*Mild Undertale spoilers ahead*
A friend of mine told me about a question his dad asked him once. “Is it possible to make a non-violent video game?” My friend was sitting on his bed at the time, playing a game in which a pudgy Italian stomps on turtles. When they hide in their shells, the Italian kicks the turtles into lava. Absorbed in turtle-stomping, my friend naturally didn’t have an answer to his dad’s question, so his dad pondered it himself.
He tried to think of a game based around Jesus Christ, certainly a peaceful figure. In this game, you might press A to heal the sick, and B to speak about the virtue of loving thy neighbor. In response, my friend, then eight years old, kicked another turtle into lava, pumping his fist when the hurtling turtle shell hit and killed an ambulatory mushroom before sinking into the lava to meet its own fiery end. When my friend recounted this event for me twenty years later, it seemed indicative to us of the creative rut in video games, that nonviolence and entertainment value are somehow mutually exclusive.
This is not to say that no one has ever made a non-violent video game, even a fun one. Sports games, racing games, farming games, cooking games, puzzle games, The Sims, are all based largely around non-violent premises, and still manage to entertain significant audiences. There’s something about these games, though, that’s missing – an adventure. When you’re kicking a ball around obsessively trying to keep other people from kicking it, or driving around in a circle really fast, or telling an inexplicably recalcitrant fictional version of yourself to get out of bed and go to work every single morning because he just can’t seem to figure out how to do it on his own, or just waking up at the crack of dawn to milk your cows and water your seeds for thirty days in a row so you can grow eggplant to sell at market and buy more seeds to water until they grow into horseradishes, it somehow lacks the melodrama of an elaborate and whimsical journey across perilous landscapes kicking turtles into lava to rescue your love from the hands of a monarchical fire-breathing mega-reptile.
Where violent video games are what my friend and my generation grew up with, humanity itself grew up with the violent adventure story. In our childhood as a species, little boys and girls would sit on large rocks and old logs around a fire in the family cave and listen to Dad, Uncle, or big brother tell his story about his close encounter with a large cat, a wooly mammoth, or, god forbid, a human being from a different tribe. In these stories there was never any question of who to root for. You root for your family member and against the predator trying to eat him, the prey who wants to deprive him of a meal to bring home, or the other human, who could want any number of awful anti-your-family things. Plus, there’s a guaranteed happy ending because otherwise the storyteller wouldn’t be telling the story. Based on my extensive1 expertise in evolutionary psychology and its complex effects on modern culture, this is the basis of the adventure fantasy that to this day continues to enchant children and adults alike.
Think of the book series that enchanted my generation growing up, me included. Harry Potter is about a young, somewhat generic English boy who learns that he has magical powers and is thus welcomed into an elite academy for the thaumaturgically gifted. By being generic, his personality mostly defined by liking good things (magic) not liking bad things (bullying), and holding no controversial opinions whatsoever, Harry Potter can serve as a de facto family member (as defined by my evolutionary psychology theory of adventure stories) to an otherwise improbably large audience. He then goes on to discover that the wizarding world is plagued by a being of absolute evil. Spoiler alert, in the end Harry kills the being of absolute evil, and thus since badness only comes from evil people, the world was perfect from there on out. Harry Potter trivia buffs may point out that Harry never actually killed Lord Voldemort, but was simply party to his death when Voldemort succumbed to his own violence literally bouncing off of Harry and back at him and died at his own hand. This makes Harry’s hands clean by technicality, much in the same way as if your game doesn’t count someone dying from stepping on a mine you placed as you having killed them, Congratulations! You have found a way to resolve the situation by peaceful means and can continue to be the morally unambiguous hero of the story.
The movie series that enchanted my parents’ generation and continues to enchant my own generation, features an even more violent premise, all but explicitly stating in its title that it is premised on the glory of warfare. The plucky band of rebels fights an evil, ostensibly insurmountable2 force. Neither party’s political motivations are expounded or given much thought, allowing people to read whatever repellent political philosophies they like into the vaguely fascistic black-and-red color-coded Empire. To further minimize mental strain and allow audience members to focus on the action, Star Wars even codifies its supernatural elements according to good and evil. Light = Good, Dark = Bad. Once again, happy endings come from military successes, that is, successful murders of the “bad guys.”
