Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Guilt Trip: Why I Hate the Genocide Path of "Undertale"

A little over a week ago, I was shocked to discover that my brother had not heard of "Undertale". I could understand that he hadn't played it yet; I had only just finally gotten around to playing it myself. But given how universally praised the game has been, particularly with all the "Game of the Year" accolades it has been receiving by the fistful, it was surprising that I got to be the first person to tell him about it.

It's a somewhat difficult game to sell, which is probably why so many critics have put it on their "Best of 2015" lists as a short way of saying, "This game is really good," and getting people to play it without having to spoil any of it.

And... well, yeah. This game is really good. Particularly the first time you play it.

This post isn't a review (at least not per se), but if that's what you're looking for, suffice it to say that I highly recommend playing it.

A friend of mine has been obsessed with this game for months. She hasn't been playing it that entire time, mind you. She hasn't played it since she reached the ending a second time and she swears she never intends to play it ever again. But she can't stop thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it, watching Let's Plays of it...

And it's not that she has seen all there is to see and done all there is to do. In fact, there's a LOT of game content she hasn't experienced for herself. My brother (who picked it up after I made him aware of it) also intends to leave the game (for lack of a better term) "unfinished".

If you know nothing about "Undertale" (as I did before a week or so ago), this might seem confusing. Why leave a game unfinished? And while fans of the series like to be coy about it because "you have to experience it for yourself", I personally disagree. The reason is not that shocking and doesn't really give away anything about the story. It perhaps gives away what kind of story "Undertale" is, but I don't necessarily think that ignorance of that aspect makes the experience any better. It's not like there's a big twist or anything that hinges on this. That said, SOME "Undertale" fans would likely tell you to go in and play it knowing absolutely nothing. I personally find that irresponsible, but I'm probably in the minority on this, so if you'd rather trust the majority over me, you should probably stop reading this post and go play it a couple times. Or rather, play it once, reload your save, do some extra stuff, and then beat it again to get the "True" Ending (assuming you qualify).

Alright, time to dig in.

So if you took the advice of the multitudes and played this game knowing absolutely nothing about it, you probably experienced one of two possible situations:
1) You accidentally killed a couple monsters early on in the game, got one of the "Neutral" Endings, and then had to play it again because how were you supposed to know that you couldn't kill ANYTHING!
2) You played with a walkthrough because as soon as you heard there was a "True Ending", you wanted to make sure you did everything you needed to do to unlock it.

However, if you ignored the advice of the majority of fans and are reading this before having played "Undertale", allow me to pull back the curtain slightly: There are TECHNICALLY several different "Endings" to the game, but none of these are actually endings because at the end, the antagonist of the game shows up and asks you to do it again without killing anything. Even if you did go through without killing anything on your first try, you'll still have to go back and complete a few more errands before you get the "True Ending". And if you go through the game killing everything... well, we'll get to that more later, but suffice it to say that you won't have a good time.

See, "Undertale" has a minor narrative conceit (one of many) where your character's ability to use save points is actually canonical in the game. Your character is literally time traveling every time they return to their SAVE (as the game calls it). And when you "finish" the game and choose to start over from the beginning, your character is technically time traveling back to the beginning of the game. This means that if you play another game, the ending you just experienced wasn't actually an ending because your character's story is continuing in a fifth-dimensional sense.

As interesting as that is, it's my first gripe with "Undertale". I don't like the "True Ending" or as it's more commonly known, the "True Pacifist Ending". Not just because you pretty much can't achieve it without a walkthrough, but because if you follow a particular path, you'll never be able to see it at all without cheating.

I don't know why they feel the need to include the "Pacifist" qualifier, because honestly, not only is this the "True" ending, it is pretty much the ONLY ending. The other endings don't have satisfying conclusions. Unlike a game like "Mass Effect 2" where the "less than perfect" endings are all still legitimate endings for the game, if you don't play "Undertale" in exactly the way Toby Fox (the creator) intends, he doesn't want you to enjoy the conclusion.

That might seem harsh, but while I do love "Undertale" and still recommend it, I was pretty annoyed by the "True Ending" and how it is presented in contrast with the other "endings".

