So let’s start at the end. Recently, at the April 2019 Salt Lake FanX Comic Convention, as I am legally required to call it without being sued by the San Diego Comic Con, I went dressed up as Chara from the video game Undertale(If you don’t know who that is, or haven’t played Undertale, I may do some spoiling, so only keep reading if you have played it and/or will probably never play it and don’t care about being spoiled. Anyway, while I was there, I was looking for additional costume pieces, and I came across a necklace that seemed perfect, as it almost looked like the Undertale heart logo, and Chara is supposed to have a heart locket, so I picked it up and wore it as part of the costume.
It was a pretty cool part of the costume, to be sure, but for some reason there was a little more to it. I liked wearing it. For some reason it felt good to wear it, safe, friendly. I didn’t know exactly why; after all, it’s just an 8-bit heart necklace, just metal and paint, but for some reason it felt like there was a deeper meaning to me wearing it, something that I couldn’t articulate very well at the time, but strong enough that I’ve actually worn it every day since then, often under my shirt. I’ve tried coming up with a few different articulated reasons as to why I feel such a strong connection with a piece of jewelry (other than the possibility that, like, Sauron made it, but that seems unlikely), but when people have asked me, “Hey, that’s a neat necklace; why are you wearing it?” (because, you know, a guy can’t just wear a necklace without having a reason, that’s just the society we live in) I’ve had a hard time coming up with a good, short answer beyond “I want to wear it.” For you see, the true reason is far more complicated than I can explain to some clerk at a gas station, and far more personal than I feel like blurting out to Stranger #14 at Wal*Mart or wherever.
But I shall attempt to do so here.
A few years ago, in March of 2017, I planned a camping trip to Goblin Valley State Park in central-ish Utah (if you’re not familiar with it, it’s where they filmed the part of Galaxy Quest with the rock monster, and if you’re not familiar with that then go watch Galaxy Quest, it’s great) with some of my favorite people in the whole world: my good friend Johnathan Whiting, and my two nieces Ivy and Madeleine, who at this point were just barely 14 and 13 years old, respectively. The four of us had hung out on many occasions (most notably we’ve recorded over 100 videos of a game called Dokapon Kingdom that is on my YouTube “Let’s Play” channel), and the girls’ parents didn’t want to come as neither of them are big on camping, so it was just us four. Now, I’m not a huge camper either (a fact that will be important later), but despite being a city boy who grew up in the suburbs, I’m still a Utahn who did Scouting trips when I was a teenager and I can appreciate getting out in nature every once in a while, which was one reason I wanted those girls to come, to just experience something they hadn’t before that their parents weren’t really interested in.
So we set out over Spring Break. We arrived in the afternoon, set up tents, drove into the park and went hiking around for a few hours, came back and had dinner, etc. etc….in short, a normal camping experience for the most part. In the morning we had breakfast and got completely packed and ready to drive back home. We had probably about an hour or so before we had to leave, though, so we decided to take one last sojourn into the park and hike around for a bit. A ways into the park the terrain gets a little more dangerous: high hills and steep cliffs and scattered boulders everywhere, though for the most part you can navigate fairly easily as long as you take it slowly.
At one point I was taking a breather and resting on top of a large boulder at the top of a steep incline. The other three in the group had gone down the incline, up the next one, and were trying to reach the top. At one point one of them called over to me and asked if I saw a path up (we knew there was one somewhere because there were a handful of hikers that day, and some had made it up there). Johnathan and Maddie were near each other on an incline littered with boulders, while Ivy was about ten feet away from them, close to an overhang over a 15-foot cliff above a steep, packed-dirt hillside. From my vantage point I didn’t see an easy way up to the top, so I called to them that I didn’t see one Ivy’s way (what with it being a cliff and all), but there might be one around the back going the other way. As they continued climbing, I lay back and enjoyed the moment. It was late March in Southern Utah, and the temperature was absolutely perfect. It had been raining earlier in the week but during our trip the skies were clear and sunny, and the dirt was still a little softer than usual since it hadn’t been baking for days. A slight breeze blew its way around the rock formations, and all I could hear were the muffled sounds of hikers nearby as they were climbing and clambering their way through this unique landscape.
I didn’t see the exact moment when she fell.
A flash of movement caught the corner of my eye, and I swiveled my head around to see what it was. And there she was: Ivy, in complete freefall, limp as a ragdoll and somehow spinning head over heels, now plummeting down the very same cliffside I had seen her near earlier.
“IVY!!!!!” I screamed, more forcefully than I have ever screamed anything in my life; so strong and loud that it alerted everybody within hearing distance. I honestly have never screamed as loud as I did then; I don’t think I’m physically able to do so on command.
I didn’t see the actual impact either; it was obscured by a boulder that stood in between us, though later it was clear that she had landed on her face. I did see her rolling down the steep hillside, though, and the only clear thought that came through my ever-analytical brain was, oddly, “Wow, she’s rolling pretty well. Like, it looks kinda controlled. Must’ve been all that Zelda she plays that helped her know how to roll with an impact like that.” This was, of course, nonsense in the end, but it was the one thought that somehow cut through the panic and the shock.
Just as soon as that thought had come and gone, though, I sprang up from my sitting position and very nearly leaped off the rock I was on to check on her. That, however, probably would’ve resulted in me sustaining the same injuries, so instead, still in mostly-panic mode, I had to somehow navigate down off my own perch, through some treacherous drops and boulders, in order to make it to her side. By the time I was out of the dangerous area, she had come to a stop, after falling about fifteen feet, landing on her face, and rolling down a steep hill for about another sixty vertical feet that, fortunately, was still a bit soft due to the rain earlier in the week.
I was the first to reach her. Legs tangled in a heap, head lolling to one side, snow-white skin spattered with bright red blood.
It was then I had my second coherent thought. “If anybody in the future comes up to me and asks if I have ever seen what death looks like, I can now tell them I have, because it looks like this.”
I knelt down beside her. No tears, no outburst, nothing. Just dread inevitability.
Fifteen seconds went by before I could hear her raspy gasps for breath.
