems more like a convenience than anything having to do with the plot.


yet what truly interests me here is chara. chara is the closest thing the game has to a real villain, since everyone else you fight is either confused or misunderstood and can be helped. chara is, not to put too fine a point on it, radically evil. without completing a no-mercy run, you don’t know this: you simply know that chara was not as nice as everyone thought they were. however: you are chara. what i mean is, chara is the name of the player, since that is who you name when you begin the game, long before the player character is revealed to be frisk. in other words, chara is implied to have your name. indeed, toby fox said on twitter you should name the fallen human after yourself. death of the
author notwithstanding, the implied player, from the developer’s standpoint, becomes coterminous with the game’s vision of radical evil.


in the end you are either someone who did their best to “listen” to what the game was telling you and get the “best” ending, or you’re someone who decided to be a homocidal jerk and somehow, in the process, got the fullest sense of the game’s narrative possible. i have no idea why these outcomes are counterpoised.


attempting to discuss these issues with fans of the game meant i was sanctimoniously told i expected to not face consequences for my actions. even questioning the game’s representation of this moral choice made me, in the eyes of several other players, morally dubious, or someone who cared too much about a game that was trying (and they assumed, succeeding) to make me feel bad.  but i did not do a no-mercy run. indeed, the idea was unpleasant to me, since as i said, this route exacerbates what i already find tedious about the game.  furthermore, i genuinely liked the characters; i have no problem with not being able to murder them. but even at the end of the pacifist run, i had questions about the world, these characters, and their motivations. frankly, without the knowledge gleaned from a no-mercy run, sans and chara are so barely outlined that they make little sense in the larger context of the game.  my knowledge of no-mercy runs here is gained through perusing the wiki and LPs on youtube.


the game hid answers to my questions behind something i had no interest in doing. it’s not clear what it was trying to communicate to me in doing this. nevetheless, Undertale feels very insistent about wanting to tell me something about the nature of friendship and forgiveness and what it means to play a game. some aspects of the no-mercy run, as far as i can tell, leverage a kind of anticompletionism message: characters suggest you’re committing these atrocities simply to “see what happens” and things to that effect. and indeed, many who complete these runs are probably doing just that. but the game itself is what has married completionism to the act of murdering all the other characters. and why is it that only players who choose this path confront the real truth of chara? why cannot chara — who is you, really — be overcome?


in all other arenas, Undertale insists that conflict arises from unwarranted fear and misunderstanding. it rewards you for pacifism and forging friendships. everyone, it wants to suggest, can get along only if we’re determined enough. and yet, the no-mercy run offers the exact obverse suggestion: radical evil exists, and it cannot be expunged. if we take Undertale at its word, however, and believe its conceit of multiple timelines manipulable by the game’s save and load functions, we find that the latter possibility is necessarily latent in the former. that is to say, chara happened; they are constant through all possible narratives, and they are still there, somewhere. the game’s sentimentality runs aground on the lack of mercy it allows the player to exercise, and the subsequent lack of mercy it extends to that player.


flannery o’connor famously said that To Kill a Mockingbird was good — for a children’s book. what she meant was that the story it had to tell, while good, was also ethically simplistic. if the publication of Go Set a Watchman this year did anything, it proved o’connor right: by introducing the complexities of racism in showing a segragationist atticus finch who could, on the one hand, believe in the innocence of a black man, and on the other, insist black people in general should not exist in the same realm of life as white people, the novel revealed how dearly held the simple tale of good and evil had become to us.


at the risk of sounding terribly crass (and catty), i will reformat o’connor’s critique for Undertale. part of the game’s power is that it allows the player to feel like they’re part an intense network of emotions, spread across its cast of colorful characters. the game attaches a moral judgment to this act, suggesting being friendly, open, and merciful is the right thing to do. the stance, while not revolutionary, is certainly admirable, considering the violent tendencies of most games.


but the emotional high of making the decision to be good relies on the concomitant potential to be evil. and in order to maintain the desired sanctity of its good ending, the game suggests that there is indeed a way to go beyond salvation — a way that the game itself scripts and judges you for. the ideal Undertale player is docile, merciful, and does not question their path, even when the game presents no indication that things are moving forward. the ideal Undertale player is not you, does not have your name: you have already been here, left your dark mark, and now you must be exorcised. finding yourself in Undertale is dangerous.


my favorite character is mettaton.


