UnderTale & The Horror of Facing Your Own Monstrosity
I’ve choked people to death with a plastic bag in Manhunt. Hit a crowd of harmless passerby with my car in Grand Theft Auto V. Shoved someone’s face into a running sander in The Punisher. Punched entire settlements to death in Fallout 4. Blown up civilian scientists in Goldeneye with idly tossed remote mines. I have used my time in digital worlds to become a ruthless killer, carving through those game worlds like a slasher villain.
Doing a Genocide Run at cute, loving RPG UnderTale made me feel more monstrous than all of them put together.
SPOILERS FOR UNDERTALE AHEAD
Games are filled with murder. I mean, you could argue that it’s self defense most of the time, but honestly, you kill a whole lot of people whenever you play a video game. Even kids’ games will have you crushing monsters with your feet or devouring them whole, breaking them down in your stomach so you can spit them back at your opponents. It’s kind of par for the course for many genres of games. The vast majority of the time, that washes right over me.
Even in the truly violent games I mentioned in my examples, they only made me feel tough. Powerful. I had fun carrying out my lethal actions. Gruesome as many of the kills from The Punisher and Manhunt were, I never felt like a bad person or a remorseless killer as I carried them out (although maybe I should have?). Instead, I felt strong and capable, and that these kills were impressive in their variety and ingenuity. I never got that sense of guilt – no hint of remorse – or that my actions were something I should regret. It was fun to cut a bloody swath through these games.
That’s by design, though. These over-the-top kills are made to express your power in the game’s world – that you’re a judge of good and evil, and anyone you deem evil should be eliminated in spectacular fashion. Ever since uppercutting someone into an array of torsos and torn limbs in Mortal Kombat (or blown someone into bleeding chunks in Narc if you’re getting older like me), I’ve known that this was meant to make you feel good and to add to the fun of the game.
UnderTale was maybe the first time I felt guilt over acting with such cruelty in a game’s world. It was the first instant where I wondered if stabbing sinister carrots and frogs was something I should feel bad about. It’s the only time I’ve felt like a slasher villain as I killed everyone in the game world, rather than a hero who was just doing their duty. It’s the first time I really faced the monstrosity of killing things in a game’s world.
To say I wasn’t expecting horror game vibes from this cute, cheerful game was putting it lightly. Chumming around with a pair of skeletons who told puns incessantly, meeting armored dogs that got a bit too excited after a few pats, and carrying on cheerful, supportive conversations with foes that I was used to having to blast with magic made for a world that seemed full of peace, friendship, and joy. Hardly a place a dangerous killer would belong in. I guess that’s what makes you, the player, such a dangerous variable in the world.
It’s the friendliness that makes your actions seem all the more monstrous throughout the game, though. UnderTale puts a great deal of effort into giving you the option to get to know its cast. Even in basic combat situations, you’re given the option to use the ACT command instead of FIGHT in order to find out things about the enemy. Maybe CHECKing them would tell you something about their personality in a silly way. Maybe you’d find the option to pat a dog, or say some kind words that would make combat unnecessary. There was almost always something you could do to make everyone’s lives better, coexisting in peace and friendship.
This was incredibly true of UnderTale’s main characters, a crew of silly, caring individuals who would go on to capture the imaginations of many players, artists, and game developers (and book writers). These goofy beings, from the playful skeletons Sans and Papyrus, the loving goat mom Toriel, to the heroic Undine, all had these silly personalities that made them incredibly charming. This is one of very few games to have me genuinely laughing out loud rather than just exhaling hard through my nose. It’s hard not to like them, or any of the other oddball creatures you’ll run into throughout your time here.
This silliness was touching, but it was the characters’ personalities that really made me feel a connection with them. They strive to make things better for one another, and look to bring hope to their world. They might do it in ridiculous ways (Papyrus’ traps leave a lot to be desired), but there is an earnestness in their failed attempts to make this world better. It’s hard not to care for them when they give so much to this place, all while being really fun and funny to be around.
You see the greatest aspects of this if you really lean into a Pacifist Run – a playthrough where you don’t kill anyone throughout the game. If you don’t harm a single evil carrot or irate combat dummy, you’ll see the truth of this world, as well as the bared hearts of the people within it. You’ll hear their heart-wrenching stories, joining them in bringing true peace to this land and a new, joyful hope for their future. After getting to know these wonderful characters, it felt so good to give them this reality through my peaceful, positive actions.
UnderTale doesn’t only have a peaceful route through it, though. For the game’s peaceful route to truly mean something, there had to be the possibility for an evil, murderous route. This is the Genocide Run, where your aim is to stomp out all life in the game’s world.
This isn’t just a run where you fight everything you come across, either. If you’re doing a Genocide Run in UnderTale, you have to actively seek out all life in the game and crush it. This means getting in way more random RPG battles and killing what you run into. Making no attempt to save the major characters when they get in your way. It’s about really leaning in to your murderous side, snuffing out all life.
Those cute monsters with their endearing features and cheerful personalities? You need to hunt them to literal extinction. You’ll know this has happened when you get the prompt “But nobody came.” when you enter a random battle. This can take a good while in each area, as you have to fight well beyond a normal amount of battles, but you’ll know your work is done when you get that message. You’ll know that EVERYTHING is dead.