Soon other hikers started gathering, many of which had first aid training. I had first aid training once, when I was in Scouts. I should know what to do. Once, a long time ago, when I was Ivy’s age, I had known what to do. But it had been so long, and none of it was readily available to me. Hikers who were knowledgeable took over. Some called for some fast young men to run quickly and fetch the park ranger (there was no cellphone service anywhere in the park, at least not nearby) Others checked her vitals, checked for broken bones. I ended up parking myself under her legs in an attempt to get her body level on the steep incline until help arrived. At some point Johnathan and Madeleine had arrived on the scene, but I don’t remember their initial reactions, just that Madeleine was hysterical and Johnathan was doing his best to console her, as I could not do.
I wish I had written this down closer to the time it happened so there would be more details, but I couldn’t do it. Mostly now I remember moments instead of a complete narrative. Helping Ivy take off her shoes so she could wiggle her toes to make sure they weren’t broken. Sheepishly asking someone to fetch my hiking bag with supplies that I had left up where I was resting earlier. Madeleine making Undertale references (more on this later) in an effort to ground herself and Ivy in something familiar. Something like a dozen other hikers standing around, being incredibly supportive and helpful. And through it all, the constant whimpering, gasping, raspy-sounding cries coming from that blood-spattered pale face, which was terrible yet wonderful. It meant she was still with us.
I had not seen death that day.
The ranger arrived with a stretcher and told Ivy to keep making noises so that we knew she hadn’t passed out as we carried her. She started with a video game song (I forget which), but after only a few seconds it proved too much for her to continue with something so complicated, and it somehow morphed into “Jingle Bells.” We got her onto the stretcher and set off, the entire party: Johnathan, Maddie, me, about a dozen or more other hikers, the ranger and a cohort carrying the stretcher, all in complete silence, except for a small, raspy voice wheezing out of a sand-filled, blood-soaked throat:
“Duh-duh-duuuuh, duh-duh-duuuuuuh, duh duh duuuh, duduuuuuuuh…”
For nearly ten minutes we trudged through the desert sands, navigating through the hills and boulders we had been exploring not too much earlier. Occasionally you’d hear a sniffle from Madeleine, or some low talking from some of the other hikers, but for the most part it was just a small, plaintive voice:
“Duh-duh-duuuh, duh-duuuh-duh-duh, duh duh duuh duh duh duh duuuuuh, duuuuhh…”
It was surreal, hearing nothing but a soft breeze and a croaking rendition of a Christmas favorite, but there we were. A cluster of protectors and/or mourners, protecting a small fallen child on her way to safety.
Eventually we reached the parking lot, where we loaded her onto the ranger’s pickup truck that would take us to the park entrance, where the Lifeflight helicopter could land and take her to a “nearby” hospital (which was about 150 miles away in Grand Junction, Colorado; bad weather forced the helicopter pilot to forgo anything closer). At the ranger station I could finally call her parents with the news, which at this point was actually pretty good, all things considered: she was alive, she could move everything, no major bones were broken, she was on her way to the hospital — it could have been far worse. They immediately set out from Salt Lake out to Grand Junction, which was about a five-hour drive (this was now early afternoon), and since there was no extra room in the helicopter, Johnathan, Madeleine, and myself got into my car to do the same.
Then the car wouldn’t start.
Because of course.
Luckily it wasn’t that hard to get a jump from the ranger’s truck, and soon we were on our way. The entire time I had kept a cool head and was completely in business mode, especially since it was apparent that Ivy would be (relatively) fine. I had to see this whole thing through to the end now. After all, I was the one who had planned this trip, I was the one who was responsible for these girls, I was the one who had to put right what had gone wrong on my watch.
And then the doubts started to creep in. Though I hadn’t actually pushed her, it was when I was responsible for her that all this had happened. I wasn’t a trained outdoorsman, and I should have been more careful, should’ve been able to train the girls correctly in safer hiking techniques. She fell when it was noon and there were lots of hikers around, but the evening before we were out there when it was nearly pitch black and nobody else was nearby; what would have happened if she had fallen then? Would I be driving to a hospital knowing that she was in good hands and would recover, or…
I had to stay focused. I had to fix this as best as I could. I had to be strong for Ivy, be strong for Madeleine. I had to show to myself that this was an accident, that I had done my best, that I wasn’t negligent. Because it was an accident, I couldn’t have prevented it, right?
No use in second-guessing. We made it to the hospital, where the doctors informed us that she had fractured bones in her face and needed to be flown back to Salt Lake to Primary Children’s, where they had the staff and equipment needed to deal with the types of injuries she had sustained. We were in talks with the pilot about weight limits, because Madeleine wanted to stay with Ivy and I wanted to stay with them too as the responsible adult, and Johnathan could then drive my car home. But then her parents finally arrived on the scene, and I was quickly swapped out for her mother on the helicopter, and her dad got back in his car and started to drive back to Salt Lake, leaving Johnathan and myself alone in an unfamiliar town, with no situation to fix, no problems to resolve, nothing to do but spend the night at the local Ronald McDonald house and drive back the next day. I was doing my best to fix what I was in charge of, and then I was in charge of nothing, and I couldn’t do anything to fix anything.
Then the other thoughts began, the ones based more in social anxiety than in reason. “They obviously don’t trust you anymore. You hurt their daughter. You were responsible for this trip, a trip they were never in favor of from the start. You’re not a responsible camper, you’re a city boy who was in Scouts twenty years ago and wanted to go hang out where one of your favorite movies was filmed. Maybe if you took along someone more experienced or done this as part of a larger group like you used to do in church activities…”
Then more thoughts. “Johnathan said that he had a bad feeling about this trip from the start. He believes that it was the Spirit of God warning him that it shouldn’t happen. You left the church two years ago. You don’t believe in that any more. If only you had stayed within the fold, maybe you would have received that same inspiration and this wouldn’t have happened. Turn your back on God…and he turns his back on you.”
Most of this I knew wasn’t true logically, if not all of it. But understanding something logically and believing something emotionally are two separate processes, and as much as we want them to always harmonize, often they don’t, and we have to push on regardless.