14 thoughts on “20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique”

  1. I think it’s a nice display on how conditioned we are to killing things in games as a solution.

    Because, essentially, the complaints most people have on the Toriel fight are “I spared her a couple of times and NOTHING HAPPENED so really I had no choice other than to stab her until she died”

    and it feels so deeply unfair because all these RPG tropes, everything is rewarding you so intensely for killing things can’t i kill them just this once come on

    1. I really appreciated the fact that parts of the story are only told in No Mercy. Undertale, as a whole, is the communal experience of fluff fans and horror fans, crowdsourced on youtube against the game’s own better judgement.

      Is it a problem if a game ‘hides’ an extra plot scene behind a side quest that’s unreasonably hard to trigger or to complete? That’s fairly common but seems to pass muster as a ‘reward’ for players; for the rest of us, there’s youtube. Undertale’s script even acknowledges that most players will only watch No Mercy rather than play it. That Undertale is a consensus, not a single run, is part of its DNA. I don’t think that’s a lack of coherence.

  2. Undertale bothered me enough that I had to put it down for a week – it deserves credit for making me think!

    I now think that what is really at issue is a basic “how one reads a work” question and how a work loses impact if you connect with it at the wrong level. I’ve gained the unavoidable tendency to start deconstructing authorial voice and style from the beginning, while I pay relatively little attention to the character writing until later. And when I proceeded in this way, everything about Undertale felt false, like the whole purpose of the game was to build up to a catharsis where I had done “the right thing” through sheer endurance and persistence, and was shamed otherwise. Shaming is something game designers typically learn as a “you shouldn’t do this”, so breaking the no-shame rule is something I thought was the issue at first, but now am not so troubled with – in fact, on close examination you can see that shame is something that touches nearly all of the characters and is crucial to understanding their design. It’s the part of the game that is by far the most truthful and heartfelt, once you read it for this context and delve into all the backstory looking for it.

    In any case, I was seeing through the writing’s high-level thrust from an early stage, was not feeling much for the characters, and detoured into reading spoilers just before the Undyne fight so that I could get a sense of what it was trying to accomplish with all of this stuff. (I did eventually return to finish with a neutral-pacifist ending.) The only way in which I was doing “good” was by jumping through the hoops necessary to not do “bad”, and these just happened to be slightly different hoops than the usual fare, with aesthetics ready-made for the Tumblr generation, stuff which I’m generally on-board with. It’s just that it wasn’t what I had expected – I thought the game would complicate things more, present me with intractable moral choices rather than clear-cut ones, or puzzles that would challenge my sense of empathy more fully, to see and anticipate a problem before it happened. (I practically breathe this kind of thing, in everyday situations.) It made it very hard to progress to the end until I accepted that the design conceits were doing something I basically didn’t agree with.

    And I don’t think this is how most people were reading it – for them, and probably for me at a younger age(I remember liking the demo a lot more and getting the “oh wow” feeling from killing Toriel and seeing what the game did in response when I reloaded it to fix things, and so my playthrough of the final game was necessarily poisoned by two years of prior reflection and expectation), this experience would pass through uncritically and I’d get hit by it a lot harder. It is very clearly a game by and for the young, as the way it’s presented is so much like the things one thinks and feels at a high schooler’s age – that nothing is “really real” and it’s all an elaborate charade, that the height of humor is to clown your friends, that you can see the world with black and white values(in both the literal and figurative senses!) and be proven right in the end, and that life struggles are primarily about “determination”.

