So before I begin, understand that beyond this point there will be spoilers about the Indie game Undertale.
With Undertale, it is so important to understand that spoilers matter. Every article and video will tell you that the game is best if experienced spoiler-free, and they are not lying. Now that is not to say you will not enjoy the game if it is spoiled for you. However, if you want the full effect of the game itself, do not continue reading until you have played the game at least one time.
You have been warned.
So I am going to share a video that helped me think about what we are going to talk about today. If you do not know about Idea Channel, stop now, go subscribe, and then come back. This is an awesome show on YouTube that provides a lot of thought about pop culture.
It really is the bread and butter for those of us here at StreetWraith Press.
Right, so once again, welcome back. I promise that this will be the last time I send you away before allowing you to continue reading.
Idea Channel talks about whether or not Undertale is more violent than AAA games like Call of Duty or Fallout 4. If you skipped watching, even though I embedded it above, that is fine. Read on. The simple answer is that yes, it is more violent.
It is not violent because of the amount of blood and gore. Instead, it is violent because of how violence comes about in the game.
When you play Undertale, you have characters who actively try to get you not to harm other characters. You still get the choice, of course, to kill every monster you come across. You are rewarded with different side quests and relationship developments with characters, however, when you choose not to hurt others.
Undertale makes you actively decide to be violent in a way that games like Halo, Fallout, and others simply do not.
I play Fallout 4. A lot. More than I should, honestly. It’s my first Fallout game and I really like it. I am also an avid MMO player, with Everquest, World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot (bet you forgot it existed), City of Heroes, Champions Online, and Star Wars the Old Republic under my belt. In all of these games, violence is assumed. You have to defeat something for a quest, defend some place, group, or person. The resolution rarely involves non-violence, unless you are maybe delivering muffins.
So ubiquitous is violence in video games that we rarely think about its presence. Unless violence is somehow over the top or we decide to court controversy and discuss its applications based on race and gender (a la discussions about franchises like Grand Theft Auto), we almost never talk about it outside of the outdated question of whether violence in video games equates to violence outside of them. Hint: it does not, as studies have shown.
Violence, at least in Western cannon, is nothing new and its purpose or even the necessity of its inclusion is not what I want to talk about.
Instead, I want to look at how Undertale treats violence.
Violence is not assumed to be the player’s action; that is to say, violent actions are not forced upon the player. When you load up a game such as Fallout 4, you are assumed to be looking for the best weapons to go after your opponents. You are even taunted with a nice Cyrolator in Vault 111 on your way out.
Does anyone ever remember to go and get it?
In Star Wars the Old Republic, your first missions, once you speak to your first contacts, involve killing enemies. Even Super Mario starts you out by having you step on your enemy’s head on the first board. While yes, non-violent games exist, they give up narrative violence for structural violence. They force you into pacifism just as Star Wars or Halo forces you into violence. What if you want to supply materials to your town in Township by raiding other towns?
And there I go throwing out terms. For those who have not watched the video, Narrative Violence is simply violence in service to the plot. When your character kills an NPC, that is Narrative Violence. Structural Violence is the removal of choice in a story. The linear nature of Super Mario, forcing you to trade for resources in Township, requiring that you kill raiders rather than sabotage their base in Fallout are all examples of Structural Violence.
In a story, when all other choices are ignored and a character seeks a violent path, though it might be against their nature or less logical, this is also Structural Violence.
Violence is not a bad thing. In fiction and in games, it usually represents some other idea. It is our struggle for prominence or to overcome something else. Essays could be and have been written about what violence actually means in a work of fiction or media. It has its place, and when handled thoughtfully and well, even the worst types of violence can be moving and sometimes cathartic.
Which brings us back to Undertale once more.
As the video above argues, what makes Undertale very, very violent is that you as a player have to make a conscious decision to be violent. At no point, at the beginning anyway, does the game make you kill characters. You can choose to be completely pacifistic, and doing so will grant you a very deep story that involves the development of multiple characters, plots, and relationships. By choosing non-violence, you can have a huge impact on your world.
When you choose violence, however, you have a different kind of game. It is not a worse game. It is just a different game. It is darker and eventually, the violence that you perpetuate is taken even from your own control. It is an allegory for video games in general, where over time game publishers have removed the ability to choose violence and just assumes you will drive all your enemies before you and listen for the lamentations of their women.
Termed the “genocide run” this style of game play is chilling. It is heartbreaking if you play the pacifist game first. If you play the pacifist game after … well I will not spoil that for you. Let us just say that the game does not forget your choices, and your choices do matter, even in a new game.
This decision by the Toby Fox to put the choice of violence solely into the player’s hand is unique. Few games do this, and fewer still both actively encourage non-violence and provide completely different resolutions for violent and non-violent characters.
Consider for a moment playing Fallout 4. Blake Abernathy tells you for the fourth time that his friend has been kidnapped and taken to the US Military Food Stockpile – again. You can go in, killing everything to rescue the settler. With the proper skills and equipment, you could just sneak in, put everyone to sleep, hack into the room, and release the settler. Whichever choice, though, Abernathy responds the same way.
What if Abernathy reacted differently to the rescued settler telling him you killed no one? What if your reputation with different factions in the game changed based on how violent you were? What if fewer violent actions resulted in certain factions attacking you more frequently or less frequently?
What if you could negotiate trade with Raiders or protection contracts with Gunners?
Undertale provides answers of a sort to these questions. Now when our games are played on 2d screens that simulate 3d, that is a nice novelty.
What about when the virtual reality technology we are developing now improves and more games shift into 3d virtual reality? Will that be merely novel?
I think Undertale’s treatment of violence is the future of gaming. I think its meta-game nature is as well. NPCs in the game are aware of being in a game. In the genocide run, Sans even counts the number of times you have died against him (and you will do that often). As we move into virtual reality we will want games that acknowledge not just our character, but us, the player. As we seek that, we will begin seeking more choices about how we play those games.
When that happens, what choice will we make when told for the hundredth time that a settler has been kidnapped?
Lynn Perretta is an Independent Author and contributor to StreetWraith Press.