In Undertale You Are Player Two

I wrote a brief post about Toby Fox’s Undertale a month or so ago. It was difficult as I was really trying to remain spoiler-free while, at the same time, attempting to actually say something relevant about the game itself. But now that I’ve had some time to think, and talk, about Undertale there are some more things about it that I would like to write about.

You are now in the Spoiler Bone Zone. Please either play the game first, as it is excellent, or don’t upon your own risk. As always, you have been warned.

Undertale

Mechanically speaking, the game is a work of pure genius. For the most part it feels like an RPG with some very elementary, archetypal cartoon aesthetics. On the surface, it is a combination of turn-based battles and puzzles. But then there are some interesting aspects to the conflict portions of the game: interactive gameplay elements that will really affect the plot as you go on. And, believe me, you will see these effects almost immediately.

Undertale Fight

The fact that you have the option to either Fight and kill, or Act and Mercy enemies is not a spoiler in and of itself. Acting actually gives you many options as to how to deal with monsters as people: each one having their own likes and dislikes.

Undertale Act

When you interact with them through the Act option long enough, you can Spare them and continue onward: sometimes gaining money, but no EXP. Or, you can kill them and they disintegrate into dust.

Undertale Combat

The battles, or if you want to get more technical, the Encounters are structured in an interesting fashion. While they are turn-based, allowing you time to heal with items or choose other options on your screen, the monsters’ turns are mostly bullet-hell mini-games. You play as a small red heart in a box, and the object of those games, on the turn of your opponent, is to avoid their attacks until it’s your turn again. Generally, you can move all around the box but then … sometimes … Toby Fox will change the game dynamic.

The way that Fox changes the game dynamic in encounters often ties into the Special Attacks of particular monsters. For instance, there are at least a few situations where a bullet-hell can become a platforming or even a shooter mini-game. Having mini-games in an overall game is nothing new, of course, but these different games — turned into specific dynamics or interactions with characters — provides the skeleton (if you pardon the pun, which is ironic as there are two Skeletons that love and detest puns respectively, with their own encounters) of Undertale as a game.

Of course, I’m probably not saying anything at this point that no one has heard before. The game itself, like many contemporary and independently created interactive narratives, is fairly self-referential and — a jargony word — intertextual. It is a game that spiritually and mechanically knows its a game to the point of fourth-wall breaking and is aware of other games. Even the plot of the game is fairly straightforward at first glance: where you play a silent protagonist child character who is trying to escape from an Underground realm ruled by Monsters that were banished there by humans during an ancient war from long ago.

But aspect from the Pacifist options of being able to Act and Spare in encounters, Undertale has two more unique characteristics that can either make, or break, a good game.

These two elements play into each other well. The first is that Toby Fox creates archetypal and relatable characters. You very clearly know who they are from their brilliant musical leitmotifs and their cartoon aesthetics. And the best part is that a majority of all the other characters are Monsters. That’s right. They could be your enemies and Toby Fox goes out of his way to make sure that they are people who have their own hobbies, likes, dislikes, families, and friends. They are not nameless creatures that you kill to gain EXP. And some even befriend you on their own.

Sans and Papyrus

Fox manages to blend enough self-awareness, humour, and far-reaching emotional resonance into your interactions to make you seriously look at what you’re doing in the Underground and what you are willing to do while you are there.

Just think about it. That Woshua that just wants to clean you and might not be aware that they are hurting you until you Act with it, could be a Monster that you just kill. Or that Froggit that comes at you in all ignorance, that could have given you some advice in the beginning, could be your unintended victim.

But you see, you can’t really kill by accident. Well, not exactly. Because there is also the other element of Undertale to consider: the moral structure of the game itself.

And here lies the rub. There will be times, especially in the beginning, when you don’t know how to Spare a Monster if they won’t Act with you. In my experience, what happened was that without knowing what to do, I reverted back to my old time and tested gamer routine: I tried to damage an opponent to the point where I hoped they would ask me to Spare them, or give me the option to do so.

It didn’t work. And they died. They died because of my own actions.

