“Yes! Finally level 150! Time to grab that sweet gear!”
“Amazing, I’m only level 100. Gotta go grind more mobs to catch up, I guess.”
The feeling of euphoria and achievement when reaching high levels in RPGs after killing many thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of computer-controlled monsters is not at all uncommon to many online video-game players. After all, that time and dedication paid off in the form of higher character statistics! Now your warrior can swing that blade even harder and mage can cast fireballs that burn even brighter! All… to what, kill even more monsters? Look cool in your fancy new armor?
Have you ever thought about all of those monsters’ lives that you took to get a little tiny bit more EXP?
No, I have never.
That is, until I discovered the RPG named Undertale.
(Huge spoiler alert for Undertale!)
I know, I know, for those of you who already know of Undertale, even bringing up its game can cause lots of groans and shaking of heads, but hear me out. Undertale, for me, completely changed the meaning of a RPG and how it conveyed such deep and emotional meaning about how a player normally treats games astonished me.
Here’s the rundown:
Undertale, a wildly successful indie game with its endearing 8-bit art style, starts out the same way as many single player RPGs do. The main character, a human played by you, had climbed a very tall mountain, found a crater, and fell down into the underground, where all of the monsters have been exiled to after losing a war to the humans.
The obvious goal is to get past all of these monsters trying to kill you and return to the overworld. Almost immediately, you notice you have a LV number, HP (hit-points), and AT (attack), DF (defense), EXP stats.
Again, highly reminiscent of most RPGs. However, Undertale has one glaring difference. You can progress through the entire game without killing a single monster. As the story unfolds, you are informed that the monsters attack due to their fear of humans, but you can choose to talk to them, give them mercy, and spare them instead of killing them. Undertale’s fighting mechanism is bullet-hell, meaning that your Soul, represented as a heart, must dodge all of the missiles in a box to avoid taking damage.
While the player continues not to kill any monsters, the main storyline progresses. The human is taken through the whole underground on their main mission to leave the Underground, forming friendships with the boss monsters along the way. Notable ones include Toriel, the tu“Toriel” monster who teaches the player to be merciful at the beginning, Papyrus, a goofy skeleton-soldier-in-training, Sans, Papyrus’ interesting and punny brother, and Asgore, the king of the Underground.
The player learns that the monsters are kept Underground by a magical barrier that was created after the war to keep humans safe that will not allow monsters to pass. Only a being with the both the soul of a human and a monster is allowed to exit from the Underground, and the barrier can only be shattered with 7 human souls.
Coincidentally enough, there are 6 already collected… and you know what this means.
You’re up next.
Furthermore, the player learns of the first human to ever fall into the Underground. This person was adopted by Asgore and Toriel, who were the royal couple back in those days. The human was the pride and joy of the Underground, and was treated the same as their biological son. However, the human became sick after eating too many buttercups, and became terminally ill. Their last wish was to see the golden flowers in their home village. Thus, Asgore and Toriel’s son absorbed the soul of the human and passed through the barrier to carry their now-lifeless body to the flowers.
Undertale: Golden Flowers
While the son held the human though, other villagers witnessed the dead human in the arms of a monster, and assumed he had killed them. The humans mauled Asgore’s son nearly to death, but had enough strength left to straggle back into the Underground and die on a bed of buttercups. Due to the war to force the monsters out of the Overworld and this event, monsters were persistently seen by the humans as purely malevolent creatures and would be killed on sight, like in almost all other MMORPGs.
This idea was interesting to me because in all other games, I simply accepted that the monsters were “bad” and killed them because they hurt me. I never considered that it could be a world where the monsters were forced off of their rightful territory and killed due to their resistance, a surprising connection between MMORPGs and European history.
Now here’s the twist:
In Undertale, I had mentioned you can be kind and spare all of the monsters, but there’s another path as well. You can choose to fight and kill every monster you encounter, even the ones that would have become your friend and are the main characters. You can walk around and discover monsters (much like Pokémon), then kill them all, until instead of encountering a monster, only a dialog pops up on the screen reading, “But nobody came.”
Killing all of the monsters in every area takes quite a while to accomplish, and the player is met with sad lines with each kill, such as:
“Froggit is trying to run away.”
“Lesser Dog tucks its tail between its legs.”
“Whimsalot’s flying stutters.”
However, the effect on the player diminishes after many monster kills. I have watched many, many playthroughs online on Youtube of players who first completed the “Pacifist Route”, where they made friends with and spared all of the monsters, and then started the “Genocide Route”, what killing every single monster in the game is called. They all initially felt that killing the monsters was wrong, but cared less and less about the monsters after each kill. Not too long afterwards, they treated it more like a chore to sit through and kill each of them.
When the player continues on the Genocide Route, all of the previous map puzzles are gone, the dialog between boss monsters and the player is altered, and notably, the player’s LV rises. After the player kills every monster in the game up until the Last Corridor, their LV reaches 19.
Once the player reaches the hallway to Asgore’s chamber room, they are unexpectedly met with Sans standing at the end of it. This hallway is named the Last Corridor. He speaks to the player and if they are on the Genocide Route, says the following:
“heya. you’ve been busy, huh? … so, i’ve got a question for ya. do you think even the worst person can change…? that everyone can be a good person, if they just try?”
Oh, by the way, if you’ve assumed that I meant “level” up to now by LV, you should now know that it actually stands for LOVE, or Level of Violence… which explains why it rises with every kill. Attack also rises because for each Level of Violence you gain, you feel less and less sympathy for them and are able to do more damage.
Reflecting on this, it made me think about how Sans had really believed in the human to change and make the right choice not to kill everything and everyone completely. It made me think about the outside world, and how even people who have done terrible, terrible things have realized their faults and mistakes, then changed to become a better person. However, in this game on this route, the player cannot decide otherwise at this point. After Sans finishes saying this, the player sprite moves forward at him involuntarily. The player is now locked in on True Genocide and must fight Sans. He is, hands down, the hardest boss fight in the entire game.
This is because Sans is trying to stop you, the monster, from destroying the entire world outside of the Underground too. At this point, you are no longer the protagonist, but the antagonist, and this fight against you can be compared to a typical player fighting the end boss of a video-game, stereotypically, the “one who is going to destroy the world”.
Grinding mobs? Check.
Gaining higher stats? Check.
Obtaining and using better gear to do damage? Check.
Super-ultra-difficult boss fight that you will eventually attempt over and over to beat?
By slowly reversing the roles in the Genocide Route, making the player feel nothing while killing their former friends, Undertale has successfully mimicked the layout of a typical RPG while conveying the opposite message. I was completely enthralled at how Undertale managed to make me feel so many different emotions regarding a game style that I had played for years upon years, and never gave a second thought to. My childhood consisted of another popular MMORPG at the time, named Maplestory, but I had never considered the cute, pixelated monsters as anything else besides bags of cash and items to wear.
It really made me think about forced points of view within games… and within societies in general. At war, your own country or your own “team” always seem like the Humans, and the opposing side always seem like the Monsters, but there are two sides to the coin and there are always two different stories.
Who considers your Humans, their Monsters?
– Vivian Li