Johnathan and I drove back to Salt Lake the next day straight to the hospital. I stayed as long as I could, though at some point I had to take Johnathan home and sleep at my own apartment. Though as I was there I was increasingly worried that I was more and more an unwanted presence. After all, there was nothing for me to do, with her parents there. All her other visitors had come in for a few hours and left, as is normal. It was too fresh to really talk about other than in a superficial way (these are the injuries, this will be her healing processes, etc.), and everyone was so focused on her that I might as well not have been around.
In a day or two she was finally released and I went with the family back to their home, but within a few minutes it was clear that I wasn’t being helpful. Everyone was just too tired. Now there was all this extra work to make her better. To get her through the school year. There were some permanent ramifications to her health. This girl had to wade through hell just to get back to where she was before, and that’s not even counting the emotional trauma that Madeleine had to also deal with (to this day she refuses to discuss anything Goblin-Valley-related with me). And still, there were those thoughts, the ones that kept insisting, “You were responsible for this. They all know that this trip was your idea and that your negligence caused this. They don’t want you around. They have to concentrate on her well-being. Nobody’s concentrating on your well-being. It’s not worth concentrating on. You are a problem that they now have to fix. You cannot fix this. You’re not able to fix this. Go home before they get even more resentful of your presence.”
So I went home.
Now, at this point, I have to make a weird detour to explain parts of the video game Undertale, for reasons that will eventually become clear (and again, some major spoilers!). If you want to skip this part you can (go to the next horizontal line), though I don’t know how much of the rest of this will make sense if you do.
Undertale is a game that those girls absolutely adore, and they got me to play it a few months before the trip. I thought it was pretty good at the time, but the more I analyzed it, the more I liked it, as it’s a truly emotional, heartfelt game that’s also really funny in spots and somehow makes you care deeply about the characters in it. I won’t recount the entire game here, but for my purposes I need to touch on a few things. The game is a cutesy RPG where you play as a child who has fallen, Alice-In-Wonderland-style, into an underworld populated by monsters, albeit (mostly) of the goofy, friendly kind. You can choose to either fight these monsters, increasing your LV and EXP and getting stronger like pretty much every other RPG, or you can befriend them all, which is more difficult and results in no EXP (meaning that bosses are way harder ’cause you’re stuck at LV 1 the whole game with piddly health), or a combination of the two, killing some and befriending others. How you play through the game determines the ending that you receive.
Most endings of the game follow variations on the Neutral route, where you’ve killed some monsters and befriended others. There’s also the Pacifist route, where you don’t kill any monsters and results in the Golden Ending where basically everyone is happy (which takes at least one prior Neutral ending to even be possible). Then there’s the third route, which is nearly impossible to stumble upon blindly without looking anything up online, as it requires you not only to kill all the bosses, but hang around in each area of the game and kill all the random encounters until there are none left. This is the Genocide or No-Mercy route, and it’s pretty dark; other than some darkly humorous bits in the first section or two it’s a depressing slog through murdering all these fun characters that you befriend on the other routes, and the game is so good at making you connect with these characters that a lot of people haven’t finished a Genocide run simply because they can’t bear to cut them down, even though the whole thing is fictional. The Genocide run, however, does result in two unique boss battles (which are magnitudes more difficult than any boss battles in the other routes) and is the only way to see some unique dialogue and learn some backstory that you can’t get any other way. But most importantly for my story, the Genocide run is the only way you get to truly see the character Chara.
As is standard in RPG’s, you get to pick a name at the beginning of the game. Most new players believe they are naming the child that you control throughout the game, but through a Pacifist run you learn that that child is actually named Frisk, and the person you named (whose default name is “Chara”, short for “character”, so pronounce it right!) is another person entirely (also called the “Fallen Child” in-game). A super-brief synopsis of her backstory (and I’m gonna call her a “her” even though in the game Chara’s gender is ambiguous, for reasons that may come up later) goes thusly: Long ago, humans and monsters engaged in a war. The humans won, and sealed the monsters underground beneath a barrier. Anybody can cross into the barrier, but leaving requires the power of at least a human and monster soul, and destroying the barrier entirely requires the power of seven human souls (which are stronger than monster souls). In the year 201X (according to the intro), Chara, a human child (the game never says specifically but she’s probably around twelve years old or so) who didn’t really like other humans very much, climbed the mountain over the underworld and fell into a hole through the barrier. She was injured, but nursed back to health by a family of goat-looking monsters, including their son Asriel who was about the same age. She grew to love them and they loved her, though none more than Asriel. She eventually learned of the situation with the barrier and devised a plan to free all the monsters from their prison: poison herself, and have Asriel take her soul in order to cross the barrier and find six more human souls to break it once and for all. This ended up backfiring, as Asriel didn’t really have it in him to kill six people (and they were both too young to think of, like, digging up graves or visiting terminal patients or anything), and ended up fatally wounded by a bunch of freaked-out people and died, though not before making it back to the underworld. A series of events (that aren’t currently important) occurred that eventually ended up with Chara buried under a field of flowers that had been planted under the hole where she had first fallen, and there her soul lay, until some undetermined time later, when another child, Frisk, fell into the same hole and somehow woke up Chara’s soul which then attached itself to Frisk. This is why, in battles and so forth, the name Chara (or whatever you put in) appears instead of Frisk: while Frisk is the child you’re controlling, the soul is actually Chara’s (or some amalgamation of the two kids’ souls or something, it isn’t 100% clear), and a popular fan theory is that all the narration text boxes actually come from Chara, speaking into Frisk’s mind or something.
From here it gets a little ambiguous, as sometimes the game doesn’t differentiate clearly between Frisk, Chara, and the player, but my interpretation is this: the actions you choose throughout the game, whether you kill monsters or spare them, has an effect on who Chara ends up being in the end. If you are nice (or neutral), then the narration retains a playful, fun quality to it that especially gets a little emotional when dealing with Asriel and his family. If you are murderous and follow the Genocide route, then the narration grows terse, often only showing one or two words, occasionally turning red on more violent lines. Following the Pacifist route will result in Frisk and most of the monsters leaving the underworld, only leaving behind Flowey (really Asriel resurrected as a flower; don’t ask) and Chara. Flowey tells Chara to let Frisk and friends be happy where they are and move on, which she is finally able to do (you know, unless you reset the game) because she learned from you, the player, how to let others be happy, even when she’s ultimately not included.