I was horrified. That was not what I intended to do, and yet in retrospect I realized how flawed that idea was. I mean, when you meet someone sympathetic in real life and they get in your way, do you beat them within an inch of their life to get past them? To get what you want? Just what kind of person does that? What kind of person does that make you?

And so, I decided to reset, to Load my Save because I knew there was another way to deal with it without killing them: this character whom I’d grown to care about, to relate to, and made me feel conflict when they opposed me. But even when I figured that out, the game itself … remembered what I did in my last Save. It didn’t let me forget.

The game still forgave, then, but it didn’t forget.

Undertale Flowey the Flower

Undertale’s moral structure acts like something of a stereotypical gamer deterrent. It punishes you for gaining Levels, for grinding for Levels, for resolving issues with “Solo shooting first violence” and even for the extreme end of Determination: for seeking to do something just because you know that you can.

This is the spirit of Undertale. It is more than one of those games that have consequences for every action of the player. It is the child of a popular idea in various parts of the independent game-making scene: the notion of deconstructing violence as a normal interaction in games and creating alternatives. And some of those alternatives branch into consequences and elements of diversity and representation. What I love about Undertale is that these aspects do not lead into places of heavy-headed preaching or messages. Rather, your actions are reflected in what happens to the characters whom you’ve grown to relate towards: even and especially if they are different from you.

Snowdin Puzzle

In a way Undertale can also represent the idea of a ludic society: of a social order and community operating on interactions of “playfulness” or games. The Underground literally has a tradition of puzzle games to confound and challenge humans and outsiders. These puzzles are how the denizens of the Underground interact with each other and the player: and they notable because they are generally non-lethal. Even befriending certain characters triggers parodies of dating sims mini-games.

Papyrus Date

It can also be seen to reflect another ideal in some of the independent game-making scene: of games being more than just entertainment, but art itself. But perhaps this potential Games studies look, with its possible influences on independent game-making night be reading a little too much into what Toby Fox might be intimating.

But these implications are good to discuss. Because Undertale does say something about a particular stereotype of a gamer that is hard to ignore. The way he does this is fascinating. At the beginning of the game you are told to name the character that you will, presumably, be playing. In addition, you will encounter your first enemy: who will continue to follow you around and offer “advice” throughout the entire game. It even fits well into the story.

As it turns out, you have a special power as a human called Determination. In your case, it allows you to control time to a limited extent. You can Load and Save your progress. You can even Reset the game: the very world in which you are interacting. Your enemy, if he is your enemy, also had this power once until you came along. He is, in a lot of ways, your shadow: your doppelganger. He represents what happens when you replay a game far too many times, when you commit all good and evil on each reset, when you become bored with your game, when you persevere to great and ridiculous lengths to gain an achievement … and he will question and mock you for everything you do: while sometimes helping you … for his own benefit.

But here is the thing that you need to understand. This first enemy of yours, as powerful and terrifying as he can become, may not really be your enemy at all. He represents something. And depending on what you do, this antagonist is just Player Two to the real enemy that can manifest in the game.

After all, there’s a reason why the mirrors in Undertale have dialogue boxes when you click on them.

Undertale Mirror

Eventually — depending on what life choices you make — you realize that the person you named, early in your adventure, isn’t who your silent protagonist actually is. It turns out there was another human, long ago, who fell into the Underground. They are the person that you name. And if you choose what’s called the Genocide Route, namely going through the intense grinding motions of leveling up and killing every Monster in your way, they will manifest and you will lose control of the character.

In fact, the person you play as isn’t even your character. They have their own name. It is a revelation that through the grandiosity of the True Pacifist Ending actually took me out of my immersion with the game by sheer confusion. I named that character. Even if they were different from me, that was how I related to them. Naming was yet another assumption that gets subverted. It’s only when you play the Genocide Route, it is your murderous intentions, your capacity to kill, your lack of caring for puzzles or characters as people, your lack of fun, that will re-awaken someone or something else that will take control of the person you were supposed to guide. It is pretty clear what Undertale states through these actions, and the words of some characters towards the end, about certain kinds of gamers.