I went in knowing that you weren't supposed to kill anything. This game was originally pitched as "a traditional role-playing game where no one has to get hurt." This was a big selling point for me because I've always wanted more games that treated this option with seriousness. Some games LET you play a game without killing anyone, but few games actually acknowledge it, let alone reward it. Sure, you can play through "Fallout 3" without killing (almost) anything, but the game doesn't care if you do. No one is impressed by your moral fiber. No achievement is unlocked.

The "Metal Gear" games have always encouraged pacifism without necessarily requiring it, which is one thing I've always loved about those games. So knowing that "Undertale" carried on that tradition was exciting to me.

However, in "Undertale", doing a pacifist run isn't just an option, it's the only valid option.

Like I said earlier, if you do any ending other than the "True Pacifist Ending", the game asks you to try again until you do. If you do get the "True Pacifist Ending", the game literally asks you to put the game down and never ever play it again because everyone has a happy ending. Why would you want to spoil that by sending your character back in time?

For starters, the thing that makes games like "Metal Gear" and "Mass Effect 2" great is that the different paths you can take are all equally valid. When you finish, it doesn't tell you that you played the game wrong and tell you to do it over again. And when you play the "ideal" way, the game doesn't end by asking you to never play it again.

And you know what? I VASTLY prefer the so-called "Neutral" endings of "Undertale" over the "True Ending". In the "Neutral" endings, the third act confrontation is far more interesting, the boss battles are more exciting and harrowing, and it changes based on whatever choices you made along the game. The "True Ending" on the other hand skips over my favorite boss fight of the game, changes the varied and interesting final boss with a far less interesting boss, and gives you an ending that is 100% exactly like everyone else's. And then it tells you that you chose correctly and guilts you into never playing it again.

Now here's the kicker. As I mentioned, there's another path you can take where you decide to kill everything instead. The problem is that if you complete it, the game will remember it forever and you'll never EVER be able to get the "True Ending' again (unless you monkey around with the game data in your computer). The game will never forgive you for it.

This is why my friend will never play along the third route. Because she likes her happy ending and knows that if she goes down that dark path, she'll never be able to get that happy ending back without cheating.

So when I got the "True Ending", I did a reset. Like I said, I didn't even really care much for the "True Ending", so I didn't really care about losing it. I wanted to experience the entire game. So I started again, this time killing everything.

Hoo boy.

So this run is known by the fans as the "Genocide Run". Toby Fox apparently prefers to call it the "No Mercy Run", but I have my own name for it...

"The Guilt Trip"

Now I'm going to avoid explicit spoilers for the actual content of the game, but seeing as most people probably aren't going to experience "The Guilt Trip' for themselves, I feel justified in talking about what it's all about in the vaguest of terms. Nothing I say will spoil the "Neutral" or "True" runs of the game, and I won't even spoil the specifics of anything in "The Guilt Trip", just the broad strokes. Now, without further ado, let's talk about "The Guilt Trip".

I hate it.

I genuinely think that the way it exists and the way it is presented not only hurts the game as a whole, it's also incredibly judgmental, sadistic, and infuriatingly smug.

It's entirely not worth it, and before fans jump down my throat... I KNOW, OK? I get that it's SUPPOSED to not be worth it. That you're SUPPOSED to regret doing it and that you SHOULD feel bad for pursuing it.

And you know what? The game explores that stuff really well. There was a lot of really interesting potential in this ending. But certain choices Toby Fox made for "The Guilt Trip", particularly the very end, make it go from a fascinating exploration of the gamer psyche to what is essentially a never-ending punishment. Toby Fox isn't Hideo Kojima. He's Ramsay Snow. Oh, and if you decide not to play it and just watch someone else play it, he's punishing you too. He actually apparently hates you even more because you don't even have the guts to do it yourself.

So if no one was supposed to play it or even watch it, what the fuck were we SUPPOSED to do? It's not like it's completely optional, either. There's important story information that you ONLY get if you play through "The Guilt Trip". Without it, the fandom's understanding of the game series would be incomplete.

And yet Toby Fox punishes us for trying to experience it.

It's one thing to punish somebody with the intent that they learn and grow from it as a result. But that's not what Toby Fox wants. Remember, if you complete "The Guilt Trip", you will NEVER get to have the "True Ending" unless you cheat, meaning that no matter what, you'll always be guilty.

Toby Fox doesn't want people who complete "The Guilt Trip" to learn and grow. He wants to hurt them.

