What does mercy mean to someone who hates herself? How can pacifism combat depression? How does euthanasia fit into Undertale's moral code?
Players: 1 player
Release date: 2015-09-15
“Don’t kill, and don’t be killed. That’s the best we can strive for.”
That's the morality of Undertale in a nutshell: Killing is bad, not killing is good. Every action in the game is filtered through that prism, so every conflict thus stems from a desire to kill and every resolution thus stems from a refusal to kill. If an enemy wants to kill you, you just have to not kill them and eventually your pacifism will make them not want to kill you. It's a simple morality that pairs well with the combat, which is a variation of old JRPG turn-based combat systems just without all the options for attacking.
Combat in Undertale is really more of a puzzle: Your opponent is upset for some reason, and while you could just kill them if you wanted to that would make you bad, so to be good and still win you must choose actions like "Flirt", "Pet", "Hug", or "Unhug", in order to make them feel better. A happy monster doesn't want to hurt you.
This pattern plays out over and over again as you encounter new characters. Your first major opponent is a skeleton guard named Papyrus. He has vowed to protect the entrance to the monster world from humans, so when you appear he naturally wants to fight you. He's not very good at it though, he doesn't even recognize you as a human at first, and instead of fighting you directly he prefers to set puzzle-traps.
However, Papyrus isn't really incompetent, he's just lonely. Sure, he may live with his brother Sans, but Sans prefers puns over other kinds of puzzles. When Papyrus meets you he's thrilled to be with someone who can, and will, solve his puzzles. He starts off genuinely wanting to capture you, but by the end of your time together you’ve both bonded. When the two of you finally fight for real it's clear that Papyrus is just putting on a show. When you don't kill him like the good person you are, he lets you pass deeper into the monster world. Mercy wins.
Your next major opponent is less goofy. Undyne, the fish-lady knight, can't be reasoned with, won't accept your mercy, and attacks you incessantly with the intent to kill. So how does the game expect your pacifism to hold up when faced with an enemy that won’t back down? You back down instead. You run. You flee into the Hotlands where Undyne faints due to the sweltering heat of her armor.
When she's unconscious it's your time to shine: Revive her with a splash of a water from a nearby fountain and she’s so taken aback by this show of mercy at her most vulnerable that she retreats. If you chase her down you'll get a cute cut scene in which she teaches you how to cook. Mercy wins again.
Toriel, the goat-mother, only fights you in order to keep you out of harm’s way. Asgore, the king of the monsters, only fights you because he thinks it'll save his kingdom. Even Flowery, a sadistic talking flower and the antagonist to the whole game, is undone by your mercy: If you've been a true pacifist then the souls of your friends come to help you in battle, and Flowery achieves a moment of self-actualization in which he confesses his loneliness and anger to you. It may take a while, but mercy wins. Mercy always wins in Undertale.
Except when it comes to Alphys.
Alphys is a painfully shy, nerdy scientist, and a complex character who repeatedly grows beyond the game’s narrow moral compass. She forces us to into situations that aren't easily resolved through pacifism: What does mercy mean to someone who hates herself? How can pacifism combat depression? How does euthanasia fit into this moral code? Undertale raises all these questions through Alphys, but it raises these questions without an ability to answer them. Indeed, the morality of Undertale is so strict that it can't actually handle the moral complications it raises, so when its blind morality bumps up against any situation more complex than kill/don't kill, the game simply rewrites the situation or Alphys as a character in order to turn things into a conflict it knows how to resolve.
Alphys’ story is told in three parts.
Part 1: Meetings and Mettaton
When you first meet Alphys she’s excited to see you. She’s been watching your exploits since you came into the monster world, and she’s become a fan: “I’ve, um, been ‘observing’ your journey through my console. Your fights, your friendships, everything! I was originally going to stop you, but watching someone on a screen really makes you root for them,” she says.
It’s important to note that she becomes a fan specifically due to watching you on a screen. Alphys is set up as a stereotypical otaku/gamer nerd, someone who’s smart but completely antisocial and unable to relate to other people. Her computer screen is her window to the world, and you have now come out of that screen to meet her in person -- you’re a fantasy come to life.
Alphys then forces herself to be your assistant, the voice in your ear providing you with instructions and support. It’s a perfectly normal job for a supporting character in a video game, so it makes sense that this shy gamer would want that job for herself: It allows her to be near you but out of the spotlight, to be a major player in your story but also rarely seen.