And it can be both unsettling and off-putting.

The truth is, you can’t accidentally play the Genocide Route. You have to painstakingly, numbingly, grind through all those Monsters with their own thoughts and feelings. You have to distance yourself from your emotions and capacity to feel relationships to kill and maim and take what you want. You will destroy people that you could have been friends with: that you could have loved. And you will encounter bullet-hells and platforming battles that are completely unforgiving: and the ending of the game will not be a pleasant one. You do not get rewarded for mass-murder.

In fact, your “reward” for doing this will ultimately be a jump-scare worthy of a creepypasta.

Undertale Chara's Deaths

And it gets worse. If you play Genocide before Pacifism, it will taint every other playthrough that you make. It is at this point that the game does not forgive you. You deal with the consequences of your actions. And if you played Pacifist first, killing and tormenting your friends will feel like agony unless you have completely distanced yourself from these interactions as “just a game.”

This morality is Undertale‘s greatest strength. It can also, arguably, be considered a flaw. Genocide reveals other information about the story line that you would not have gotten in any other route. There are different interactions and sides to the characters that you will not see in any other way. And if you do this, you will be punished for it in all of the aforementioned ways. For the most part, it isn’t preachy but there are some moments where it feels like you are being punished for wanting the full experience of the entire game. It even goes as far as to castigate you if you watch the Genocide route on YouTube.

Flowey is an Asshole

Obviously, this moral mechanic destroys Undertale‘s replay potential. You don’t want to go back and kill your friends. You also don’t want to obliterate their — or your character’s — happy ending if you have achieved the True Pacifist run. And so here is this game, with all heart, that when it’s over — if you think of these characters as people — you should just make sure it’s over. It is said that art is an imitation of life, and if Undertale subscribes to that ideal of being art instead of primarily entertainment — even through the microcosms of the puzzles that the Monsters make in their society — then there you are: that is your experience.

In fact, it’s not even your experience. It’s not supposed to be about you. The person you name isn’t even the protagonist and all of your aggressive gamer impulses, if you have them, are vilified … by you. And no matter what, whether you are Pacifist or have committed Genocide, the story becomes about someone else. And if you respect the flow and the rules of the game and its code, you will have to walk away.

The fact that Undertale feels like it is against replay value can be seen as a detriment and a punishment to that completionist mentality in a gamer, but the Catch 22 of the thing is that without it, this game would not be Undertale. It would not be special.

And there is the rub. Just like the foe you displaced by coming to this world of games, you are not the central character. How does it feel to actually know that you were always Player Two? And do you have the strength to play through it, to guide your character, to go for the best ending, to relate to others without hurting them, to walk away when your time is finally done with some grace? Will you need to alleviate that need to know more by “cowardly” viewing “other timelines” on YouTube or other recordings? Will you need to read and create fanfiction to make the emptiness of Undertale‘s completion go away? Or will you just grind on and become a Dirty Brother Killer?

In the end, I know what choice I made when I put my metaphorical controller down.

Frisk the Ambassador

SAVE FAILED

Dedicated to Toby Fox’s Undertale. There be Spoilers here. Do not say that you were not warned.

I’m not sure when it happened. Sometimes I forget … sometimes …

Yes. Recording. I don’t know how much time I have left. Or there’s too much time … to contemplate what happened. I’d reached Entry 17 of my Scientific Journal. I hope that you both found it in my attachment.

I remember now. I was examining the Souls. The Barrier was created around us: sealing us Underground with the power of human magic. There are two schools of thought on this matter: first, that humans only gained power through the consumption of Boss Monster Souls that exist longer than those of most Monsters. However, there have historically been few Boss Monsters among our kind and even they do not last as long as Human Souls.

Human Souls are energy sources that utilize a power known as Determination. Alphys, or perhaps you — Sans — will come up with this label. It makes sense that if the apex of Monsterkind can gift Humans with power, that any Human Soul grants us a far greater measure of possibility.

