UNDERTALE and Rewarding Nonviolence

I’m a lover, not a fighter

“We’re just two lost souls/swimming in a fish bowl/year after year.”

This past Summer I finally decided to play through the indie smash hit UNDERTALE for the first time and I was absolutely blown away by it. 5 years after it’s release, I could finally understand the hype that accompanied it. At the time of release I will admit my initial reaction was more along the lines of “cool, a new flavour of the month”, and I didn’t bother with it afterwards. A few months ago I saw it on PSN for a deliciously low price, and do not regret a second of it.

I didn’t fully know what to expect, outside of there being some absolutely wonderful music. I was wilfully ignorant to the game based purely on its aesthetic and in hindsight, now that I’ve completed the game, I feel bad for that and the game itself made me feel even worse for it. Let me explain.

UNDERTALE is a retro-styled RPG, where you play as a little boy who has become lost in a world of monsters. You must defeat the evil creatures and escape this underground hell in order to get home.

Or, so it appears.

UNDERTALE offers the player an opportunity to play through the game without killing a soul—not a single enemy. This is one fact I learned about the game before I started it and out of sheer curiosity I needed to see what it was like to play through it non-violently. There have been many games to accommodate optional non-lethality, such as the Deus Ex and Thief series. The worlds of these games are inherently abrasive and from my own personal experience, playing through them without killing anyone offers only to increase difficulty, and there is little in the way of tangible, meaningful rewards—outside of slightly different cutscene endings.

Would UNDERTALE be that game that not only offered non-violent options, but also instilled a sense of reward for doing so?


Peace, love and understanding

It’s important for me to note some distinctions here:

  • Nonviolence refers to general harmlessness to other humans and animals

  • Non-lethality refers to non-participation actions that could result in death

Bearing in mind the above definitions, I had never played a game where nonviolence is a true alternative to violence, until UNDERTALE came along. Sports games, and the like, where combat isn’t inherent to the gameplay notwithstanding, this was my first genuine foray into a gaming experience where all of your enemies do not need to be riddled with bullets to be defeated, where other options for conflict resolution are possible.

Throughout your adventures in the Underground, you’ll come across many monsters of different shapes and sizes—skeletons, dogs and other manners of creatures that are a bit more out there. Unfortunately, a lot of these denizens of the Underground also want to kill you. Humans are none too popular with the monsters, due to the subterranean creatures being cast out and sealed underground after a war. You can kinda see why they’d be displeased at the sight of a human, wandering aimlessly in their domain.

Just because (some of) these beasts want to end your life, doesn’t mean you need to return the favour. You see, in UNDERTALE, not only are there nonviolent options for combat, some actions you can take are downright friendly and loving. There is no better character to illustrate this with than with Papyrus.

Papyrus is a skeleton, and longs to become a member of the Royal Guard to the king Asgore. He just wants friends and to be popular, and doesn’t necessarily want to harm anyone. Your hilarious early encounters with him involved our protagonist dealing with his deadly tests and puzzles… which turn out to be more than a bit ineffective. Ultimately, Papyrus will initiate an encounter but he won’t kill you, instead making the decision that our hero is friendly.

Should you decide to kill Papyrus, that is a potentially major character killed off and well… that’s it. If you decide to spare him, you create an opportunity to develop one of the absolute best relationships in the game. The possibility of relationship development through nonviolence is one of the most rewarding facets of the overall experience. Papyrus is just one shining example of a minor character turned major supporting character through alternative conflict resolution. Once I spared my skeletal friend, and saw that he reappeared more and more, I knew I had made the correct decision. He’s hilarious, friendly, supportive and you can even go on a date—and be friend zoned by him.

I would have sacrificed a satisfying and entertaining character arc had I decided otherwise. Is the experience (EXP) really worth it?

Killing with kindness

The closest comparison I have to such levels of peaceful resolution would be the Dishonored games. In these games, you play as a supernatural assassin with otherworldly gifts, which enable you to teleport, call forth swarms of rats to defeat your enemies and bend time. You can also not kill anyone if you don’t want to.

This is a world of plague, death and antagonistic authority. Does it really need more bodies to stack up in the pile? There are some rewarding elements to a nonlethal playthrough of these games. Be consistent in your efforts to not kill anyone and you will be rewarded with less plague-ridden environments and less soldiers to contend with, along with the much sought after “good ending.” Other than this, you’ve a more difficult game that requires perfectionism to utilise alternate methods of target elimination and slightly less hostility. So all told, not actually that peaceful is it?

Compare this with the more harmonious efforts you are allowed to engage in with UNDERTALE, the difference is night and day.