    1. This response really resonated with me, as I connected with the work in the same way and had almost the same response, I just couldn’t quite verbalize it like that. That feeling of “this all feels super false” pervaded my entire playthrough and I could not, at any point, shake that feeling. It just felt manipulative to me. To add to that, I only played the neutral run and ended up killing Toriel (because I didn’t know) and Undyne (because I lost patience), and the resulting ending is so unsatisfying I felt no inclination to really go back to it. I started another game intending to run Pacifist but lost interest minutes in.

      That aside, the entire thrust of “killing is bad” just seems like such a sophomoric message. Everything attacks the player first, but the moral judgement only goes one way – mine. It’s cheap and tacky, and ineffective. Its intended critique is clear-cut almost from the beginning and it never challenged me to think differently, or to engage with the game or the medium as a whole differently.

      I realize I’m not engaging with Michael’s critique much here, but that’s because I don’t find much to argue with there, and also my problems with the game appear much, much earlier in the chain than its incoherence.

  3. Chara’s spirit doesn’t linger in a neutral or pacifist ending. Your actions throughout the No Mercy route, specifically, have brought their spirit back. They say “Thank you. Your power awakened me from death. My human soul. My ‘determination.’ They were not mine, but YOURS.”

    The lesson is not that there is inherently evil in the world that cannot be expunged. It’s that if you create that evil, you cannot always take it back.

    Coming to understand all the characters more deeply is tied to the No Mercy route because it wants you to feel guilty for exploring that knowledge at the expense of characters you most likely claimed you cared about. We can find out many things about our friends and family in real life by unnecessarily putting them through awful situations, but we don’t because we recognize that’s not what a good friend or family member does. We recognize that as abuse or simply being a bad person. We are forced to either explore our loved ones’ characters in other ways, or leave it be and accept that yes, there’s some things that we don’t know about people, some things we don’t understand about their motivations or personalities. If you are playing Undertale’s pacifist route to try and get all the information on the plot possible, you’re playing it for wrong reason in the game’s eyes; you should be wanting a better ending because you’ve grown to care about the characters and you want the conflict between monsters and humans to end. It’s not about whether or not you got the most information out of the game possible; it’s about wanting to see everyone happy by the end of your experience. Whether or not that’s a reasonable goal for a game to have, or if the game made the characters important enough to the player for them to feel that type of commitment to sacrificing their own knowledge or enjoyment for the characters’ well-being, are the more arguable topics.

    So, yeah. I hope that was somewhat readable, heh.

    1. “The lesson is not that there is inherently evil in the world that cannot be expunged. It’s that if you create that evil, you cannot always take it back.”

      So once you created it, there is such evil? What’s the difference?

      I think the most beautiful ending to the Genocide run – forming a perfect circle with everything else – would have been that after you fought and killed your way through the entire underworld, attacking indiscriminately, slaughtering with gusto, and stopping in front of no one, the last enemy is unwinnable.

      They just kill you over and over.

      Then the save file does not load any more.

      And then they come to give you the final hit…

      And then they have mercy. And they tell you that you can still become better and redeem yourself. And the game resets back to the main screen, with no save file any more.

      Would have been the perfect thematic coda. But it feels like the game cares too much about its characters to do something that might make you feel like it’s *okay* to do a Genocide Run after all.

    2. I feel like it’s a smart analysis-that you dont abuse your love ones just to test the color of their character (some people catfish their own SO’s to see if they’re faithful and it makes me gag tbh. or plots that are like ‘i did this to see if you would act moral and you did’ where the character was clearly manipulated by the other. Like if Bob left out a plate of cookies just to see if Tina would eat one when he said “don’t eat cookies” before. They’re normally more convoluted but you get what i mean. Not a fan of those types of things.)

