Visceral Gaming: The Impact of Undertale
Seriously, go play Undertale before reading anything else written here. This analysis is for people already familiar with the work.
Super Eyepatch Wolf released a video on Undertale in the final days of 2020. This video is a comprehensive breakdown of not only Undertale as a game, but the spiral power behind it’s exponential cultural growth. Keep in mind that this was a small indie game that started with an initial funding effort of $5,000 and has become so large that Youtube content around spin offs can even generate hundreds of millions of views.
It is no doubt that Undertale taps into something special. Even though it only has 20 hours of content, there is something there that we needed, something that stuck inside of ourselves, and something that made us a different person than who we were when we first named our character and spoke to Flowey about ways of the world.
It was interesting watching The Architect’s video from 2019, because is mirrors so closely my own curiosity into the series and attempts to find what others drew from it. Throughout the years since Undertale’s release, I find myself at times reflecting on it, like a puzzle nested in my mind with some missing piece yet to be obtained. Even as I explore the content, the story breakdowns, or analysis from every level of what this game is suppose to mean, I keep feeling unsatisfied.
Super Eyepatch Wolf suggested it was this desire that inspired fans to continue the story or reimagine it, to create the content they felt was missing and find catharsis in extended or alternative universes. The Architect paid respect to how these feelings inspired such creative efforts, but also encouraged that the game wanted you to grow and move on.
There are numerous videos beyond these two creators, but I focus on them because I think they represent two important points of reference for this game. As I reference them, please keep in mind I’m only referencing my perspective of their work and don’t speak for their work, please watch it.
Anyways, when the Architect looked around to find other comprehensive breakdowns of Undertale, they didn’t find what they were looking for and made their video because of this. I think they didn’t find anything, because they didn’t see Undertale as a living story that moved beyond the confines of its creation. As Wolf suggests, when looking at the enormity of created fan material it becomes hard to see Undertale as nothing but one small part of something much larger.
In some ways it no longer really matters what Toby Fox intended. It doesn’t matter what the original story intended. It matters how we’ve grown with it, how the zeitgeist has continue to shape and develop the mythos into something meaningful and dynamic. While people may scoff at stories or mythos inspired by video games, we as humans have always been drawn to sharing and shaping stories.
I think both content creators also failed to take into account that Homestuck fans were also looking for something else to sink their creative teeth into and a lot of that enormous well of energy and passion was diverted to Undertale, especially since Homestuck was on an extended pause just a month before Undertale’s release.
So, what the fuck am I doing here?
I still think some perspective is missing from this discussion and I am inspired by Wolf to finally write about it. I’ll be writing about the original piece and hopefully add another layer to why this indie darling had such an impact on so many people that years later we’re still waxing poetic about silly game with sad ghosts, pun cracking skeletons, and friendship.
When they were creating the game Portal, the developers wanted to create an intuitive learning environment. They wanted players to learn through gameplay rather than exposition or tutorial menus. Each level was built with this progression in mind, allowing the player to increase their understanding and application of the portal gun. The base concepts naturally flowed into greater complexity as the game continued to challenge you to think deeper about the puzzles and mechanics.
We’ve come to regard games as primarily entertainment or escapism, whether they be video or board games. What we forget is that games at their most pure are aimed at invoking play — curiosity, exploration, critical thinking, application, etc. However, a good number of games, especially within the RPG genre, only allow this play through the mechanics and rarely through the story. You have stats, equipment, abilities, and actions of which you have the agency over your characters. You can have them attack, defend, win, or lose, you can try again, but largely the story remains static. In a lot of ways most RPG’s become very complicated movies, where the combat is the puzzle you figure out to unlock more story.
In these games the immersion is often in losing yourself in the story. You get swept up by the narrative and the characters in it, but you are still only an observer. Even though you have direct control of these characters most of the time you rarely are afforded much agency within the story. At least, would you kindly consider that for a moment.
You may control relationships, you may get an option of multiple ending, but you’re still within a very finite selection of meaningful choices. You are often told a character is upset or happy or any number of things without directly experiencing that yourself. It’s like reading any book and sure we can empathize, but there is a degree of separation. Reading about a character who was set on fire will never compare to the real thing, at least that’s what I read in John Dies at the End.
So, the question becomes why give us control over a character and to a point the story, if it is little more than a very complicated book? The beauty of interactive media is there exists a level of immersion beyond what we get in movies or literature, because we do have that direct control. We do have the potential for direct agency. We can be personally impacted by what happens and through that not just vicariously experience a narrative.
In Final Fantasy Seven, we are told Sephiroth is the best of the best. However, waking up with your cell door open in that game and seeing the floors and walls covered in blood and dead bodies everywhere is unsettling to you as a player, boosted tenfold by the eerie silence. You experience that anxiety, not just your characters. What you and your team failed to do, Sephiroth did with brutal efficiency and ease. The tower that loomed over you this entire game was nothing to this man.
When you fight the Midgar Zolom, you feel the frustration of how unfair the fight is. You work to find a way around it, you spend your time and effort getting pass that obstacle, so when you get to the other side of the swamp and see Sephiroth has killed one and hung it’s body like an albatross on a stake, you as the player can feel dwarfed in power and completely insignificant.
