The monsters we fight (and the ones we save) in our simulated horrors

When we talk about our moral behavior and epistemic access to knowledge, video games would be the last place anyone would expect to serious discussion. Existentialism, ethics, and bad puns come together.

While most games barely go beyond traditional tropes of scoring points, solving puzzles, and defeating bad guys, there are a few that really do something different. Philosophically, it seems like video games are nothing but consumption, giving us some sort of reward for work or action and offering a way to experience pleasure from artificially simulated worlds. It might seem as though they offer no value of the human condition as far as aesthetics, ethics, or anything else is concerned. But, like novels, plays, and poetry, video games give us a simulated atmosphere for looking at our actions, thoughts, and values in a world we create. In video games, we understand why you might want to score points or defeat bad guys. A protagonist might save the world or rescue the princess, but why does he/she stop the bad guys and save the good guys?

Undertale is a role-playing video game in which you play as a human child lost in a world of monsters. As you meet monsters on your way back home, you learn their deep history, including the war between monsters and humans, the struggle for survival and happiness, and, of course, the bad puns. But, in contrast to the cliché of heroes beating up enemies, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to kill monsters or befriend them. The decisions you make influence what happens in the game. If you become a genocidal maniac, everyone fears you in their eerie, ominously wasted atmosphere. Your malevolence insidiously overcomes your soul as you show less attention to the refined, small beauties of your surroundings and become self-obsessed with your own image and sense of worth. However, if you make progress pacifically and amiably, then you enjoy the colorful characters, vibrant narrative while saving both monsters and humanity through the power of love.

The questions come up pretty quickly. If you choose to kill a monster who wants to kill you, then how do you justify your actions? Are you doing so out of self-defense or is there something else, like pleasure or power, at play? When you become friends with monsters, how do you know you can really trust them? Unlike, for example, gobbling a ghost in Pac-man, Undertale forces you to not only wonder these questions for yourself, but characters in the game directly want to know why you do things the way you do. As you play the game, you’ll find yourself developing relations to the lovable characters in the game and questioning the reasons and values behind everything you do. Why are you doing what you do?

pictured: Mercy

Before understanding the ethical premises of Undertale, we must understand how characters in the game actually have knowledge of who they are. After all, in a video game, characters are only computer-controlled algorithms that appear and disappear whenever anything is necessary in the game. They have no rational choice nor free will beyond what the game allow for them. But do any of them know this? The epistemic purpose (and, later, the question of the motive) comes from a character named Sans, a hoodie-sporting skeleton with powers of time-space manipulation and lame jokes. Sans, unlike most other characters, knows that the player can save and reset the game. And, from this knowledge that everything in his simulated world will only be restarted one day, he has adopted an existential nihilistic view of the world. He doesn’t see much value in what most other characters do. He plays along with the other characters’ lives as though they were truly meaningful and realizes that it’s okay for the protagonist to kill some enemies because you’ve “got to do what you’ve got to do.”

A video game character knowing he/she is in a game is surprisingly similar to the epistemic “brain in a vat” problem, which philosophers have debated as arguments for and against skepticism, solipsism, and consciousness. Can we truly know anything if we cannot rule out the possibility that we’re all just brains in a vat being simulated everything we experience and perceive about the world? While it may seem like a purely theoretical question that doesn’t actually change anything we do in our everyday experiences, some philosophers argue the “brain in a vat” problem has significance for artificial intelligence or theories of our identity. Could we put individuals into the bodies of others? Daniel Dennett for example has argued that it is physically impossible for a brain in a vat to replicate the what makes us a human being without a vat. In his story “Where Am I?” he describes a “transplanted” human brain being in a new body retaining original personality, but with new physical characteristics.

Someone like Sans would take the “brain in a vat” as a serious issue to how one should act towards others and understand there is truly no intrinsic purpose to life. The protagonist fights to survive and might kill monsters, and, at the end of the day, that’s all that will happen. Sans would still embrace an objective ethical framework to life, as he shows mercy or cruelty to the protagonist based on their actions, but, because he knows everyone is only living in a computer simulation, he might as well be just a brain in a vat with no control over anything (from his health, memory, and other values). We can explore how the knowledge of a simulated video game affects how characters should or shouldn’t behave.

Knowing that there are characters in the game well-aware of their situation in their universe and characters behave differently based on how you act towards them, it’s hard to imagine how there couldn’t be an objective ethical framework in place. Some characters might take a virtue-based ethics approach that you should do things that lead towards the virtues or that are in accordance with virtues. The characters exhibit emotions and passions like we do (leading to hilarious in-game quests such as dating skeletons, playing game shows, or flirting with planes), and the actions you choose to take influence what happens later on. These interactions allow the player to gain practical wisdom, and, as an Aristotelian might say, would allow you to understand how to be a virtuous person. In a simulated video game, it might appear as though there can’t be any objective source of knowledge, but, as characters behave with one another, they still perceive practical experience and wisdom of what has happened, and, from that, they can see what might happen. In this sense, a virtue-based ethics approach would appropriately describe the world of Undertale and, perhaps, our fictional realities in general.

What about other ethical frameworks? Would a utilitarian framework help us understand how characters behave? If we take the utilitarian notion that we should do what maximizes happiness for the largest number of people, then the game makes it clear we should only kill only when necessary (out of self-defense), and never “just because you can.” Killing unnecessarily would cause characters to distrust and show vices towards you, leading to less happiness for you and others in a way that we want the best future. It seems as though this explanation helps us understand Undertale’s actions, as well.

But, with our epistemic limits that we are in video game, any ethical framework has its issues. How could characters have knowledge of their own future upon which to compare what happens against? They have no free will, no motives, no reasons for doing anything other than the fact that the protagonist has made one decision or another. Since most characters act without knowledge of the outside world (or knowledge that they’re in a computer simulation), they have no way of determining what’s going to happen for themselves or what might happen, it’s up to the player to decide their fate. Unlike Sans’ motives for acting towards the protagonist with knowledge they are in a video game, it doesn’t make sense why anyone should behave a certain way or the other.

And maybe this explains that existential nihilism works.

No need to lay on the ground and feel like garbage.

Since Sans is the only character with knowledge of the outside world and he still behaves with an ethical framework, maybe we understand how our systems of ethics still have intrinsic value just because they are even if we have no objective way to prove them. Maybe the characters in Undertale behave certain ways towards you based off of your actions just because that’s “the way things are.” Or maybe our ethical frameworks still work in some other way we don’t fully understand. And this means we shouldn’t let our existential crises and epistemic limits to knowledge hurt our own behavior. Even with knowledge that we’re in a simulated horror of a video game, we can understand how to act towards each other. We shouldn’t let our limits to knowledge stop us from acting certain ways.

Now that winter break has started, I’ve finally had time to relax. And, though I haven’t seriously played a video game in about 5-6 years, the hours I’ve spent on Undertale have made me think about the nature of ethical value video games have, and the rest of life itself. Even if you don’t play video games, it might teach you a thing or two. 

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