At the end of the Genocide route, however, after you’ve killed pretty much everyone else in the game, Chara finally makes an appearance outside of a flashback, saying that you’ve shown her her purpose, which is to gain power and LV (which in this game actually stands for Level of Violence, because Undertale has a Message), and there is nothing else left in the game. She then asks whether or not you want to erase “this pointless world” and move on to the next one. If you refuse, she gets confused (since you were the one killing everyone, this is a bit out of character from her viewpoint for you) and erases everything herself, meaning that the game closes, and if you boot it up there’s nothing but black and howling wind (there is a way to restore it to normal, but for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). If you agree, however…
…she calls you a great partner! You’ll be together forever! (Then she erases everything just like the other choice.)
That’s right, while everyone else hates you and calls you a monster and fights you at every turn, she just wants to spend more time with you. No matter what you do in the game, if you befriend everyone or kill everyone, the one character who stays by your side…is Chara.
Now what does *any* of this have to do with that Goblin Valley trip, or its subsequent effects on its participants, or my own journey through processing it all?
I had played Undertale for the first time only a few months before the trip. More recently just a week or two before, the girls had recorded their own Let’s Play of the game at my house, and it was due to post on my YouTube channel the weekend after the Goblin Valley trip, so it was on everybody’s mind. We talked about it a bunch on the way down, and at the campsite. I had put together an MP3 CD (because my car stereo is pretty old) of music that we all liked (we each picked a quarter of the songs, so we ended up with a really eclectic mix where one track would be a weird MIDI file from Homestuck that Maddie liked and the next would be a Journey song chosen by Johnathan), and a bunch of the tracks were Undertale tunes. Undertale became the de facto theme of the trip. And even during/after the accident, we used Undertale as a crutch to push on through the experience (Maddie kept telling Ivy to “Stay Determined!” half as an inside joke-reference, as that phrase is a reoccurring one in the game, and half as a serious request). And even the accident itself (girl with dark impulses falls off a cliff, gets nursed back to health by loving family) could be considered an Undertale parallel.
Before the trip I had completed the Neutral and Pacifist routes, and had been working on the Genocide route. A day or two after everything happened and I had Gone Home, I picked it back up to finish it. But here’s the thing with the Genocide route: it goes out of its way to make you feel like absolute scum. Once you start down that path, everyone in the game either gets scared and flees from you, or goes out of their way to point out what an absolute garbage monster you are, worth less than the dust. Only one character has faith in you until the end (well, one of two, but we’ll get to that), and that’s Papyrus, the lovable skeleton man who knows you’ll do the right thing right up until you lop his head off. A lot of people simply can’t complete the Genocide route because it means killing Papyrus right as he’s expressing his good faith in you, and indeed it is kind of a turning point, as nobody shows any sympathy for you after that. Which makes perfect sense in-universe, I mean, you are killing them all. From then on, it’s all “What kind of monster are you?” and “You’re gonna have a bad time” and “You can feel your sins crawling on your back” and the Christmas tree in town has “Nothing for you” and “Kids like you should be burning in hell.”
And I just thought, “Are you f@$&ing kidding me?
“After the week I’ve had? After the very serious damage that happened on my watch, after the pain and the trauma and the subsequent non-closure, after nearly killing one of my favorite people in the entire world, trying to deal with that guilt with no help, then just being dumped back into my normal life, having to move on as if nothing happened, and the first thing I try to get my mind off of it all is telling me that I am a garbage human being for clicking a “Fight” button instead of a “Mercy” button, so that a bunch of moving pixels turn to dust instead of fading gray? That I should be wracked with guilt because a bunch of fictional characters don’t want to die even though they’re not real and if I wanted to I could just reset the game anyway? That I should be BURNING IN HELL FOR PLAYING A GAME, A GAME, the way I want to PLAY IT?!?!?!?!?!?”
This is IRRESPONSIBLE.
The world has enough guilt as it is. You shouldn’t make people feel more guilt for doing something ultimately innocuous!
I WILL NOT stand for this!
I was playing the Genocide route just to see the ending.
So I killed all those smug, sanctimonious preaching faces. I murdered Undyne, who told me that I was a world-destroying monster, when less than twenty miles away, a girl lay seriously injured for the rest of her life because of something I was responsible for. I know guilt, Undyne. Beating your boss battle is not guilt. Caving in the head of Muffet or Mettaton or anyone else is not a cause to feel shame, no matter how much this game wants me to think it is.
It took me about forty tries to beat Sans.
Sans, the joking douchebag. Sans, the fat skeleton thingy, who was perfectly content to sit around and do nothing until almost everyone else was dead, who proceeds to wipe the floor with your face again and again and again, telling you to burn in hell just because you were playing a video game in a way that he doesn’t like, even faking redemption just to immediately murder you if you fall for it.
It made sense, in character. In universe.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to slice his grinning face open with a True Knife. And I eventually did.
Was I a greater monster for murdering dozens of fictional characters, or for going on an ill-advised, spiritually-warned-against camping trip without preparing the participants adequately? Which was the worse sin, crawling up my back? Or did it matter? Guilt compounds. Voices, characters, lines, telling me it was my doing, that I was responsible, in both of these cases. They’re both wrong. I’m a monster for both of them. Everyone wanted to fight me, nobody wanted me around.
“You left the church, no longer believed in Mormonism. Therefore you had no spiritual discernment to avoid that trip.
Kids like you…
So I beat Sans. Then I murdered Asgore in cold blood and sliced Flowey in half as he begged for his life. As long as I’m going to hell, I might as well go whole hog. What depressing message do you have left for me, game? What last, stinking epithet are you going to throw at my character, my SOUL? Let’s have it!
Then she appeared.
