Saturday, July 28, 2018

Undertale's Toriel's Important Lesson

If you haven’t played Undertale, then don’t read this rant. Period. If you want to spoil yourself for a lot of other games, that’s your prerogative, but I’ll not be party to anyone who lessens their eventual experience with this gem by discovering its central plot points ahead of time.

Also, as a warning, this rant was written while I was a bit feverish, and generally out of it, feels, to me, kind of spacey and unfocused. Still, I think my thoughts on the matter are worth expressing (as much as they ever are, at least), so here you go.

It’s really no exaggeration to say that Undertale is one of the most significant RPGs created in the video game industry’s 40+ years of existence, and I anticipate that it will forever be so. There are multiple claims that Undertale makes to its prominent spot in this art form’s history, but what, in my opinion, truly makes it stand out as a unique work of storytelling in its medium is that Undertale is, to my knowledge, the only game that makes a truly compelling and earnest statement on the power and vital necessity of nonviolence in resolving conflicts.

True, many RPGs are eager to loudly proclaim the importance of forgiveness, diplomacy, tolerance, open-mindedness, and various other factors that together form peaceful conflict resolution, but (again, to my knowledge) none of them actually walk the walk. Their heroes may fight for a peaceful world, they may forgive their foes and spare them, they may try to avoid overcoming their obstacles with violence, but sooner or later, it all still comes down to winning climactic battles. I’m reminded of 1 of Wild Arms 4’s last moments, in which its dimwitted protagonist Jude tells the game’s antagonist with fervent passion that one cannot solve one’s problems with violence...then immediately proceeds into the game’s final battle, during which all involved will be stabbing, shooting, burning, freezing, smashing, and performing various other violent acts upon one another, the outcome of which will, indeed, have solved the conflict definitively. Yes, not a lot of RPGs are as blatantly, immediately, and humorously self-contradictory as Wild Arms 4, which makes sense as not a lot of RPGs are written with such a galling lack of competence as that raging inferno of suck...but ultimately, RPGs still nearly always contradict their messages of lauding nonviolent resolution by having the most important moments of conflict in their course be settled by battles.*

And true, there ARE RPGs, a few of them, in which violence is not necessary. The Deus Ex games have made a point since the first installment of making it possible for a player to make it through them without actually killing anyone. Additionally, while I have never played any (unless Rune Factory counts?), I would assume that most of the farming simulator RPGs** don’t require violence. Still, there is a substantial difference between games in which pacifism has simply been made possible, or games in which there is little to no reason not to be nonviolent, and a game like Undertale, which focuses strongly upon and explores the dilemmas that a nonviolent approach faces, and bases the very heart and soul of its message and story’s course upon pacifism, and the weight and consequences of death and apathy.

In its treatise on nonviolence, Undertale involves the majority of its cast, including even many of its NPCs and monsters of lesser importance. Ultimately, however, I believe that it is Toriel’s lesson to us which is the most valuable, both as a component of Undertale’s story and message, and as a lesson to take away from the game.

For, you see, the trial Toriel presents to the player represents what I believe to be the most absolutely vital aspect of the concept of pacifism and resolving conflicts without violence: patience and determination. It is also the aspect of pacifism that I think is least emphasized by shows, movies, games, and all other storytelling mediums that advocate nonviolent approaches, sadly but not unexpectedly, since it’s hard to really sell the concept of patience without devoting more time to showing it than the limited schedules of most storytelling vehicles are willing (or even able) to commit to.

Before Toriel blocks your way in Undertale, the monsters you encounter are simple enough to get by without resorting to violence. The logic paths necessary to take in order to Spare each one are both short, and easily intuited. Toriel is the first occasion the game throws at you in which the concept of trying to resolve a conflict peacefully is a true challenge, and it is made all the more jarring to the player by the fact that they have been conditioned thus far to have few, if any, complications in Sparing their foes. There has always been a clear avenue to a nonviolent victory, until Toriel flat-out denies your Spare attempts and cannot be appealed to with dialogue. Essentially, Toriel is your first and most iconic encounter with personal conflict in which an opponent refuses to let you settle your differences peacefully.

Beyond that, she is also the only opponent I can think of in Undertale for whom determination and patience are the keys to success. Certainly you need both of those things to weather the battles against Papyrus, Undyne, the guards, and many others in the game, but in each major conflict following Toriel’s, your patience and determination comes in the form of navigating the long twists of gameplay until you have a chance to succeed in Sparing your opponent--Toriel, by contrast, is simply outright a test of whether you can be determined and patient enough to outlast someone’s enmity in spite of, initially, no sign that there will ever be any opportunity for concord. Which is by itself a thematically intelligent decision from a gameplay perspective, since Toriel, in Undertale, is meant to be linked to the concepts of video game tutorials--so of course, her boss battle itself serves as a final, educational trial run for the foundations of later boss battles, in the sense that, as I said, later major battles take the necessity for patience and persistence and add more levels of gameplay onto it.***

But while other characters in the game build upon Toriel and present different analogies for routes to peaceful resolution, I think Toriel’s is the most important to truly understanding and embracing the concept of pacifism. Yes, it’s important to learn from Undyne the value of giving up on foolish notions of pride as you outlast her through the act of running away and avoidance, which many mistake as cowardice. Yes, it’s important to learn from the dummy that rage and a refusal to forgive are so self-destructive that there is no need to harm those who feel such things toward you, for they eventually destroy themselves. Yes, it’s important to recognize and forgive the fact that hostility is often the result of misplaced feelings of obligation or self-dissatisfaction, as we learn from Papyrus and Alphys. Yes, it’s important to learn what even small-time enemies in the game can teach you, like that sometimes someone may do something injurious to you by accident, having mistakenly thought they would be helping you, as Vulkin does with what they think is healing lava.

