Thursday, April 21, 2016

A True Test of CHARActer

“Brave ones, foolish ones - Both walk not the middle road.”

Warning: Severe spoilers for “Undertale” ahead. Only continue if you have already finished the game, or have no intention of playing it (and even then I recommend at least giving it a chance first).

So, I wanted to talk about two things today that go hand in hand: Why I’ll never ever do a “Genocide” run of “Undertale”, and my personal interpretation of the character of Chara. I don’t think I’m saying anything that hasn’t already been said somewhere at this point with the game’s popularity and discussion of it refusing to fully die down, but I hope that at least I’m the first one saying all these things at the same time, and giving a more nuanced viewpoint on certain things.

Now, I have never played a Genocide run. I have never watched someone else do a Genocide run apart from random clips that people insert into other Undertale videos when I’m not prepared for it, and even then I’ll avert my gaze more likely than not. I have no need to do either. Reading a brief overview of the gameplay differences and an explanation of the additional “plot elements” it introduces was enough to sate whatever minimal morbid curiosity I may ever have had about that side of the game. I do not, nor have I ever, nor WILL I ever, have ANY desire whatsoever to go back and ruthlessly slaughter all the new friends that I made, became invested in, and worked so hard to save. That, to me, seems to completely go against Undertale’s core message about changing the way we approach and solve problems, especially in video games and modern culture.

And the one thing that I actually do appreciate about the Genocide run’s existence (aside from Those Two Music Pieces that I can experience without the death through the magic of mp3 and YouTube) and why I’m glad it’s an option despite my disdain for it is that it completely agrees with me. It calls out the player CONSTANTLY for their actions, and doesn’t let them off the hook for the choices they’ve made. It takes people to task for being so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they never stopped to think if they should. It’s an appropriate punishment for anyone who didn’t get the message the first hundred times starting from the game’s tagline of “The Friendly RPG where Nobody Has to Die” that, while it can be a fun sort of venting and escapism from time to time, the way we approach killing in video games is often straight proper noun F!@#ed Up. It drops the game’s message on player’s heads like an anvil because apparently all the “sublte” hints weren’t enough. And I like that – Genocide players did bad things and they should feel bad for it, and few people who have played through the route disagree with that assessment.

But then you get the people who claim that you “have to” play the Genocide run because it “reveals so much more about the story.” Sorry, it doesn’t. It reveals some extra information about a few characters that, while certainly interesting, is not actually necessary to know and appreciate the characters fully. It just reinforces and/or clarifies what can easily be picked up in the Pacifist and even Neutral runs. It grants a different perspective, but not really an essential one to the enjoyment or appreciation of the world and the story that Toby Fox has created. In fact, I think it muddies and confuses things in some instances.

And that’s where Chara comes in.

Chara is arguably the most enigmatic and ill-defined character in the game, and I think this was entirely intentional. You first meet Chara in the very first cutscene of the game as the little kid that falls into Mt. Ebott in the year 201X (which is “Twenty Ex-teen”, not “Twenty-One Ex” for those keeping score). You are then given a prompt to “Name the Fallen Human.” Which you do. And because you just saw a human “fall down”, you naturally assume that the one you named is the one you’re controlling. But it’s not. That’s Frisk. You named Chara – the first human to fall into the underground.

Now, even the name Chara is only accepted because when you enter it in the naming field, the text that normally says “Is this name correct?” changes rather ominously to “The True Name.” This is simply because the game was coded with “Character” as the default Character name and again, as a default, was shortened to one less than the Character limit for names.

Toby Fox has stated that his intention is that people name the character after themselves (with full knowledge that people will more likely enter something wildly inappropriate because what else are naming systems in video games good for?). This is incredibly telling to Chara’s purpose in the game – as a full representation of the player. It’s no secret that the Chara that is met at the end of the Genocide run is the personification of our detachment when playing video games. It’s all about getting the highest numbers, and making sure your numbers are bigger than other numbers so that you can “beat” the game with no investment in the story or lore or NPCs you interact with. It’s the logical and frightening conclusion to the threat of Flowey, though at this time even that little bastard is too intimidated by the threat you pose.

Of course, with Chara being all scary-like, calling themself a “Demon” and wresting control of the game from you and only giving it back if you sell your soul – forever tainting your game unless you know how to navigate game files – it’s easy to shift blame onto them and forget that the only reason this is happening is that YOU made the decision. Because Chara IS you. But that’s just the meta-commentary, the further punishment for YOUR actions killing everyone in a game where nobody has to die. They are still a fully-functioning character in the game in any route. They were the first human to fall, the adopted son of Asgore and Toriel, and Asriel’s best friend.

Many people have now come to terms with this but, unfortunately, they go the other extreme – portraying Chara as a pure innocent whose ONLY motivation for being “evil” in Genocide was because YOU made them that way, and they’d be a perfectly happy and well-adjusted kid otherwise. But, of course, that makes almost less sense. We are flat out told by the tapes in Alphys’ lab, and by Asriel if we take the time to find him again before leaving the underground, that Chara’s death was a planned suicide. Chara hated humanity, and wanted to kill people, and it was only Asriel stopping them that got both of them into this mess. “Maybe the truth is,” Asriel says, “[Chara] wasn’t really the greatest person.”

So here’s where I give my take on Chara, and as usual, it lies somewhere between the two extremes.

As stated, Chara is a representation of the player. When we control Frisk’s actions, we are doing it as the memory of Chara – not a full-on ghost possession, but certainly an influence. How that influence manifests depends on what we do.

Now, the original, real Chara, the character from the past, is clearly a misanthrope. They likely ran away from an abusive situation of some kind, and this has given them a nasty disposition. That being said, I do believe that Chara genuinely cared about their adopted family and the culture of monsters, but I also think they were unable to properly express that in any meaningful positive way (i.e., laughing off Asgore’s sickness and the light bullying of Asriel’s overemotional tendencies).

If you, the player, gives in to Chara’s negative tendencies, then they fully take over and become a manifestation of their (and your) darkest self. But if you are guided by the shred of decency, the modicum of caring that Chara had despite their misanthropy and the “kill or be killed” mantra they believed and indirectly taught Asriel/Flowey, then they’ll peacefully back off and let Frisk and the monsters have their happy ending, both of you satisfied.

And I think that lesson is well-enough shown and works well enough even if someone is not even aware that a Genocide run exists. Simply the twist at the end of Pacifist when Asirel states “You’re not really [Chara], are you?” clues you in enough and sends you the message that it’s okay to relinquish control and let the characters in the story continues without your influence – and that’s good enough without the horror.

But that’s just me. That’s my CHARActer. What’s yours?

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