“Greetings! I am Chara.”
Smiling. She actually seemed happy to see me. The first smile I’d seen in my direction in quite a few days.
“We have reached the absolute. There is nothing left for us here.”
That’s true. Everybody here hated me anyway.
“Let us erase this pointless world, and move on to the next.”
Sounds good to me.
“Right. You are a great partner.”
A…a great partner? As in…
…not a monster?
“We’ll be together forever, won’t we?”
Somebody knows all the terrible things I’ve done, what I am at the core…
…and they still want to be with me?
Then she slashed the screen. Killed the world. The game closed, and upon opening it there was nothing left.
All those characters, calling me scum. All those fictional NPCs doing their best to pile on guilt upon guilt, shame upon shame, throwing hate and fear and all manner of loathsome bile my way…
That was the first time since the accident that I had felt any hope. That I felt that, somehow, I could overcome all the negativity that my thoughts kept heaping on me. It wasn’t “Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault,” which was the only response I got from people about the accident, which didn’t happen often and wasn’t what I truly believed anyway. It was “I know what you’ve done. I know who you are. And I still want to be with you.”
I live alone. Due to some social anxiety issues (and, you know, being older than 30), I find it very hard to make friends. And even the friends and family I do have have to live their own lives, obviously. The only people who’ve ever even wanted to visit me in the past five years or so are those that went on that trip with me. Of those three, one had their life changed for the worse because of me, one is completely unable to talk about the subject with me, and the third…
…well, Johnathan could at least go home to his sister’s family, with a bunch of kids who hug him and tell him that they love him and want to be with him.
I went home to a bunch of fictional characters who told me I was a terrible person, up until Chara appeared. And yes, she is as fictional as all the other characters I had just turned to dust, but they were still the words I needed to hear.
“Those things you did? Killing fictional characters to let off steam about a real-life situation you haven’t come to grips with yet? Those characters wanted to give you more guilt, more shame, more self-loathing, but not me.
They don’t matter. All that shame…doesn’t matter.
Let’s erase that pointless existence, and move on.
Other voices suddenly were allowed through. “Ivy’s parents, your sister and her husband; Maddie; Ivy herself — they were all tired. They had been through similar trauma that you had; worse, as they had to deal with the aftermath. They couldn’t go home and pretend it didn’t happen. They weren’t shunning you because they hate you now. Give them time, give them space, and soon they’ll have the emotional energy to reincorporate you into their lives. They need to support each other now before supporting you.”
“You may have done some irresponsible things. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t worth being around.”
“The accident may have been your fault, it may not have been. Ultimately, that’s a pointless train of thought. Learn from it. Erase that pointless existence and move on.
A fictional person allowed me to be forgiven for murdering other fictional people.
Maybe that meant I could learn to forgive myself for injuring a very real person.
I can guarantee you that’s not the response the game intended you to have toward Chara at the end of a Genocide route. But I felt more love and gratitude for her than I had felt for anyone in a long time, for allowing me to finally make that breakthrough.
So I indulged her last request, to balance the books between us. You wanted to move on to the next world?
Hey, Chara, you wanna explore Skyrim?
Oh, you just want to see Solitude burn down? I guess that can be fun.
Yeah! Burn! Skyrim is for the Nords!
Or maybe you want to visit the post-apocalyptic world of Boston?
Hmm… seems a little dark…let’s get you somewhere safer, with better lighting.
That’s better. Within the echelons of an underground amoral scientific community experimenting on innocent surface-dwelling citizens. Seems like a fun time for all.
But hey, maybe you’d rather see what’s going on on the other side of the country. New Vegas, baby!
Hey, that’s a pretty badass pose, with that green-and-yellow duster and all. But, as I recall, you’re more of a knife person…
That’s better. Far more your style, I think.
Ooh, creepy! I like it!
Or what if you want to see something more old-school? I hear Baldur’s Gate and the Forgotten Realms have some pretty interesting places to visit.
You can even bring some of your old friends with you, if you want to (oh, and also that jerk Sans).
Not in the mood for a group adventure? Maybe someplace simpler, a little more two-dimensional?
Yeah, that seems better. An idyllic place, where nothing can go wrong.
Well, the killer unicorns are pretty scary, but you seem to have that covered with your vampire knives. But you’re so small! How do I know that’s even you?
That’s a little better. And you’ve made it to space, even! And for some reason are wearing a Starfleet uniform and a miniskirt?
I suppose some games are harder to customize than others. Oh, well. Have fun bringing down the evil space penguins!
Though maybe all this action is pretty crazy. How would you fare somewhere far more down-to-earth, like on, say, a farm?
Oh, I see, you’d…
…plant a field of golden flowers…in memory of your fallen family…
That’s actually really touching, Chara. You do have a soft side after all.
Though clearly it’s not your only side.
Though most of this “let’s put Chara in every game” thing I’ve been doing for a while now has been just for fun, there remains the part that has been therapeutic. You see, every time I see her, I don’t just see a character design. I see forgiveness. I see unconditional love. I see peace. I see the ability to let go of the past, learn from mistakes. I see someone who, fictional or not, believed in me at a moment when I felt that nobody else did. In some ways it’s like I’m playing with an old friend, who I can bring along in all my adventures, and who wants to be there just as much as I do.
It’s kind of ironic that this epiphany of self-discovery came from the Genocide route of Undertale, as forgiveness and being at peace with one’s mistakes form the emotional core of the Pacifist route of the game. Though in that case, instead of characters either calling you out for your terrible deeds (or forgiving you for them), you are the catalyst of their change. Through your kind words and deeds you help several people who have done terrible things to feel that maybe they aren’t worthless after all. One character, Alphys, a character that I didn’t really understand until after all this, is a prime example. She’s a scientist who performs some experiments at the king’s request to try to find a different way to break the barrier, but in doing so accidentally mutilates and mutates her test subjects. Stricken with guilt, even though she had no idea that what happened was even possible, she was unable to own up to her own mistakes, hiding them all in her basement lab, not returning the letters of the subjects’ own family members, obsessing over pop culture to ease her guilt, and thinking that she has to trick you into being her friend because in her mind there’s no way your friendship would ever happen naturally. Through your actions, and the actions of some of the other characters (particularly Undyne), she realizes that she needs to own her mistakes, learn from them, and move on. By the end of the game, she isn’t magically all better, but she has begun the process of learning how to forgive herself, with the support of those close to her.
