Good [time of day], I've been reading and thinking a lot about Undertale lately, and I wanted to discuss some articles that I recently read.
PART ONE: MUNCY
Note: Julie Muncy is trans and so I've taken the liberty of correcting some references to her gender and deadname when quoting articles.
Muncy's article revolves around frustration with Undertale's systems and judgment. Undertale judges you for your actions - killing people in Undertale leads the game to treat you differently than not killing people. When you kill people, the game takes time to discuss why pacifism is good, why looking for ways to get out of conflicts is good, and so on, and so forth. In particular, Muncy is extremely frustrated by an early scene in Undertale - the very first boss fight against Toriel. In this scene, no attempt successfully saves Toriel when first done, leading the player to try and simply attack her instead. Inevitably, this ends the fight out of nowhere with a brutal blow, often scoring the player their first and only kill of the game.
The pacifist route, for all intents and purposes, is the "good" one. Which is why Undertale quickly became untrustworthy for me.
When Toriel fell, the game permanently marked me as an aggressor. The best I could hope for was the "neutral" ending, a mark of my moral failing made in the game's ledger through the rest of the playthrough. Not, however, because I wanted to kill Toriel. I very much did not. I simply didn't realize I had the option to do anything else.
Muncy becomes frustrated, not unreasonably, at the fact that the game now spends time discussing pacifism and treating them as though they didn't wish to achieve it. Every character that discusses the topic becomes a source of not guilt, but annoyance - anger at the game for forcing her to do something she didn't want to do. Muncy was prepared to engage with the game on its own terms, to seek pacifism as an answer, and the game chose to force her into a non-pacifist route simply due to mechanical tomfoolery.
The player's choice, then, to fight or not to fight, is not one necessarily related to roleplaying or ethical considerations. It's also a mechanical consideration. A failure to deliver mercy might simply be a failure to solve a puzzle, or figure out a way to survive with inadequate resources. In my case, it was a decision made because the game did not effectively communicate to me that I could do anything else. I wasn't making my choices as a moral actor. I was making them as a player. I encountered this problem over and over during my playthrough. Every boss fight was not a question of, "Do I want to kill this individual?" It was a question of, "Can I solve this puzzle? Do I have the resources to survive long enough to deliver mercy before Game Over?"
As a phenomenon, this sort of mechanical constraint might have communicative value. Nonviolent resistance, after all, is a performance of sorts: resisters play a role in response to an aggressor, ceding one type of power in the hopes of gaining another. In doing so, they submit to significant constraint and the possibility of intractable failure. Being beaten or jailed is not a failure of nonviolent resistance, it's a state that's planned for and accepted as a possibility.
The constraints of Undertale's nonviolent combat, then, might suggest something similar, highlighting the way that choosing not to fight is a profound risk, not to be taken lightly. Their presence in a system, though, one which has carefully constructed each choice and then determined how those choices are communicated to the player, however, suggests something different. It suggests a communicative failure, one brought about by the nature of the system itself. The charming, morally earnest rhetoric of Undertale conceals the coercive weaknesses of its systemic approach to those same moral issues. Its limited combat options and often obtuse puzzle solving, alongside the sheer endurance required to survive boss fights long enough to end them, add up to a system that doesn't point to any elaborate moral insight. It simply points to itself.
I disagree with Muncy's argument regarding the game, but I do respect her statement in many ways. Undertale is a video game - an RPG - and its combat is simply a combat system. Although you are not expected to use "Fight", the game functions much like any other RPG - you survive the enemy's attacks while putting the right techniques together to end the battle. Although the flavor of the battles is pacifism themed, the actual combat system itself lacks a real moral "gameplay aspect" - it is not particularly divergent from that of normal games. Hence, "Can I solve this, do I have the resources" is illustrating how Undertale is ultimately just a video game, its actual battle mechanics lacking in any sort of moral element. This is why Muncy views the game as a communicative failure that points only to itself.
I believe that the first issue here lies in a misunderstanding of Undertale's structure, or at least, what I view its purpose to be. The frustration ultimately comes from wanting to do The Right Thing, but the game gating what you want to do behind something video gamey and arbitrary that seems to get in the way of expressing its point. To this I say: Why does it matter what you personally choose to do, when trying to understand the moral purpose of a work?