Video games have always had this potential to evoke feelings in us directly, communicate to us directly, but rarely do they. Stanley’s Parable has a moment that challenges and taunts the player. They say we will keep coming back, because we demand there be a solution. We’ll try everything possible, every combination, and struggle against this inevitability because we were trained to believe games had solutions, that we deserved answers or fulfillment. This feeling is so strong, even years later I look to see if the secret has been discovered. The same with the Fez Mystery.
It is no surprise the sequel to Stanley’s Parable involved a meta-narrative breakdown of video games and psychology of those who play them. What does a video game have to be? What does a video game owe a player? What is the purpose of this art? What can video games be? We hear Last of Us: Part Two compared to Shindler’s List, but what did that game do to evoke emotions more than a movie or book with the same story couldn’t? Should we be striving like Hideo Kojimato to just make interactive movies? Or in his actual very real, not made up words, “Fuck video games, I wanna make movies.”
The thing is I can’t do justice to Undertale without this preface, because this game challenges every convention we know of RPG’s and video games. It challenges us directly as a player in a way no other game I know of does.
While Architect does touch on some of these elements when talking about immersion subversion, I think it is incredibly important to be aware of one key point: When you breakdown Undertale to its very base components, the game is at all times always talking you, the player. This entire analysis will be a focus on this conversation, as I talk to you, the reader. Hello.
I think a good number of people who analyze video games fail to take into account the value of the first experience a person has playing the game. In some regard it is because it often doesn’t matter. In theory, knowing the story or mechanics behind a game doesn’t fundamentally change it. However, it can sometimes have some enormous significance, especially if the game is very well designed and aimed at being an interactive video game.
When Egoraptor did his Sequelitis video on Megaman X he showcased the way in which the developers designed the game around intuitive learning like I mentioned with Portal earlier. However, Megaman X went further by invoking feelings within you through its game play. It puts you into a fight you struggle against or can’t win, then shows Zero coming to your rescue. You as the player are frustrated, not just Megaman, because you directly experienced that fight and loss. In the speech Zero gives he says that you can be as strong as him and as you upgrade yourself you start to take on his appearance as your avatar continues to grow in strength. While it is within the narrative and gameplay elements to grow stronger, you have a personal vested interest in it due to your own defeat. Ludonarrative euphoria?
This is especially important with Undertale, because the game fundamentally operates behind several curtains that are slowly revealed to you over time. The three eventual endings of the game are Pacifist, Neutral, and No Mercy. The first being no harm to anyone, the second being any mix of harm or mercy, and the third being the complete murder of everyone. It would be nearly impossible for a player to get a Pacifist or No Mercy run for their first attempt, especially if they’re playing casually and this is important. This means nearly every player’s first run will be a neutral run and they will experience the neutral storyline.
In this original run you encounter Flowey, who tells you how the underground works and that it’s all friendship. They tell you that LV stands for Love. They then shower you with friendship pellets, but if you allow yourself to be hit by them, you nearly die. The smiling flower turns into an angry face and tells you this world is kill or be killed, before being knocked aside by Toriel.
You are dotted on by this goofy, punny mother figure as you’re literally led by the hand through puzzles, given pie, and a bed to sleep. Between Flowey and Toriel you’ve been giving conflicting messages about fighting for survival or diplomacy and mercy. Many of the first monsters you encounter in this part of the game you can auto-spare and they don’t really pose much actual danger to you. But it’s a video game, you’re going to test every option out. You’ll kill some, spare some, act on others, but otherwise get a feel for all of it.
When you ask to leave the home Toriel brought you to, she sets out to destroy the one door leading to the rest of the underground for fear you will leave and die like so many before you. This results in a boss fight, where acting doesn’t seem to do anything. So, as a gamer you’d think that this is a scripted fight, you’ll do some damage, then be allowed to spare her or the fight will just end at some point because she’s testing you. Every attack you do does a pretty set amount of damage, something around 30 and far from killing her. Except the second to last attack will do twice your damage and the last attack will do hundreds. You can’t know this would happen, because nothing in the game yet indicated damage output could change. The game is designed in a way to make you accidentally kill her and that’s what most players will do on their first run.
They may or may not notice this boss cannot kill them, any lethal damage will be rebelled away from your heart. The only other option in this fight is to spare her 24 times in a row, but who would think that’s possible at this point? Why would you consider resetting either, because there is no reason to believe this isn’t anything but a scripted event. It isn’t your choice, no, this is just the game. You didn’t kill her, the game did.
While one could reset to try for a different outcome and be confronted with Flowey calling you out, most players wouldn’t believe there is an option to spare her. After all, how many guides did we follow trying to save Aerith decades ago? Did you know you can find Mew under the truck in Pokemon Red and Blue! So, while some may try this, I believe most wouldn’t, not on their first play through.
Now you leave the ruins and encounter two boney brothers, Sans and Papyrus. Sans introduces himself as this big goof, makes some great skeleton puns, and supports his brother. Papyrus is a human hunter and puts you through various puzzles, while Sans starts to explain a bit of the world to you. You end up fighting a number of dogs and through intuitive learning you’ll want to find options that don’t involve killing them. Even if you didn’t pick this lesson up in the ruins, where you thought that was just your average RPG or even weird surreal earth bound game, at this point you are being taught mercy and petting are better options. You’d have to be a real monster not to want to pet dogs.