How do you make an adventure without encouraging tribalism and glorifying warfare? Somehow, even as we grew older than eight it never occurred to either my friend or me that it could be done. Where are the stakes if you’re not killing and dying? As a Quaker, a member of a dedicated peace church, I just tried to pick games and movies that were clearly fantastical, avoiding so-called military simulators or anything that tried to teach as a real-world principle that evil in the world came from evil people, and that with the extermination of evil people evil in the world would end. Even so, I kept myself aloof from most of the entertainment I enjoyed, in order not to feel like a hypocrite for identifying too closely with the horrible things the “heroes” I played or watched would do. The closest I could come to feeling like I could really identify with a game was when the game offered a setting so dark that I could pretend I was playing through a stark portrayal of the horrors of war instead of a glorification, but it wasn’t really true. No matter how much the surface narrative might tell me I was cursed and the endless fights were some sort of penance, the ludonarrative3 was always that fighting and killing is fun and rewarding. Of course it was. If it wasn’t fun and rewarding, I wouldn’t play. I still play and enjoy these games, and I don’t think anyone should feel ashamed for enjoying them any more than someone should feel ashamed about enjoying Harry Potter or Star Wars, but in terms of an action-packed, high-intensity game that didn’t teach the joy of carnage, even the notion seemed too preposterous to entertain.
Games that deliberately satirized this violence seemed designed to be un-fun, as if they were intended to do little more than upset and confuse gamers. “You Only Live Once,” a Flash game on Kongregate, parodies my favorite kick-turtles-into-lava game by giving the player only one life. Instead of dying and dying over and over again until you successfully kill your foe, you get exactly one try. Further attempts to continue only let you watch the protagonist get picked up by an ambulance, see a memorial go up briefly in his honor, and then vanish as his short-lived attempt to conquer an entire castle single-handed is completely forgotten.
Average Maria Individual, an even more direct satire of Super Mario Brothers4, is a game that I have covered on my blog before. Taking Mario and making the lead an unexceptional lesbian who has to be polite and considerate to her foes to succeed has been praised as deliberately sticking a finger in the eye of traditional gamer culture. Average Maria Individual has intentionally minimal gameplay. Maria can jump only a couple inches off the ground and walks mind-numbingly slowly. All significant decisions in the game involve whether to be a jerk or not. Spoiler: being a jerk gets you killed.
These games captured my imagination, but only intellectually, and nothing like them has been successful enough to make waves in the gaming community. They seemed to encourage rather than undercut the notion that an exciting adventure has to involve glorious killing. Thus besides the occasional, brief, excited conversation about these gimmicky exceptions to the general tone of adventure-based gaming, I continued to keep my gameplaying to myself, lowering my voice and staring at my shoes whenever asked what I did for fun. This was the degree to whch I was unable to imagine the medium could really be a force for good.
Then, on October 6, I casually glanced at a game rating website, and noticed that among all of the heavily advertised multimillion dollar corporate produced games at the top of the list was a little game whose name had never reached my ears. Although in production he collaborated with a small group of other people, Toby Fox is widely seen as the auteur behind Undertale and as music director, lead artist, writer, and lead programmer, the credit seems earned. So, when his name showed up next to Nintendo and Ubisoft, multinational companies each comprising thousands of employees at least, a game he’d thrown together while completing his college coursework beating out their products as the highest rated game on meta-critic, I had to give it a try.
If it weren’t for the hype, this game might’ve been a hard sell for some people. The first impression someone will get of a game from its screenshots is of course going to be the graphics. While I personally enjoyed the minimalist retro aesthetic, I must admit that I could see where my coworker was coming from when he said that it looked like an 8-bit dog had pooped on his screen5. Provided I had figured out that it existed someway or other, though, I would not have needed even one person to recommend it. All that I need to hear to know this was a game that I wanted to play was that it was calling itself “a friendly RPG where no one has to die.”