Now, I know the response will probably be "The game is offering me choices. Are you telling me the choices don't matter?" And in a way, yes, that's what I'm actually saying. There are really only 2 ways to do choices in the end - you can see the results of every choice, or you can choose to only see the results of some choices. This describes the sum total of all existence. It's my personal opinion that Undertale cannot be understood with only one route's context.
To be clear about this, her argument doesn't actually stand against mine. Rather, Muncy's argument is frustration about how UT's choices seem obscured - the video game mechanics stand in the way, forcing you to play as it intends unless you can figure out a very obtuse puzzle.
At the end of Undertale, I have to fight again. Since I've struggled hard to take the pacifist route, I have low health and low attack power. But since I killed Toriel, I have to fight. Going into the battle, I'm not sure I can win. Nor am I sure I want to. But I don't see any other options, and I really don't think that's my fault.
You see, here's the thing - I agree with you. It's not your fault. The game did this to you on purpose.
I wonder why?
PART 2: LUTZ
I spoke about Muncy's work because it directly informs Lutz's work, and is linked at the beginning of it.
Undertale has received much deserved acclaim, but criticizing it has been something of a thorny issue. julie muncy’s review at killscreen for instance was met with a lot of derision, since muncy takes issue with what she sees to be as the unclarity of the game’s combat mechanics. the point that muncy ends up making needs to be considered, however: she is not admitting she is ‘bad at games’ — she is telling us that the game does not always clearly communicate to the player that pacifist options in combat are having any notable effect. indeed, i would add that this is symptomatic of Undertale as a whole: it is attempting to communicate a message about how to be a good or bad person in the world it presents for you, but in the end the game itself unintentionally muddles your ethical relationship to that world.
Here we must take an aside to note an unfortunate but sadly common curse of dealing with capital G Gamers: In response to Muncy's article, which partially the game's difficulty exacerbating their problem, she was flamed and told that she only saw these issues because she was "bad at games". As with in 2014 just a year before, games journalists were derided and attacked and blamed for not understanding something, completely missing the point of her article. Lutz defends Muncy, which I think is good, and then states that Undertale unintentionally muddles the player's ethical relationship. I find this comment interesting, and important to keep in mind - Lutz is describing what they view with the assumption that it is unintentional.
Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.
Lutz's take on Undertale's structure seems somewhat multi-faceted: Lutz views games as a collection of arguments that make propositions players agree or disagree with while analyzing what the creator agreed or disagreed with. The acts the game chooses regarding what should be done are seen directly as the opinions of the creator on what should be done - which "path" should be chosen, and so forth. It is then supposed that Undertale values the existence of all its paths simultaneously, which Lutz views as incoherent. What exactly makes this incoherent is the true nature of the article.
The main criticism in Lutz's article is as follows.
Undertale‘s no-mercy run is so incredibly tedious and difficult to complete, and the characters in the game shriek at you for being horrible so often, that these constitute in my view pretty clear disincentives for doing it. the game (and by extension its creators) are very obviously telling you you’re being an asshole, even as they allow for the possibility. by contrast, if you complete a neutral run, the game will helpfully offer you hints on how to get the “best” ending, ie, encouraging you to pursue it further and do a pacifist run. however, in the case of a no-mercy run, the game assigns you a persona of perverse willfulness in order to construct a sensible narrative for why you are carrying it out.
my biggest criticism of Undertale is that for a good portion of it to make sense you have to do the thing the game expressly does not want you to do; the implied player of the best ending just accepts things on blind faith and never questions or investigates the metaphysics of it all. doing a no-mercy run makes the best ending unobtainable. this wouldn’t be a problem, i insist, if not for the fact that the no-mercy run is the most expedient way of making sense of a few aspects of the story, namely, the role of the character of sans, and the only way to discover the nature of the original fallen human, chara.
