It's often been debated that morality has no place in video games; that video games should serve as an outlet for stress or a medium between friends. In recent years, though, it seems that adding morality into games has become more of a trend with series such as Fallout, Mass Effect, and Fable popularizing the concepts of morality and alignment in video games. Whether this becomes a distraction for players or enhances their immersion in the game, one thing is for sure: morality still has a ways to go in terms of how it's explored and executed in video games.
Although the games that have incorporated a sense of "right and wrong" within their gameplay have usually done it fairly well, there are still some doubts over whether or not there is enough weight behind the decisions that players make in-game. What is the point of committing to being an evil character in Fallout or in Mass Effect when the player hardly has to go to any effort to turn things around and make the game recognize them as a hero? To take it one step further, why should any decisions in any role-playing game matter when there is no permanence to the choices that players make?
These are some of the questions I've wondered to myself in my long history in gaming, especially when it comes to RPGs. There's no doubt that RPGs are becoming hugely sensational, with titles like Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 dominating in sales and reviews since they were released earlier in the year. But regardless of whether gamers are creating a customized character in Fallout 4 or stepping into the boots of famous Witcher Geralt of Rivia, it can be difficult to be truly immersed when games try to involve the character more than they engage with the player themselves. In my opinion, it seems as though game developers have stepped away from trying to engage with those who play their games and have opted to create these epic arcs for characters that are disconnected from the player.
Granted, I didn't pick up on any of this until I had played Undertale. Undertale was developed with a singular vision, seeing as it was developed largely by one person. The narrative in Undertale suggests, on the surface, that the player is playing as a human lost in a world full of monsters with only one way to return to the world of humans. Underneath this narrative, however, is a conglomerate of ideas that serve to not only reshape how I felt about Undertale, but how I felt about gaming as a whole. True immersion comes from engaging the player directly and making sure that they know they're involved. True morality comes from the player actually stopping to think about their decisions and how it might affect things in-game, even if none of it is real.
The option is there in to be evil and in some rare cases, to become the villain of the story in a game. Despite this, only a handful of games have ever successfully tackled the issue of morality and captured it in such a way that players are forced to think about what they did while reflecting on the choices they made. Undertale threw players into a vibrant world with places filled to the brim with interesting and likable characters. Through interactions with those characters, the player genuinely feels like they should befriend them and make this fictional world a better place. The player can even take the difficult path and choose to never resort to violence, even though it would be easier to do so. This is not the case in every playthrough, however, and some players decide to go down the path of genocide: the annihilation of every character in the game.
Unlike other games that allowed players to control some pseudo-villain, Undertale branded immoral players as "monsters" and stressed that they only did what they did because they could. A world that was once teeming with life and hopeful characters became barren and completely devoid of life, should the player decide to kill everyone in their way. The player can do this and as a result, stops encountering monsters at all. Dialogue and music shifts to reflect the evil being that the player turns into. Towns become desolate and the player finds out how lonely the world is when everyone in it dies. On top of all of that, the game doesn't put any blame on the character you control; it goes to drastic lengths to emphasize that it was you, the person, that was the villain of the story. Through your actions, you either befriended the protagonists and saved everyone, or the protagonists rose up to stop you, only to be killed by your hand.
Toby Fox designed a game that capitalized on the idea that, just like outside of video games, our decisions have consequences and more importantly, permanence. As much as people might wish against this, no one has the ability to "save" and "load" at certain points in their life and manipulate time. Saving and loading in Undertale no longer acts as a safety net for players, since characters will always remember the decisions that are made, even if the save file is completely erased. A quick save and reload to "see what happens," will end with characters remembering what the player did and they won't ever let the player forget that they know.
Conventionally, characters in video games have no knowledge of the player or the things that the player does and breaking the fourth wall is generally not something that is done in video games. However, both the main antagonist and protagonist have the ability to save and load just as the player does, which changes the dynamics of the game entirely and makes it different from 99% of all of the video games ever released.
But what does any of this have to do with other RPGs? It's obvious that most RPGs can't include those ideas as part of the game and surely, games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls wouldn't do as well if they were this complicated. While that is true, if we see more games in the future that are similar to Undertale with elements of video games like morality, immersion, and our attachment to the game itself, we could potentially see a new wave of video games that change the meta of video games as a whole. Rather than seeing the shallow integration of morality to a game that could do well without one (Fallout 3's Karma system compared to Fallout 4's lack of a morality system), the game could draw from the player's morals and values to create their own unique experience. Characters could be just as "powerful" as the player controlling the game, with the ability to use saving and loading or other things that players have exclusively been able to do in games. Any number of things are possible and games like Undertale have opened the minds of game developers, as well as having opened the door to many new possibilities to expand on narratives and storytelling in games.
Game developers, especially independent ones, are always looking for the next big thing to turn gaming as a whole on its head. At the very least, games like Undertale, which create a narrative masterpiece, cement the notion that games should be used as a creative outlet and that they can talk about heavy issues like morality and justice. Just as movies and canvases are used to help people interpret major ideas like good versus evil, religion, human nature, and a whole heap of other concepts, video games should be on the same, if not higher, level of creative expression. It's been proven time and time again, most recently with Undertale, that games can not only talk about things like morality, but show players how it works and introduce them to ways of thinking that they didn't know about before. In the future, I can only hope that game developers learn from this and how they can bring thought and feeling back into their games because as of now, RPG developers have certainly lost that connection with their fans.