And I'm not just talking about people who do "The Guilt Trip" because they're actually sadists and want to watch everyone die. No, trust me, "The Guilt Trip" is directed SQUARELY at people who do it entirely because they're reluctantly curious. Even if you feel bad every step of the way, in Toby Fox's mind, that makes you even worse.

That's what Toby Fox is punishing. Not malice, not sadism. Heck, I think a sadist would enjoy this path a lot more than I did. No, Toby Fox is punishing curiosity.




This path is Toby Fox saying, "What, you thought my 'True Ending' wasn't good enough? Well screw you! Here's an even WORSE ending! And you are going to have to fight REALLY hard to get it. And I won't even let you play the game again afterwards until you sit in front of a blank screen for 10 minutes. Go fuck yourself."

Now, I understand what he's going for. He's saying that the greatest evil in the world is perpetrated by people who commit evil without actually admitting that they're evil. They do it out of curiosity or ignorance or a sense of the greater good. That part I'm totally OK with and I actually think it's really interesting and well-executed. And if he stopped there, I probably would be applauding it right now.

But that wasn't good enough for Toby Fox. He needed to be a sanctimonious prick about it. He had to punish the player as if they were ACTUALLY a sociopath. He had to impose ACTUAL consequences. And then he presents an ending that's abrupt, unsatisfying, and lazy. Rather than accept that the motivations for why a player goes through "The Guilt Trip" are complex and treat the player with respect (especially after everything they've been through), "The Guilt Trip" is the forbidden fruit, and Toby Fox cackles with self-satisfaction while playing both God and serpent.

What this SHOULD have been was a recommended starting point. Your character starts out behaving like a character in a typical RPG where you're expected to fight and kill everything. Then the game makes you feel bad about it. Then you go back and do it again with mercy. Your character learns that not everything is as it seems and to give peace a chance. Then you complete the game with the "True Ending" and can put it down with satisfaction because you've seen everything there is to see and you've grown as a person.

Nope. Can't do it that way. And if you could, I would vastly prefer that overall path. Too bad. Like I said, if you complete "The Guilt Trip", you can't get the 'True Ending", so the game is essentially forcing you to get the "True Ending" first.

This is not an oversight. This is 100% intentional. Toby Fox WANTS you to never see that part of the game. Well, that's not exactly true. He does want you to see that part of the game, but only so he can make you feel bad for wanting to see it. That's why he set it up this way. Rather than accept that people are capable of learning and growing, he prefers to make it so there's no way you can ever feel 100% OK with ever doing "The Guilt Trip".

I would be OK with "The Guilt Trip" if there was a way to get a slightly different version of it that doesn't permanently fuck up your game so long as you don't do it after you get the "True Ending". I think that if somebody chooses to do "The Guilt Trip" after experiencing the "True Ending" when there is an alternative, then the way it's presented makes sense. Then there's evidence that the player truly doesn't care about the characters and is just doing all of the endings for the sake of completion.

But no. Toby Fox wanted to make a point, and that point required restricting the player so that the only way they could experience the whole game was if they did the "True Ending" before "The Guilt Trip".

And just to reiterate, the point that he wanted to make that was SO DAMN IMPORTANT was... that you are a terrible person for wanting to see the whole game he created.

It has no justification other than sadism, smugness, or perhaps both.

And the biggest problem with this is that it flies in the face of what this game demonstrates through one of its characters.

So now I'm finally going to get into SPOILERS in order to explain what I mean in greater detail.

The character of Asriel is essentially the main antagonist of the game, and like the player's character (Frisk), he can use SAVE points. And something you find out during "The Guilt Trip" is that Asriel did the same thing as you. First he went through and made everyone happy, but that wasn't good enough, so he went through and killed everyone just to see what would happen.

And yet, in order to achieve the "True Ending", you have to forgive him. He is the one that pleads with you to never play the game again because he's finally found happiness.

Asriel gets to have the arc that the player SHOULD have, but cannot have.

When you complete "The Guilt Trip", you destroy the world. Then, if you start up the game again, after waiting 10 minutes at a blank screen, you are given the opportunity to recreate the world by giving up your SOUL. This returns the game to more or less what it was like before, but now, if you try to get the "True Ending", it will be implied that your character will turn evil and murder everyone again. Your character is now soulless and beyond redemption.