1. Undertale's genocide run is designed to be generally annoying and hard to do. The sympathetic characters in the game constantly find you horrible for doing so and condemn you for it over and over. Thus, the creator of the game is telling you that you're a horrible person, and you're not actually supposed to complete the genocide run. It is not really meant to be played to completion.
yet what truly interests me here is chara. chara is the closest thing the game has to a real villain, since everyone else you fight is either confused or misunderstood and can be helped. chara is, not to put too fine a point on it, radically evil. without completing a no-mercy run, you don’t know this: you simply know that chara was not as nice as everyone thought they were. however: you are chara. what i mean is, chara is the name of the player, since that is who you name when you begin the game, long before the player character is revealed to be frisk. in other words, chara is implied to have your name. indeed, toby fox said on twitter you should name the fallen human after yourself. death of the author notwithstanding, the implied player, from the developer’s standpoint, becomes coterminous with the game’s vision of radical evil.
2. You, the player are Chara. Because you share your name with Chara, and the creator directly suggested you share your name with Chara, you are directly associated with the game's example character of someone who truly is too horrible to be stopped by simply being nice to them, the character who seeks to take and take and cannot be satiated by any concession at all.
in the end you are either someone who did their best to “listen” to what the game was telling you and get the “best” ending, or you’re someone who decided to be a homocidal jerk and somehow, in the process, got the fullest sense of the game’s narrative possible. i have no idea why these outcomes are counterpoised.
3. The game makes the choice to provide tantalizing information on the genocide route as a sort of nasty action, counterpoising learning about the game and truly understanding it with doing what you're supposed to. Remembering point 2, we can take this as an argument that people who want to know everything about the game are bad, and should feel bad, in Toby Fox's words.
attempting to discuss these issues with fans of the game meant i was sanctimoniously told i expected to not face consequences for my actions. even questioning the game’s representation of this moral choice made me, in the eyes of several other players, morally dubious, or someone who cared too much about a game that was trying (and they assumed, succeeding) to make me feel bad. but i did not do a no-mercy run. indeed, the idea was unpleasant to me, since as i said, this route exacerbates what i already find tedious about the game. furthermore, i genuinely liked the characters; i have no problem with not being able to murder them. but even at the end of the pacifist run, i had questions about the world, these characters, and their motivations. frankly, without the knowledge gleaned from a no-mercy run, sans and chara are so barely outlined that they make little sense in the larger context of the game. my knowledge of no-mercy runs here is gained through perusing the wiki and LPs on youtube.
4. Gamers and die-hard fans, as we know from Muncy and other incidents, are perhaps not the best people in general to try to discuss one's confusion regarding a game with. These characters being so poorly outlined in a normal route is designed to try to lure you into doing this route, and yet, you are condemned for it.
the game hid answers to my questions behind something i had no interest in doing. it’s not clear what it was trying to communicate to me in doing this. nevetheless, Undertale feels very insistent about wanting to tell me something about the nature of friendship and forgiveness and what it means to play a game. some aspects of the no-mercy run, as far as i can tell, leverage a kind of anticompletionism message: characters suggest you’re committing these atrocities simply to “see what happens” and things to that effect. and indeed, many who complete these runs are probably doing just that. but the game itself is what has married completionism to the act of murdering all the other characters. and why is it that only players who choose this path confront the real truth of chara? why cannot chara — who is you, really — be overcome?
5. Why would a game pressure me through an indirect means to do something hard, that many people in game tell me not to do? Is that not contradictory?
I find this paragraph particularly interesting because the comment on Chara not being able to be "overcome" ties into many thoughts I have regarding Undertale's plot and route purposes. Before I continue, I think you could make a logical argument that overcoming Chara could be seen as simply choosing not to awaken it by playing the route. At this point, the question becomes whether the existence of a route is tacit expectation that you will play it - and thus, it being made to not be played would be seen as inherently contradictory. I have a few friends who argue that this is the purpose of the Genocide route - that it has to have some sort of real temptation or else it would be totally useless. However, my argument is quite a bit different from that. First, I'd like to agree with you in a few regards.
It can be difficult to decide what exactly Undertale is saying about completionism. I believe the concept is included in the game in a way that forces you against many characters you've come to love and appreciate because completionism is something that simply does not exist in real life, or rather, does not exist in the way it does in video games. It's like those most basal of Video Game critism jokes - "Why does Link just walk into people's houses and destroy their pottery? Wouldn't it be messed up if you did that in real life?"... By including a route based on the idea of brutish destruction and motivated by a distinctly inhuman motivation, the player is contrasted with the highly humanized NPCs and opponents. With this contract, the inhumanity of the video game tropes is highlighted.
