Undertale: Confessions of an accidental cheater
If your friend recommends that you refrain from researching Undertale and instead purchase it blindly, then I suggest you follow their advice, even though said advice runs counter to the common practices of an educated consumer. Since you’re already reading this, I can only assume that you’ve already played it and wish to learn more, or you haven’t played it yet wish to satisfy your curiosity. If you fall into the latter category, then this is your chance to turn back. Otherwise, read on for my experience with the cognitively contorting metanarrative of Toby Fox’s homage to Earthbound, and a rather unfortunate experience that spoiled the illusion for me.
Undertale Reminds You of Your Failures
In Undertale, choices are important. Every game with a moral choice system advertises itself that way, but in Undertale your decisions really do matter because ‘save scumming,’ the act of reloading your save in case something goes wrong and you want a different outcome, is nigh impossible. You can do it, but the game will remember whether you accidentally killed someone. For instance, in his Let’s Play video, Jim Sterling explained that on his first session he accidentally killed a single character while attempting a pacifist run. When he restarted the game, another character nevertheless advised him to not kill anyone this time. In Undertale, your save file might as well be your criminal record.
When I learned of the game’s ubiquitous eye, I felt determined to resist save scumming. Normally I’m not above reloading my save if I make a decision that deviates from the good path. For example, in Mass Effect I can monitor my morality through the Paragon (good) and Renegade (evil) meters, and if I make a Renegade decision, I simply reload my save and choose the morally sound decision instead. In Undertale, however, no such meter exists. Undertale also offers a neutral route in addition to the traditional good (pacifist) and evil (genocide) options. It’s not easy to figure out how to end a fight peacefully, which is fitting because in real life doing the right thing is considered to be more difficult than doing something wrong. I began my journey on the pacifist route, but then I made a crucial, violent mistake, leaving me two choices: turn to the dark side, or acknowledge that there are times in which I’m forced to kill, and hope that I can atone for my sins by counteracting them with good deeds.
I murdered Toriel, the maternal figure who attempted to adopt me, by accident. Toriel is so kind that she held my hand as she solved a dangerous puzzle for me. She also attempted to teach me to resolve conflicts peacefully by talking to my enemies. But she also refused to allow me to leave the Underground, because she knew my odds of survival were slim. Talking to her about this didn’t seem to work, so I chose to fight. Each time I selected the combat option, I hoped a peaceful solution would show itself just before I could land the finishing blow. It didn’t, and Flowey taunted me for killing Toriel after the fight. While I attempted to rationalize my actions by saying the option to spare Toriel never appeared, I later learned via Jim Sterling’s video that it was possible to spare her, and I even learned how to do it. I felt mortified upon learning this.
The next character I met was Sans, who I later learned is the judge monitoring my every action. He never indicated that he knew I killed Toriel, so from then on I attempted to learn from my mistake and resolve fights peacefully. Normal encounters were easy enough to defuse, but boss fights stumped me. During the fight against Undyne, for instance, I repeated the traumatic experience that I felt while killing Toriel. Sans would never have the chance to judge me, however, because my journey concluded after I lost the fight against the dangerously eccentric Mettaton.
So what's the big deal, you might ask? Why couldn't I just reload my save file and try again? Well, I tried, but I found myself in a dark screen where my only companion was an annoying dog.
The Corrupted Save File That Offered Me Redemption
If you haven't played Undertale (and totally ignored my spoiler warning at the beginning of the article), then I need you to understand my thought process as I tried to figure out my situation. I didn't simply assume my save file was corrupted. The game intentionally messed with me in the past, so I naturally assumed this strange room was another puzzle. I eventually gave up trying to solve it, so I turned to YouTube for guidance, and I thankfully found this video. In the comments section, I asked if anyone else had encountered my problem, and one kind commenter explained to me that the dog doesn't appear unless you alter the save file, which I had not. At the commenter's suggestion, I contacted the game's creator, Toby Fox, and explained my issue to him. He responded by corroborating the information the commenter gave me, and offered to send me a new file that would place me just before the fight with Mettaton -- as if nothing had happened. I accepted, because my greatest fear was that I would start the game over, and the game would call me out for this.
Following Toby's instructions, I loaded my new save file and sure enough, I was at the same save point just before Mettaton’s room. My relief gave way to confusion, however, when I checked my inventory one last time and realized something wasn’t right. The items in my bag were different, and so was the player name on my save file: TACO (previously GARRET). I noticed that player character’s maximum health was 20, indicating that they had never leveled up; thus, they had never killed a monster. When I had emailed Toby, it hadn’t occurred to me that the only way to regain my spot in the story would be to continue with one of his spare files, and while I was thrilled to be back on the pacifist route, I also couldn’t help but feel like I got away with a robbery.
When I finally encountered Sans in the hall of judgement, he congratulated this save file's protagonist, whose identity I had not yet fully adopted, for their exceptional dedication to pacifism. During this scene, I expected him to end the conversation with, “By the way, I totally know you asked Toby for a new save file. Enjoy the pacifist ending, cheater!” He never did, but I never stopped expecting the game to call me out until I reached the final battle and realized I’d done it. I was actually going to earn the pacifist ending, and no one in the game would ever find out.
My behavior towards the game altered significantly after watching the pacifist ending. For instance, I didn’t feel guilty when I looked up the guide for obtaining the true pacifist ending. In my mind, it wasn’t my fault for completing the pacifist route when the creator himself handed me the new save file, which I interpreted as a legitimate cheat code. A technical issue happened, and for once I benefited from it. I no longer cared if the game judged me for reloading my save, and I no longer felt guilty about looking up information about the different endings; I already had to look up a guide to confirm the room with the annoying dog wasn’t a puzzle anyway.
While I still have yet to obtain the true pacifist ending, I kind of want to begin again as I originally would have played the game: trying and failing to defuse fights, and dealing with the consequences afterwards. However, I can’t do it anymore. Most players will obtain the neutral ending first, but as TACO I managed to cheat my way to the pacifist ending in my first playthrough, and the creator himself helped me do this. TACO has even met the requirements for obtaining the true pacifist ending, and if I must shed my previous identity, GARRET, to get it, then so be it.
A busy schedule has kept me from pursuing the true pacifist ending, but it’s also allowed me time to think about my experience with Undertale. I may have had Toby’s blessing to continue as TACO, but I can’t help but wonder if what I did still counts as cheating. After all, I chose to replace my old file with the one Toby sent me, and I could have just started over and swallowed my pride when Flowey wrongly accused me of save scumming. However, I didn’t, and gradually my conscience subsided, allowing me to develop the mentality to willingly cheat or at least reload my save file -- kind of like how I approached Mass Effect. Someday I might return to the neutral route and kill Toriel and Undyne again, so I can be judged for my original sins. However, my experience with Undertale is unique in that I’ll never be judged for GARRET’s actions, which is strange considering he’s a reflection of me -- minus the second “T” at the end of my name.
Garrett Glass is a technical writer who dabbles in games journalism. When he's not thinking about pop culture he--no, wait, he's always thinking about pop culture. Follow him on Twitter to see him tweet about Cowboy Bebop obsessively: @_garrettglass.