You then encounter more denizens of the underground, their celebrations, towns, shops, and history. As you explore the world you learn about monsters and humans and souls. Eventually you fight Papyrus properly, but in this fight he won’t kill you either. You’ll be captured without consequence and if you lose three times then he’ll let you progress without fighting him anymore. If you progress the fight far enough, he will also offer to spare you and if you choose to keep fighting him you’ll auto kill him.
Papyrus is there to teach you as the player there are other options and maybe Toriel didn’t have to die? But you’re now a few hours into the game and you’re committed to keeping going. I’m guessing most people will have spared Papyrus, because he’s a lovable goof and the game gives you the direct option to do so. Killing Toriel was likely a mistake, killing Papyrus has to be intentional. The rest of the game is building this world and these characters as something to care about. Even the incredibly imposing Undyne, who chases and antagonizes you, can’t help but command respect as she takes off her helmet and proudly claims herself as the hero upholding the hopes and dreams of monsters.
The main thing to keep in mind for this game is you are often very overpowered, there is no random encounter that really poses that much threat to you. You can save often, you can heal often, and outside of a few boss fights the monsters are at your (no) mercy. This is confirmed in the lore you read about, where it says one human has the power of all monsters combined and if a small child in a tutu with a frying pan is an even match for their greatest warrior general, then that certainly holds true.
Near the final part of the neutral playthrough you see Sans standing in the golden halls of judgment. He informs you that LV is short for Love of Violence and Exp is short of Execution points. He explains that the more violent we are towards things, the less we’re able to feel, the less we can invite people in, and the more we’re able to hurt others.
When you get to the king, he explains the story of how the monster world lost its hope when a human child and his son both died. That this quest to get seven human souls was done to give some small amount of hope to the monsters underground, but his heart just wasn’t in it.
While he fights you, he will stop every attack once you’re down to 1 hp. He will kill you if you’re unable to heal, but mechanically he is reluctant. Then at the end of it all you are again given a choice of killing him or showing mercy. The game has been intuitively teaching you that you always have this choice. The concept of Pacifist or No Mercy has to be naturally forming due to the mechanics presented within this story. So, you choose to spare him, because you’re actually the hero, right? You’ve learned your lesson.
Then Flowey dunks on him. You can consider this entire experience so far to be the tutorial.
This Game is Something More
After Flowey kills Asgore, he then shuts down your game. It effectively feels like your game crashes. You think maybe you did something wrong, so you boot it back up to try again. However, you don’t get the usual menu. You’re loaded directly into gameplay. So you walk forward and there is a save point. You click on it and it is your save file. Then something smashes against it and shatters it. Flowey reappears and taunts you, thanking you for unlocking the power of the human souls for him to use.
The game is no longer in your control. Flowey has taken control of the game from actual personal you. Flowey controls the save stats. When you die, you get kicked from the game itself. You can reload the game, but Flowey taunts you further, saying that you never learn and he’ll just kill you again.
However each time you try you get a little further into the fight. You aren’t saving though, it’s just occurring outside of the concept of the game you understand. Short of uninstalling, you can’t restart either. The game is now locked in this state outside of your control.
Eventually you battle and free the souls they were using and retake the power of the game back. You have the option too of sparing or showering mercy. If you show mercy, then Flowey speaks about the potential for change, that if his way of “kill or be killed” was wrong, he wanted the player to prove them wrong by not being violent.
This encourages us to play again, to get a different, if not better ending with all of the knowledge we gained. What we don’t know at this time is this fight never happens again, because Flowey will remember that if they try doing it again the human souls will rebel.
We will find our world starting over and a number of things will be changed based on actions we took during our last play through. We have two meaningful choices when we reboot the world and that’s the choice to harm nothing or harm everything.
Then We killed Everyone: The No Mercy Run
A surprising thing for me when reviewing other people’s takes on this game was how often the No Mercy Run was disregarded, glossed over, or otherwise a small part of the larger review. One reviewer, I recall, even said they planned to talk a great deal about it when starting to make their video, but felt like it didn’t matter once they actually finished. The Architect only dives in enough to share that you’re not suppose to play it and it goes against the true meaning of the game.
However, without the No Mercy Run, I don’t believe there is a true meaning of the game. Without the choice of a No Mercy Run, then the Pacifist and Neutral route becoming nothing more special than your typical RPG with many cool meta-narrative elements. The No Mercy Run is the most meaningful conversation the game has with you the player.
In a good deal of RPGs we are passive viewers to the stories that unfold. Yes, we have the choice of where to run, of what quests to accomplish, and sometimes the dialogue to give, but it’s typically very scripted. We are all going to have approximately the same story experience if we both played Final Fantasy Seven. We’ll take different things out of it, some of us will date Barret, but we’re all reacting to approximately the same sequence of events.
Even in games like Mass Effect which are known for a wide range of choices that ultimately impact the color of your final explosion, many segments of the game are linear events. This isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t possible to have a game with infinite choice and also tight construction of interactive story can be a very compelling experience. Suikoden 2 is about the same exact story each time, but I will keep playing that game every couple of years because I love that experience.