With UNDERTALE, you impact your experience in a way that has far more magnitude. You can spare your enemies, befriend them, and find companionship in the most alien of circumstances. We must remember—this is a child, lost and alone in a strange, unfamiliar place—we all need support when we feel lost. Undyne is another would-be antagonist, whom you can choose to befriend after fleeing her relentless assault. After fleeing into the Hotlands—whose name should be suggestive enough—you can assist your attacker and help them hydrate to fend off heatstroke. Helping her in this way opens doors to Undyne befriending the protagonist, Papyrus and his brother Sans and even moving in with them. Papyrus—the lonely skeleton—needed a friend to show them the light in their dark existence. Your compassionate actions have helped characters discover meaningful friendships, and move away from otherwise single-minded outlooks on life that lean towards volatility and sadness.

It’s powerful to think that with acts of care and understanding like this, you can positively impact the lives of those around you, who initially would seek you harm.

Love conquers all

Gameplay sees you encountering other characters in a mostly turn-based setup. You can do your standard actions such as Fight, which leads to killing enemies to earn EXP and ultimately become more powerful. You can use items for healing and the usual RPG fare. Most interestingly however are your options with Act and Mercy. Act allows you to, well, act. Actions you can take involve petting dog-based enemies, encourage more sensitive enemies, and even flex with certain monsters. If you manage to complete certain actions, you can use the Mercy option to spare your foe. Playing this way can be very difficult, especially with some bosses who will have a seemingly endless barrage of attacks in store for you.

Other than the unique dialogue and animations you can unlock through your mercy, you’re working against the idea that all surface-dwelling folk are violent psychopaths and can lead to worthwhile relationships (Undyne, Papyrus). You don’t earn any EXP, but you do contribute to nurturing a more positive look of the humans who live above the monsters

One of the most important characters you encounter is Alphys, the royal scientist. She is another example of how you can positively impact the people around you. Provided you don’t explore the Underground murdering everything in sight, Alphys will help and guide you through some puzzles and be a useful source of information for you. Sounds like she is a great resource, right?

Well, after playing through the game once, navigating the pacifist route, you can unlock what is called the True Pacifist route—which is often considered by some fans the canon ending, as it has the happiest of all resolutions. In following this style of playthrough you can once again go on a date, this time with Alphys. In conversation with her, you can get her to open up and detail her true feelings for Undyne, for whom she has a serious crush. Our old buddy Papyrus decides to give her a lesson in self-confidence after this.

One of the common denominators I noticed while engaging in developing these friendships, is how very relatable it all is. Most people can relate to lacking in self-confidence like Alphys, and deep loneliness like Papyrus. When it comes to Undyne, well, I’m sure we have all encountered that one person who you like, who just doesn’t seem to like you at all for some reason.

As someone who can strongly relate to issues with confidence and sadness, these experiences provided a very human heart to more monstrous exteriors.

Would it have been worth the EXP to miss all of these arcs, and themes of interpersonal connection?

Life is an ocean, love is a boat

As you near the end of the game, there are some menacing revelations revealed.

EXP, as I have punctuated several times, stands for Execution Points, which are gained for killing monsters. When you have accumulated enough Execution Points, your LV rises. LV does not stand for level, rather Level of Violence.

This information when first revealed, simultaneously both surprised me and validated some of my own theories. I had expected some twist with RPG conventions but nothing quite like this. I expected something more along the lines of the classic “you were the villain the WHOLE TIME MWAHAHAHAHA.”

To quote one of our skeleton pals, Sans:

“When you have enough EXP, your LOVE increases. LOVE, too, is an acronym. It stands for "Level of Violence." A way of measuring someone's capacity to hurt. The more you kill, the easier it becomes to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt. The more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.”

The more you hurt, the easier it is going to be to continue down that path. I found this to be an excellent twist and an exceptional way to bring some emotional weight to something like traditional RPG stats, something normally so very mundane. This disclosure isn’t tied specifically to pacifist playthroughs, but it does provide some tangible significance, irrespective of your chosen playstyle.

If you decided to go the so-called Genocide Route and kill everyone, it amplifies just how malicious your actions were. The fear exhibited by the NPCs in these runs is palpable, some recoiling at your cruelty. You’ve come to their world and slaughtered them when they’re capable of so much more.

Going the more pacifistic routes give the player the room to see characters flourish with your help, pulling them out of negative spaces.

In the end, it’s up to the player which is the most satisfying route to take.

All’s well that ends (un)well

The culmination of your choices are presented at the end of the game, and there are some stark differences depending on your playstyle and choices.

Predictably, the Genocide ending is not so pretty and features the destruction of the Underground. Other, more pacifistic endings involve our hero returning to the Surface, sometimes with the monsters as well. In the end, the sense of reward I experienced came from how positively the environment was impacted. My actions enabled otherwise directionless and pathetic-seeming characters to start fruitful relationships, making their existence in the deep, dark Underground that bit brighter. While the combat proved to be a lot more challenging at times it was worth it in the end—I left this place a bit better off than it was to begin with.

While other games, such as Dishonored, offer some changes in the game world, in the end not much tends to change other than a few cutscenes. With UNDERTALE, for the first time I really felt weight behind my choices, and felt them as consequential.

I hope this isn’t for the last time, as this has quickly become one of the more fulfilling gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory.

All images taken from the UNDERTALE press kit here

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