What does it mean to be evil?
The answer to that question will likely vary from person to person. Some people will say that evil is in how much harm you inflict on others. Some will say that evil derives from selfishness and a lack of empathy for others. Whatever your answer is, you can likely act on that in some way in a video game. Whether it be going on a murderous rampagein Grand Theft Auto or going Renegade in Mass Effect, there’s a video game for the evil monster in you. But, a question that I must ask is:
What does it mean to be evil in a video game?
Odd question, but what I mean by this is the fact that you’re always a bit disconnected from the action taking place on the screen. Like, say you boot up GTA 5 and decide to just randomly start robbing stores. You could rob hundereds of stores, kill dozens of innocent shopkeepers, and you wouldn’t actually feel anything from it. It‘s not you that just robbed those stores, it’s Trevor, and you didn’t do anything bad. When’s the last time you felt a hint of regret or disgust when you killed dozens of people in a game?
This isn’t really a bad thing. I mean, if our evil actions on the screen actually affected our morality in real life, we’d all be remorseless killers, or feel so bad about our actions that we couldn’t have all the fun we’re having in GTA or other games. The big point here is that you’re not being evil in these games. You’re playing evil in a world with no consequences.
Major Undertale spoilers follow. Please, please play the game first.
Undertale takes all the stuff I just said about most games nowadays and just throws it out the window. It does a lot of things that look like an average morality system, but instead of applying it to the main character, it applies to you, the player.
In the game, you can either hug the world and make friends with everyone or leave a trail of blood in your wake, like many other games. However, the game doesn’t just let you make the choices for the person you’re controlling, oh no, it makes it abundantly clear that you are the one committing these acts. It is made very clear that there is no 4th wall here, and the game calls you out on many, many actions that you can take.
The best way in which it does this is, in my opinion, the difference in difficulty between a pacifist and genocide run. The pacifist run, most would agree, is easier and less frustrating than the genocide run. You have less health in pacifist, but Undyne the Undying and Sans show up in a genocide run to make your life hell. The pacifist run is happy and cheerful, with a feel good atmosphere for the most part and interesting puzzles in every battle. Genocide runs trade that for a horror atmosphere, tediously grinding through each area, and boring, oneshot battles for the most part. The game questions why anyone would want to commit genocide, as it is almost objectively worse in every way, and a much better and happier path exists. Taking the worse path just to commit genocide? Just to see everything? That’s not Frisk or Chara doing all that, that’s you.
So what if the game calls you out, you say? It’s not permanent, you can just restart. Well, one, the game again calls you, the player, out and says that toying around with this universe for your own fun is just sick. Two, it is permanent in a way. Going through with genocide and destroying the world forces you to give up your soul to get the game back, and that permanently ruins the good ending. It takes advantage of everything players are used to being outside the narrative of the game. Saving, reloading, the 4th wall, all these are used to attack those who commit evil, and the safe haven of restarting is no longer safe. You’re forced to face your crimes in a way unlike any other game I’ve seen.
I’m not saying every game should do this, not at all. If games like Infamous did this and made you uncomfortable as hell, playing evil would be no fun, and players who chose that path would *ahem* have a bad time. And not in a good way. Plus, breaking the 4th wall does not work in most games. Still, I love the fact that a game has come along that lets you, not the main character, be evil.