Undertale DT

I made plans for a DT Extractor, but I fear that won’t nearly be enough. But I have made a machine that allows me to utilize this energy in a limited capacity. I didn’t want to use the Souls themselves — that power was to be for His Majesty — but I distilled enough energy through the matrices to view the time lines: to see what possibilities there are to escape from the Barrier’s properties.

Through my machine, I was able to find the underlying codes and variables of reality. During the War, it was said that the Humans were able to cancel out previous actions, or come back from death itself. Some could even change events entirely and … confuse the memories of others. A truly terrifying, and magnificent power if there ever was one. One common theme in my research into the matter was that this Human SAVE function created a node in reality: a place that intersected between psionic, spiritual and geomantic dimensions. Essentially, a SAVE is a spot in the land itself created by the power of Determination.

I realized that seeing the timelines, and then the codes of existence — the “fun values” — was the first step. The second would be to observe and eventually manipulate said values. Eventually, if taken towards its inevitable conclusion, one could theoretically create a RESET: that same power that took victory away from us time and again: leaving all but a few without memory of our past achievements in the War and perhaps even the deaths of other Boss Monsters for Human ends. Truly, a distressing concept.

With a RESET, we wouldn’t even need to circumvent the Barrier with the correct number of Human Souls. Rather, we would restart reality itself and change history. We could rewrite the War. We could have made it so that the Humans had never won. Or perhaps that the elements that began the War never occurred. We could have made it so that we had never been imprisoned to begin with.

But before that final phase in our potential endeavours, there was the third phase: the SAVE function. This would be essential in case anything should go wrong. In fact, SAVING would be valuable in and of itself. Aside from the potential therapeutic qualities of spontaneous regeneration more potent than even healing magic, imagine if anything should happen to the Underground: if there were a calamity of some kind such as a sickness or even an invader that our magic isn’t capable of halting. The ability to LOAD from the SAVE would allow all denizens of the Underground to survive. Perhaps, over time, we could even begin to slowly and gradually absorb the powers of Determination from our SAVE points. If not in our generation, then certainly in further and future generations we had the potential to develop that power and free ourselves altogether. Certainly, learning from our previous mistakes and memories would only bolster our potential as a species.

The possibilities are endless. But so are the tribulations.

You couldn’t conceive of what I saw. When I extracted that small amount of Determination into my machine, I saw all the building blocks of life, space, and time. All of the possibilities. Well, that isn’t true. Sans, you know exactly what I’m talking about even now. The experience was greater than anything else I’d ever achieved: more than my Blasters, even more than utilizing the geothermal power of the Earth to create the Core seemed minuscule compared to this. Even so, the work that led to the Core, miniaturized, was just the first step in utilizing geomantic energy to make our first SAVE point.

I think you know the first mistake by now, you two. The darkness I warned you about earlier. There was … there is an anomaly. I can’t account for it. It threatens all the timelines. I’ll admit: it terrified me. That was when I knew. The Barrier was petty compared to the threat of this cosmological aberration. I had to make that SAVE. I had to override reality to save us all.

I should have spent more time … but that’s exactly what I have now. More time. Yes. I said that already. I accessed the fun values. I attempted to change them. I tried to focus the machine’s Determination energy into one area and then I SAVED.

It didn’t work.

I didn’t unify in one place as I know I should have. Instead, I felt my body, and my being, spreading thin … disintegrating … I scattered everywhere. I’m data in the Core. I’m a child who should have died. I am a man who, in another time, decided to walk away from a Spider Bake Sale. Or I’m a face from the ground talking about myself, listening to everything …

I’m right behind someone. I’m sailing down a river? And I’m in a grey version of a room that I changed with tainted SAVE data. Use it to store anything. Not even a RESET will erase the matter in there. Not even the broken machine …

Undertale Sans Lab

But there is, there was some strange creature in front of me … Perhaps that is the anomaly? I was so focused on understanding it, on stopping it.

But there is a difference between Determination and obsession.

My friends, I don’t know how coherent I’m going to remain. I don’t even know if I’m talking to you in one timeline, or another. Or all of them. But you are all in danger. The Darkness will come from either outside, or within … Don’t listen to the Flowers. Beware the Child … I don’t understand … I’m everything, I’m …

Sans. Papyrus … I’m you. I’m will try to find a way to find you. Take care, my … take … Stay determined. Stay Determined … stay de-terminated … deter … mine …

….