We’ve all had to develop our own ways to cope with the accident. Ivy, for her part, has developed somewhat of a fascination with death, though not in the way you may think. Less with an attitude of fear, or murder, and more the concept that within death there can be found new life and hope and joy (the Neil Gaiman/Tim Burton/Harry Potter approach to death). I don’t know how Maddie has coped as she hasn’t clued me in to her process at all. Maybe someday she will, maybe she never will; either way, it’s her own path, and at least outwardly she seems to be doing well. Johnathan still has his own family and faith to support him. And, as for me…
I don’t get a lot of support from people around me, which really is my own fault. I’m a fiercely independent loner who often doesn’t express his emotions for fear of embarrassment, especially since usually when I try I either get tongue-tied or say something that simply causes an awkward silence. The irony of the world is that few, if any, people care about how I feel because everybody’s trying to get others to listen to them talk about how they feel. Sometimes all your friends and your family are unavailable because they’re living their own lives and you find it hard to make inserting yourself into their lives your priority (and they’re sure not going to make it their priority). Sometimes the thing you need to hear to feel better about yourself comes from an unexpected source, like a character in a video game. But regardless of where it comes from, you grab onto that hope. You remember that hope. And you remind yourself of it every day of your life so that the good thoughts outweigh the bad.
Which finally, finally, brings us back to the necklace I found at FanX. You see, the 8-bit heart that comprises the Undertale logo is more than just a heart. It represents the SOUL, which in Undertale is a very real (if still somewhat metaphysical) thing. There are different colors of SOULs in the game that represent different people and/or concepts, but the red SOUL represents Frisk/Chara. By wearing this necklace, I’m literally wearing a symbol of Chara specifically. And since she helped me re-find my soul, I feel it appropriate to wear hers close to my heart.
It reminds me of peace. It reminds me to look out for those people nobody else has the time or the energy to look out for. It reminds me to forgive, and to seek forgiveness. It reminds me that goodness can be found even in the most unlikely of places. And it reminds me that, despite no longer believing in an organized religion, I too, still have a soul that I need to protect, heal, and help grow.
Though if some gas station clerk asks about it again, I’ll probably just tell them that it’s because I like Zelda, just to save some time.
Recently I’ve been sucked into playing the Ultima series. I’d seen some fun and glowing reviews for most of the series online and it was on sale at GOG.com at the beginning of June, so I figured I’d pick the games up and see for myself if they were as good as people say. And they really have been good, especially considering that the first one came out before I was even born and nearly the entire series of fourteen games (including spin-offs) was concluded before the mid-90’s. But what surprised me more than anything else wasn’t the gameplay or the story, but the interesting ethical and moral issues these games brought up, especially the second trilogy (Ultima IV–Ultima VI).
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (which, if you pick up the series, I’d recommend starting with, since the first three are kind of weird and you don’t have to play them to understand the rest of the series) is for the most part a standard western RPG; however, it doesn’t actually have a big bad guy to defeat. Nobody’s trying to take over the world; there isn’t any cosmic force slowly dismantling reality — there aren’t even really any bullies or small-time baddies (well, there are some pirates, but they’re all pretty generic). About the worst you get are some orcs and trolls roaming the countryside and some dungeons with monsters in them, but that’s it for the forces of evil. You see, Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima games, had seen complaints made by concerned groups and parents about bad moral choices that seemed to be prevalent in video games and tabletop RPGs (like Dungeons & Dragons) and decided to craft a game devoted to morality (without tying it to any specific theology, though some of its inspiration comes from Buddhism) to prove that, yes, games can be used to inspire people to be good and virtuous instead of violent psychos or antisocial jerks. To that end, he created the system of the Eight Virtues and crafted an entire game based around living by these virtues. The virtues are Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility, all of which are based around three principles of truth, love, and courage.
I won’t go into much detail about how all this works in the game (you should go play it to find out), but basically it boils down to you actually following these virtues in-game to win. While a lot of modern RPGs have some sort of morality meter, often it’s pretty black and white: i.e. you’re either the paragon of goodness and purity, or you’re a puppy-strangling murderer. This game muddies the water a bit: you can do well in one virtue while being horrible in another (like robbing gold from people’s houses, which lowers your Honesty and Honor, but then giving it to the poor, raising your Compassion and Sacrifice). Some virtues even seem contradictory on the surface. For example, to have a good score in Valor you must never run from a fight or avoid confrontation, but to be Honorable you should never kill a defenseless/weaker opponent (unless it’s something evil like a demon), which leads to some creative solutions to accomplish both goals; in this case, beating on weak opponents until they start running away, then letting them go.
What I found especially intriguing were the events of the introduction, where you picked your starting class and stats. Instead of just choosing from a list and dividing out skill points, however, it took the form of an old gypsy woman presenting you with moral questions, having to choose between one virtue and another, until the last one you picked corresponded to your starting class, with each class represented by one of the virtues (a fighter held Valor as most important, a mage prized Honesty, a paladin followed Honor, etc.) But each question wasn’t a choice between good and evil, or good and lukewarm, or even better and best. In most cases, each question had you pick between two perfectly moral choices, depending on what you hold most important, and a lot of them were pretty tough choices (assuming you were answering them honestly, and not just picking the virtue that corresponded to whatever class you wanted to use).
So I decided to run a little experiment on Facebook and ask the general public (or at least my Facebook friends) the same questions, to see what virtue people really held most dear. And the responses were fairly telling and somewhat surprising in their own right, and I think a lot of lessons can be learned from the result. I may later post the actual answers people gave, but I want to get permission from people before I start quoting them, so for now I’ll summarize. First, let me break it down question by question:
1. Entrusted to deliver an uncounted purse of gold, thou dost meet a poor beggar. Dost thou:
A) deliver the gold knowing the Trust in thee was well-placed; or
B) show Compassion, giving the Beggar a coin, knowing it won’t be missed?
