Indie Games of Guilt: Undertale and The Stanley Parable

[spoilers for the games in the title, so be warned]

Well, everyone else has churned out an Undertale thinkpiece by now, so why not I?

Video games have been making players feel guilty ever since YOUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE, and probably earlier. Sometimes this was all a part of the show, and others it was a way for developers to openly harass you. I can still remember the narrator of Logical Journey of the Zoombinis telling you to turn off the computer, or The Dagger of Amon Ra forcing you to watch the protagonist get murdered if you failed to solve the game’s murder mystery. Nevermind the cries of horror from supporting characters should you walk the path of darkness in Knights of the Old Republic, or pretty much any Bioware game, for that matter.

This kind of guilt stems from the game making judgments of the player’s behavior, or cruelly punishing you for not doing well enough. These days, though, guilt is the game, at least for some popular indie titles. Undertale and The Stanley Parable don’t appear to have much in common at first, but both use the mechanics of guilt as a playing field to test the user’s boundaries and push your further.

Undertale has been endlessly analyzed and picked apart by now, but in case you’re unfamiliar, guilt is this game’s bread and butter. At first glance, it’s a minimalist SNES-style RPG that submits you to regular battles with enemies in a monster-infested world. However, the game now-famously gives players the choice to either be completely good, sparing all opponents and not gaining any “EXP,” or be the opposite and seek out and destroy every single creature in the game’s fictional world. Most will probably fall somewhere in the middle, at least the first time through.

I recently beat Undertale with my girlfriend. We took the “pacifist” route, unlocked the most satisfying ending, and, after the credits finally ended, launched the game one more time to be greeted with a message begging us not to reset it. Even in the best case scenario, the one where you spare virtually everybody and never truly harm a soul, the game still finds a way to make you feel bad about your choices. If you do kill creatures in the game, you open yourself up to criticism almost immediately as characters openly comment about how bloodthirsty you are.

Faced with that choice, we decided we had no desire to go back. And we probably won’t. That’s the only way to truly “beat” the game, although some might argue that abstaining is actually robbing yourself of the whole experience, since there are some events that only open up if you play through multiple times and eventually decide to go “genocidal.”

No matter how you decide to play, Undertale pulls a pretty major guilt trip on you towards the end anyway. Although the standard genre trappings would make you think you earn “experience points,” a monologue reveals that EXP actually refers to “execution points,” i.e. your capacity to kill without remorse. So, all that time you thought you were leveling up, you were becoming more and more heartless. The poor gamers who dove right in without hearing any of the buzz must have been gut-wrenched to get to that part.

But where does the definition of what is “good” and “bad” in a game come from, anyway? In game theory terms, traditional “finite” play has a protagonist and an antagonist, a goal and a way to lose, but infinite, “recursive” play does not. Hijacking the game for your own perverse ends could be good or bad, depending on whether you define it that way or let the game define it for you.

Such are the lessons of the other game I wanted to mention, The Stanley Parable. Like Undertale, this game sets up expectations and then tests you to see whether or not you’ll violate them. It starts out simply enough: a narrator is guiding your character through an abandoned office when you reach a set of doors. He instructs you to go left (he actually puts it in the past tense, as if you already went left), but there’s nothing stopping you from breaking the script and going right. Doing so prompts a series of further choices, which can test the narrator even more, causing him to become downright hostile.

The thing is, the Narrator, a stuffy-sounding British man with hostility lurking just below his pleasant voice, really does want your character to find happiness, of a sort. Maybe. If you listen to his commands and follow the story as he describes it, you actually do reach probably the best ending available, one where your character, the office drone Stanley, gets a chance to find Paradise. It’s only if you disobey the prescribed path that the narrator changes what they want, opting to drive you insane, or punish you for being selfish, or just beg for you to play the game the “right” way.

And none of the endings you find if you stray off the beaten path tend to be that “good,” either. One of them, in fact, only concludes when you’ve hurled yourself off the top of a flight of stairs until you die, with the narrator pleading for you to stop and go do something enjoyable instead. Moments like this approach a sort of existential horror: like Undertale, the player has gone from being the victim of a series of arbitrary rules to the one in control, perhaps even the villain. Although both games clearly give you the choice to do something violent or destructive, to work against the “intended” narrative, the other NPC’s don’t actually expect you to do anything about it.

In another context, it’s easy to imagine this being the point. The joy of taking the “wrong” path, seeing the “bad” ending and causing as much mayhem as possible in video games has generally been to see the game world turn against you and laugh at its pitiful attempts at moral condemnation. Isn’t this the reason that Grand Theft Auto and other stylized ultra-violent romps are so cathartic? It’s a chance to gleefully destroy things while assuring yourself that none of what you’re doing actually matters, or has any impact on you, the player.

Interestingly, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Like I said above, I have no intention or desire to play through Undertale’s Genocide or No Mercy endings, partly because I don’t usually do that, but also because it doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t feel like doing so would be fun. And even the people on YouTube who have posted videos of themselves tearing through the virtual world one creature at a time seem to do so almost apologetically. Is this because the world developer Toby Fox created is so palpable and cute that we genuinely feel bad about wanton destruction? Or is it because the game actually does implicate the player, not the character, who may or may not be the possessing spirit of that universe’s ultimate, elusive evil? Even for desensitized gamers, those who grew up on the RPG’s the game resembles, the goal of the game is to make violence mean something, and to illustrate the defenses people put up that allow them to commit heinous acts.

Stanley doesn’t seem to be as gut wrenching, partly because it’s far shorter than even the relatively concise Undertale (I “beat” it about four times during one hour the first time I booted it up). Still, the joke seems to be on you if you decide to do something “wrong,” and there’s no real way to outsmart the game itself. Flummoxing the narrator seems to be a kind of victory, but it always ends with some sort of unsatisfying oblivion. Stanley can only really find happiness on someone else’s terms, and attempts to define your own vision of success can only be judged by you.

Maybe you relished the ending where you jumped off a platform multiple times as a kind of ultimate “up yours” to determinism. If that’s the case, you’re welcome to rejoice in your ending: the game certainly won’t do it for you. It’s certainly fun to intentionally frustrate the narrator by doing the exact opposite of what he asks until the whole game glitches out, but there’s nothing close to closure or happiness to be had that way. I thought one of the more hidden endings, in which your character discovers an escape pod and blasts away from the empty building, would be a nice middle ground, offering freedom on your own terms, but this is an awkward choice that doesn’t give you any real hint as to what lies beyond.

What’s truly amazing about Stanley is the tremendous range of emotions it generates with a simple range of tools. There are precious few other characters, and most of the game really is wandering around corridors and offices…until it isn’t. It’s been called “interactive fiction,” and while that term doesn’t only refer to text adventures, Stanley is a throwback to the glory days of parser-based games like Bureaucracy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide game, which were pretty much dramatized arguments between the player and an anal-retentive narrator, anyway.

I guess what both of these games are saying is: stop taking so many things for granted! Games came to be considered art in the first place because generations of people were having emotional experiences through them, similar to the epiphanies critics have described in response to films, painting, comics, rock music and theater. With “retro” games still they indie palette du jour, we seem to be reaching a point where reflection is pushing developers to new boundaries. Instead of simply agreeing to live this life, we have to actually evaluate what it is worth and the consequences of our actions. As long as we know there are other decisions to be made, we may feel guilty, but the key is to be able to live with certain kinds of guilt and not feel tempted into making choices we’ll regret. Because if we do get the chance to make those choices, they may not turn out to be what we expect anyways.

Like, what if one of those choices is to write 1,700 words about video games instead of going out on a Friday night? What sort of life decisions will we…

Oh. Wait…