Undertale, Pacifism, and Learning in Video Games

by | May 20, 2020

Pacifism is one of the most well-known philosophies in the modern era. Literally translated from Latin, pacifism means “peace making” and refers to a variety of different anti-violence attitudes. The most common use of pacifism refers to a commitment to peace and an opposition to war. Other strains of pacifism allows war in “just” circumstances, while others oppose violence in all forms (Fiala). Pacifism is most commonly used in protest circumstances. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi used a style of pacifism called “active nonviolence” to protest unjust social dynamics in their countries and bring about lasting change. 

With how influential, powerful, and popular pacifism and nonviolence are, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see many games implement nonviolent paths into their gameplay. The implementation of nonviolent options are incredibly prominent in the stealth genre of video games. Stealth games frequently make players decide whether they want to kill their enemies to eliminate them from play for good or play without violence, with the understanding that those they spare may bring them trouble down the line. 

Despite how many games implement pacifist options into their gameplay, video games still struggle to properly represent the struggles that accompany pacifism. Video games failing to properly portray pacifism reached their zenith with the 2018 video game Detroit: Become Human. Detroit, which, like many other video games that give players moral choices, allows players to play through the game nonviolently. However, Detroit’s nonviolent path lacks any nuance or deeper understanding of the topic, as taking the nonviolent route in the game gives players a quick, neat solution with minimal personal sacrifice or struggle. 

Pacifism is many things, but it is not easy. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about great change with his nonviolent protests, but he and his fellow protestors suffered as a result. King himself was assassinated, protestors were assaulted by police and counter protesters, and it took King and millions of protestors over a decade of nonviolent protest to make change. 

Pacifism is not easy, yet many video games keep depicting it as an easy option. Games in all genres, from all parts of the world, have failed to capture the reality of a pacifist and nonviolent lifestyle. Yet, in 2015, one little crowdfunded game managed to capture more of the essence of pacifism than any game that came before it. That game, Undertale, lets players experience and learn about the true reality of nonviolent action in a way only a video game can. 

Undertale was primarily developed by one person, Toby Fox. While Undertale takes inspiration from a few genres, it is first and foremost a role-playing game, or RPG. RPGs are one of the most common and popular genres in video games, the most popular examples of the genre include game series Final Fantasy, Dark Souls, and The Elder Scrolls. 

While RPGs take different forms in terms of storytelling and gameplay, by and large, all RPGs feature battles between players and enemies where players try to reduce the health health points (HP) of their enemies to gain experience points (EXP) to level up. Undertale fits neatly into the genre. Players have HP, can battle enemies, choose from a variety of options in combat, and killing enemies grants players EXP which serves to increase their LOVE. However, Undertale differentiates itself from other RPGs in one key way: players can choose to kill or spare every enemy in the game. 

In most RPGs, players win battles by attacking enemies until their HP reaches zero. Undertale differs from that trend, as it allows players to use commands unique to each enemy to reduce their will to fight so players can spare them. Take a look at the options players have while fighting the enemy “Lesser Dog”:

In this battle, players could defeat the Lesser Dog by using the “Fight” option to deplete its HP, but they don’t have to do that, since Undertale always offers an alternative to violent conflict. In this case, players can open the “Act” menu and choose from a variety of options:

If players pet the Lesser Dog enough, then it gives up its desire to fight. At that point, players can spare the Lesser Dog with the “Mercy” and continue on. Most battles require more strategy than petting a dog, but players can win every battle in the game without resorting to violence by using unique “Act” commands. 

Players can choose to never use violence, but no matter what players choose to do, enemies will always use violence against players. After every action players make, enemies attack players. During enemy attacks, players control a small red heart, their SOUL. Players take damage if attacks touch their SOUL.

Watch out for enemy attacks! Don’t let them hit your SOUL!

Pacifism does let players resolve encounters peacefully, but it doesn’t provide an easy, conflict-free way through the game. In fact, in some ways, playing as a pacifist in Undertale increases the difficulty of the game. If players finish a battle with pacifism, the game doesn’t give them any EXP, which means their LOVE won’t increase and their HP and defense stagnate. Pacifist players don’t increase their HP, their defense, or attack. If players commit to pacifism in Undertale, they commit to making themselves vulnerable to enemy attacks. 

Just like every other video game, Undertale’s difficulty increases as the game progresses due to enemy damage increasing and the need for more complex strategies for peaceful endings to battles. The difficulty increases, but pacifist players don’t get stat increases to help them cope with it. Players can always choose to turn to violence to increase their resistance to damage and make their gameplay easier. 

