Undertale: the game that makes you choose to care
by Amanda Lim
Generic types of gaming genres and their features
The field of computer gaming includes two major gaming genres: Role-Playing Games (RPGs) and choice-based games. In Role-Playing Games, the player is usually guided through the game with a linear storyline, where the player simply defeats every single enemy that they encounter to progress the storyline and reach the end goal. By defeating opponents, the player’s character will level up, before eventually combating the most powerful antagonist to reach the game’s ending. Some games in this genre are Final Fantasy and Dark Souls. Whereas in choice-based games, the player will be able to follow a more plot-driven narrative, where the player is given a range of options that they can choose from to drive the plot forward. The way the story plays out is based on the decisions made by the player, such that the player can arrive at one of the many endings of the game rooted in how the player chooses to navigate the game. These mechanics are found in games like Detroit: Become Human and Until Dawn.
Undertale and breaking the mold
Undertale manages to counter the tropes that have become entrenched in the two different gaming genres. Undertale on the surface is set up as another generic Role-Playing Game; however, on closer inspection it is unique in countering regular RPGs in one important aspect: it entitles the player to choices when engaging with other non-playable characters. This feature shifts Undertale into the territory of choice-based games, but Undertale manages to challenge even the usual premise of such games. Undertale, much like most choice-based games, has a “save point” function, but the way the “save point” works is very much different from how it is usually employed in games. By managing to break the mold of these two gaming genres, Undertale soared to popularity in the gaming community. This paper explores how Undertale propels players to make more morally informed decisions by using choice, memory and consequence.
How countering of tropes changes the way we choose
Firstly, the absence of choice, seen in typical games of the role-playing genre, results in the desensitisation of players towards violence. As players repeatedly kill others to progress in the game, they eventually mentally distance themselves from the violence involved. In RPGs, players are required to mindlessly slay every character they encounter in the game, as the game’s mechanics suggest to the player that all the characters are unquestionably enemies that need to be killed. By making it mandatory for the player to slay the enemy in order to progress in the game, the player’s autonomy to choose for themselves who they kill disappears. As a result, the player no longer questions their violence towards others, even if these actions, when framed against a moral backdrop, become immoral. The player starts to focus solely on achieving their goal by any means possible and views the non-playable characters as mere obstacles in their path. In the end, the player fails to care about other characters in the game and become apathetic, owing to the dire lack of control over who they kill.
However, Undertale presents a different twist in the premise of RPGs. In Undertale, when the player encounters another non-playable character, aside from killing the character, the player is now presented with another option: the ability to interact through various means to “defeat” them. Who was once invariably framed as an enemy is now humanized in the fact that players are given a chance to interact with them in a non-hostile manner. An example would be through the character Napstablook. Initially a hostile opponent, he will eventually become friendly towards the player if constantly complimented, before allowing the player to progress without the need for violence.
The player’s apathy towards destruction in other games becomes even more apparent when contrasted with Undertale due to the latter’s unique twist on RPGs. Since violence had become so commonplace in RPGs, it became a norm that went unscrutinised by others; only when this normalised mindset was challenged by Undertale did players question their approach towards violence in gaming. Undertale, in contrast to typical Role-Playing Games, portrays how the presence of choice pushes people to think twice about the impact of their actions on other characters in the game. By possessing the ability to choose what actions they want to execute, players are now required to weigh their actions against their moral standards. As previously mentioned, generic RPGs can result in the player’s desensitisation towards violence due to their lack of autonomy. However, once players are presented with a choice, albeit one of the options still involving violence, they are forced to reconsider their actions. The power ensconced upon them spurs them into thinking about the impacts of their choice, thus making them sensitive towards violence again. Players start to care about how they interact with others, where a majority actively chose not to use violence on the characters they encounter. In fact, very few gamers actively chose the path of killing everyone in their way on their first playthrough of the game, despite this mechanic being the usual premise of RPGs. As no official statistics exist that record the choices made by players, an informal survey on the “Undertale Wiki”, an online platform for Undertale fans, will be used instead. A majority of the survey respondents had actively chosen to take the “Pacifist” route on their first round of playing the game; this highlights how once choice is brought into the picture, people are usually inclined to choose what they deem morally correct.
