So, college happened. It’s been 1 and a half years since I last updated this blog, and my (intended) 3-part series of Serial Experiments Lain will probably never happen.
Ahhh, it seems I’m generally incapable of finishing any major writing project I start T_T
I am, however, revisiting this blog because a reader, Yomna, recently offered to buy me Undertale as a show of appreciation for my blog posts (and this was after more than a year of me not updating it T_T). She told me that she thought this game has a lot in common with ethical veganism, and that I’d find it meaningful.
Described as “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die” (spoiler alert: lots of creatures died on my first playthrough), Undertale is an indie game taking the style of a traditional 8-bit jPRG that immediately premises itself on challenging the perennial assumption that ‘monsters’ are only ever there for one purpose – to kill or be killed.
So yeah, I promised that I’d do a post on my thoughts of the game in turn. I will, however, just be noting down my thoughts in point form, instead of trying to structure them narratively in the style of my previous posts. My thoughts are much too scattered right now, and I’m not very good at writing about video games either ><
Nonetheless, thank for you the game, Yomna! I really enjoyed it a lot, and this blog post is dedicated to you :)
(Spoilers from here on out. Read only if you’ve played the game or are sure you do not intend to play the game in the future! Otherwise, don’t take the risk… it’s not worth ruining such a good game for yourself.
- My first playthrough was a completely blind one (other than having watched the trailer), and while I knew that a nonviolent route was perhaps most ideal, I told myself that I would just focus on enjoying the game, and do what comes most naturally to me at each point in time without thinking too much about having an overall strategy.
- I spared the first few monsters that came my way, as guided by Toriel. However, after she left me to my own devices, and I stumbled through encounter after encounter while trying to navigate the puzzles, I became a little annoyed that I wasn’t getting any EXP from all the encounters by sparing them. This was based on my own traditional view that, as you progress through a dungeon, the battles should get ‘easier’.
- You actually get EXP, and so much more gold, by killing monsters. The game establishes early on that they are more ‘valuable’ to you, from a practical standpoint, dead than alive.
- Gaining EXP and LVs is really addictive. I think that this is fundamentally tied to its numerical nature. It’s very much like what Marx wrote about capital and the M-C-M exchange, where because numerics are differentiated quantitatively but remain qualitatively similar, you’re never satisfied with where you are. Levelling up from LV5 to 6 doesn’t satiate you, because there’s still LV7. And levelling to 7 doesn’t satiate you either (and so forth). You can never get enough of it.
- The cycle of addiction to EXP starts out slow, but eventually comes to perpetuate itself. The more engrossed you get in gaining EXP, the more you come to see the monsters as but sources of EXP.
- My battle with Toriel was what temporarily took me out of this mindset and alerted me to the implications of each and every time I chose to kill. I was so concerned with dodging her attacks and surviving myself, that it didn’t occur to me that if I reduced her health bar to 0, that was it, and she’d be gone permanently. I assumed that she would simply give in and relent, or I would refrain from killing her at the last moment, like in most other video games where friends only engage in symbolic battles. In other words, killing was something that was only supposed to happen to Others.
- This, for me, became a point of no return of sorts. I felt that since I’d already killed Toriel, there was no redemption for me to be found in this playthrough. I should just go down the path I’ve set for myself thus far, maybe enjoy it the best I can, and strive for a more peaceful attempt on a second playthrough. And oh boy, did the game eventually punish me for that mentality…
- I killed all the monsters and mini-bosses that subsequently came my way, until it came to Papyrus. Papyrus actually made it easy for me to spare him, since he explicitly gave me the choice not to fight, and so I opted for that, albeit with a weird sense of disjunct in my heart, as if I did not have the moral grounds to make such a choice.
- Sparing Papyrus, and playing through the hanging out sequence with him afterwards, made me recalibrate the moral compass I had constructed for my character and myself thus far. I thought that perhaps I could draw up a list distinguishing between characters ‘worth sparing’ and those that weren’t. Friendly characters like Sans and Papyrus would go in the former, while random encounters and nameless bosses would go into the latter. I was determined not to have a repeat of Toriel.
- The point of Undyne’s character, I feel, is to demonstrate the arbitrariness of such distinctions. Everything about how she’s introduced, from her killing intent to the sense that you are the powerless victim here, is designed to help you rationalise that it’s OK to kill her. When it came to the final confrontation, I actually backtracked to try to find ways to ‘grind’ a little more because I was close to a LV up.
- And yet the actual fight with her, especially her dying sequence, was a heart-wrenching experience. It was a pyrrhic victory in every sense of the word. There was nothing to relish, nothing to be proud of. It made me sick inside. But I felt like I had to do it, because I’d already gone so far.