      But I feel like it was not the best medium to execute the idea

      Esp because the whole point of a game is to explore every nook and cranny

      And a lot of games lose value when you don’t at least try to unlock most of their playable content

      The game shames you for learning more about the game, through watching an LP or otherwise. essentially you’re supposed to pay $10, play through perfectly once and then drop it. Genocide, I understand the snark. Not reading correctly or getting frustrated that after the 10th mercy toriel won’t budge and having to do-over, I can’t call that quite the same at all

      there’s no differentiation, and if it was supposed to be this big moral game there’s very little substance to that angle. pacifist-neutral playthroughs don’t prevent one from taking all of the free candy pieces, or running at every monster instead of helping, or not befriending the boss monsters. So does good just mean an absence of total evil, with nothing to differentiate thinking about others? You could be totally selfish in a neutral route and the ending wouldnt change over a non-selfish person’s. the only metric measuring good vs bad is kill vs don’t kill. the meta you’re referring to in terms of knowledge vs decency requires seeing or partaking in multiple playthroughs, at which point the message of knowledge vs decency would be too late to help.

      and theres a bit of a disconnect when the only way to figure out a true pacifist on one playthrough is treating the entire thing as a puzzle-solving platform, but the game writing kind of half-guilts you into needing to be invested in characters that you know very little about, instead of just seeing them as obstacles to overcome.

      the entire feeling of the game depends on how you feel about it, but it only really rewards the player that thinks and acts the way it wants them to. it also depends on how attached you get to the characters and writing style. sometimes the curiosity beats out the emotional investment

  4. You’re pretty much right, I think? I was going to write this whole thing about how maybe the game’s creator intentionally hid the real truth of the game’s story behind the “bad” ending so there’d be more reason to go for it than “just seeing what happens”, but eh.

    If you reset the game when Sans asks you to in his boss fight, don’t you technically get the best ending while also knowing who and what he is?

  5. During my first playthrough of Undertale, I went out of my way to not kill anything, even when doing so was difficult or tedious.

    My playthrough ended when I refused to kill the king.

    But since the game doesn’t actually let you refuse to kill the king, my only option was to quit the game and never return. I haven’t “finished” the game, and I haven’t seen any of the endings.

    That made for a pretty unsatisfying conclusion.

  6. The way we define reality around us is by seeing where it falls between opposite extremes. If the extremes didn’t exist, then the quality that defines those extremes would not be measurable. Thus, “evil” and “good” extremes both exist, and we define for ourselves where we fall between those extremes by our choices, actions and beliefs, as an example of this fundamental logic of the world around us, and how we define the world around us and our place in that world.

    Video games are unique in that they are a simulation of the real world that people can play with to their heart’s content without a real-world consequence other than spent time. Of course, any human-made simulation will be imperfect, but that’s a separate topic than the one I’m trying to focus on.

    A video game, as a result, becomes a “toy” that entertains people: build a character’s statistics a certain way, then see how the character performs in combat. Go right instead of left, see what happens. Schmooze romantic interest Z instead of A, see what happens. It is possible to completely exhaust all possibilities that can be found in any video game, given enough time, because these games give us the power to discover everything within them, although some games are more intensive than others when it comes to this fact (It could take millions of years to truly exhaust the deck-building possibilities of CCGs like Magic: the Gathering, for example, but it’s still technically possible to reach that point).

    Combat is crucial to many of these systems (especially for so-called “perma-death” or permanent death games, where if a character dies, they die forever, no take-backs), because it engages our basest instincts as a common-point for almost all humanity. Common points facilitate communication, as it becomes easier to relate to things one has commonality with. This has the potential to turn combat into a dialogue between the people who made the game (using “enemies” and “villains” and “antagonists” or sometimes every single character and environment within the game as the proxies for the creators of the game) and those who play the game.

    Most of the time, this “dialogue” is mundane; training your Pokemon in the Pokemon games conveys the time investment necessary to raising, strengthening, trading, and caring for one’s pet animals, so that they are capable of protecting you from the dangers of the world around you; in Final Fantasy, combat enforces the notion that being a hero capable of defeating evil monsters takes time and practice, and some capacity for growth into that “legendary hero” status.