Now, I've already mentioned this type of analysis is quite basal. Almost everyone agrees you shouldn't just walk into people's houses and kill indiscriminately. But there are still many aspects of video games that don't really go discussed, and by making such an exaggerated "treating real life like a game" inspired plot, the game helps fixate on a variety of Video Game "Tropes" that one is trained to ignore.
For instance, let's take Undertale's famous "But nobody came." On the Genocide run, when you kill enough enemies in an area to successfully totally depopulate it (this is, by the way, the reason I still choose to utilize the term "Genocide" for the run - I believe it accurately describes the nature of what you are doing), you will keep running into random encounters... with absolutely no one in them. Instead, an ominous song places, and message appears. All you can do is run away. Why? What purpose does this serve? Is it purely for emotional reasons? I have a personal theory regarding this topic, if you will forgive a rather lengthy diversion.
During the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1494, a team of European explorers intent on exploiting the new Americas happened across a lucky find. Upon the barren island of Alta Velo, they discovered a great number of seals upon the beach. These seals were docile, and had no fear of humans - traits that were quite useful to the hungry sailors. They killed eight, and departed. Two decades later, the crew of another explorer known as Ponce de Leon also discovered these seals. They killed fourteen. By the late 1600s, the importance of these seals was well understood - to run the burgeoning sugar plantations, teams were equipped and sent out each night to obtain a most important resource - oil. For the sake of processing sugar, great numbers of machines were needed, and no machine can work well without something to grease it. Each night, hundreds of seals were sacrificed at the altar of sugar production, for the sake of imperial masters far overseas.
By the 1850s, the seals had been exploited in such numbers and for so long that commercial hunting became impossible. The seals were simply killed by various individuals instead - for instance, a scientific research team discovered them and stuffed their corpses for various museums. Some were brought to zoos, where they lived tiny and constrained lives before dying like any other animal would. As the decades went by, Caribbean monk seals became rarer and rarer, until the last one was sighted in 1952. There are two real reasons the seal went extinct, and both of them have been already stated. The first, of course, was how the seal had the misfortune to evolve a body containing a great deal of oil. This encouraged humans to kill them not merely as a source of food, but for industrial purposes. The second, which truly doomed them, was the fact that the seals were gentle. Docile, curious, and almost completely lacking in predators, the seals were utterly incapable of comprehending that the strange new two-legged creatures were some form of threat.
Now, back to video games. Random encounters are an oft-maligned part of video games, but they, and similar spawn mechanics, define a great number of them. In old school RPGs, one can always count on the ability to level-grind, because an infinite number of slimes, stray birds, errant zombies, angry beasts, et cetera, can be fought over and over for the sake of experience. One never needs to fear running out of money and being locked out of the world's economic system, because fighting can give the player money - either directly from gold dropped by the creatures wandering local plains, caves, islands, and so forth, or from the items that they drop instead. Even when games don't have traditional "random encounters", many still feature enemies that spawn infinitely - if a game is not totally linear, then it's likely previous areas can be replayed and enemies can be respawned forever for drops, perhaps for use in a shop of some sort. Although I've never played it, the Monster Hunter series seems to revolve entirely around locating interesting looking megafauna and violently murdering them to harvest their pieces - ah, rhino horn powder simulator 2021.
There probably isn't really any political point behind the inclusion of enemy systems like this. These games do what they do for the sake of gameplay fairness, because it's frustrating to be locked behind an inescapable situation in a game. A sort of "pact" in many traditional JRPGs is the ability to grind past any obstacle. All of this revolves around the idea of the infinite random encounter - a sort of infinitely exploitable resource that brings security to those playing the game. Never fear. The sun goes up, and the sun goes down. A confirms, and B cancels. And there will always be slimes outside the starting village, unless you trigger a plot switch that alters all the encounters across the map.
