I didn’t know much about Undertale before I started playing. I knew it was a wildly beloved indie game; I knew that it was supposed to be some kind of twist on a traditional RPG. But every review I read before buying it said to go in as blind as possible, and even though I like to be armed with information in literally every aspect of my life, I went along with them. (Passing that recommendation lightly on to you: Undertale is at its most interesting when you’re confronted with choices whose consequences you don’t know.)
It starts in a destabilizing way. You, a lost child of indeterminate gender, are given a tutorial on how to play by a talking flower; this would be fairly par for the course (games are weird!) except immediately afterward, the flower turns evil and attacks you. It’s the first sign that things in this world are likely not what they seem — a sign I should have taken to heart over the course of my first playthrough.
You’re rescued by a woman-slash-queen-slash-maybe-goat? named Loriel. She fusses over you, guides you through the ruins where you’ve found yourself, indicates that she’s going to bake you a pie. She’s funny and nice. She clearly wants nothing more than for you to be safe.
This protectiveness comes to a head once you’ve made it through the game’s initial set of puzzles and battles and find yourself at Loriel’s house. When you try to leave, she blocks you. She doesn’t want you to go out into the underground, she says; you, a human who found yourself there by mistake, will inevitably be killed in this world of monsters. She’s so insistent you stay that she attacks you herself.
And so, like all my years of gaming have taught me to do, I killed her. I felt vaguely bad about it (the writing is really, really sharp) but I figured that I had to. It was what the game was pushing me to do, I thought, and so it didn’t even occur to me that I was making a choice at all. It wasn’t until right before the end of the game, three or four hours later, that I realized with a horrible crunch that I had chosen, and that I had chosen again and again, and that in many ways I had chosen wrong.
It turns out that there is a way to play Undertale where you don’t have to harm anyone. Not Toriel, not the mutant frogs or the sentient airplanes that spring out of the ground and attack you, not even the traditional-seeming bosses that prevent you from passing by. Every creature can be spared, whether you accomplish that by talking to them or bullying them or hugging them. (You can even flirt with a few.) You could fight them all the same way, a series of straightforward hits until their life force runs out, but each one is spared differently, and it’s up to you, through a series of at times fatal attempts, to figure out how best to care for them, should you take that route.
But during my first run, I hadn’t realized any of this. Worse, I had ignored the signals pointing me in that direction; Toriel tells you from the start that it’s possible to show monsters mercy, and there are options on the battle menu to flee from or spare creatures, but using them was too tricky. I was too impatient; I figured the end would be the same no matter how I played, and so I took the route I knew, to hack and slash my way through. I thought I was justified when I amassed EXP and my LV increased; I was gaining, I was improving, so that had to mean I was correct.
In my real life I care a lot about leveling up. I don’t know if it’s why I love games to begin with or what a couple decades of playing them has imbued me with, but I think constantly, childishly, about arriving at a place where I feel solid, and where I won’t have to worry about losing anything. I don’t know, in these fantasies, quite what the whole looks like, but I know it consists of money, of time, of a partner, of creative fulfillment, of a home. I will have worked hard enough and been special enough and made the right choices to merit this arrival, and that’s why none of it can ever be taken away from me.
This is…..very dumb! I have many of those things already, and I’m so lucky to; I already know that they can’t transform me, that they can’t replace my anxiety or my fear. I already know that they can go away, or change, or that I could be the one to go away or change.
But isn’t it a comforting thought? Wouldn’t it be so great if it were all a game, and if we could, one day, complete it?
Undertale refuses to allow this kind of thinking. As you near the end, about to battle the king whose defeat, you’re told, will finally allow you to return home, you’re confronted by a monster you’ve met before. He explains the real meaning of the stats you’ve built up: “What's EXP? It's an acronym. It stands for ‘execution points.’ A way of quantifying the pain you have inflicted on others. When you kill someone, your EXP increases.” Similarly, “When you have enough EXP, your LOVE increases. LOVE, too, is an acronym. It stands for ‘Level of Violence.’ A way of measuring someone's capacity to hurt. The more you kill, the easier it becomes to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt. The more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.”
At first I felt angry; I felt tricked. I’d followed all the rules! I’d done everything flawlessly! Why was I being punished, rather than rewarded? How was any of this my fault?
Quickly, though, my ire curdled into shame. I’d ignored the vague, needling feeling that what I’d been doing wasn’t quite right in my hurry to get to the end. I didn’t like the version of myself the game so plainly presented.
To be apathetic or unthinking, Undertale seems to argue, to do what you’ve always done without questioning why, is to do harm. To be so focused on the conclusion that you miss the details — talking at length to even the most bizarre monsters, reading library books and diaries, taking in the haunting music — is to not really have played the game at all.
So once I won (or lost, hard to say) I started over. Undertale is built this way; there are some players who have completed runs hundreds of times, never having quite the same experience twice. Instead of fighting, this time I figured out how to spare everyone. I had conversations. I went on dates! I’ve taken many more hours to reach the end, even though I know how to solve all the puzzles now.
The whole run has been tinged with some nostalgia and some melancholy; I can’t talk to anyone without remembering how recently I’d seen them as nothing but my enemy, how easy it had been to strike them down and keep barreling forward. It’s almost like they remember too; the game file stays the same, with certain numbers and names popping up throughout. It knows you’ve been there before. The echoes aren’t erased.
Now I am stuck right before the end. I can’t defeat the king. I have to — there’s no option to spare him, at least not at the beginning of the fight — but I’m so weak that he destroys me every time. When I was tearing through my first run, racking up experience and weapons, it only took a single try, and I felt the usual brief glory that comes from beating any game before it’s eclipsed by reality. But being good, it turns out, is far less easy than being selfish.
Still, I know I’ll win, for real this time. I’ll get to the end of the battle, somehow, and hopefully I’ll be able to show him some mercy, and then I’ll find out what happens next.
Undertale pairs well with: The Good Place, for reasons of morality, personal choice, better to go in knowing nothing.
What I’m crafting right now: A low-back peach shirt that began life as a cardigan before I realized I literally never wear cardigans so I just knitted both panels together and kept on going in the round. Hopefully it’ll usher in spring a little faster.