    Undertale is unique in that its combat is not mundane, although it is repetitive. Sure, your character has large capacity for growth, but to grow is to destroy all life around you. This makes an interaction traditionally seen as positive and rewarding in other video games (killing monsters and leveling up) and twists it into something negative. Sure, your character gets stronger, but it gets stronger at the expense of all other life around you. Thus, the combat communicates the devastation death brings, and tries to make you feel the weight of that devastation every time you level up. It also makes you feel lonely, as any sentient companionship had to be eliminated so that your stats could increase, thus reflecting the common trope: “Those who kill monsters must become monsters themselves”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the denizens of the Underground are referred to as “monsters”. Also, this explains why the end-game acceptance of you inevitably becoming the monster you murdered everything else to have the chance to defeat is unavoidable: you acted “just like that” monster, so what distinguishes you from that monster?

    It’s fair to say that very few human beings want to see themselves as monsters, even though they often act in a monstrous fashion in video games because it “doesn’t matter”: what happens in a video game stays in a video game. Because this doesn’t hold for Undertale, this causes players a small degree of shock: familiar mechanics do not create the same “dialogue” they did in previous games. This incentivizes players, once they realize the in-game consequences of acting like monsters in order to kill monsters, to find other methods of dealing with the monstrous threats they face with every random encounter. This is why the “pacifist” combat exists, to allow players the option to not be the in-game monsters they may become if they murder every enemy they meet.

    However, the game also takes the time to measure how many times you reset the game or how many times you play the game to completion, and what endings you got. This is interesting, because it deliberately calls attention to an action that nearly every single video game player has done without consequence and without any in-game entity being the wiser: saving and reloading. While the game cannot stop you from doing these things, by breaking the fourth wall and letting the player know that “the game is aware of that trick”, it shakes if not outright shatters the safety net saving and reloading provides players, which is the reason why players do that particular activity before doing something difficult in a video game. Sure, you can still do it, but something somewhere in the game’s code will remember that you did it, and that’s at best creepy, and at worst terrifying.

    As a result, it’s fair to say that the game is taking the tropes of video game combat and related mechanics and turns them on their head. Sure, the mechanics are similar to other role-playing games, but what those semi-familiar mechanics communicate to the player is an entirely different set of values and concepts than the ones we have become accustomed to: combat deprives you of company and friendship if you go murderous, instead of being praised and glorified for eventually doing the “impossible task” of “vanquishing the evil”; Saving and reloading does not reset the memories of the entities of the game world completely: something, somewhere, is keeping track of every action you take to play through and complete the game, turning a safety net into a potential liability (which, to my knowledge, never really comes to fruition, but the potential for paranoia still exists).

    Thus, the achievement of Undertale and why the game has struck such a strong nerve among players is that it dared to say something different using a language that “gamers” understand: the language of game mechanics. But there is more that the game shares in these mechanics than what I have already explored.

    Take the mechanics by which pacifism works in Undertale: for regular enemies and mini-bosses, you ACT a certain way to pacify the monster, and then you SPARE the enemy. This communicates something important: when someone is aggressive, if you can calm them down, you should calm them down, before you can resolve the conflict peacefully. When the game throws curve balls via the bosses, which require other actions (such as spamming SPARE at Toriel or FLEEing the fight with Undyne, or going on a date with Papyrus), this teaches that no one path to non-violence is effective for all situations: you have to adapt to what you are facing in order for everyone to make it out alive. Even the first time you face the final boss has a lesson: if someone cannot be given mercy for whatever reason, then the truth is that you cannot save them from their fate. Sure, the full pacifist run allows you to overcome that problem, but that also communicates the importance of experience, and gives a new meaning to the word “determination”: for, you see, anyone can be saved. The question is figuring out HOW to save them, and sometimes you just don’t know the answer on your first attempt. Persevere, and a solution can be found.

    Now, when it comes to the differences in the endings and how the no mercy ending is on first glance a nonsensical punishment that withholds information from the player that does not obtain that ending, yes, that is a departure from most endings in video games: after all, the “true” ending in most video games is the ending that is the most complete ending, where everything is explained and there are no loose ends. So why is Undertale different?

