Save Yourself: Undertale, the Save Mechanic, and Choice

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Screenshot taken from Undertale.com

[If you haven’t played Undertale yet – which you should – then I highly suggest you ignore this post until you have. It is a game to be experienced for yourself. Don’t watch a letsplay, don’t read the wiki, just play the game]

I just beat my first play through of Undertale yesterday (technically this morning, but who keeps track of that stuff) and I honestly don’t know what to do now. Most people who have heard of the game know by now that part of the mechanics is choice – and not just the common dialogue-tree choices, but a choice in gameplay. Every encounter that occurs in the game can be solved through peaceful means or through violence. On my first play through I played as peacefully as I could, on my second play through I will do the same (there are apparently a few changes, and another ending.

… I don’t think I can dare follow through on achieving the other possible ending.

Alright, one final warning here: if you haven’t played the game yet, there will be spoiler below. Also, this game, for all its quirkiness and happy-go-lucky style gets really, really dark at parts.

Alright? Here we go…

There are three endings in total. 1) You kill some people (probably because you didn’t know you could choose not to) and you get a neutral ending (you actually get the neutral ending if you didn’t kill anyone on your first run, but you can unlock the pacifist ending on the second run through). 2) You kill nobody and you get the pacifist ending. Or 3) You kill every living thing in the underground… this is the genocide ending. Playing on the neutral/pacifist path gets you a fun, colorful (if occasionally intense) game with lots of heart and tenderness. The comparisons to Earthbound are striking, I also found myself thinking back to Cave Story. But if you do the genocide route … then the game … changes.

I’m not going to lie, I looked up what happens if you play genocide. After beating this game on the first run, I couldn’t bear to go back and try to kill all the characters I had grown to love, and I don’t regret this decision at all. Playing the genocide route transforms this lovely world into a horrific nightmare, and you’re the monster. You’re the one killing people for no true reason. The only motivations are either pleasure from killing, or desire to see an ending. Neither justify what you do.

And here’s the kicker: the game calls you out on it the whole way. ESPECIALLY if you played peacefully the first time around.

That’s right. This game remembers your choices, and it isn’t afraid to let you know. I had noticed during my play through that on several encounters you would tell enemies how many times you had failed to defeat them before. Neat idea, but I didn’t really grasp the severity of this realization until the final boss. The final boss in the neutral run is terrifying. I was actually scared by it. It is visually scary, it has a spine-chilling laugh, and it CONTROLS THE SAVE FILE! Yes, the final boss has complete control over the game files itself, and it acknowledges you, the player,  as the one it is terrorizing. There are other games, mostly free, independent, games that have done similar things. But this is just so… unexpected… that it really had an effect on me. This game is about choices, and I’ve talked about choice in games before. And this is something entirely different. This game is dynamic storytelling at its best, precisely because it wants you to realizes that just because you CAN play a game a certain way, doesn’t mean you should. It know its a game. Some of the characters know they’re in a game. It wants YOU to realize that this is a game, and that it shouldn’t be played with.

I’m going to drop a super spoiler about the genocide ending right now. Hopefully you’re not going to play it and will feel comfortable reading about it here. If you don plan on playing the genocide route… well… you’ll see for yourself.

At the end of the genocide campaign, it is revealed that your character is not your character. Rather, your character has been possessed by the spirit of the “first human.” To explain what all this means requires a lengthy explanation of all the endings and some other, hidden content. So I’lll just say that the first human was not a nice person. Anyhow, after you have killed every single living thing in the underground. Your possessed character turns to you, yes, you the player, and gleefully says that she wants to erase this world with you and move on to destroying other worlds. You can agree to erase the world, or refuse. If you agree the first human states that you will be together forever. If you disagree… it turns out you don’t have a choice. Either way the game crashes, and trying to reboot will give you a blank screen.

But… If you wait for some time, that blank screen will speak to you. The first human will offer to let you return to the world, in exchange for your soul. I truly believe it is the player that is being spoken to here. If you accept, you can go play the game again. But even if you follow through on the pacifist ending, things will not end happily.

Or, on the other hand. If you complete the pacifist run without doing the genocide route, you get the happiest ending. Yay! …What’s that? You want to start the game again? Maybe its just for fun, maybe you want to see another ending, but you try and start again. Then the game begs you not to. The game actually BEGS you to let the characters continue to exist in the happiest ending. Because why would you want to take that away from them? Heartbreaking.

That is the cost of choice in this game. If you complete the genocide route, you CANNOT have a true happy ending. Sure, you can technically go into the game’s save files and delete data to start the game over again (and there’s some other spooky stuff you can find there as well), but that’s kind of cheating isn’t it? I have never seen a game use the background mechanics to build a meta-narrative as powerfully as this one has. Sure, there are problems. I knew of the pacifist route before I started the game, I have been seeking it the whole time. Yet, the game’s memory and encouragement still made me feel like I was accomplishing something. I’m honestly excited to see what will change on my next play through.

I don’t exactly know where I’m going with this. I mainly just felt inspired enough by this game to write about the way it makes me feel, but I think this is something important here. Undertake may not be written about in academic journals, or analyzed years later, but I firmly believe it has managed to move games a few steps forward in the right direction. I don’t know what lies at the end of this path. Maybe its something as simple as empathy. Or something as complex as a thinking machine. But whatever it is, I await it wholeheartedly.

See you on the next save file.

2 thoughts on “Save Yourself: Undertale, the Save Mechanic, and Choice

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