Early Pontifications on deltarune and UNDERTALE

was just finishing up listening through all of Dan Olsen’s old Christmas playthrough of UNDERTALE for Folding Ideas on my night shift at work when I heard about deltarune. At first, I was kind of confused. I never expected Toby Fox to follow up UNDERTALE directly, so seeing that this next big project recycles assets and ideas from that game caught me off guard (I know about his comments, I’ll get to those next). Since I just finished my first playthrough of the game last night, I haven’t had much of a chance to deliberate on what I think of all that it is. Still, given the already sizable number of think pieces and fan theories out on this first chapter, I thought I’d throw my own two cents in.

 

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m going to refrain from making too many predictions on what the next chapters of deltarune may become to focus solely on what this chapter has to offer in terms of content. I am also not looking to forge any connections to UNDERTALE outside of what we know from Toby and see in the game; in other words, I’m not here to tell you that W.D. Gaster or Chara is behind this story or that this is some secret prequel or sequel. What interests me about this game is how it is a direct commentary on a game that is itself a commentary on games (wrap your head around that one!). While UNDERTALE is a game about video games, deltarune is a game about UNDERTALE.

There are two essential pieces of UNDERTALE’s mechanical and narrative structure that allows its themes to resonate so strongly with players: it successfully blurs the lines between in-game and real life experiences and inverts staples of RPGs to connect with the player on an emotional level. Dan Olsen analyzed the game’s use of teleport fantasy and extrinsic rewards better than I ever could, but I want to emphasize his point that UNDERTALE treats its world as one that the player enters and becomes a part of, allowing its Fight and Mercy mechanics to genuinely play off of their moral compass; choice is so important to this game because every choice is based in the player’s desire to do good or harm, and those choices are treated as real and lasting in-game. Also of note is UNDERTALE’s acknowledgment of the possibility of its own fandom: the game’s use of fourth wall breaks and plays on internet meme culture invite players to develop a fondness for its world while still judging those who feel the need to engage it obsessively to the point of a Genocide run (see hbomberguy’s analysis for an awesome dissection of this idea).

deltarune, in contrast, seems to do everything in
its power to remind the player that it is a game and constantly uses mechanics and assets from
UNDERTALE and RPGs in general to keep them at arm’s length. Many have already addressed just how far this game goes on an aesthetic level to set itself in opposition to its counterpart: the title is a lowercase anagram of UNDERTALE, the install screen and license ask players to “accept everything that will happen,” and the title bar of the program constantly changes its name, as if to draw attention to the fact that it’s just another window running on the player’s computer. The use of assets, names, and characters from UNDERTALE seem less like an attempt to reconnect with players than elements that draw attention to themselves as recycled ideas. Toriel, Asgore, Alphys, Undyne, and Sans are no longer new friends to protect; they’re just characters from that other game we liked, only different. This is not a world where the player holds the power to make choices; this isn’t even a world. deltarune is a program, an RPG, a game “intended for those who have completed UNDERTALE”—and it never allows you to be unaware of this.

deltarune truly begins its dissection of UNDERTALE with the character creation screen, which works in complete opposition to the latter’s “Name the fallen human” screen. UNDERTALE’s naming screen initially appears to be in line with what’s expected from RPGs only to invert player expectations later on with the reveal that their chosen name is that of the game’s villain (often referred to as Chara), a human that spurs Asriel’s actions in a Pacifist run and the player’s destructive avatar and partner in a Genocide run. The simplicity of the naming screen is an essential part of the name’s impact later on in the game adds depth to what is otherwise a typical aesthetic choice in RPGs. With this in mind, it is initially surprising that deltarune appears to give players the ability to customize their character’s appearance, likes, and dislikes. Just when the player is invested in the character they’ve created, the game throws the entire intro out the window, with none of their choices affecting the game that follows. This is a clear reversal of expectations that preys on the player’s previous experience with UNDERTALE. Players familiar with UNDERTALE expect choices to have consequences and for mysterious set ups that lead to game-changing payoffs aimed straight for their heart, which deltarune denies from the very beginning. It’s unnerving, to say the least.

As deltarune progresses, it becomes apparent how hard the game clings to RPG and fantasy tropes without question or commentary. Waking up in Toriel’s house feels reminiscent of Pokemon, Chrono Trigger, and EarthBound, the Light and Dark prophecy feels like something out of any Square Enix title, and the party makeup of a silent swordsman, a hot-blooded fighter, and an empathetic spellcaster feels all too familiar. Most importantly, this game utilizes the Fight and Mercy mechanics from UNDERTALE, but with the added mechanics and third person battle screen, it feels remarkably less personal to make these choices. Should you fight? Should you have mercy on these creatures? Is there a difference anymore?

These questions and seemingly deliberate opposing narrative choices come to a head when you realize that this first chapter doesn’t seem to care all that much about Kris, the player avatar. Kris lacks both the vacancy of blank slate silent protagonists for players to insert themselves into their role, like Frisk, Ness, or a Pokemon trainer, as well as the agency of other named RPG protagonists, like Crono or Cloud Strife. Instead, they are a social outcast (even to the player, as there is likely some wariness to the fact that they resemble Chara) whose only clear goal is to act as the key to get them and Susie back home. You could replace Kris with a key or stone to the Light World and the plot would remain relatively the same. This is not Kris’ story, or the players story. It’s Susie’s.

Unlike Kris and the player, Susie has agency in spades, driving the action forward and flipping sides all the way until the end of the adventure. Susie has so much agency in this plot that she can’t even be controlled for most of the game. She is the one who forges a connection to the Dark World, both through opposition with Ralsei and friendship with Lancer, and eventually grows to be a kinder monster through her actions. Everything that happens to Kris and the player is the result of Susie, essentially making her the protagonist. And, as the program warned you from the beginning, you just have to accept it.