    Simple: different perspectives lead to different data sets. Different data sets lead to different opinions or conclusions. Different opinions or conclusions lead to different actions based on those different opinions or conclusions.

    This is easiest illustrated with the following example: consider a statue. Take a camera, and from where you stand, take a picture of the statue. Then, move to a different physical position and take another picture of the statue. Then, compare the two photographs: which one is the correct photo of the statue?

    That last question is a trick question, because both photos are correct, although neither photo by itself has all the information necessary to completely describe the statue; both photos are correct representations of the statue, but they are not complete representations of the statue. Only by considering all possible photographs from all possible perspectives is it possible to fully describe what the statue looks like. Undertale is no different.

    Think back again to what I mentioned about the existence of extremes allowing us to define ourselves and the world around us within those extremes. The extremes are best represented in Undertale with the true pacifist and the no mercy endings. However, one ending without the context of the other ending does not paint a complete picture of the full scope of Undertale. In fact, either ending without the context of the other ending is incomplete: you must complete both endings in order to learn the final “lesson” Undertale communicates:

    As much as we try to be pacifist, as much as we want to make sure nobody dies, as determined as we are to achieve the victory that feels morally correct, we all have the potential for destruction and the pain it causes within all of us. If we do not guard against that tendency, if we are not tempted by the knowledge unique to being merciless, then all our victories will forever be tainted by the memory of our failure. The only way to correct this is to start over by completely wiping the game from the computer and starting over again.

    Yes, being merciless has plot information unique to that playthrough, because it is a unique way to play the game, which is akin to a different “perspective” on the game, which in keeping with the logic of the statue analogy makes a certain degree of sense. But, you need to ask yourself this question: is that knowledge worth the damage being merciless does to your game save? That is something every Undertale player has to answer for themselves. How many will blindly stumble towards achievements and 100-percent completion without stopping to ask that question? How many demand to know everything, and thus “corrupt” all future playthroughs on that game save, like the author of this article did? How many will feel empty, gypped even, when all pacifist runs after a no mercy run ring hollow, and yet not know why they feel so uncomfortable with knowing the full truth of the game?

    No other video game out there has generated those possible emotional states deliberately, not in such a strongly mechanics-based focus that most every gamer can parse, at least on a rudimentary level. This is Undertale’s crowning achievement, in that it takes cliched mechanics and not only uses them in novel and interesting ways, but that it communicates concepts no other game it could share genres with does. Corpse Party comes close on a narrative level, but only in the intensity of its emotions and the vulnerability of its protagonists. Nothing else so brilliantly defines the nature of extreme pacifism and extreme brutality, and forces the player to wonder where they themselves fall between those extremes. Nothing else causes players to re-evaluate common actions and modes of behavior in most every single game with which Undertale shares genres. No other game makes the “true” ending the incomplete ending, and causes players to face the dilemma of “permanently staining” their game save in order to figure the rest of the story out.

    Is it perfect? No. Is it unique? Hell yes. Does it equally deserve its accolades and criticisms, its adoration from fans and its derision by critics? Of course, why shouldn’t it? Should we get “bent out of shape” trying to force our own interpretation on others instead of sharing our unique perspectives with those open to exploration and confronting our own biases and distortions? Now THAT is an interesting question, one that doesn’t have have an easy answer at hand; I’ll let that stand for now, I suppose, for others to consider.

    Anyway, I hope that was interesting food for thought. Make of my impressions whatever you will.


    Mr. Album

  7. “in all other arenas, Undertale insists that conflict arises from unwarranted fear and misunderstanding. it rewards you for pacifism and forging friendships. everyone, it wants to suggest, can get along only if we’re determined enough. and yet, the no-mercy run offers the exact obverse suggestion: radical evil exists, and it cannot be expunged.”

    Finally, somebody gets it!

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