Live, Kill, Repeat: Morality and Quicksaves

Undertale (tobyfox, 2015)

If you can erase all your actions with the press of a button, why not experiment?

Doc Mitchell’s a good guy. There I was: kneeling, hands tied, facing down the barrel of a gun above a shallow grave in the middle of the Mojave. My killer’s a classy guy -- he looks a bit like a sentient Ken doll -- and he apologizes before pulling the trigger. Flash of white, cut to black. Doc’s sitting across from me. Careful, he says, I’ve been out for a few days. His eyes are dark and his mustache is a wispy white. He looks like a post-apocalyptic version of an old-fashioned country doctor, which is what he is.

This being Fallout: New Vegas, I enter my name, edit my appearance, and choose my stats. I put a bunch of points into speech (as I heard you can defeat the final boss just by talking to him). It’s my first Fallout game, and the possibilities seem endless. I can walk to the bar and trigger the first quest, or I can wander off by myself. I can scrounge for cigarettes in people’s cabinets. I can repair robots. I can befriend robots. I can appoint a robot as sheriff. I can meet people who eat people. I can eat them, too, if I want. I can play the way I want to play, or so I heard.

I also heard you can kill anything and anyone. Mutants, giant bugs, soldiers, shopkeepers: anyone. The kindly old couple tucked away in the small town of Novac? They can die. Pull out your gun and press the trigger. Early on, after I run through the combat tutorial, I go back to Doc’s house. He’s sitting in his chair. The question pops into my head: Can I . . . ? I pop up the targeting system. I cycle between right leg, left arm, torso, head. As the good doctor’s head detaches from his body in gratuitous slow motion, I receive my answer: Yes. Yes I can.


I’m a compulsive quicksaver. Savescummer, if you want to be harsh. I played Half-Life 2 in two minute chunks, constantly reloading if a fight was going poorly or if I lost too much health or if I just wanted to try a different approach. I reloaded a quicksave whenever I was spotted in Dishonored, which was often. Same with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Maybe it’s the perfectionist in me, the inability to deal with failure, no matter how small. Real life doesn’t let you jump back in time whenever you tell a joke that doesn’t land or spill a glass or forget your keys, so why not take advantage of that ability in games?

More to the point, if you can erase all your actions with the press of a button, why not experiment? Why not kill the man who saved your life? Why not throw a grenade into a crowded bar? Why not kill a man, take his clothes, and drape the corpse on his wife’s bed? (She doesn’t react if you stealth kill him, which makes for an odd sight.). If you can, why shouldn’t you?

Fallout: New Vegas doesn’t have an answer to this question. There’s a morality system, sure, but there’s nothing to stop you from doing something horrible and undoing that horror. Plenty of critics have written about the flaws of a binary good/evil morality system in games, but my main criticism is that these systems have nothing to do with my own morality. I can play paragon in my first playthrough and I can play renegade in my second just to see all of the content, to get the most game for my dollar. I don’t choose to play as good or evil because I’m moral or immoral. I play both because I want to see all that there is to see.


We now regrettably arrive at the part where I talk about Undertale. Sorry. By the way, if you haven’t read it already, check out Nick Dinicola’s in-depth analysis about the muddiness of Undertale’s ethos of pacifism.)

There’s a great moment in PewDiePie’s playthrough where he meets Flowey after sparing Toriel, the game’s first boss. It’s the first real challenge of the game and the moment when many players commit to either killing every enemy that they come across or sparing them. PewDiePie initially killed Asirel but felt so bad that he reloaded a save and spared her. She tearfully says goodbye, hugs the protagonist, and walks away. Much better than shattering her soul.

But Undertale is different. Actions have consequences, and they can’t be erased. “Don’t break the fourth wall with me like that,” PewDiePie says, when Flowey confronts him about killing Toriel in another save. “That’s as fucking creepy as fucking shit.”

There are two “true” endings to Undertale: pacifist and no mercy. Pacifist involves refusing to kill anyone. No mercy involves deliberately seeking out and exterminating everyone. Years of gaming conditioned me to have it both ways, to be a good guy the first time around and a monster afterward. I paid for this game, after all, so shouldn’t I try to squeeze out as much value from it as possible?

Undertale says, no, you shouldn’t. You can’t have it both ways. “The victories you earn along one path or the other become hollow: If you try to make peace after you murder everything in a quest for power, the peace you find will be a lie,” writes the author of the Problem Machine blog. “If you go back to destroy the world after saving it, you’re forced to confront how shallow your first quest was, how self-serving the peace you created” ("Undertale: Reflections", Problem Machine, 9 April 2016).

The way you behave in fictional worlds reflects your moral code in the real world, says Undertale. That’s an uncomfortable thing for a game to suggest. I’m not entirely sure I buy it, but I at least agree with Undertale’s assertion that we should empathize rather than fight, that we should treat other people -- even fictional people -- with the respect that we ourselves wish to be treated with.

So maybe I should stop quicksaving. Maybe I need to live with my mistakes. Maybe I should try to treat the wasteland as a real place and its citizens as real people. That’s not always easy (the Fallout facial models have always been stuck in the uncanny valley), but it wouldn’t hurt to try. I think Doc would be glad, if he’s not too angry about all the times that I killed him.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less

The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.