We as gamers like to explore the world in video games, we like to explore the content offered. If we like a game enough, then we like to do the side quests, we like to uncover more of the story, we like to see how games play out given different choices. In this regard we are naturally drawn to the two extremes of Undertale: destroy everything or save everything. In the context of gaming these two choices are ultimately about simply exploring content.
In games like Borderlands, most of this content involves killing dozens or hundreds of bandits in different and unique ways. We take the quests, get the experience, and murder our way into better loot. Borderlands 2 involves a quest where the main villain pays you to kill yourself and than taunts you for doing it. A rational actor wouldn’t do that, but a gamer would explore that content. Handsome Jack later in the game considers you the villain and a homicidal lunatic and he’s completely right. It is hard for you to consider yourself that because you consciously treat the world under a gaming mentality. The quest to kill 30 bandits doesn’t strike you as strange, it’s just a normal RPG quest. It’s just a video game. It’s just a game.
So you start grinding out levels in Undertale and to unlock the No Mercy mode you need to slaughter 20 of the most defenseless creatures in the game, many of which you can auto spare. This isn’t too horrific, because they’re just random encounters, they’re just random monsters, you’ve killed thousands of them throughout your gaming experience.
Except for, in many games, you rarely have the option of not. And while I continue to talk about this, you have to understand that if you fail to kill even one thing during your entire run, it is no longer a No Mercy Run. You have to be purposefully diligent in the destruction of all life. You have to be a fucking demon to complete this run, as you try to passively enjoy the content available in this game. As a gamer, don’t you deserve this content? Didn’t you purchase this product? Doesn’t the game allow this anyways, so you’re not really the one at fault right?
As you grind out kills, you’ll notice it takes longer and longer for fights to happen. It’s like you’re not randomly encountering monsters anymore, you’re purposefully hunting them down. A smile starts to appear above your head, instead of an (!). You are no longer afraid, you’re happy to find your pray.
When you get to the fight with Toriel, you slaughter her in one hit and she can’t believe the such hate exists in your heart. She takes some happiness in knowing she did her best to keep a demon like you away from the world. She isn’t talking about delaying you in the fight, she is talking about the required time it takes to go through her sequence.
As you progress through the first section of the game, you don’t respond to Sans humor or listen to him. You don’t engage with Papyrus and you get to feel how disappointed and annoyed they are with you. This is not a situation where you kill all the monsters and get to see a different ending, this is a situation where the world is dramatically and instantly impacted by your horrible actions.
Sans tells you to at least pretend to be a human and he is talking to you the player. At the end of this section if you continue to kill monster after monster, you will iconically be warned:
So, you get to the warm village and if you’ve killed your quota of monsters by then it’ll be abandoned. The shop will be empty and you can steal everything from them and find a note asking you to spare their family. The inn appears to have a child still in it, but on examination it’s just a decoy. Your actions have caused this.
At the end of the town you meet Papyrus and instead of fighting you, he allows you to instantly spare him. You can stop this. You can stop this right now. He puts his hands out, he will give you a hug, you can change your ways, you can stop going down this path.
A No Mercy Run is often a second or third run of someone’s game, so they know Papyrus. They know how cool and goofy that skeleton is and they can feel the hesitation in killing them. It’s just a game though, right? If you want to unlock more No Mercy content, then you’re going to have to kill him and in this case I mean you as the player have to make that choice. As Papyrus dies he says he still believes in you and thinks you can make the right choice.
The next part isn’t very different, except all the life you saw in previous runs is gone and most of the puzzles have already been solved. This is true for the rest of the game. The reason the puzzles existed in the first place was because most of the main characters wanted to play with you. When they see you for a demon they want to escape, but also it’s because Flowey is helping you in some cases, because they want you to kill everyone to prove their ideology correct.
Curiously, even though you are an inhuman demon, the child monster is still oblivious to this and still accompanies you through a lot of this next section. It’s a weird situation where you feel genuinely uncomfortable that they’re still there. It would be easier to encounter no one, because then you wouldn’t have to feel so judged. Yet they are there, they believe in you, they treat you as a friend still, even though you’re awful.
The difference here is that when you see them on the bridge towards the end of this sequence, when they learn who you really are, they stand against you. The weakest monster in the game, heroically stands up to you, and you’re now given another choice. You must kill this child to continue your No Mercy Run. You as the player have to choose lethal intent against this friendly little kid. It’s just a game though, right? You aren’t really responsible for this, it’s not real, right?
The kid doesn’t die, because Undyne takes the hit. Its a lethal blow and she starts to fade away, sad that even with all of her training she couldn’t amount to anything before you. Just before disappearing they reject their own weakness, because of their sense of justice and the threat you represent.
They refuse to hand the world over to a demon like you. At this point the monsters don’t even consider you human either, they consider you something of evil incarnate. The entire story of monster vs human has stopped mattering, as they recognize no human in their world could be as cruel or as evil as you the player are being.
This boss fight against Undyne the Undying is considered the second hardest fight in the game. It’s a madly difficult fight, far beyond what you experienced in the neutral playthrough, because it’s obvious here that the stakes are much higher. You are not just a human to kill to gain freedom for monsters, you’re the single greatest threat that has ever faced the underworld and you need to die. The context of this fight is this Undyne the Undying is fighting against you the player for their actual life. You may not know this at the time, but a completion of the No Mercy Run will corrupt your game indefinitely. Following through with your lethal intent will forever corrupt this character’s ability to get a happy ending naratively, metanarratively, and physically in the real world.