Turning to violence in Undertale is far from a perfect solution. At the finale of the game, one of the characters reveals that EXP and LOVE have hidden meanings. For EXP, it actually stands for execution points instead of experience points, and measures the amount of pain players have inflicted on others in the game. LOVE doesn’t stand-in for level, it means “level of violence.” If players do increase their LOVE, they don’t obtain magical resistance to attacks, their mental state changes: “the more you kill, the easier it becomes to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt. The more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.” Undertale doesn’t just portray the difficulties that come along with pacifism, it tells players the emotional dangers of relying on violence.

The internal question Undertale poses to players, whether they want to stay nonviolent despite the benefits of doing otherwise or engage in violence and turn into something less than human, makes its portrayal of nonviolence significantly more accurate to the reality of pacifism than other games have managed at this point in time. Other games, like Metal Gear Solid V or Deus Ex, present similar choices to players. Both of these games allow players to play violently and nonviolently, yet both fail to properly convey the difficulties that accompany both violent and nonviolent lifestyles. Undertale doesn’t shy away from the reality of either violence or nonviolence. 

Examining Undertale’s portrayal of pacifism begs the question: so what? Why does a video game allowing players to pacifistically play through the game matter? It matters because games, as an interactive entertainment, allow players to test out potential identities for themselves. One video game scholar, James Paul Gee, analyzes the potential video games have for learning in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. In one section, Gee explains the concept of semiotic domains, a social phenomenon that refers to a set of practices used within a social domain (18).

Let me illustrate what Gee means by “a set of practices used within a social domain” with an example. Read the following sentence: “The caddie looked at the hole, considered the player’s clubs, and took the driver from the bag.” This sentence takes place in the semiotic domain of golf, which gives a number of the words in that sentence a meaning specific to golf. In the domain of golf, hole doesn’t mean pit in the ground, it refers to the goal golfers work towards. Clubs don’t refer to a social gathering or organization, they mean the tools golfers use to hit the ball closer to the hole. And finally, driver doesn’t mean someone who drives a car around, it refers to the golf club that golfers use to send their golf ball as far as they can. The semiotic domain of golf has created specific meanings for all of these words and more used in the context of golf. Essentially, semiotic domains are associations between concepts that communicate meanings distinct to that domain (Gee 18).

Gee notes that semiotic domains occur everywhere in society and that society values certain domains, especially academic domains like science and literature, above others, while simultaneously dismissing the domain of video games as a domain not worth learning (20-21). Gee finds labeling video games as a wasteful domain ludicrous, since “learning in any semiotic domain crucially involves learning how to situate (build) meanings for that domain in in the sorts of situations the domain involves” (26). In other words, no matter the semiotic domain someone takes part in, they create meaning and new understanding. 

As a semiotic domain, Gee believes video games show potential since “people can learn to situate meanings through embodied experiences in a complex semiotic domain and meditate on the process” (26). When players play, they’re constantly creating new meanings based on the actions they take in the games they play. Games provide spaces for players to experiment with creating new meanings and learn about themselves. 

Undertale’s space allows players to create nonviolent associations between conflict and resolution. In essentially every other RPG, games connect “win the battle” with “kill all of the enemies.” Players aren’t given other options to win aside from violence. But Undertale provides completely different ways for players to solve problems. Players can talk their way out of battle, engage with their opponents in humane, nonviolent ways, or even flee conflict entirely. As part of its semiotic domain, Undertale lets players associate all of these nonviolent acts with the idea of “battle,” a rare act in games.

The space Undertale gives players to experiment with the consequences of pacifism is what makes Undertale’s portrayal of pacifism so important. Other games, when they include pacifist options or routes, often depict pacifism as a perfect solution to complex issues. But Undertale allows players to experiment with a more realistic version of pacifism. People who adhere to pacifism face real problems. They can face persecution for refusing to partake in war or violence, and they constantly have to make the choice to remain nonviolent in the face of violent confrontation. Obviously, as a video game, Undertale can’t convey the constant physical and social danger that accompanies pacifism, but it can allow players to experience and experiment with pacifism in a more complete way than other video games allow. 


Works Cited:

Fiala, Andrew, “Pacifism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/pacifism/>.

Aaron screenshot taken from this video. 

Lesser Dog screenshots taken from this video.



Dr. Rebecca Richards (St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota) curates Thoughtful Play.
If you’re interested in creating your own project for Thoughtful play, contact thoughtfulplay@stolaf.edu.