This Christmas I went on a small trip to the village of Sainte-Eugene to meet up with my father’s family. Though most of the conversations were dominated by the surreal weather of a green, snow-free Christmas Eve and the major electrical failure that left everyone to celebrate in candlelight around the wood ovens, these visits to the countryside also offer me a chance to catch up with my cousin Simon.
He’s a tall redheaded 34-year-old, stumbling awkwardly from one family gathering to the next, mostly keeping to himself or chatting timidly with his aunts and uncles about insignificant stuff: pets, cooking, and anime robot models. To me, he talks about video games.
Simon is a “special” guy. He suffers (I do not use that word lightly) from many psychological issues: he’s been a single closeted homosexual in a small isolated city for over thirty years, he shows many symptoms of being on the autistic spectrum, and has a genetic condition which is similar to Down Syndrome, with varying effects. To Simon, the entire world of social interaction is hostile. Being his slightly younger cousin has given me an advantage at socializing with him: we both love video games, especially Japanese RPGs.
To Simon, JRPGs are the only thing giving him positive reinforcement. He’s a purist; to him, everything is categorical. Games are either good, or they suck. Most of them suck. As we were chatting around the oven, he started talking about two games he’s been playing lately: Disgaea 4 and Bravely Default. The first one is good, the latter sucks. Why? In Disgaea, he’s gotten to some ungodly level, has the best gear available, and can basically one-shot kill any boss in the game. This is good. In Bravely Default, he got to level 70, spent over a hundred hours grinding, and still can’t beat the evil boss or something (forgive me, I haven’t played either game), which means the game sucks.
Now let’s talk about Undertale.
I have this nagging suspicion that Simon might be the one and only human being who could end up playing a genocide run on his very first playthrough — not by malice, but simply because that’s what he does. To Simon, a good game can be completed by killing one of every monster and gathering one of every item, weapon, and artifact.
It’s this compulsion that Undertale criticizes so harshly, the very same one nearly every single JRPG series rewards. Final Fantasy, Tales, Dragon Quest — every one of them offers some sort of acknowledgement to the player for scanning every single enemy and completing the “monster log.” Maximize stats, complete the grid, get the “ultimate weapons” so that, when all is said and done, you can kill anything very easily.
This is why I love Undertale, and why I kind of hate it too. I love it because it’s one of the very first games to try to subvert this simple mechanic. This reward mechanism which uses our “determination” as players to grind, level-up, get money and equipment. But also to just get back to it, endure failure and keep trying. Going on a genocide route lets the player have the satisfaction of seeing numbers go up on the screen, but it also takes the fun out of it. What’s the point of grinding? Killing bosses easily. Therefore, every boss in the playthrough is killed in a single hit, with a ridiculous amount of damage which makes all the numbers and equipment meaningless. the game gives the grinding player what he intends.
To Simon, Undertale will probably suck. Why? Because it refuses to reward the thing he loves to do. The game relies on its characters and the implication of the mindless violence implicit in every other game. Is Simon evil, as Undertale implies, or is it simply his character? After all, he merely exploits and optimizes a system of behavioral rewards implanted in the countless games he has played.
Undertale not only asks us to look inside ourselves for what we expect of it, but also of all the other games we play. You want to loot everything, just to constantly sell the shit you have scavenged off countless corpses? No serious vendor wants to deal with this. What do you need the money for anyway? Everyone is gone because you act like a complete psychopath.
So why would Simon presumably hate it? It would technically let him indulge in the very same behavior as every other RPG, but moralize at him while doing it. But here’s the thing: in Undertale, grinding isn’t pointless. It’s cruel and grave. While in a genocide run, every boss falls to the player’s wrath, two stand in the way: Undyne and Sans. And they serve different purposes.
Undyne is the first boss to persist after being killed, through her own “determination.” While the game up to that point is a depressingly easy and discomforting walk to the right, she appears in the form of “the Undying,” the “legendary hero.” This comes as an inversion of tropes which lets the player characterize himself as the villain of a story. What was basically a progression-free murderous trek through the landscape now becomes a story, with antagonists and challenges.
Sans is something else entirely. He is, for all intents and purposes, the “true last boss” of the game. He is hidden away by forcing the player to accomplish an ungodly amount of repetitive, unrewarding tasks in order to access him — making you go through the entire game killing every single thing possible, just so you can see what “content” is left. At this point, the game knows a few things: you have the best equipment, you have the best items, you’ve reached the level cap, and your max HP is at its highest. You have, for all intents and purposes, “100%-ed” the game.
Which is why Sans doesn’t care. The amount of damage your weapon can do is irrelevant: you can one-shot kill him as soon as you manage to finally hit him. Your armor is pointless — he only does one damage point per attack, although there are no invulnerability frames and you take additional poison damage. Your items can heal you, but they do not progress the fight at all. And most of all, he is difficult. Very much so. He is difficult because all that you have done to get to him does not matter. If you wish to beat him, you need skills: skills as a player to evade his attacks in a true bullet-hell environment. Simon would hate that, with a passion. It’s the opposite of a level-grinding reward.
And if by some miracle the player manages to get through Sans, to actually kill him after all the warnings and opportunities he gives him or her to just quit, the game simply gives up. Asgore goes down in a single hit. The game stops, and the world becomes truly empty. “Weep for there is nothing left to conquer.” What is there to do once you’ve beaten the optional bosses? Why even play the game?
Because at the end of the day, it’s still escapism. It’s a system, a playing field with basic rules, which tells a story. Or not. To Simon, it’s something else. It’s probably the only thing that rewards him over and over, the one thing which is simple and does not criticizes him for being too dumb, doesn’t give a shit that he likes men or that he gets the shakes and has to retreat alone for days after talking to anyone for more than ten minutes. It’s a universe he understands that offers a predictable outcome to various inputs, that says, through gameplay mechanics, “good job, you did great!”
Article by contributor Charles-André Lavallée.