When you manage to kill her, she is happy that she was able to stall you for so long, because it meant so many monsters were able to live. You had to actually earn this victory. You had to keep reloading and keep trying until you figured out how to kill her as she tried her best to heroically stand against you. It isn’t just this single fight she stalled you in, it was in the real time you as a player took to figure it out. She fought against YOU.
The Hotlands and the Core are wide open to you, abandoned by everyone except the nihilistic fry cook who just doesn’t have fucks to give. Mettaton steps forward to challenge you, appearing to be another difficult fight, before you cut them into two and proceed to the inner parts of the core. You start to encounter Flowey, who mostly uses the encounters to talk about their own experiences in the Underground.
You learn Flowey also has or at least had the ability to save and reload, likely because they absorbed a human soul. You learned Flowey has done every possible thing in the game and did so out of boredom. Just like you, Flowey explored all the content the game had to offer and now wanted it to just be over.
He wanted to be either erased completely or free on the other side, but realized to his lament that there is no reason for you not to kill him too. Then in a last ditch effort, he actually tells you to stop. Even Flowey at this point becomes anxious and realizes the consequence of where they have led you. You showed Flowey was wrong not by being so good as to redeem their faith, but being so evil as to scare them. This monster and villain in the Neutral and Pacifist routes is cowering before you and begging you stop. You’ve gone too far.
Going forward is now entirely at your own discretion. I’m reminded of No Country for Old Men, where the killer offers the lady a coin flip for her life. The lady refuses, telling the man the coin doesn’t decide, he does. We didn’t decide for the game to have a No Mercy Run, so could we not also argue we also aren’t responsible for exploring that content? It is not our fault it was created, nor our fault it was put into the game, nor our fault it is possible to explore. But we are making this choice to explore it, not the game. This is why No Mercy is meaningful, because without it, the game would only be sparing monsters or have no serious consequence for killing. Without giving the player the choice of going forward with it, they can’t meaningfully not make that choice either.
And to step back a second, because this is all pretty heavy, I want to say that completing the No Mercy Run is fine. It’s okay to explore this content and you are not demon for doing so. You can enjoy games in a way that make sense to you full stop. What I’m only conveying here is how the game tries to effectively stop the player from doing this by evoking these emotions and speaking directly to you in a real way. It is fine to not take the story or the characters seriously and it is okay to treat the game as just 1’s and 0’s.
Anyways, after Flowey runs away, you then walk into the golden halls and across from you is Sans. A figure you may realize has been largely absent the entire game. He proposes a question to you, asks if even the worst person can change. You step closer and he laughs. He changes the question to a statement and says “look, if you keep stepping forward you’re going to have a bad time, okay?”
Once you enter combat, Sans tells you it’s a beautiful day and kids like you should be burning in hell. He attacks you first, the only enemy in the game to do so, with a massive barrage of attacks that’ll likely kill any casual player in one sequence.
You reload, you come back, then he says, “you look frustrated about something, guess I’m doing a good job.” If it wasn’t clear to the player before this point, Sans is aware of saves and reloads. He never tried very hard because what would it matter if the world was reset anyway. In a way he’s aware of the very nature of video games. He is no longer engaging specifically with your avatar, but you as a player. Sans understands that killing your avatar doesn’t stop you. He understands that you can reload forever and his fight isn’t to kill you once, but to kill your very resolve to keep fighting. He wants you to have a bad time, he wants you the player to give up and he is by far the hardest boss in this game.
There is no reward for the No Mercy Run and you are explicitly told this the entire time. You are never validated for pursuing it, not once. It is there to test your resolve and see if it can wake you up and make you stop treating games as disposable trash. It is there to see if it can get you actually invested in the world, the story, the relationships, and the characters. IT IS THERE TO MAKE YOU GIVE A SINGLE SHIT. Stop pretending feelings don’t matter, stop pretending you’re over everything, stop simply escaping into narratives that aren’t your own. Get invested, care, it doesn’t matter about what, just do it. That is the fight this game tries desperately to win.
In most RPG’s the “game over” mechanic is not built into the story or the experience, because it just means you failed. You reload, you try again, you maybe do better and then you unlock the next bit of content. In Undertale, it is intrinsically built into the game, and in this moment the fight against sans is one where the narrative is you need to lose. Sans stands as the last line of defense between you and the complete destruction of the game itself. He doesn’t want to fight you, he doesn’t want to break his promise to Toriel to protect you, but he is going against his nature to fight you with absolutely everything he has because that’s the right thing to do.
Every time you get back up, every time you progress further into the fight, you are putting time, energy, and effort into ending this world. You have to go through so much and be such a fucking demon to earn this victory. You are never rewarded with this content, you are at all times treated as the inhuman personification of evil that you are being. You do not get to passively witness this, you have to actively earn it through bloodshed. You have to at all times make the conscious choice to push this story forward in the horrible way, while at all times the game desperately tries to stop you. And while it may not have been a big deal if this was your first experience of the game, in all probability it wasn’t, and you’ve already grown attached to this world and these characters. I’d even say most commonly people play this as their third game, after a Pacifist route, making it all the more difficult and sad.