- The point where Sans reveals the true meanings of EXP (Execution Points) and LV (Level of Violence) was a thoroughly horrifying one for me. The word ‘violent’ is just… urk… it makes me shudder. I guess it has to do with the centrality of this word around my own experiences of going vegan. It took me back to the first time I truly became conscious of the way in which animals are treated, which suddenly caused a shift in perspective of how I saw all my food choices up until now, and caused me to see myself with this pitch-black soul. Suddenly, I was that person again, as if nothing had changed at all. Yes, this is a game… but all the animals I see behind the computer screen in slaughterhouse videos seem just as abstract and distant to me, the alienated consumer, as the characters in this game. If I was capable of murdering the monsters in this game in cold blood, then I was equally capable of doing it to the animals behind a computer screen.
- I eventually killed both Asgore and Flowey, telling myself it had to be done. That’s just the ‘circle of life’.
Afterwards, I read up on all the different endings in the game, and chose to do a pacifist run the second time round. I’m still not done with it at the point of writing this post however. Surprisingly, I actually find the monster encounters a lot more enjoyable now. Their personalities and nuances come out in a way you don’t get a chance to perceive when you only think about killing them. There are many creative ways for you to resolve these encounters, unlike killing which eventually becomes rather monotonous and formulaic.
With that, here are some of my concluding thoughts about this game:
- I think that the immediate instinct for ‘casual’ gamers, in navigating this game on a blind first playthrough, would be to go down the path of least resistance. It’s to not think too much about the implications of our actions, and to just try to get through the game in a relatively effortless way. And just like the real world, this approach is usually a semi-violent one.
- Upon being vaguely aware that you’re engaging in some kind of violence, the rationalisation starts. I think it’s a very natural impulse for you to try to form your own arbitrary distinctions in your mind about what is ‘worth killing’ and what is not, both materially and emotionally.
- Once the game challenges the arbitrariness of your categorisation, however, it just goes downhill from there, and you start to add more and more creatures to your murder list. It’s easier to opt to kill more than to kill less, because the latter forces you to acknowledge that you’ve already made terrible decisions that cannot be undone. It’s a very unsettling feeling.
- In order to commit yourself to being more nonviolent, you really do have to forgive yourself for your past actions, otherwise the cognitive dissonance just accumulates throughout. My game descended into a murder spree after killing Toriel because I was precisely unable to do that.
- The Genocide path is a caricature. No one is actually like that. No one sets out to kill everyone and everything in their path, not even the worst human beings in history. There are only downward spirals and perceived points of no return that escalate after a series of violent actions that becomes its own self-perpetuating mechanism. I think one of the main messages of the game is that if you think you need to walk the Genocidal path, if you think you need to be ‘morally repugnant’, for you to cause a lot of harm to others in your actions, you are sorely mistaken.
- The Pacifist route is equally a caricature, and is virtually impossible to achieve in a blind playthrough if you haven’t decided what your overall strategy towards this game should be.
- Yet, there can be ‘shining moments’ of Pacifism even in a morally neutral run. When someone else expresses violence towards you, like Undyne, it really does take an extraordinary amount of effort to be the ‘better person’. I feel that perhaps altruism in specific, as opposed to moral neutrality (which I’ve written about in my series on Evangelion), can be located in nonviolence in this explicit act of forgiveness. The point when Sans told me that he chose not to kill me because he’d promised Toriel that was a humbling one, because that made me perceive what it meant to be on the receiving end of this kind of altruism.
- As applied to veganism, it is an understanding that, yes, animals don’t comprehend concepts of morality in the same way we do, but we can opt to go beyond a simple demand for reciprocity, in acknowledgement that we also care far more about seeing ourselves as moral creatures than they do, because well, maybe that’s what it means to embrace the good part of being human.
- I think, more than someone who does a Pacifist run throughout, the strongest person, morally, is the one who starts out in a neutral and violent manner, and takes the effort to correct their course halfway. It’s horrible, because your Level of Violence doesn’t get absolved and will never be, and you have to live with that knowledge for the rest of your life. I know that I didn’t have the strength to do it within my first playthrough. I guess this was partly fueled by the notion that I’d always have second chance, a second playthrough, to redeem myself. The game astutely criticises this attitude; it notices when you’ve been abusing your ability to reset the game and mess with your save files.
- The question, then, is whether you will allow your existing Level of Violence to determine your attitude for the rest of your life, or if you will find a way to forgive yourself and reevaluate your moral compass halfway through the game. After all, we only get one blind playthrough in life. There are no save files.