Unfortunately for us, Alphys is awful at the job. She gives you hints after you solve puzzles, sometimes she won’t even give you a hint because that would ruin the fun of the puzzle, and sometimes she even gives you wrong information by mistake. She fails at this despite the fact that she talks incessantly: Calling you, tweeting you, or posting on social media about you every ten steps. She’s annoying as hell, but it’s also clear that she’s making an effort. Her failure is sweet in an awkward kind of way. She’s so unconfident and anti-social that it’s kind of nice just to see her out and about.
As Alphys guides us through the Hotlands we also have to deal with Mettaton, a reality TV robot host who’s been upgraded to be an “unstoppable killing machine with a thirst for human blood”. Alphys readily admits this was her doing, but it was accidental, and the anti-human combat capabilities were created before she ever saw you on TV.
So far Alphys has proven herself to be a sweet character, but very tangentially dangerous. She tries to guide you but does such a terrible job she ends up hurting you, and when she tried to de-weaponize Mettaton she instead made him even stronger. She has good intentions, but her actions always lead to violence and danger. How are we supposed to deal with her? We can’t kill her, but the pacifist approach of simple not killing her does nothing to help anyone.
We spend most of the Hotlands fighting and running from Mettaton. This plan works well enough in that it keeps everyone alive, even though it lets Alphys off the hook for her part in all the chaos. Eventually Mettaton gets serious and reveals a bomb of information: He’s is not a former TV host turned killer machine, he’s still a TV host playing a killing machine. This has all been a show. Alphys hired him to fake the fights so that she can come in and save you and make you like her.
Alphys is a sad character. She’s so incapable of relating to others that she has to concoct a generic fantasy scenario around any real life interaction she has. What’s sadder is that she includes herself in this fantasy. Alphys knows that she’s painfully shy and hates herself for it, and she assumes that everyone else hates her for it as well, so she sets up this elaborate scheme in order to create a confident version of herself that she and others might like.
But it all goes wrong. Mettaton starts fighting us for real, and the only way we win is by draining his batteries. He’s not dead, just deactivated, so our pacifism streak remains intact only due to this technicality.
That’s the closest we come to killing in a pacifist run of Undertale, and we’re forced into that conflict by Alphys. She’s so introverted and unconfident that she becomes self-destructive, hating herself and then hating that she hates herself. She then drags you into that self-destructive cycle when she puts you in danger so that she can save you and hopefully impress you. She’s so obsessed with creating a persona we’d like she doesn’t realize she’s putting us all in danger. She’s a character with a very serious problem of depression and self-harm.
So how does the game resolve her character arc? It doesn’t. These issues are beyond its critical capability.
After everything goes wrong and Alphys has been exposed she apologizes to you. Not for setting you up and all that, she never even admits to that, she apologizes for yet another lie about how to get out of the monster world. Then she runs away. Undertale establishes a conflict that can’t be solved through combat or mercy, and when it comes time to resolve that conflict the game literally runs away from it.
Part 2: Romance and Resolution
Alphys is a complex character with a complex problem that can’t be easily solved, but Undertale is determined to give all its characters a happy ending. It can’t do that for Alphys as she exists now, so it rewrites her.
After making friends with the fish-warrior Undyne, you're given a letter to pass along to Alphys. As it turns out, it's a love letter asking for a date, and Alphys mistakenly thinks it's from you. She agrees and the two of you go on an awkward date. It's awkward partly because Alphys is always awkward in social situations, but it's made even more awkward by her sudden and convenient confession that she doesn't actually like you. Despite that whole elaborate Mettaton thing earlier, Alphys has apparently always had a crush on Undyne. The warrior just happens to be nearby, forcing the two to talk it out, ending with them admitting their mutual attraction.
To game’s credit, this is not actually an easy happy ending for Alphys (convenient character reversal notwithstanding). Undyne acknowledges Alphys' mental issues and promises to help her work through them: “I don’t want you to have to lie to anyone anymore. Alphys… I want to help you become happy with who you are!”
The scene doesn’t end with the two ladies walking off into the sunset for a happily ever after ending. They aren't even really a couple by the end. Their romance isn't treated as a magical cure-all, instead their romance leads to a more somber promise of support and encouragement. There's clearly a long road ahead of them, but they're willing to walk it together.
It’s a good ending, one that manages to be upbeat while also acknowledging the darker shades of Alphys' character, but it's an upbeat ending that's only possible because the game rewrites the most problematic aspects of her personality in order to make her less problematic. Specifically, the game has to take us out of the picture. Since we can only interact with the world through the binary kill/mercy mechanics, we're incapable of properly dealing with Alphys and her issues.
