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
@WarrenIsDead heads up, the creator prefers people not use “genocide” to describe the run. It was started by an lp’er making holocaust jokes
— akaturkey (@akatookey) November 7, 2015
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.