What are you even doing? Why are you doing this? Do you really want to see a conclusion that is everyone dying? Just because it’s part of the game, do you have to experience it? This. Is. Your. Choice. And you cannot deny that. You are an active participant in this and if you don’t feel uncomfortable pursuing this and than holy shit.
I know your type. you’re, uh, very determined, aren’t you? you’ll never give up, even if there’s, uh… absolutely NO benefit to persevering whatsoever. if i can make that clear. no matter what, you’ll just keep going. not out of any desire for good or evil… but just because you think you can. and because you “can”… … you “have to”.
After it appears your determination cannot be stopped, Sans attempts to stop you by never giving up his turn. You have to wait for him to fall asleep, then drag your box slowly over to act, before finishing him off.
You keep going after this, you pick up the real knife, and you meet the king once again. Flowey has warned him about you, the king tries to talk to you, but you put yourself in a battle with him. He says no need for that, lets have some tea, but you kill him without any agency to your actions. Flowey shows up, says he didn’t betray you, but you slaughter him as well. Then Chara shows up, the original human, and talks about the purpose of this game. You were after power. You were after raising your stats and living a power fantasy and now that it’s over, the game too is over, it’s time to go play your next game. Basically she is saying go fuck off.
What happens to all these fictional worlds once we leave them? What does it say about games like FF7 when we start new save files and force these characters to go through the same motions over and over. Well…maybe FF7 isn’t a good hypothetical anymore. Regardless, what does it say when we grow bored of these worlds and characters and struggle in them to have the next power fantasy experience somewhere else?
Chara asks if it’s time to erase this world and you can say yes or no. However your choice here doesn’t matter, because you’ve already made your choice. Sans was your last opportunity to stop. Regardless of what you picked, Chara will tell you that you are no longer in control. She will then attack you, the player, dealing red 9’s across the screen and crashing your game.
When you reload, there is no game, only blackness. You failed. By destroying everything in this game, by killing everything, you suffered the real and lasting consequences of your action. There is no safety behind restarting anymore and the illusion you had control over that at all is completely over. If you wait 10 minutes, Chara will offer you the opportunity to rebuild the world at the cost of your own soul. This will forever change and taint the outcomes of the games, even if you do a true reset. You will never get a happy ending now, you demon, and you were warned at every step, but you as a player thought you were beyond consequence didn’t you? You only wanted to experience the full content of the game didn’t you? You merely wanted to passively feel this story didn’t you? Not this time, this time you are part of the story and the consequences of your actions will live on in this game forever.
Toby Fox really wanted to avoid reviews for this game, he wanted people to come to it as a new experience. It’s hard to view a No Mercy Run without the context of knowing the consequence going in. So, I really want you to think about a player who had no idea they would corrupt their data. They had no idea how to fix it. They experience the full punishment of their desire to push content, while feeling above consequence, even with all the warnings within the story. What happens is no surprise within the narrative.
The Effort of Happiness
The No Mercy Run is largely the RPG power fantasy where you kill shit to level up, the Pacifist run is the opposite of this. You stay as weak as you started the game and you must go through the entire game without ever gaining any execution points. In this game you are at the mercy of the monsters you encounter.
Instead of winning this game through violence as you likely had before, you must interact with the monsters. You have to talk to them, compliment them, or so many other possibilities. You have to learn about them and by showing this curiosity in them they lose the will to fight you. The first sequence of this game shows that you weren’t simply killing monsters in these random encounters, you were also killing NPCs. The frogs at the start of the game disappear as you slay the frogs in battle. In this regard, the less monsters you kill, the more full of life this game will be.
In the No Mercy Run the NPCs were largely attacking your resolve to continue the slaughter. In the pacifist run you are the one largely attacking the NPC’s resolve to fight you. You are making them realize this doesn’t have to be the way. They don’t have to stop you, they don’t have to capture you, kill you, or die to you as we see with Toriel, to Papyrus, to Undyne, to Mettaton.
It is only by consciously not engaging in fighting or killing, by learning about the monsters of this world, and showing a path that is better for everyone do you unlock the true ending. You have to put in the work, you have to consciously learn and play with the denizens of this world to truly save it. You also have to go on a date with Papryus, Undyne, and Alphys, which relates more to character building than any real notion of romance. They’re honestly incredibly cute scenes that flesh out the friendship that these characters have together.
This game is a stage with a hundred curtains that slowly reveal the greater story over time. Sans loves his brother, puns, and hates fighting, but you don’t understand that his laziness is a product of nihilism towards the knowledge that a timelines are fickle and temporary. It is not until you play the entire game do you truly understand the depths of this character. Keep in mind he is the hardest boss in the game hands down, but he won’t try to kill you even if you murder his brother and all of his friends. He wants to keep his promise to Toriel above his personal feelings. He wants to hope and believe a bad person can change or be redeemed. It is only when you prove yourself to be the most horrific demon that will kill every living thing that he truly stands in your way and he does so with sadness, not joy at revenge. He only stops and fights you with everything he has when the consequence becomes the annihilation of his reality.