But before you realize any of these things about other people, before you come to understand that your enemies have reasons and history for what they do, and before you can draw conclusions and begin to think about how one overcomes such obstacles to find a peaceful solution to one’s conflicts with is essential to understand first and foremost that to choose the highest road, to choose to commit to pacifism, to choose the path to solving problems between people without resorting to violence, takes time, and it takes persistence. You will encounter people in your life who do not want to work toward a positive solution. You may outlast their attempts to harm or destroy you once, but they will not give up just because you did not immediately cave in. Getting through to someone, finding a way to friendship and understanding beyond enmity and have to be willing to fight for that goal for a long time, and you have to be willing to keep trying without despair even when there just doesn’t seem to be any progress.

And that’s what Toriel represents, and teaches. There is no trick of conversation paths, no part of the bullet hell gameplay that you have to perform--there is only the patience and persistence to keep Sparing her, to keep refusing to harm her in spite of her enmity and her refusal to accept your peaceful appeals, until finally, the determination of your love outlasts the lesser power of her feeling of duty, and she gives up and accepts your desire for peace. Diplomat, therapist, teacher, parent, manager, negotiator, mediator, spiritual leader...for any and every one of the countless positions one may pursue in which communicating with people and finding resolutions to their conflicts is a component or focus, Toriel provides the fundamental groundwork for the essence of how to achieve success and greatness.

* I should clarify here that I don’t hold this as a serious flaw against these games. Yes, it is a flaw with Wild Arms 4 because of how stupidly the message is presented, but by and large, RPGs do a fine enough job at encouraging people to view the nonviolent path as the better, and using violence as a last resort. In our world, that is, perhaps, a far more realistically good approach to take. I’d much rather continue to see many RPGs show that the attempt to avoid violence, even if that attempt doesn’t work, is the right thing to do, than have the genre stop even trying out of an inability to get around its gameplay system’s necessities.

** More than 20 years later, I still cannot believe that this is a thing.

*** She also, I suppose, serves as an educational trial run of boss battles for a No Mercy player, in that she is the first time you must kill someone you’re truly emotionally attached to. A taste of the horrible guilt to come for you. And you deserve it, you monster.


  1. They are very old, but the ultima games from 4 onward are about devoloping a system of virtues that includes compassion(that you lose if you kill non evil creatures).i haven't played them and i don't know if they are good, but tgere is a precedent.

    1. Hmmm, I dunno, I would argue that that's not really the same thing. Early Shin Megami Tensei games also had your alignment influenced by whether you spent more time killing Law or Chaos demons you came across, too, and of course there's the Karma system in the first 3 Fallouts, but neither that nor the Ultima titles are taking the stance that Undertale does. The other games simply group enemies into factional camps, and through doing so imply that it's okay to go kill-crazy on enemies as long as they're not in the right grouping. Undertale takes a harder, more creditable stance that there very few, if truly any, people who truly cannot be redeemed, and so, unlike Ultima or SMT or Fallout, there's no convenient group of enemies that you get a free pass for murdering just because they believe in a different philosophy than you or some arbitrary higher power says it's fine.

      Well, except for Jerry, but that's more just for comical purposes.

  2. Are you perchance interested in manga? If so, I´d really recommend Vinland Saga, as it encompasses a similar message. It starts out as a tale of revenge, but is foreshadowed from early on to be changing into something else, and indeed so it does, incorporating a very powerful message summed up by these words: "‘You have no enemies No one in the world is your enemy. There is no one you need to hurt.’". Of course, in reality it is not that easy to put into practice, but that is one of the key themes of the manga. It and how characters attempt to live it out, to find peace in their lives.

    It is, unfortunately, still going on, but it is licensed and as such officially available in English. Nevertheless, I believe it is a fantastic work.

    And as for games, have you played Drakengard? (or any of the NieR games for that matter? If not, I´d heartily recommend them as well, though I´m sure you know of them at the very least) If Undertale is a treatise on non-violence, then Drakengard is one on the insanity of violence. Every single piece of the narrative and gameplay work towards that, from party members with very distasteful traits, to absolutely jarring music to an increasingly insane plot. The entire game is filled with violence and disturbing content, without justifying or glorifying it. In fact, it is made to be as distasteful as possible. But I can´t possibly explain it as well as the person behind this analysis did (part 2 being the relevant one, but I´m afraid there are spoilers for the plot itself):

    1. I have Nier: Automata on Steam, and will be playing it sometime in the future. I'll have to check out Drakengard and Vinland, as well. Thanks for the recommendations!