This week, William Hughes turned an eye toward Undertale, a subversive throwback to classic Japanese role-playing games and one of the year’s surprise cult hits. (And before you even say it, yes, I’m just as surprised as you are that it took us this long to talk about the game. With an operation as small as ours, sometimes things just pass us by.) William was taken by Undertale’s handling of choice and consequence, particularly the extraordinary lengths it takes to make your decisions stick and later rub them in your face. The essay inspired a lot of great conversation down in the comments, covering several different aspects of in-game morality. For one, Rexwolff2 recounted replaying the game multiple times to experience its several different endings and what happened when it came time to turn evil:
I played first through the Neutral and Pacifist endings of Undertale, and even though it took quite a while to bring up the willpower to ruin the perfect happy ending for all of the characters I had grown to love, I eventually made my way towards a No Mercy/Genocide run, wishing that some heroic monster could just kill me for good and end the carnage.
Still, I soldiered on, until I met the climactic boss, and eventually, his pleas, combined with the insane difficulty of the battle, broke me. I didn’t have the physical skill or emotional fortitude to go through with it, and I reset the game.
When enough time has passed, I’ll complete Pacifist once again, and return all of the characters to the happy ending they deserve.
Though I don’t think Rexwolff2 was saying that the game’s Pacifist ending, the happiest of all, is the one true Undertale ending, the idea that it is was brought up a few times, including by William in his essay. Merlin The Tuna took up arms against this notion:
I’m sure a lot of folks here are tired of my rants about the continued existence of the term “true ending,” but by god I just can’t help myself. That playing through for a second time and completing the Genocide route permanently corrupts the Pacifist ending (you saved everyone—and then brutally murdered them!) definitively makes the Pacifist route not the “true” ending. The only true ending of Undertale is the one that you left the game in. And that’s rad as heck!
A lot of “true endings” historically have consisted of both a happier ending and access to more of the setting’s lore. (The term always makes me think of Castlevania: Symphony Of the Night and Valkyrie Profile, both of which involve puzzling through a subtle, villainous scheme to live happily ever after.) But the Genocide route of Undertale is an interesting counterpoint to that model. Partially, that’s because the “bad” ending is an achievement itself, rather than being the lazy/non-completionist route through the game. But it’s also because a non-trivial amount of lore is exclusive to the “bad” playthrough, and even if you can’t get all the way through it, that knowledge will color future runs. The happy ending is not a 100-percent run, and vice versa.
Take Sans, for example. If your first time through the game is a Neutral or Pacifist run, he’s a fun dork that’s kind of lazy, and you might learn that he has a limited awareness of the existence of multiple timelines. Then you go dark and learn that he’s not lazy; he’s a nihilist as a result of recognizing that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of torment for someone else’s amusement. Even in the Pacifist route’s happy ending, he’s not basking in the sun; he’s waiting in dread for the other shoe to fall when the inevitable reset happens.
Bogira had a similar view, though one that was based on a distaste for playing the villain:
So many people out and out reject the dichotomous good/bad morality systems in places like BioWare games, but I think they offer a good starting point for this conversation. When you look at their achievements, they sometimes have one for each path, which implies the game should be played in both directions. I have never done it. I’ve only played good characters because I don’t like being evil or a dick (in the case of Mass Effect). It just doesn’t bring joy to my heart, so Undertale reinforcing that position within the game with a heavy Aesopian level of fable is perfectly suited toward that attitude. This isn’t about experiencing “everything.” This is about making a moral choice and seeing it through to the end with actual consequences even if they’re never dire to your actual life.
This idea of “experiencing everything” plays into an interesting debate that emerged in the comments. William and lots of readers pointed out that one of Undertale’s most admirable characteristics is an awareness of players’ desire to see everything and their ability to easily manipulate the fabric of a game’s world—time, space, and the lives of its people—to do it. To them, this is an ingenious subversion of player tendencies and an appeal to the value of concepts like permanence and individual experience. Your choices are your own, and your ending is your ending. Even if they too might recognize and admire that subversion, for the completionists among us, like Smilner, it’s a roadblock:
This kind of speaks to my disdain for looking up game endings on YouTube. I know that I am completing things the way I am, so that I may see them play out before me, and I know that there is no intrinsic difference between watching it in the game and clicking play on YouTube video, but it doesn’t matter. I need to see it for myself, and I need to be the one who made it happen, and I cannot accept it any other way. Earlier this year, I encountered two unrelated bugs in Batman: Arkham Knight that stopped me from finishing the game. It’s a bummer, but I absolutely cannot bring myself to YouTube the ending. I’ll get the urge to play it again in eight or 10 months, I’m sure, but for the here and now, not finishing the game myself is preferable to “cheating” to see the end. I’d play right into Undertale’s tricks.
And as CrabNaga points out, Undertale has a special trick in store just for those people who might be tempted to look up the evil ending:
The best part is that when you go for the Genocide ending, the game specifically calls out anyone who might just be watching along.
And with that, my dear Gameologinauts, another Gameological week comes to a close. As always, thank you for reading and commenting, we’ll see you next week!