While Papyrus is this big goof who challenges you with puzzles, they seem on the surface kind of a joke character. You learn that they stood outsidee Undyne’s house an entire night to be accepted into the guard. Undyne agrees to train him, but knows his heart really isn’t in fighting. Even she admits that he’s very strong, but he just has no will to kill something. This is evident in his fighting mechanics because you can’t lose the fight. Even if you do lose it a couple of times, he’ll just stop trying to fight you. Undyne starts teaching him cooking so he can have a fall back. He isn’t good at it, but his entire fridge is full of spaghetti as he continues to try to be better and push beyond his limits.
Undyne, while hailed as the hero of the monsters, is kind of a bully. Even the monster kid who treats her like a hero, takes that perspective towards the end of the game. She’s kind of awkward and over the top and sets her own house on fire while teaching you to cook, but it’s Papyrus who understands her and encourages you two to be friends. She’s someone who sees the entire world as a challenge to be overcome and it is through her friendship with Papyrus that she’s able to cool down.
Alphys is afraid everyone will hate her, because of personal insecurity living in the shadow of Gastor and her involvement with the determination experiments. While this is obvious, what you likely don’t pick up on in a casual play through is Mettaton isn’t a robot in the strictest sense. They are a ghost that became corporeal and one of Alphys’s first friends. Alphys speaks about wanting to put off on making the body for this ghost, because once they have that, why would they still be friends with Alphys? Why would Undyne like a nerd like her? After all of her failures why would anyone? A large part of Undyne and Papyrus’ friendship with her is the determination to get her to believe in herself more.
These are fleshed out character motivations and relationships built on encouraging and supporting each other that you don’t necessary get in your first play through. You don’t necessarily understand how much of a hole you’re putting in these monster’s lives by taking them away. It’s obvious between Sans and Papyrus, but most people playing the first time wouldn’t pick up on how important Undyne was to each of these characters. You may not understand why Alphys feels so hurt and needs alone time when you kill Mettaton, because you may simply think it’s just a robot she built and could rebuild.
These curtains don’t exist as long strings of connected exposition, they’re facts you learn slowly through the course of several games. Each one of these curtains gives you more context and meaning to every action you’ve taken and the actions others take against you. In the end of a pacifist run, you really should feel like a friend to these characters. Most of the dates are explicitly about including you as the player into their friend circle and making you part of it. You get to experience, even if vicariously, this friendship as a reward for playing. A cute little detail is your save screen just has all those people you saved on it. Save screen. This game is so fucking meta.
Beyond all of that, the major difference with a true pacifist route is that you learn about the creation of the main antagonist of this game, Flowey. They were created because determination was injected into a physical, living object, with no soul. This particular object was a flower that was fertilized by the dust of Asriel, the child of Asgore and Toriel. It had a will to live due to the determination and the memories of Asriel. What is determination? Well it is a specifically human feature of the soul that allows you to persist after death. Mechanically determination is a human player’s ability to save and reload until they are victorious. Flowey also possesses the ability to save, reload, and exist outside of your save file.
That’s kind of the trick of this game is that Flowey has the same power you do as a player. However, instead of destroying the game like they do during the neutral run or asking you to destroy it during the No Mercy Run, in this version there is a different battle going on. Flower absorbs the seven human souls and most of the monster souls and returns to their original form of Asriel.
Asriel’s goal is for you to never stop playing this game, never walk away from it, so the game will never die. Asriel wants to stop you from the happy ending, because then the game is over and you’re going to go away. Asriel/Flowey has been so alone, for so long, that you are the first friend they have, the first person who can understand them and the power they hold.
When you save all of your friends by reminding them of who they are, you are given the chance then to also save Asriel and to be their friend and forgive them for all they have done.
It is through doing this we learn the true story of the first human. That Chara climbed the mountain to die because they hated the world. They found themselves alive and in a mysterious land of monsters. While not entirely clear, they created a plan to poison themselves to death so that Asriel could absorb their soul. Their plan was to cross the barrier and take six more human souls so they could destroy that barrier and free all of the monsters. They had joint control of the body and once they reached the human village, Chara wanted to kill everyone. Asriel refused, he did not want freedom through killing. He may have understood this would just lead to further war as fighting begets more fighting. Asriel represents the pacifist route, Chara the No Mercy route.
If the No Mercy route was teaching you to get invested in something by destroying your resolve to live a power fantasy, than the main conflict of the pacifist route is resisting becoming dependent on a game. At the furthest extreme either losing yourself to fiction or video game addition. When you care too much or can’t walk away.
Your victory in the pacifist run is convincing Asriel to finally break that barrier and in doing so finally and permanently restores hope to monsters. That it is okay to let go and discover new things.
When you get the happy ending you see what happened to every monster in the credits. Yellow text represents the best outcome for these monsters, which are the result of interacting with them the best way possible. Everyone finally stands tall on the outside world, looking at the sun, and breathes the fresh air. The game is over and the timeline is won. Victory is going outside! Well not so on the nose as Ready Player One the movie, but this victory just means moving forward. The story can finally continue and wow is it interesting. (That isn’t official, just a cool look at a possible after ending world.)