The ideal that these RPGs are calling back to is one of an infinitely providing earth. The player never needs to worry about the ecological result of their actions, because there is no actual ecology in the video game. The player can kill as many Caribbean monk seals and collect as many bottles of oil from their corpses as they wish, leveling up for as long as they want. They will never, ever, ever have to worry about running out. Unfortunately for us, we do live in an ecology, and the world doesn't revolve around our wishes. The environment cannot be exploited forever without limit. Once upon a time sailors could land in the Caribbean and randomly encounter hundreds and hundreds of innocent, curious seals, who would wander up brimming with interest, awe, and absolutely no understanding of the fact that these new visitors would be the last sights of their lives. And it is exactly because of this that nowadays, when you take a voyage into the Carribean looking for monk seals, the only thing you'll be able to say to a curious acquaintance about it is "But nobody came."
This is the actual value of criticizing the viewpoints hidden within video games. It's not like most developers start a game thinking "Boy, I can't wait to make a statement about how we can exploit the world as much as we want!" - there are many other reasons that these elements work in genre games. But it's nevertheless true that the flavor presentation of mechanics often takes lessons from ideas that existed in the past, without at all considering what those ideas meant and how they worked in practice. When Undertale has the player utterly exploit a region of the game for EXP (Execution Points) to raise their LV (Level of Violence), this is not merely trying to make the player feel bad for playing a game the way they'd play any other game - it is painting in an extremely negative light an act that in the vast majority of other games goes totally and utterly ignored. The metaphor isn't perfect, of course. Undertale's enemies are all generally human intelligence. But the aspect is more or less there, and UT goes out of its way to fixate on it.
So to reiterate, since I've gone very far into this discussion - I believe the game marries completionism to these acts of great evil so as to fixate on things about games. No one went out into the Carribean thinking "I must kill every monk seal to see what happens.", because that's just not how people think about things. It would be silly to say that completionism in the game sense is applicable to our world. Yet it is by using an extremely fake, game based motivation, and then contrasting it with humanized and real feeling aspects, that Undertale can use the Genocide route to talk to us. People do go into games thinking "I want to try every option to see what happens..." and so the Genocide route uses the character of Chara and the supernatural concept of Determination to embody a variety of game related tropes... all for the purpose of pointing at things many games don't bother to mention twice. This is not a new thing, of course, but I feel it is done fairly well in UT.
You are not a bad person for playing the game and discovering this route. But I would go out on a limb and say Toby Fox would agree that it was horrible that people exterminated the Caribbean monk seal for their own personal ends, one death or a few hundred deaths at a time, and that Fox played many games where people fought hundreds of fictional creatures and destroyed them without a second thought. Isn't it worth playing this route, or at least watching, or reading about it, in order to see that point?
in all other arenas, Undertale insists that conflict arises from unwarranted fear and misunderstanding. it rewards you for pacifism and forging friendships. everyone, it wants to suggest, can get along only if we’re determined enough. and yet, the no-mercy run offers the exact obverse suggestion: radical evil exists, and it cannot be expunged. if we take Undertale at its word, however, and believe its conceit of multiple timelines manipulable by the game’s save and load functions, we find that the latter possibility is necessarily latent in the former. that is to say, chara happened; they are constant through all possible narratives, and they are still there, somewhere. the game’s sentimentality runs aground on the lack of mercy it allows the player to exercise, and the subsequent lack of mercy it extends to that player.
What's integral to understand here is that while Undertale suggests that even people with very serious reasons to fight can get along if people are determined enough to solve their issues, the Genocide run is actually an important aspect of its moral viewpoint. With every other route in the game, we see situations where all you needed to do was to be nice and to try very hard. But as you've noticed, Genocide directly spits on that idea. I believe that this actually benefits the game immensely, because it means it's not naively stating that every single conflict in the world can be solved through concessions. Several characters perform their most heroic actions on the Genocide run - Undyne, the most gung-ho and driven character in the original plot, bypasses what should be the physical limitations of her species in an attempt to stop you. Sans, who rarely bothers to do anything seriously in the majority of timelines, stands up to you for the only time in the game. Even Mettaton and Alphys, rather unreliable and somewhat self-absorbed individuals, make serious and honest attempts to stop you in well-written and beautiful ways. And Undertale paints them as heroic for it, even as they die before your blade.