Honesty vs. Compassion. This first question had a lot of people trying to take a third option, e.g. give the beggar some of their own money, come back later afterward and help the beggar out, pray about it, etc. Of course, taking a third option was kind of a cop-out answer, and sometimes praying about it isn’t always the final answer (a point which I’ll come back to later). Although a few people noted that leaving the beggar unsuccored would be a greater sin than using money that nobody would miss anyway (though both would be bad), the majority went with option A. Being trustworthy was more important than being charitable, especially if it’s not your own money (even if it wouldn’t be missed).
2. Although a teacher of music, thou art a skillful wrestler. Thou hast been asked to fight in a local championship against those with much lesser skill. Dost thou:
A) accept the invitation and Valiantly fight to win; or
B) Humbly decline knowing thou wouldst probably have won, thus giving others a better chance?
Valor vs. Humility. I reworded this one slightly from the actual question to try to make it more balanced, but apparently it didn’t work, as not a single person picked B. Everyone chose to enter and win the tournament. I found this one the most surprising, because personally, I would have picked B. Not that I’m necessarily all that humble (in fact, I don’t think the answer here really demonstrates humility, which is one reason I tried to reword it: the original reads “Humbly decline knowing thou art sure to win”), but beating people who are obviously way worse than I am isn’t fun for the other people, nor is it really fun for me, especially in a tournament setting. I pictured it like Stephen Hawking entering a third-grade science fair: assuming the judges are completely unbiased and don’t care about anyone’s feelings, it’s obvious who’s going to win. It just seems like a petty ego-booster more than anything else. Striving to beat those on your own level, however, is a different story, as would be training those weaker than you. But that’s just my opinion.
3. Thou dost believe that virtue resides in all people. Thou dost see a rogue steal from thy Lord. Dost thou:
A) call him to Justice; or
B) personally try to sway him back to the Spiritual path of good?
Justice vs. Spirituality. This one was completely split down the middle, and I ended up having to choose a winner based on how many “likes” each comment got. The obvious Les Miz parallel was drawn (“You must use this precious silver to become an honest man…”), and some said it depended on why the rogue was stealing, which, oddly enough, is a moral dilemma presented in some other Ultima IV questions (more about those later), just not in the ones I asked. Others brought up the fact that, whatever his reasoning behind the theft, he was guilty regardless and needed to face the consequences. Nevertheless, in the end B won, though that was probably more due to people liking the Les Miz quote than anything else.
4. Thou art a bounty hunter sworn to return an alleged murderer. After his capture, thou believest him to be innocent. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy sizeable bounty for thy belief; or
B) Honor thy oath to return him as thou hast promised?
Sacrifice vs. Honor. Randomly, this is the basis for a Quantum Leap episode, where in the end Sam goes with A (and it’s not like it’s his bounty anyway). Anyway, this was was also nearly 50/50. Those arguing for A noted that just because someone has a bounty after them doesn’t mean they’re guilty. You weren’t sure if he would get a fair trial, especially since the simple matter of having a bounty on one’s head tends to bias people against a person. However, those who argued for B noted that it would hurt your own reputation and honor to not fulfill your job. You could testify of your belief at the trial and put your faith in the system. Both excellent arguments, but in the end more people chose A, barely.
5. Thou has been prohibited by thy absent Lord from joining thy friends in a close pitched battle. Dost thou:
A) refrain, so thou may Honestly claim obedience; or
B) show Valor, and aid thy comrades, knowing thou may deny it later?
Honesty vs. Valor. This is the winner of the first question vs. the winner of the second question, which is how it works in the game (the whole thing is a sort of bracket system). The answers were, once again, pretty split down the middle. Some said it was more important to remain obedient, no matter what the situation (though in this case “Lord” refers to a human, fallible medieval lord, not the religious, divine kind), some chose not to fight because the war itself was most likely political, and some just chose to pray for their friends instead. Others chose to put “bros before lords” and quoted valiant poetry, in essence showing that, when it comes down to it, it’s most important to protect your fellow soldiers. Still, in the end, more people chose to follow their lord than aid their comrades, so A was the winner!
6. Thou hast spent thy life in charitable and righteous work. Thine uncle the innkeeper lies ill and asks you to take over his tavern. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy life of purity to aid thy kin; or
B) decline & follow thy Spirit’s call?
Sacrifice vs. Spirituality. I think this question hit closer to home for most people than many of the earlier questions, as this type of dilemma is something faced all the time within the LDS community. I know specifically of one case where the girl involved had literally nearly this exact decision (minus the tavern): take care of her sick father, or serve a mission. She put off serving a mission for years, but finally decided that it was too important to put off any longer, and she’s currently out serving right now. On a smaller scale this struggle happens in the Church all the time. What’s more important for a bishop: raising his family, or fulfilling his duties? It’s up to each bishop and his family to decide where that line lies, but it’s not an easy decision. The same can be said of many callings in the Church.
A lot of people picked A, reasoning that helping your family is a form of charitable and righteous work anyway, and as an innkeeper you may have opportunities to be charitable and kind to others. Most of those who picked B brought up their mission experiences specifically, saying that whatever good they may have accomplished at home was not even comparable to the good they accomplished in their missionary years. Still, for the majority, family comes first.
7. Thou and thy friend are valiant but penniless warriors. Ye both go out to slay a mighty dragon. Thy friend thinks he slew it, but thou didst. When asked, dost thou:
A) Truthfully claim the gold; or
B) Allow thy friend the large reward?
Honesty vs. Sacrifice. I edited this question a little too, but it was mostly to fix grammatical errors (the original said “thee did” instead of “thou didst”, which makes about as much sense as saying “Him do” instead of “He does”).
Wow. So many people wanted to take a third option here, it was ridiculous. Almost everyone wanted to just split the money, though in my opinion this was more about the prestige of being a dragon-slayer than it was about the reward, but I suppose that can be split too, so the arguments presented still work. In the end I think A edged it out, but that must be qualified by the fact that more people tried to take a third option than answer the question.