Treat or Trap: Toby Fox’s Undertale

In honour of Halloween, tonight’s quick and dirty Mythic Bios article will be a video game review appropriate to the season at hand.

It is a fine game to play on an autumn afternoon or Halloween night. Imagine taking Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and combining it with Abby Howard’s The Last Halloween, apparently some Earthbound and some subversive turn-based RPG mechanics and what you might get is Toby Fox’s Undertale. And this description doesn’t do the game any justice.

Undertale

In Undertale, you play as a child who has climbed up Mount Ebott and found themselves in the Underground: the site of which the race of monsters was banished ages ago in an ancient war with humankind. Now, there are two ways you can play this game. However before I go on, I want to reiterate something. A long time ago, I mentioned that a friend of mine truly appreciates “games with consequences.”

So imagine the phrase “games with consequences” existing in a Dictionary somewhere. If you can do that, think of the picture right beside the entry. That picture would be Undertale.

The first way you can play this game is to utilize one of its unique mechanics. This Path is called the Pacifist Run. That’s right. You can play through the game by killing absolutely no one. But what fun is that, you might ask? Well, imagine a child’s world. Think of a child coming across an Underground world of monsters: each one with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. Consider how scared children can be, but also how curious they often become, and then think about how they might handle a situation with a strange and eccentric being compared to how an adult might — or might not — do so.

Ironically, in a lot of ways the Pacifist route is a lot harder than its … opposite. But if you play it right: if you get to know the monsters and realize they are not different from you — and if you pay very close attention to details — you will be well rewarded.

And then you have the other … route. The alternative isn’t that hard to figure out if you are a long-time gamer. Basically, when you encounter monsters you consider them enemies and you essentially kill them all. You kill them and take their EXP. You level up. You will also learn a lot about this world, but your lessons — for all the ease of killing and staying to the tried, tested, and true mentality of being a gamer — will ultimately be harder ones.

It might be all the difference between an epic fantasy adventure … and a personal horror game.

I’m not going to go into much more detail beyond any of this, I’m afraid. To be honest, I’m just not feeling it. Toby Fox and his team create an excellent archetypal world of almost cartoonish beings, but with a lot of heart and serious subject matter amid some silliness verging into the profound. Also … they play with the form of the medium and genres that they are working with: a lot.

I really appreciate the story and the surface level simpleness of the game belying its true complexities. It is a game filled, literally, with heart but also secrets, and mysteries: some of which have still not even been solved to this very day. The music and graphics hearken back to the 8-bit nostalgia prevalent in much of the independent game scene.

But if I had one major quibble with Undertale, it’s ironically with the core of what it is: that actions have consequences. I will tell you right now: as with real life, if you are not at all careful your actions will leave a permanent mark on your gaming experience. And no amount of Saving or Restarting will ever change this. In fact, you can count on Saving or Restarting to have consequences of their own.

It is amazing to see a game that is so moralistic to the point of being both forgiving at times, and completely unforgiving: while also not being particularly all that preachy. Sometimes, it will give you just a few opportunities to see something wonderful but if you’re slow or you don’t pay attention, you will miss it. Yet what’s worse is that you will not get the entire story through one playthrough. It’s just not possible. You will miss details if you only have one playthrough. But the Catch 22 of another playthrough is, well that …

Consequences will be on you.

I’m just going to say this: this game is a self-aware completionist’s bane. Perhaps the best way to explain this without spoilers is to talk about two other games. Gaming Pixie created her own RPG: She Who Fights Monsters. At the very end, depending on your choices — even those made in the blink of an eye — and how much you pay attention to details, you will have only a few chances to get a particular ending. Your actions will colour what you get.

At the same time, there is also the lesson inherent in Gaming Pixie’s Shadow of a Soul. Sometimes, the only way to play a game is to not play that particular game at all. Either way, I hope that you will play Toby Fox’s Undertale and that no matter what you do you will stay determined.