Is it truly contradictory for the game to state that if you brutally and violently tear into the world around you despite being given chance after chance to be a good person, you will eventually be treated brutally and violently yourself? Is the Genocide route not meant to showcase an example of what can happen if you choose to ignore the game's message and to simply deal with everything in your way through power alone? Is it truly contradictory for the game to say that in some cases, there really are people that you can't simply stop by being kind to them?
I really must apologize, but due to a variety of things I've been reading lately, I'm going to have to invoke Godwin's Law. World War II discussion will follow - if you don't want to read it, skip to the line in all caps.
Unfortunately, I was one of those freaks in high school who knew way too much about early 20th century wars. I've always had a fascinating for history and despite a general discomfort talking about the topic (because I don't want people to think I'm an unpleasant person, or the kind of guy who thinks war is good,) I tend to utilize my military history background as context a lot when discussing moral issues. I bring up World War II because pur topic has to do with mass murder and the pursuit of power - and it's the largest example of that in history. You could say it's tasteless to use it as a comparison for a stupid video game, and I do agree... but if we're going to discuss the real moral lessons and connections within silly video games and how they apply to the world we live in, I feel the need to use examples of how these points can be very important, far-reaching, and serious.
Because my brother rewatched an old World War II documentary I received as a teen, I ended up watching "Der Untergang" (The Downfall) recently. It's a movie about the end of the Western front of World War II. In 1945, Berlin was crushed to the ground. Germany was crushed to pieces, smashed into a shadow of its former self. The remnants of the Wehrmacht, who had just a few years before been triumphantly (in their eyes, not mine, just to be clear) conquering all of Western Europe and charging into Russia, found themselves defending a boundary that was shrinking pitifully each and every day. At the end of the war, the Nazi empire was completely and utterly obliterated, leaving only a bombed out nation full of rubble and millions of hungry people, who would be ruled in a way that foreign conquerors saw fit. Why did this happen?
There are all sorts of answers to that question. It's impossible to nail down any one cause of anything on the scale of historical events. Perhaps we can point to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, or to the rise of the German empire, or to the demise of the Holy Roman Empire in the Napoleonic Wars, or to European imperial ideals in general, or... to anything, really. But I would say that in that moment, what brought destruction to Germany was the fact that they chose violence. They as a nation decided to aggrandise themselves by subscribing to beliefs based on hate and war. The soldiers shelling Berlin that day were the members of massive Soviet armies, Soviet armies that had been forced deep into their own country 3 years ago and had spent a great deal of blood taking all that territory back. At least eight million Soviet soldiers died in that Great Patriotic War. As for civilians, current estimates say that about twenty six million Soviet civilian lives were ended by the effects of the Nazi invasion.
Why did so many Soviets die? There's a great many of long and complex ways we can talk about this, but the simplest I can give you is this: The German government, the German people, and the German military wanted the Soviets to die. They did not consider slavs to be human. Soviet prisoners of war were indiscriminately killed, left to freeze to death with no clothes. Soviet civilians were used until they couldn't work anymore, and then executed, so their food and their houses and everything else that was once theirs could be utilized to feed German civilians and German soldiers, so their land could be taken for the goals of the Great German Empire.
To put it bluntly, Germany wanted power, and it wanted other people's things. Despite many other nations attempting to be as kind as possible and to do everything in their power to assuage its hunger, Germany refused to stop. It reached out and killed, and crushed, and killed, and took. Eventually it killed so many people and ruined so many lives and stole so many things that it set itself up for its own downfall. I don't believe in karma in a religious sense. But there's a much easier to see form of karma in this world, and that's what other people do to you because of your choices. We all have the ability to make enemies for ourselves, to take more than we should, to harm people because we want to.
END WORLD WAR II TALK
In the Genocide run of Undertale, you kill everyone. In character, Chara kills everyone because they're the remnant of a deeply hurt and angry person who has come back as an inhuman creature - a being that only lives for the thrill of EXP and LV, for seeing their stats go up. They're driven by this urge to make themselves stronger, to feel the glory of conquering and destroying their enemies. You go along with them too, perhaps buoyed on these gains, or perhaps simply curious to see what happens. Throughout your voyage, you see enemies who you would never have had to face - people that you could have lived peacefully alongside - converted into terrifying foes far stronger than anything else in the game. Unlike my historical example, however, it's possible for you to defeat every foe in your way, and to achieve a true ending.