This feels…unsettling. The eerie music that plays during these empty battles sure helps that sensation (and hints that something dark seems to be awakening), but the idea that there’s nothing else in the area is what truly makes your actions feel worthy of guilt. Nothing else is coming for you. There’s no monsters left in the area. You’ve wiped them all out. All of those cheerful creatures and timid monsters have been completely exterminated by your actions.
I’ve emptied out whole levels of foes often in other games and felt nothing. Here, though, I felt a guilt settling in that made me deeply uncomfortable. I had learned to love these creatures through playing UnderTale several times, but now, I was killing those same creatures I had once cared about. In learning about who they were as characters, I’d developed an attachment and connection with them to the point where it felt like I was killing old friends instead of fictional sprites in a video game. Perhaps that’s putting it too strongly, but I still felt a powerful guilt at what I had done.
Pushing further, you’ll find yourself beating the life out of the characters you spent so much time with on previous runs through the game. Toriel, so kind and helpful, would be stabbed to death, her body turning to ash in the wind as her heart breaks. Papyrus would be cut down, his smile fading as his bones collapsed. These weren’t just the characters you kind of knew in passing, but the people you had spent the entire game getting to know and care about.
Like I said, UnderTale really takes time to make you care for these characters, if you let it, and in doing so makes for a memorable, delightful experience like few others. But that same attachment to those characters is what makes the Genocide Run feel so vicious and cruel. You’ve been taught to love these characters, and now you’re ignoring that feeling and tearing the life from them.
That last thought has a particular weight on this kind of run through the game as well, as combat begins to change as you give yourself over to your cruelty. You don’t just do basic combat damage after a little while, instead lashing out with incredible ferocity, doling out absurd damage as you stab and stab and stab these characters. You inflict a staggering amount of pain on these characters before they go, again making your heartlessness and brutality clear.
It feels awful to not only kill the characters you like, but to do it with such vigor and rage. You become something new and vicious as you turn on your friends, and in so doing may feel that guilt growing larger and larger.
I’d tried to do a Genocide Run for completion’s sake when the game first came out, hoping to see how the story changed, but found the guilt too overwhelming to continue once I was fighting Papyrus. I had grown to care for these characters so much that killing them felt genuinely monstrous. I didn’t want to bring harm to the wonderful beings of UnderTale, and was so sickened by my actions that I had to quit. Years of killing things in games hadn’t bothered me, but here, I had been taught to feel compassion for these creatures, and it had stuck. I wanted them to be safe and loved, and that meant leaving them alive. Even if I was only killing them in a fictional capacity, it still felt like too much to bear.
This felt more real and wrong due to the game’s other mechanic: a hidden permanence to your behavior. UnderTale doesn’t forget the actions you take in it just because you shut the game off, something I found out by surprise when I killed Toriel on my first run through the game. I felt like I could have saved her, so I reset the game and went back to it. This time, I managed that peaceful resolution to combat, but then another character pointed out that he knew what I had done. He knew that I’d felt guilty and reset my save, bringing the boss back to life.
This was what really grabbed me the first time I played the game. That you couldn’t just erase your mistakes – that you couldn’t alter reality to make yourself into the good guy again after giving in to your cruelty – gave my actions a feeling of permanence. It felt like what you did here would never be forgotten. And to a certain degree, it was.
If you complete a Genocide Run (which I eventually did while researching a book I wrote on the game, something I still feel pangs of guilt and regret over), you are greeted with a discomforting force that tells you a little something about the kind of person you really are. If you try to reset the game to play again, this being greets you, and even if you try to play the good guy on this next run, you’ll see aspects of the ending changing, showing the monster that lies beneath your skin still laid bare. UnderTale has not forgotten the kind of person you are, even if you did reset your data. You will be this monster forever.
It’s still a programming feature and I know it, but seeing that my actions were permanent in this world made my cruelty seem that much more unsettling. You couldn’t really just erase your misdeeds, but would own them for the rest of your existence, seeing reminders of it any time you played the game. You could never truly wipe the slate clean.
This, combined with how the game taught you to love these characters so much, made for a horrifying experience in how we carry out casual violence in game worlds, and the flippant way we hurt the characters we like for fun. It was a scathing examination of how easily we turn to violence in game worlds for curiosity or fun, and left me chilled more than any kills I’d carried out in a video game before. These features made me feel honest, genuine guilt at the people I’d hurt. I felt like a dangerous killer that had been set loose, and that my conscience finally demanded that I pay for it.
UnderTale may not have seemed like a horror game at first glance, but the way it teaches the player to care for its inhabitants, and the permanent consequences to the cruel actions you take within it, made me feel a frightening horror at myself and my own actions. I got to really see the consequences of my actions through the game’s mechanics, and began to really think about how I conduct myself in these digital places.
This was a truer horror than being scared by a monster or having a ghost leap out at me. It was this sense that I was always giving in to my own monstrosity when I entered game worlds, and that while I often thought that was just innocent, harmless fun, there was a kind of cost to it all. There was a very real heartlessness in what I did for fun and curiosity, and perhaps that was worth examining to understand myself better. For, while games are just imaginary playgrounds for us to play with or destroy, there is still a side of them filled with beings concocted of computer code. If I could love these imaginary beings, then what did it mean that I was also willing to kill them?