Deltarune (Chapter One): Subverting Expectation

Spoilers for Undertale and Deltarune.

Deltarune‘s demo, although only a couple hours long, creates a world similar to Undertale with its lovable characters (some familiar faces and some brand new), fantastic soundtrack, whimsical dialogue, clever puzzles, and memorable non-playable characters. Yet, Deltarune departs entirely with its themes–the story mirrors Undertale‘s almost exactly, (monsters and humans working together to escape the darkness), but the characters of Deltarune and their actions are difficult to morally define.

Although it is not the only game to focus on the empathy of its audience, Undertale is a pioneer in its ability to encourage players to be pacifists, not only by telling us that it is possible to complete without killing, but by confronting us with enemies that we shouldn’t want to kill. The first boss of the game, Toriel, is a sweeter than sugar mother figure who is blocking our progress in an attempt to protect us from the harshness of the world. Some players’ inclination would to be to kill her, as she is an “enemy” standing in our path, but that is–hopefully–only until we realize that she is not fighting back. In all subsequent battles, we look at the monsters as characters worth saving instead of mindless drones standing in our way. If the player chooses the “genocide route” as it is dubbed by fans, there’s no music or characters to talk to–just deafening silence as we extinguish all life in each area. The violence is calculated, and frequently, there is little challenge to fighting the menial enemies and early-game bosses, as if they never had a chance to defeat us; that is, until later on, when the endgame bosses become unforgiving. Undertale implicates the player in the violence– in fancy terms, through its “ludonarrative,” or, the narrative that is told through gameplay itself. In Undertale, the ludonarrative supports and reinforces the game’s story and themes; however, there are games in which the ludonarrative can be contradictory (for example, see this article on BioShock‘s ludonarrative dissonance).

Ultimately, Undertale goes farther than simply preaching about nonviolence or the importance of sentimentality, it calls into question exactly why the player would go on a bloody route in the first place. It does so by instilling a sense of existential dread and loneliness through its gameplay, but also by being extremely self-aware. The game will “remember,” if you had a happy ending and chose to erase it in favor of going on a bloody rampage. The game will “remember” if you first went on your genocide route, only to try a pacifist ending on your second playthrough. If you do not manually reset your violent playthrough from your system’s data and try to get the pacifist ending, your character will be evil all along, as if they manipulated the situation to ultimately kill all of their “friends”. The final boss of the genocide route is the most passive, laid back character to meet your acquaintance, and his solution to stop you from killing is to fight you for eternity, so you have no choice but to become tired and quit; his resolve is to hold you indefinitely, so you cannot reset his world and kill again. Undertale challenges the audience’s inability to deny extra content, no matter if that content causes “pain”–fictional or real. If you played through the Undertale genocide route, you killed innocent monsters or your “friends” just to see what would happen. And the game knows. The game is smarter than you, and it is trying to catch you in an act of cruelty.

So, what is Deltrarune? According to Toby Fox:
“I will say that basically, what you’re seeing here is not the world of UNDERTALE. UNDERTALE’s world and ending are the same as however you left them. If everyone was happy in your ending, the people in the UNDERTALE world will still be happy. So, please don’t worry about those characters, and that world. It will remain untouched. To rephrase that, DELTARUNE’s world is a different one. With different characters, that have lived different lives. A whole new story will happen…I don’t know what you call this kind of game. It’s just a game you can play after you complete UNDERTALE, if you want to. That’s all.”
Deltarune shares characters with Undertale, but those characters are not the same characters that exist within Undertale. Calling it Undertale 2 is an incorrect over-generalization. Much like Breath of the Wild‘s Link is not Ocarina of Time‘s Link, Deltarune‘s Sans is not Undertale‘s Sans, as far as we know. He’s a pretty mysterious skeleton, after all. The most pronounced difference between the games (or the game and the demo) is the role of the player. In Undertale, the player has godlike powers, but Deltarune predicates its themes on a different concept entirely: lack of choice.

At the very start of Deltrarune is a character creation screen. The player chooses their character’s hair, shirt, and feet–though all of the feet are the same, which is a hilarious gag–and as soon as we are done with the character, the game throws them in the trash.

“No one can choose who they are in this world”
And we begin the game as Kris. Throughout the game, there are references to the lack of choice–sometimes characters outright proclaiming that we have none. When Susie slams Kris against a locker, all we can do is watch. When we attempt to control Susie in our party, she will not listen to instructions, and we need to take the first action of our turn to warn the monsters to guard against her. She will attack until she comes to terms with herself as a hero. In one part of the game, Kris and Ralsei are locked in a jail cell and Susie needs to save them, but we are given minimal control over her actions, as if we are fighting with her free will.  Even after Susie gives up her bloodlust, she will question the party’s decisions. A character not following instructions in a turn-based RPG is, at least to me, completely unheard of. Just as Undertale subverted our ideas of our choices in video games and called attention to the inherent cruelty of being violent to play a game to completion, Deltarune does not let players control multiple characters and their abilities seamlessly because that is not how life works. We cannot manipulate other people and influence their feelings to meet our desires–at the very least, we shouldn’t, right?

No matter what choice you make in Deltarune, the outcome is the same. If you choose to be violent, the monsters run away and if you choose to be a pacifist, the monsters befriend you, but the only changes are in the dialogue. No matter what you do, Kris will turn evil. Your choices don’t matter. Kris throws their soul into a cage while looking at the audience, as if to say there is nothing we can do about it. In the world of Deltarune, these characters have agency. They can fail or become violent on their own.

Similarly to Undertale, through its ludonarrative, Deltarune does not even give the illusion of player choice. Unlike other games that grant players the illusion of choice in outcomes that are unalterable plot points, we grapple for the controls with the characters of Deltarune. This design choice highlights the meaninglessness of our decisions and makes the characters feel real, having their own say in their destiny. The destiny and prophecy of Deltarune is carried out by completely dysfunctional chosen “heroes”. And even after we wrangle Susie into the fold, we lose Kris. The game destroys any comfort and stability as we become mere observers of the impending violence.

By drawing our attention to our lack of agency, Toby Fox is not only subverting video games this time around, he is subverting himself. Where Undertale shed light on our power as players and how we choose to use it, Deltarune has the potential to make use feel small, helpless, and overwhelmed by our lack of autonomy. It was so intriguing to finish Deltarune, preparing myself to start another file, only to find out that there is no point, and I could not change the underlying message or result. It would be impossible for me to form an in-depth analysis or review of a demo and I refuse to put on a tin foil hat and dive down conspiracy theory rabbit holes with most of the internet. That said, from playing the demo, it’s clear that Deltarune has the potential to be as interesting and meaningful as its predecessor, albeit in ways that flip and distort that meaning. Just as it is an anagram of the word “undertale,” I hope that the rest of Deltarune will create a world that is familiar, but show us a refracted perspective of the same image. I cannot speak to when or if the full game will be released, but I am excited to see where the story takes us.