What is the ending you get for ignoring everyone's attempts to assuage you, to be your friend, to figure out what's wrong with you, to try to treat you like a respectable living being? Nothing. There is no glorious empire of a thousand years after achieving your goals. There is no wondrous victory and perfect life after destroying every enemy and taking and crushing and aggrandizing oneself. There is simply a yawning blackness wherein all is for naught, the plot winds to a halt with no conclusion whatsoever, and you and your best friend, the original murderer, hang out in the empty void of oblivion. Your new homes, for all time, are the graves you've dug for each other.
This is, of course, naive in its own way. History is full of people who chose brutality and were rewarded for it, who destroyed all their enemies and lived a long and happy life wherein they didn't have anyone to fear. But it is still a truth that those who seek the use of violence will create enemies in doing so, and in many cases, the glory they seek ends up falling to pieces soon enough. Many have sought the role of conqueror, and of this multitude, a great many have found themselves in a deep and howling endless void - a life severed unexpectedly with no conclusion or achievement at the end to make it worth something.
Undertale is interesting through this lens though, because it allows us just a little bit of a power that we in the real world could never have. This is Determination, the ability to repeat cycles and try again with greater knowledge and skill - another one of UT's attempts to take game mechanics and turn them into real in-universe things. Unlike the thousand conquerors of old who found themselves dead upon their enemies' swords, we possess the ability to learn and change our strategies - to go back and defeat those nemeses that once seemed unbeatable. We can defeat every rival, make it through every hurdle. Why should we be content to remain in this dead end world with our annoying friend? We don't have to deal with this garbage. Let's go back. We can see the happy ending too, if we want. Who cares?
Our path was hard, and we turned many people who gave us a chance into hateful foes. Everything we did was the result of our own actions making things harder for ourselves, but we simply become stronger, and we destroyed it as well. Now Undertale gives us something truly terrifying - a foe we cannot destroy. The rival that empowered us, and that we empowered in turn - the rival that would have been nothing more than a long-dead ghost had we not chosen the path of victory, violence, and power - Chara. You see... we cannot escape this hell we've built. Because it wasn't us who performed the final step of destroying the world and ending all things. It was Chara. And only Chara can rebuild it.
This is why Chara cannot be overcome. Chara isn't always us. But at the end of the Genocide route, Chara has become us, just as we have become Chara. We could only make it this far because of their help, because we used the path they laid down long ago. The most dangerous thing in a world where you've destroyed every opponent is the person who gave you the power to do it. Every challenge up to this point has ended the same way, more or less. But this is, for the first time, a truly novel opponent. This is an one who is exactly as strong as we are, who cannot be killed by power, or defeated by some sort of ingenious trick. There is only one way to "defeat" Chara, and that's to give up. Chara doesn't hurt us in any real way. All Chara does is piggy back on our soul, claiming a bit of ownership, after letting us go back and walk through the world again playing it how we wish. Chara barely interrupts the game, except at the very end of it - a sort of cheeky reminder that they are still alive in there somewhere. A reminder that we have lost.
Because that's really what that stinger is. It's not somehow a horrible damning accusation that renders us a bad person. It's not necessarily even saying that after doing something truly heinous there is no forgiveness, although you could certainly read it as such. What it really, actually is showing us is that the ability to do that act is something we once possessed, and could possess again. And more importantly, that for all we became the strongest being in the world, there are some foes we can never ever defeat - foes that would have never existed if only we had made different choices.
By the way, aren't choices interesting? Have you ever done something and wished you could take it back?
You have, haven't you? Were you able to do so?
You probably couldn't, could you? When you did something bad, when you hurt someone, or messed up, or made someone upset, or hurt yourself, or lost something you really cared about - you couldn't undo that, right? You could make amends - go back, perhaps, and spend as much time as possible being nice to someone, find an additional copy of that thing you cared about, apologized, got better eventually, et cetera. But could you ever make that action disappear forever? Could you go back in time with your own Determination and relive that experience, doing it the right way that time, freeing yourself from the obligation?
You couldn't, could you?
That's what Undertale really means when Chara laughs at you for thinking your actions won't have consequences.