Some may argue that as the consequences of making moral choices in the game is negligible, players do not feel obligated to and are in fact tempted to choose evil paths out of morbid curiosity. However, morality itself plays a large role in preventing players from choosing evil paths. A study on the effect of moral choice published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people view certain issues as moral, they reflexively gravitate towards the option that they view as morally correct. Thus, in Undertale, even if the consequences of the choices do not impact the player’s lives directly, they will still be inclined to choose morally regardless. In a poll on the “Undertale Wiki”, half of the fans surveyed could not bring themselves to complete the Genocide route, as opposed to only a quarter of the fans who had managed to complete the Genocide route without aborting it. Especially noting that the majority chose to satisfy their curiosity about the Genocide route via second hand methods such as by watching others, it emphasizes how people would rather distance themselves from the guilty conscience of having to directly “murder” other characters, even if they are not real. Granted, there will still be players whose curiosity outweighs the game’s impact on them, but it can be concluded that the game’s usage of choice and morality has a considerable effect on most of its players.
Having established the presence of choice in Undertale, the focus will be shifted to a comparison of Undertale with choice-based games, specifically with a focus on a gaming mechanism found in this genre of games, known as the “save point”.
The persisting memory of the choices made is also an important factor in impacting people’s decisions, as seen through the “save point” function in choice-based games. Although presenting the player with choices will push them to reconsider the impact of their choices on others, this is not enough to convince the player to care about their decisions if these decisions can be forgotten about. In most choice-based games, such as those like Detroit: Become Human, players can backtrack after they have made a decision by restarting the chapter to replay certain scenarios. The player can change the game’s outcome by choosing differently, and their past actions are overridden, in a sense “erasing” their past choices from memory. None of the impact created by their previous choices remain, since the game will only progress from the most recent choice made. The consequence of the player’s choices then appears seemingly temporary and thus insignificant. As a result, the player feels as though their actions are less impactful because their choices in the game are not necessarily remembered and persisting, thus undermining the gravitas of their choices.
In comparison, Undertale‘s “save point” system functions differently from typical choice-based games as well. This difference highlights how remembering one’s actions can change the way people react. In Undertale, there are certain characters who are able to remember the player’s past actions, where even if the player does decide to restart at certain points indicated by the game to change their decisions, these characters will remark about the player’s change in choices. For example, if the player accidentally kills one of the characters, Toriel, players can use the “save point” to go back to the point in the game where Toriel is still alive. However, the game’s antagonist, Flowey, will remark “You murdered her. And then you went back, because you regretted it.” However, the rest of the game will not play out differently apart from that remark. Although the player can still override their past actions in the game, the game shows that the actions are not totally forgotten. Even in small inconsequential aspects, the lack of the idea of “erasing” one’s actions completely causes people to become more cautious in their choices. The thought itself of being unable to erase decisions is enough to invoke players to invest more care into what they choose, than if players made choices that could be easily overridden, as is the case in typical choice-based games. Thus, choice alone is not compelling enough to encourage people to make better decisions if the choice lacks memory.
Lastly, Undertale pushes people into caring about their actions through irreversible consequences in the game. In many choice-based games, the player is allowed to restart over from the beginning with a blank slate after having finished the entire playthrough to try out different choices in the game. However, this is not possible in Undertale. This is most prevalent in the “Soulless Pacifist” route. The player can choose between the two main paths of non-violence (the Pacifist Route), or of violence (the Genocide Route). What is notable is that if the player chooses to complete the game via the Genocide route in their first playthrough, before restarting and playing again via the Pacifist Route, the player is actually prevented from reaching the “true” Pacifist ending. The “true” Pacifist ending can only be achieved if the Pacifist Route was taken on the first round of playing. In this sense, the game permanently reminds the player of their immoral choices had they chosen the Genocide route initially, forever depriving the player of achieving the true Pacifist ending. Choices of the past now result in a deterministic ending as it limits the type of choices players can make as they traverse further into the game. Knowing that their actions now have actual consequences that cannot be undone, players are influenced into giving more thought into their actions, striving to make what they deem as the best choices possible.
Overall, Undertale demonstrates how the use of
choice is crucial in allowing people to have a feeling of autonomy over their actions,
and consequentially influences people to care about their choices. However,
choice alone is not impactful enough, and the choice only holds weight when
both memory of the choice and the irreversible consequences resulting from that
choice are included. With these three factors combined, people are then spurred
on to care about the impact of their choices on themselves and others.
 Matthew Grizzard, Ron Tamborini, John L. Sherry & René Weber (2017) Repeated Play Reduces Video Games’ Ability to Elicit Guilt: Evidence from a Longitudinal Experiment, Media Psychology, 20:2, 267-290, DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2016.1142382
 r/Undertale – [POLL]Which route did you play first? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/Undertale/comments/4hqshb/pollwhich_route_did_you_play_first/
 Kouchaki, M., Smith, I. H., & Savani, K. (2018). Does deciding among morally relevant options feel like making a choice? How morality constrains people’s sense of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(5), 788–804.
 Poll Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://Undertale.fandom.com/wiki/Undertale_Wiki:Poll_Archive