Don't Kill, and Don't Be Killed: Undertale and the Consistent Life Ethic


Undertale is an independently developed video game created and written by Toby Fox that was released this past September. It has since done what few indie games have ever done by taking the world by storm in a short amount of time, becoming a cult hit for a new generation. But the true accomplishment of Undertale is not just its underdog status. Undertale's biggest selling point was that it was an old-school role-playing game where nonviolence is an option and no one has to die. It is possible to play through the entire game without killing a single person, and in fact the game actively encourages you to do so.

Undertale tells the story of a world where, in ancient times, Earth was inhabited not only by humans, but also by a species of magical beings commonly referred to as monsters. They lived in peace for a time until one day the humans attacked the monsters out of fear. A war followed that is implied to be a one-sided slaying of monsters by humans, who were the more powerful side. After the humans' victory, their greatest wizards sealed every last monster into a system of caves underneath Mount Ebott. Many years later, a young child named Frisk—who is gender-neutral so anyone can identify with the character—while exploring the peak of Mount Ebott, falls into a hole and finds himself/herself in the world the monsters have created for themselves beneath the Earth in the years since the war. How the story unfolds depends on the actions of the player, but for the sake of this article I will discuss the story as it would unfold if the player does not kill anyone.

Upon finding himself/herself in the network of caves beneath Mount Ebott referred to as “the Underground” by its inhabitants, Frisk begins his/her journey with at first the sole objective of just finding the way home. He/she is rescued from the murderous flower Flowey by a kind, old female monster named Toriel, who brings Frisk into her home. While Toriel initially tries to stop Frisk from venturing onward from the house out of fear Frisk will be killed, eventually they come to an understanding and Frisk goes out into the unknown underground world under the known world. Soon, he/she learns a terrible truth: leaving the Underground and returning to the human world requires passing through the Barrier, the magic seal trapping everyone underground. To pass through the barrier, Frisk’s only option appears to be killing King Asgore Dreemurr, ruler of the monsters.

One of the most powerful moments in the game is when the player, as Frisk, first enters Asgore's castle New Home. Frisk finds a beautiful house nearly identical in blueprint to Toriel's house where their journey started. Asgore has left a note behind saying he is in his garden and welcomes any visitors to stop by. In one room, later revealed to be the room of his deceased children, there are family pictures and a drawing Asgore’s adopted human son Chara drew. In his own room, Asgore’s dresser has a sweater with “Mr. Dad Guy” on it, and his journal entry for the day comments on what a nice day it is. The entire house gives the vibe that Asgore is a kind family man, making the thought of having to kill him to leave the Underground unbearable. Even Asgore himself shows a reluctance to fight when Frisk meets him in the throne room, but Asgore believes he must kill humans because he has no other choice to break the barrier.

Both Frisk's and Asgore's dilemmas echo the sentiment of many in today's world who believe that, while they don't like the idea of taking life, it is what must be done for the greater good. We hear that no one likes abortion, but that it is required to escape poverty and other evils. We hear that no one likes collateral damage, but that it is required to defeat the “bad guys.” But as Frisk and Toriel show us in the True Pacifist Route through Undertale, and as Feminists for Life memorably put it, in the face of a violent option we must “refuse to choose.” There is nearly always a nonviolent option where no one has to die.

As it turns out, even Flowey, who initially tried to kill Frisk and is trying to pull the strings in the Underground, was once a good person and does find redemption in a nonviolent way. Flowey was once Asriel, the son of Asgore and Toriel. His nonviolent ways ultimately cost him his life at the hands of a human mob. Later resurrected in a laboratory experiment that brought him back in the form of a flower, Asriel started going by Flowey. Being revived without a soul caused the formerly nonviolent child to start killing out of boredom and an inability to love.

In the end, however, Frisk's refusal to kill makes Flowey realize that he was right all those years ago and that nonviolence does work. From the player's perspective, sparing Flowey after the first battle with him—despite his repeated threats—feels empowering; your refusal to kill means that you are better than him and won't stoop to his level. Flowey, temporarily restored to his original body, finally destroys the Barrier himself.

One of the last things he says to Frisk before everyone leaves the Underground is, “Don't kill, and don't be killed, alright? That's the best you can strive for.” The world is a dangerous place. But we can make it a world where aggressive violence is never an answer to a problem.

#volume5issue1

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