Determination /is/ power. Normal playthroughs of Undertale are easy - you will only have to use your Determination rarely, if at all. But the Genocide playthrough is hard, it demands constant attention to detail. If you miss a step, or forget something, you are forced back onto the neutral route. How do you deal with this? By reloading your save, and performing it properly. You face bosses that attack you in such a way that even those with the best reflexes will be severely tested. In fact, Sans has a trick that simply immediately kills you if you choose the wrong option (even though it's a Spare choice, which you should know not to click in this route, the urge to see it directly ties into the completionist energy within). The game directly associates Determination with Power, with a world where you stand on top and no one else can (It's said that only the being with the most Determination in an area can Save, your presence dominates Flowey, and then Chara dominates you in the ending.) Thus it's a mandatory part of the game's discussion of power that in the long run, glorifying might makes right leaves you eventually defeated by an absolute power stronger by yourself, against which the Determination that brought you all the way to the end of the path is utterly useless (because no matter how much you reload your save, you cannot defeat Chara.)
Undertale essentially gives you nothing more than a simple slap on the wrist, but that slap on the wrist is symbolic - it represents the negation of your ability to escape consequences entirely. In the real world, the principle of might makes right really is a problem - if you have power, it seems like you can bypass any issue and break through any wall. But those who live by the sword die by the sword, and no matter how strong and invincible you may feel, no glory lasts forever. That is what I believe Chara is trying to teach you about choosing to live in the way Undertale doesn't want you to live in.
at the risk of sounding terribly crass (and catty), i will reformat o’connor’s critique for Undertale. part of the game’s power is that it allows the player to feel like they’re part an intense network of emotions, spread across its cast of colorful characters. the game attaches a moral judgment to this act, suggesting being friendly, open, and merciful is the right thing to do. the stance, while not revolutionary, is certainly admirable, considering the violent tendencies of most games.
but the emotional high of making the decision to be good relies on the concomitant potential to be evil. and in order to maintain the desired sanctity of its good ending, the game suggests that there is indeed a way to go beyond salvation — a way that the game itself scripts and judges you for. the ideal Undertale player is docile, merciful, and does not question their path, even when the game presents no indication that things are moving forward. the ideal Undertale player is not you, does not have your name: you have already been here, left your dark mark, and now you must be exorcised. finding yourself in Undertale is dangerous.
But as you've seen - the game actively encourages you to want to play the route to learn about it. The game wants to be understood. You're seeing here that playing the perfect path is unsatisfying in some ways, that it seems to be divorced from the truth of certain characters, that it's the easiest to play and feels like it's the path taken by someone who doesn't really want to understand the world. Please consider the following: That the game wants you to experience every path in it and to think about how all their pieces work together. Though the game is talking to you and using you, the player, as a character - it's not really telling you what to do, when the characters cry and beg and scream at you in the Genocide route... It's asking you to experience it as a story, to see how each facet fits together into a theory of different things.
It feels like your frustration with the game is deeply, deeply, deeply fixated on the idea that Toby's remark about naming Chara after yourself. I think that this is done to help you think about actions as though you're doing them, not meant to say that the Genocide route represents you at all times. I think that you can take that point as simply an indicator of the "Gamer's Perspective" versus a character's perspective. As I mentioned, the Genocide route uses an emotional world you've grown to humanize and love to showcase the inhumanity of how games encourage you to play, which can have value when it analyzes tropes with real world counterparts. The game is not telling you that you are evil, that you are inherently bad - I think it's important to read it, once again, as fixating on gaminess more than anything by identifying you as an external being. In a way, yes, the game's perfect world is one that hates you - where it asks for you, the outsider, to act identically to how this being INSIDE THE GAME'S WORLD would act, because that being is kind and a moral aspiration for you. A world where you tread carefully and make life easier for those weaker than you, rather than simply doing whatever you want because you're bored and because you have power. But that doesn't mean that the game is actually telling you, the human sitting outside the computer right now, that you are an evil and terrible person for completing the Genocide route - or that you shouldn't play the game as you wish. It's only meant to show you an example of a happy outcome that you can viscerally experience and learn from. I have more comments on the perfect ending of Undertale's actual comments on morality, but I'll save those for later.