The other characters, however, aren't limited by this system-level morality, so they're free to take a more nuanced approach. Undyne can help Alphys because Undyne has more options at her disposal; Undyne can offer explicit criticism and support, whereas all we can do is not cut someone’s head off.
Undertale recognized the limitations of its morality and rewrote the character relationships in such a way so as to compensate for those limitations. The result is a happy ending for this depressed and dangerous nerd.
But then, weirdly, the game keeps going.
Part 3: Experimentation and Extremism
Undertale ruins that happy ending by making Alphys even more complicated and morally compromised.
As part of her therapy, Alphys promises to stop lying to people about who she is and what she does. This results in us being invited down into the basement of her laboratory, and into a horror story that feels like Re-Animator crossed with The Human Centipede.
Some backstory: In the mythology of Undertale the human world is separated from the monster world by a magical barrier, and only strong souls can break the barrier. Human souls are unique in that they persist even after the body dies, but monster souls are weaker and always die with the body.
As we explore the basement we learn that Alphys experimented on a human soul, and managed to extract the trait that she believed gave human souls their strength. She called this trait "determination," and she then proceeded to inject that determination into dying monsters so that their souls might live on after their body died. These strong monster souls could then be used to break the barrier.
Normally, a monster's body turned to dust upon death, but the new determination in their souls kept their bodies intact. A battle raged between determination and decay, resulting in a horrible compromise: The monsters melted. They melted together into an Amalgamate, an amorphous shape-shifting blob of flesh containing the consciousnesses of many monsters in a single body. Alphys hid them away, even as the families of the monsters pressed her more and more about what she did with the bodies of their loved ones. She retreated from the world, into her lab, becoming the shut-in we first meet. Turns out she had good reason to be antisocial.
What are we supposed to make of this? On one hand Alphys prevented them from dying, which up until now has always been the measure of someone’s goodness, but is it still good to keep someone alive after a natural death? Is forced life as part of a hive mind inherently better?
If the morality of Undertale is based around the idea that killing is bad, then this extremism should be the ultimate kind of grace, but it’s certainly not presented that way. The Alamgamates attack us on sight, suggesting that anger is the one unifying thought that drives the body to action, and during combat we can see all the individual minds fighting for control as text bubbles appear on top of each other, the words mixing together into an unreadable mess. They look pained, their forced life looks terrible, so terrible that it threatens to undermine the entire moral code of the game: Maybe death can be good.
But Undertale still wants everyone to have a happy ending, so it can’t acknowledge something this darkly nuanced in its world. It immediately steps back from this ledge by equating the Amalgamates with dogs.
Eventually your exploration of the basement leads you to a dead end, and the Amalgamates close in on you. At the last second Alphys appears and tells them they have food. They immediately leave and she apologizes, “Sorry about that. They get kind of sassy when they don’t get fed on time.” The joke undercuts both the horror of Alphys’ experiments and the horror of the Amalgamates’ hive mind existence. The game uses all that horror as the setup for a joke, but the punch line fails considering the severity of the situation.
Alphys promises to tell the monster world about her experiments, so the game does promise to hold her accountable but only after lessening the evil of her crime. Even then, we never see those consequences. She runs off and we go to fight the final boss. We only see her again in a cut scene montage with Undyne, looking happy, which seems suspicious considering Undyne was a Royal Guard who took her protectorship very seriously. What happens when she finds out her new girlfriend melted monsters together?
Alphys’ story is able to end on a happy note of self-worth and responsibility, but it’s a happy ending that betrays the severity of her crimes and her self-destructive behavior. Her story can’t be resolved with a few words of introspection and some uplifting music, so the game does what it can and ignores the rest.
In her big final speech Alphys says:
Seeing [the Amalgamates] like this, I knew I couldn’t tell their families about it. I couldn’t tell anyone about it. No matter how much everyone was asking me. And I was too afraid to do any more work, knowing everything I’d done so far had been such a horrific failure.
But now… now I’ve changed my mind about all this. I’m going to tell everyone what I’ve done. It’s going to be hard. Being honest… believing in myself… I’m sure there will be times where I’ll struggle. I’m sure there will be times where I screw up again. But knowing, deep down, that I have friends to fall back on…I know it’ll be a lot easier to stand on my own. Thank you.
War crimes have never been so saccharine.