RWP Week #4: Undertale – I’m a “good person”, right?

I think it’s very hard to say something insightful about Undertale that hasn’t been said already. It’s a game that’s essentially been analyzed to death from every direction. That being said, I wanted to touch on how Undertale’s gameplay systems, specifically where it chooses to subvert typical RPG systems, help to push a message of empathy and player self-reflection – and also how my own consumption of media and pre-existing knowledge about the game altered my experience of that rhetoric.

Undertale’s central mechanic since its inception is the idea of an RPG where “no one has to get hurt”. To support this, Undertale’s combat system comes with two additional mechanics in addition to the standard fight and flee seen in most turn-based RPGs: ACT, which lets the player perform some non-combative interaction like petting or telling a joke, and SPARE, in which the player essentially refuses to fight. Sparing an enemy removes that enemy from combat if certain conditions are met through performing particular actions. Because fighting is no longer the only option, killing and defeating enemies becomes an active choice on the part of the player rather than a requirement of progression, further enforced by the fact that choosing to do so has visible outcomes in the world – killing all enemies in a single area replaces random encounters in that area with “but no one came…”, and you might run into the friends of characters you’ve killed that comment on their disappearance.

These outcomes are geared towards eliciting a feeling of guilt – one that many players will attempt to circumvent by using their power as the player to reset the game and reset the consequences associated with their actions. However, these consequences are still acknowledged by the game. Certain characters are knowledgeable about the player’s actions in previous encounters and save files, and will confront them on actions like sparing someone who they previously killed.

These elements force the player to grapple with their position of power with respect to the game and the entities within it, and nudges the player towards acting with empathy and kindness towards its characters rather than using that power to fulfill whatever goals the player may have. Adding to this, there are different branching endings depending on the players choices – the first playthrough always ends in a ‘neutral’ ending, whereas playing through a second time while sparing every enemy results in the ‘pacifist’ ending, and killing every enemy results in a ‘genocide’ ending.

I came into this week with all of this knowledge as a backdrop. I’d essentially been spoiled on most of the game’s central themes and plot points, and so I blazed through the game fairly quickly. My playthrough was largely characterized by a desire to play the game “the right way”, to achieve the “good ending” of the pacifist route, sparing all random encounters and boss fights – and I think this is an area where Undertale can fall short in some respects if you’ve been spoiled, or even have passing knowledge of the different endings. Rather than engaging with narrative honestly and sparing them out of goodwill, I had reduced the experience of interacting with enemies to an optimization problem. The shock of guilt that you might experience when killing your first enemy is not there, and so the choice of sparing an enemy is less of a moral choice, and more of a gameplay challenge, which seems to weaken its general premise. While the narrative does explore this element of wanting to dissect a game by poking and prodding at you and questioning your decisions, it never culminated in any in-game outcomes. It felt strange that I did not feel like a good person, while ostensibly being a good person in the game. This raises an interesting question – when we offer moral choices to our players, how can we nudge them towards more moral outcomes without creating purely extrinsic rewards? Or should we even be pushing them towards one outcome over another to begin with?


Regardless, this game is simply wonderful. There’s a reason it is held as this pantheon of Internet and gaming culture. Its characters are so memorable and charming , partially due to the well-written dialogue, but also due to the sheer personality exuded in each element, from the battle options to the way each character has their own unique projectiles in the bullet hell sections. My moral questions aside, it was a game where I did care about the characters in some way or another – and that’s more than I can say for a lot of games.


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  1. It was interesting to think about the idea of doing good things in a game but still not necessarily feeling like a good person. I also wonder, how can we give players choices that make them feel an emotional connection with the choices they are maknig and allow them to feel like a “good person” for the choices they made? I feel like the games where I have seen this done best are the ones where the narrative changes significantly based on the moral choices that the player chooses to make. I think the problem with Undertale is that you don’t really see the consequences of your actions until the very end of the game, so people might not think to try to take the pacifict route unless they have already heard about it from reading about it online.

  2. Hey Anthony, it was really interesting to read the perspective of a player who came in with a lot of prior knowledge about Undertale, since I played it completely blind. I want to try the True Pacifist route and I want to explore that dichotomy of doing good but not feeling good about it, as you stated. Should the game make you feel better about doing good though, or is the lukewarm feeling you get afterwards a part of the experience?

  3. Hi Anthony, I think your point that Undertale is not the same when you are spoiled out of the games themes and plots is so true. I didn’t know of Undertale until I launched the game and I played it like most traditional RPGs until I got hints to spare monsters. I think learning about the game directly made the experience enjoyable. There was also a difference in my play style after our Friday meeting since I then knew of the pacifist route!

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