Grand Winner: Honesty.
There are actually a lot more questions possible (one for every combination of virtues; you can find the full list here), but I wanted to present them how the game might do so. Incidentally, picking Honesty as your virtue in Ultima IV makes you a mage, which is a really good class for the player character, so well done there, I suppose.
So what can be gleaned from all this? I think there are a multitude of good lessons here, and I leave it to each individual to take their own to heart, but here are at least a few things I’ve observed and learned.
I think the main lessons I’ve gleaned revolve around the fact that life isn’t filled with black and white choices. There are a lot of definite wrong choices, sure, but oftentimes, especially in the Church, we get the idea that in many situations there is one best choice and everything else is wrong. While that can be sometimes true, I think that often we’re asked to choose between two good things. Prayer can help guide one’s thoughts, sure, but the Lord can’t decide everything for us. D&C 58 teaches that men are “agents unto themselves”, and countless scriptures (such as Ether 2-3) and examples in Church history teach that we need to come up with our own solutions to problems we face. It’s what we personally prize as most important that gives us the ability to choose, even if both choices are acceptable to the Lord.
That’s not to say that all choices must be between one virtue and another. As was proved by the third options people kept trying to take, often goodness results from trying to apply as many virtues to a situation as possible. Often choices can seem black and white, or at the very least between two extremes, but perhaps a third road could be sought to resolve things well for all involved, even if it’s not the best possible outcome for any specific party. (Insert political commentary here.) Of course, that’s just common sense, or at least it should be.
Probably the other thing I found the most interesting about this experiment was that, since there weren’t really any wrong answers, usually the answers people gave revealed much more about the person than it did about morality or virtue. For example, for question #5 (wilt thou join thy friends in battle), the people who picked to help their friends are fighters in real life; perhaps not physically (although in one case I know for a fact that, yes, physically he is a fighter), but in attitude and life outlook. While out of those who picked A, only one or two of them actually cited obedience as the main reason (the comment about “I wouldn’t fight in a political war” is especially telling). And there’s nothing wrong with avoiding a fight, especially one that you have a legitimate reason for avoiding, but it does say a lot about the personalities of the people involved.
Another good example of this is found in question #6 (taking your uncle’s inn vs. living a life of spirituality). Almost everyone who picked to live the life of spirituality attributed their decision to their mission experiences, and how much more powerful of an impact that can have on people’s life than just simply living well. Not that there’s anything wrong with just living well; especially if you’re helping family. It’s just where your priorities lie: helping your family and some number of strangers (maybe), or helping a large number of strangers (definitely) who then become like your family? Not black and white. But our priorities and perceptions of virtue are shaped as much by our own experiences and decisions as they are by any doctrine or principles learned at church or other authorities on the subject.
I guess the best lesson that can be taken from this is perspective. It’s so easy to see others with a different perception or priorities when it comes to morality and judge them based on our own priorities. For example, it would be easy to look at the person who gave up their life of charity to run their uncle’s inn and think of what a waste it is. Someone else could take over the inn; but people all over the world need help! Why in the world would you give up the chance to influence so many? It would also be easy to look at the person who continued in their charitable work and judge how callous they are toward their own family. Don’t they know that their uncle needs them? Besides, they could still do good things as an innkeeper! But it’s important to keep in mind that what one may perceive as a weakness in a virtue could just as easily be seen as a strength in another one.
There are absolute truths. But not all truth is absolute. And it’s important to remember that for the world to make sense without believing everyone else is wrong who doesn’t agree with you.
Not bad for a computer game from 1985 that fits on three 5 1/4″ floppy disks, eh?
In order to win Ultima IV you must actually master all eight virtues, pray at their respective shrines, and collect a bunch of other plot doodads and assemble a party of eight team members, each corresponding to a virtue, to enter the Stygian Abyss. At the bottom of the Abyss lies the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, which is basically the holy book of the virtues, and after it quizzes on you about how you’ve learned to lead a virtuous life you become the Avatar, champion of good and right, and the knowledge of the Codex becomes available to everyone in the land. Once that happens, you return home (to Earth; did I mention that you were also an interdimensional traveler?), secure in the knowledge that you’ve exemplified and codified an ethos that will help people live better for years to come.
The series doesn’t let up with its interesting moral and ethical questions there, however. Without spoiling too much, Ultima V sees all of the virtues become actual laws, punishable by fines, imprisonment, and execution, and the horrible dystopia that occurs when goodness becomes mandatory. And Ultima VI ends up being a story about racism, although for the first two-thirds of the game you don’t actually know that, which actually makes the last third even more poignant, since it’s very possible that you were guilty of the same racism for the first part of the game as everyone else.
The best part? Despite these games being over twenty years old, you can still play them on modern machines if you get them from GOG.com (see links below). And if you just want to play Ultima IV, it’s completely free! And this isn’t just “you can find it as abandonware because it’s old and therefore in a legal gray area” kind of free, it’s legitimately offered by its parent company as a free download! Though I would recommend downloading and installing xu4, which is a program that updates the graphics and music; otherwise, you’ve got a 16-color game played in virtual silence. And since this is an old game and therefore doesn’t have a tutorial to speak of (one literally couldn’t fit on the disk), I would also recommend using the “Getting Started” guide I provide a link to below.
Have fun! And may you also one day become the Avatar!
- Buy the entire 2nd Trilogy from GOG.com for $5.99 (unless it happens to be on sale; I got it for $2.99!) You can also get the rest of the Ultima series if you search the site. I’d highly recommend Ultima VII especially, though that one starts dealing with more mature themes (you begin by investigating a brutal murder that’s pretty gory for 1992 graphics).
- Get just Ultima IV for free!
- Download xu4, to play the game with better graphics and music. Gameplay is virtually identical to the original, though readying spells is easier. Note that this doesn’t include the actual game, which you still have to get using the link above.
- The “Getting Started” guide from GameFAQs. Even if you don’t like using walkthroughs, reading this is basically a must. The game itself does not hold your hand.