Anyways, if you load the game back up, Flowey is there and they tell you the only remaining threat for the world is you. The only person who can take back the happy ending is you. They encourage you to just leave it, leave all your friends the happy ending you worked for. They can’t stop you, they joke about the possibility that they’ve tried before and these words failed before. They offer if you do reset, you will reset everything back to original state, with the exception of the No Mercy Run which will forever corrupt your data and this is the final fight here.
I’m not going to trying to analyze what Toby’s intentions were, I’m only going to analyze the game as I see it. The neutral route was the tutorial to explain to you how this game works and that it is trying to talk to you personally. The No Mercy Run is a conversation to make you care about games and the characters in them. The Pacifist Route is welcoming you as the player into this weird little world to experience all the warmth and friendship. The final message with Flowey after the true ending is to tell you its time to move on. Which the Architect covers very well in their analyze.
The Final Curtain
I know a lot of gamers are very good at compartmentalization, specifically separating video games from reality. It’s also true that playing violent video games will not make someone more violent or prone to violence. We can separate real from fiction in this regard with ease. Even as I talk about lasting consequence there is still the option of uninstalling or playing around with files to erase misdeeds.
This doesn’t mean video games cannot be substantial though, especially when considering them like we do any other stories. If a book can change your life through dialogue, themes, characters, or philosophy then so too can a video game. If any work of media can make you think about the world or challenge the way you think, that is meaningful work.
While video games are fictitious, the memories we form from our experience paying them are very real. The major difference with Undertale is that it invites you as a player directly into the story. It doesn’t allow you to passively experience it and it defies so many genre expectations, while asking you to really consider the ramifications of your actions.
The most significant theme of Undertale is one of exploration, either through the underground itself, the characters that give it life, or the ideas that it challenges you with. You explore options in combat and can find better outcomes than slaughter. You explore the consequence of killing on both the story and the characters in it. And while it’s entirely a work of fiction, it is an engaging fiction that will give you the actual feeling of losing control when Flowey takes it from you during a neutral ending. There is no book or movie that could ever do the same, but house of leaves certainly gets close.
You, as the player, will feel frustrated as Sans destroys and taunts you in an attempt to destroy your actual resolve to end all life. What other media can possibly allow you to feel the same personal levels of frustration and despair? You, as the player, feel connected to these characters and the friendship they share as you explore their lives during a pacifist run.
The point is these are all meta-narrative experiences that you as the player are designed to feel personally, not the characters you play, but you as a person. This game was fundamentally always playing with you, talking with you, and encouraging you to do better.
This is just a video game, right? This is a product I bought and I’m entitled to experience every bit of content in it as many times as I want. Yet, by playing this game and listening to the messages in it, I find myself more content and happy with walking away after a happy ending. I, personally, like the idea that these characters are now living their best life. It isn’t real, they’re not real, none of this really matters, but it doesn’t have to either. To quote Hogfather:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little — “
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET — Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point — “
MY POINT EXACTLY.”
Undertale convinced me within the story of the game itself to play it differently than other games. The story gave me a compelling reason to stop a No Mercy Run from concluding, because I would personally feel shitty for completing it. The story of the game convinced me to not do a true reset, because I feel better about the idea that I won happiness for these characters than I do about reliving the experiences that led to it.
And while anyone is welcome to play and enjoy the game in a way that makes sense to them, I have to imagine a No Mercy Run still makes them feel a little uncomfortable, regardless of it being a video game. I also suspect that for many people playing this game the first time, they never expected to be so thoroughly part of the experience. I believe that’s the hook that inspired so much fan content, fan fiction, music videos, animations, and everything else. There is a personal investment in this story because you become part of it and want it to keep going.
I don’t think it’s useful to look at what Undertale meant as a game by looking at the story in isolation or by what Toby Fox really intended. I think people have such trouble dissecting it because the conversation created in playing it was so personal. When you are so much part of that experience, how can you objectively step back and tell others what it is without also sharing yourself? I think what I was really missing from all of these reviews was that human element. What did they feel? Otherwise I was just hearing one side of a conversation.
The creator of Stanley’s Parable created a sequel called The Beginners Guide. I talked about it earlier, but it served as a meta-narrative breakdown of the creators own anxiety, fears, and discomfort around game development. You know, maybe — its open to interpretation. Jim Sterling wrote an incredible review on it, which was sharing his own personal story as a means of reviewing it.
The thing is we all have a general idea of that feeling when someone notices us, when they play with us, when they get us. It is that spark of friendship, that joy, and through interaction that play. I believe Undertale was the first game for many people that invoked this specific feeling. The fan content, music videos, and animation were to keep expanding on that feeling. A lot of the music videos still make me cry.
I don’t think it is useful to look at Undertale as just a video game. It certainly is, but it’s also a compelling story that makes you part of the experience and that’s something special. While the game encouraged you to move on, I don’t think the fan material is reductive. I think expanding on the ideas, playing with them, and evolving them is moving on. It is continuing to advance and breathe life into this work and the reason the original Undertale game has become the backdrop to so much fan fiction is a testament people have keep on evolving it. They aren’t struck in the original, they aren’t stuck in the repeating cycle, they have found friends and through these communities created something more than the sum of its parts.
I hope this all helps to explain why you may keep coming back to this game as amazing or revolutionary, something that stands as a special experience and something you can’t recommend enough to other people.
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