littleGustav

Was Undertale supposed to make me despise everyone, everywhere?

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The game is full of jokes, and there are humorous moments and also moments which are certainly meant to be funny to someone else. But the game is fundamentally much more serious than that, though again not in the way that seems to be intended. It’s a story based on characters and choices - based heavily on those, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Characters live, die, and adapt to your decisions, and there is not necessarily any going back. All well and good. It’s just a shame every character is so thoroughly dislikeable.

How so? Their personalities, mostly. From the most fleeting of meetings to the most involved, the characters you encounter are shallow, self-centered, single-minded, and incredibly invasive and aggressive. Or at least they were to me, the pacifist. In a game all about consequence, I can’t help but wonder about the consequences that seem to be lacking for those around me - or perhaps there is a reason that monsters have been bound below the earth?

When playing the non-violent route, every monster you encounter is basically a bully. To complete or solve an encounter without killing anyone, you have to placate or appease the monster in some way. There’s a monster that wants you to ‘eat your greens’, another that needs the chance to ‘out-flex’ you. One is satisfied when you flirt with them, and any dog will leave you alone once you pet them enough.

The ‘boss’ monsters take this to another level entirely. I avoided being killed by Papyrus by simply flirting with him till he agreed to stop, and I promised to be his friend. A spider-women attacked me extensively before deciding this was based on a misunderstanding. You are repeatedly subject to frustrating (and life threatening) game-show tasks for a robot that was set upon you by a scientist who wanted to ‘feel useful’. Even your first boss, Toriel, attacks you - and will kill you, if you let her - because she wants to make sure you’re ‘ready’.

All this could be fine, if it were intentional and thought through. There’s an interesting dynamic being explored here - that violence and controlling, reprehensible behavior can come from feelings of helplessness or loneliness or even caring and concern. But this doesn’t seem to be the point at all. The game is open to different approaches and endings, but these never address the behavior of characters outside yourself - just your own actions on an indifferent moral checklist.

#When playing the non-violent route, every monster you encounter is basically a bully.

Perhaps I am being unfair. After all, the game is not necessarily advocating the pacifist route, merely playing with the idea of trying to ‘go back’ over ‘mistakes’, on erasing deeds that you have done. There was a mention briefly of how many times my own character had died, but nothing else came of it. But even if the game is trying to explore these ideas overall, even by providing the content for a ‘genocide’ playthough, the moral message of the game is centered on being pacifist.

Which is my main problem. Because the way to achieve non-violence in this game is pretty bankrupt. There is no engaging with the monsters you encounter, no communication or disagreement possible short of violence. Either you humor them - enable them, support them in whatever anti-social behavior they seem to like - or you kill them. That’s an absurd and, I believe, repugnant idea of human interaction.

There is a difference between being empathetic and being enabling. Every monster you encounter wants something from you. If you wish to survive, you have to give them what they want, except maybe for the uncool ‘Jerry’, who you ditch. Why am I obliged to give in to this? Why is my character the one who has to prop up and justify and reinforce the small pathetic shortcomings of those around them?

Interaction is a dialogue - it involves empathy, and communication. It’s indirect, and it depends on the participants, and their own involvement in it. Again, this could be a commentary - how, without communication, the only recourse is violence. But it isn’t. I would bet money on that. I would venture to say that the point is that we are all different, and we all have problems, and let’s just accept each other for who we are - and all be friends.

Well, you can be whoever you want to be. But as adults, we must also take responsibility for our own actions. In a world where no one is willing to do that, maybe violence would be the norm. But as I struggled through the quagmire of pacifist ‘fight’ after ‘fight’, I realized - I just wanted everyone in the game to leave me be. I didn’t want to be their friends, or even know them. Fortunately I was wrong earlier - the options aren’t limited to being an enabler or being a murderer. I can stop playing, too.

Written on November 10, 2015