So Asriel is forgivable, but Frisk isn't? Why?

And inconsistency aside, when you play through "The Guilt Trip", the game is so passive-aggressive in so many ways that it feels like it tries to make itself less enjoyable just to hammer the point home even harder..

Puzzles? Meh, we solved most of them for you. That's not what you REALLY came for anyway, is it?

Fun characters and antics? Nope. Too happy or interesting. You just want everything dead, right?

Final boss fight? HAH! The real final boss is also done for you and the last boss you DO fight... Well...

OK, I have to talk about this before I keep going.

The battle with Sans is INFURIATING.

He's the last boss that you actually fight, and he is INSANELY difficult. But not for any fair reason. No, Sans cheats.

He invents new mechanics that are not used at any other point in the game (poison and dodging), he hits hard with moves that require dozens of attempts to figure out, he starts attacking you IN THE MENU, and you have to attack him two dozen times before he actually fucking dies (and he dies off-screen to deny you the satisfaction). Oh, but before you get the last hit off, he tries to cheat AGAIN by refusing to end his turn. You have to beat him by sitting still and waiting for him to fall asleep, and then you have to budge your SOUL icon over to move the rectangle to the FIGHT button in order to win.

I spent something like 6 hours fighting Sans.

With every other boss fight, even the ones that were actually difficult, I always felt bad about winning. I love most of these characters and it hurt to kill them.

But Sans? I wanted him dead. And I'm glad I killed him. I never really thought he was that interesting in the first place.

And how does the game reward you for suffering through this?

You walk into a room, lose all control or ability to change the events, and watch as characters say a few creepy lines and then kill the game. No end credits, no request to try again without as much murder. Just done. And then you're either irredeemably evil or a cheater.

It's a huge slap in the face.

"The Guilt Trip" isn't fun. It's grueling and punishing in every sense of the word.

And the most frustrating part is that it COULD have been great. The stuff that Asriel/Flowey says towards the end about how he went around killing all of his friends just out of curiosity because his ability to SAVE meant that he wouldn't have to suffer consequences is GREAT metanarrative stuff. It's deep, it really hits you in the gut, and it makes you think about just how sociopathic it is to go through every possible path in a game just to see what it's like.

But by forcing the player to suffer unavoidable consequences as a result of doing it means that unlike Asriel, Toby Fox doesn't think we deserve redemption.

Why not? Why go through all of that stuff and make the player suffer if not to help them learn and play games more thoughtfully?

Well, it's because he's not trying to teach the player anything. He's not trying to give them the arc he gave Asriel. He's making a point about what he dislikes about games and gamers. He's soapboxing.

In other words, "The Guilt Trip" is not a real ending.

It's a trap.

Not unlike the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit, there's no right answer. If you obey God's command, you'll forever remain ignorant of the nature of good and evil and everything the world has to offer. If you deny it, you'll gain new knowledge, but you'll forever be exiled from the Garden of Eden.

So fuck you, Toby Fox. I don't want your "True Ending" again anyway. It's preachy hippy dippy garbage where everyone's problems can be solved with the power of friendship.

The battle with Asgore in the "Neutral" path is AMAZING. It's one of my favorite things about the game. Having it replaced with a corny scene where the entire cast shows up to tell Asgore to stop being a meany is eye-rolling and lacks the depth that it has otherwise. The Asriel fight is OK, but it's too similar to every other fight in the game. The Photoshop Flowey fight is WAY more visually interesting and memorable.

So no, I'm not going to change my game data to undo my "Guilt Trip". I will wear it like a badge of honor. Toby Fox can make me feel like a bad person, but I'm fine being exiled from the Garden of Eden if he's the God who rules it.

I just finished playing through another "Neutral" run, which thankfully isn't changed by my "Guilt Trip". In the end, Flowey asked me to play again without killing anyone (I killed one or two minor monsters at the beginning of this run).

Sorry, asshole, but if I'm not going to be forgiven, neither are you.

"Undertale" is a great game and even after all this, I still recommend it, but because of Toby Fox's preachy self-indulgence, it falls short of being one of my personal favorite games. My favorite games are games that I can pick up and play again and again to relive the experience. Toby Fox went out of his way to make sure I wouldn't want to do that.

Fine, Toby.

You win.

I hope your "victory" is as hollow as you decided to make mine.