In Undertale, You play a small child of ambiguous gender trying to make their6 way out of an enormous cavern filled with monsters. Death is on the line, you have special powers, and combats are played through exciting bullet-dodging minigames. Sounds pretty adventurous, huh?
If you’re paying attention though, one thing that becomes quickly clear is that monster is just a species delimiter. This underground cavern, rather than being stuffed full of hideous creatures who want nothing more out of life than your destruction, is full of hideous7 creatures just trying to make their way in the world. Because of an old enmity between humans and monsters, they will attack you, but that doesn’t mean that you have to attack them. Nearly all combats can be resolved without ever hitting the fight button. Instead you read the description of the monster, look at its image on the screen, and carefully select actions such as “talk,” “hug,” and “cheer up” to convince each different type of monster that you are in fact a friend and not a foe.
It’s completely possible to play through the whole game mashing the fight button and get the neutral ending, but each creature you kill will be one that does not show up again later as a friendly NPC8 that livens up the landscape, and the game may start feeling barren and desolate. I won’t even go into detail regarding what happens if you systematically kill everything you possibly can, save to say that the game is dramatically different. To get the best ending in the game you have to not only spare all monsters you encounter, but you have to go on “dates” with three of the main character monsters, learning more about them and their complicated relationships with one another, all delivered with the same charisma and wacky humor present throughout the game.
Getting the pacifist ending is much harder than getting the neutral ending. You still have to fight all the same tough battles, but in addition to surviving you have to solve tricky puzzles based on your ability to understand other people and creatively solve problems. Like dealing with real people, you’ll also need patience. Sometimes it will take some trial and error to figure out what you’re opponent does and doesn’t like.
If you stick it through and demonstrate to the monster community that not all humans believe in violence and that at least one human makes a pretty good friend, you can save them all and get the sweetest most charming and uplifting ending I’ve seen a video game. This is where the fantasy comes in. People may say that you can’t just end a war by being nice. This makes it look too easy to resolve real-life violent conflicts with hundreds of years of enmity.
Is it less realistic, though, than Harry Potter? Killing one big bad guy abruptly cures the world of evil, and everyone lives happily ever after? It’s not less realistic. They’re both adventure-fantasies with happy, feel-good endings appropriate to an adventure-fantasy, just one is founded on the old traditional principles of adventure fantasy about fights between people who are like the audience (the heroes) and people who are not like the audience (the villains), and the other, Undertale, is founded on the principle of people like you reaching out to the people not like you and learning that, well, they’re really a lot more like you than you thought.
We’re a long way from the old caves, sitting on logs and rocks and hoping that no bear will wander in or rival family find our hideout. We live in vast countries now ruled by law such that the threat of immediate death by strangers is so distant compared to ancient times that in most cases it can be safely ignored. Instead were surrounded by people, many of whom who aren’t like us, some of whom may even seem outright difficult or maybe of a group that we’ve been hearing is dangerous, much like the protagonist of Undertale has heard all her life that monsters are evil, dangerous creatures, just as the monsters themselves have heard the same thing about humans.
We are past the era where we need to understand how to hate and kill in order to survive. Now are in an era where we need to cooperate and understand people who are different from us. Recent events have highlighted how much this value still needs to be taught. That’s why being able to understand people instead of killing people isn’t just a one-off gimmick. We need more games like Undertale. Do you hear me, Indie developers? Undertale has been snubbed by most mainstream game award giants, but anywhere that the average gamer has a say, it is winning awards and getting attention. Penny Arcade writer and traditionalist gamer spokesperson Jerry Holkins admitted that even though he personally couldn’t get into it, he can tell that there’s something special about it. A Kotaku writer said it changed his outlook on life and that he now bases some of his social skills on Undertale characters. This game shouldn’t be an anomaly. Let’s make it a movement. Let’s redefine the adventure fantasy.
1 not really very extensive
2 but in reality surmountable within the length of a three-part movie series or your money back
3 The story implicitly told by a game’s gameplay
4 Look closely and you’ll see where the name “Average Maria Individual” comes from
5 His words were not so family-friendly
6 This is the pronoun used in the game
7 Actually pretty cute
8 Non-player character