I’ve been playing a lot of Undertale recently. It’s far from a new release, but then sometimes – and you can blame life, but mostly Fallout 4 and FIFA for this – it takes me a while to get to these things.
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If you’re not aware of Toby Fox’s 2015 outstanding role-playing game, it’s an 8-bit love letter to classic role-playing games of yore. Fox has cited old Famcom games like Brandish and Mother as reference points, though as a Brit of an age, I’d like to lob Codemaster’s Dizzy series into the mix. The creation of the fabulously talented Oliver Twins, if you’re not aware of the series – or just, y’know, young – these games concerned an anthropomorphic egg – the titular Dizzy – going on a host of fantastical adventures. Dizzy was never going to rival Mario or Sonic in the iconic video game character stakes, but good lord did I love those games at the time.
And yet despite the developer’s signposting of his creation’s reference points, Undertale is one of the most unique games I’ve ever played. It is, it must be said, a game that often does everything it can to make you dislike it. Sure, there’s lots of jokes in there, and there’s some amazing characters and many fiendishly taxing, varied puzzles, but for vast portions of the game, Undertale is committed to pissing you off. It trolls you, basically. Case in point. There’s a scenario whereupon you’ve been coached to flick switches to disarm a trap and continue your progress. You enter another location and flick the switches on screen, only for nothing to happen. Sometime later, a character arrives on screen to inform you that the switch is hidden from view… behind a pillar.
Obtrusiveness runs throughout the game. Take the combat system. You meet a monster – the game is about a child trying to navigate a world of monsters living below ground – and the game shifts into a turn-based perspective with an onslaught of bullet hell mini-games that determine how much damage you take from the encounter. After a series of attacks, I vapourised a bunch of monsters, following the conventions of almost every video game I’ve ever played. In essence, that’s what video games do – we meet things that aren’t like us, we kill them, we’re rewarded for it. Then, half-way through the game, I realised that Fox – the fiend! – had built a game that really didn’t want you to kill anything.
I can tell you the exact moment I realised this. I’m in a village. Some locals are discussing the absence of a prominent local – two of them in fact, a couple of married dogs! – who haven’t been seen in a while. My heart plummeted. I’d killed them less than ten screens prior. They’d done nothing wrong. They’d just been in my way. I’d missed the option to reason with them. It was at this precise moment that I felt a sense of guilt I haven’t felt playing games, perhaps ever. It shocked me. I never felt this way nuking Megaton in Fallout 3. I didn’t weep for my dead fish in Mass Effect 2. I felt not one smidgen of shame when plunging a knife into the neck of a dog in The Last Of Us 2. It’s not a dog thing.
Despite the best efforts of right-wing politicians and the reactionary press, thousands and thousands of scientific studies have concluded, time and time again, that there is no causal effect between violent video games and violent behaviour.
We, as fans of video games, often feel the need to defend our passion for the art form, protecting our pastime from being trotted out as a scapegoat for more culpable societal ills. And yet maybe we’re not thinking about the effect of violence in video games in the most useful way.
We live in a world where we can wake in the morning, see the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ trending on Twitter and barely register a modicum of sorrow that there’s been yet another mass shooting. It’s relentless. Another day, another slew of lives taken before their time. Something occurred to me a few years back, whereupon playing as Lara Croft in 2018’s Shadow Of The Tomb Raider – the final instalment in Square Enix’s excellent reviving of the gaming stalwart – I found myself knee deep in the bodies of Trinity soldiers. It was in this moment where I realised that Lara – an otherwise sympathetic character – was actually one of the world’s most prolific serial killers. Yeah, I get that you’re trying to save an ancient civilization Lara, but that grunt you just broke the neck of? He probably had kids.
Violent games don’t make people violent. We know that for a fact. But they’ve sure started to depress the hell out of me. It’s for this reason that Undertale is a game that’s not only excellent but important. I play games to escape reality. But when reality is as sadly violent as it is, I want my games to do better.