I could digress on deltarune’s details for much longer, but I want to get to this question: Why does this all matter in relation to UNDERTALE? To address this, I want to reference a quote from Sans in UNDERTALE that encompasses much of what that game is about. If the player kills Papyrus in their run, Sans ends his judgement before Asgore by asking them an important question: “If you have some sort of special power… Isn’t it your responsibility to do the right thing?” The special power, of course, refers to the player’s “determination” to finish the game and their ability to save and replay events, which is hugely important in a game where the choice to kill or have mercy on monsters can alter events entirely. And because this is treated as diegetic and the player is treated as a force and not a spectator, the act of killing anyone is actually destructive to the game world and, in turn, the player.

Ultimately, deltarune asks a contradictory but relevant question: If your actions have no impact on the game world and if neither you or Kris has agency in the story, are you still responsible to do the “right thing”? Is there even a “right thing” when the game imposes no penalty or change for doing the “wrong thing”? This reflects deeply back on UNDERTALE, as the saving feature in deltarune now emphasizes “power” over determination, something that Chara explicitly discusses in the Genocide ending: Is there power in being able to kill or have mercy without consequence? Is that power good, evil, or dependent on the player? This in turn continues the commentary on RPGs and video games as a whole, where we as players have undoubtedly slayed countless monsters mindlessly and have still come out as heroes in the end or, alternatively, decided to do a Mercy run on deltarune solely because it’s what we learned from UNDERTALE. deltarune is a game about UNDERTALE insofar as it asks us to reflect on the latter’s themes and what we’ve been taught about video games and choice from it.

 

This, to me, is what this chapter is about, and it would be interesting to see this theme develop further in later chapters. I can’t say for sure what will come in the future of deltarune, but judging by the ending of this chapter, it seems that we have no way to control the path that Kris is being led down other than playing the game how we believe we should. 

was just finishing up listening through all of Dan Olsen’s old Christmas playthrough of UNDERTALE for Folding Ideas on my night shift at work when I heard about deltarune. At first, I was kind of confused. I never expected Toby Fox to follow up UNDERTALE directly, so seeing that this next big project recycles assets and ideas from that game caught me off guard (I know about his comments, I’ll get to those next). Since I just finished my first playthrough of the game last night, I haven’t had much of a chance to deliberate on what I think of all that it is. Still, given the already sizable number of think pieces and fan theories out on this first chapter, I thought I’d throw my own two cents in.

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m going to refrain from making too many predictions on what the next chapters of deltarune may become to focus solely on what this chapter has to offer in terms of content. I am also not looking to forge any connections to UNDERTALE outside of what we know from Toby and see in the game; in other words, I’m not here to tell you that W.D. Gaster or Chara is behind this story or that this is some secret prequel or sequel. What interests me about this game is how it is a direct commentary on a game that is itself a commentary on games (wrap your head around that one!). While UNDERTALE is a game about video games, deltarune is a game about UNDERTALE.

There are two essential pieces of UNDERTALE’s mechanical and narrative structure that allows its themes to resonate so strongly with players: it successfully blurs the lines between in-game and real life experiences and inverts staples of RPGs to connect with the player on an emotional level. Dan Olsen analyzed the game’s use of teleport fantasy and extrinsic rewards better than I ever could, but I want to emphasize his point that UNDERTALE treats its world as one that the player enters and becomes a part of, allowing its Fight and Mercy mechanics to genuinely play off of their moral compass; choice is so important to this game because every choice is based in the player’s desire to do good or harm, and those choices are treated as real and lasting in-game. Also of note is UNDERTALE’s acknowledgment of the possibility of its own fandom: the game’s use of fourth wall breaks and plays on internet meme culture invite players to develop a fondness for its world while still judging those who feel the need to engage it obsessively to the point of a Genocide run (see hbomberguy’s analysis for an awesome dissection of this idea).

deltarune, in contrast, seems to do everything in its power to remind the player that it is a game and constantly uses mechanics and assets from UNDERTALE and RPGs in general to keep them at arm’s length. Many have already addressed just how far this game goes on an aesthetic level to set itself in opposition to its counterpart: the title is a lowercase anagram of UNDERTALE, the install screen and license ask players to “accept everything that will happen,” and the title bar of the program constantly changes its name, as if to draw attention to the fact that it’s just another window running on the player’s computer. The use of assets, names, and characters from UNDERTALE seem less like an attempt to reconnect with players than elements that draw attention to themselves as recycled ideas. Toriel, Asgore, Alphys, Undyne, and Sans are no longer new friends to protect; they’re just characters from that other game we liked, only different. This is not a world where the player holds the power to make choices; this isn’t even a world. deltarune is a program, an RPG, a game “intended for those who have completed UNDERTALE”—and it never allows you to be unaware of this.

deltarune truly begins its dissection of UNDERTALE with the character creation screen, which works in complete opposition to the latter’s “Name the fallen human” screen. UNDERTALE’s naming screen initially appears to be in line with what’s expected from RPGs only to invert player expectations later on with the reveal that their chosen name is that of the game’s villain (often referred to as Chara), a human that spurs Asriel’s actions in a Pacifist run and the player’s destructive avatar and partner in a Genocide run. The simplicity of the naming screen is an essential part of the name’s impact later on in the game adds depth to what is otherwise a typical aesthetic choice in RPGs. With this in mind, it is initially surprising that deltarune appears to give players the ability to customize their character’s appearance, likes, and dislikes. Just when the player is invested in the character they’ve created, the game throws the entire intro out the window, with none of their choices affecting the game that follows. This is a clear reversal of expectations that preys on the player’s previous experience with UNDERTALE. Players familiar with UNDERTALE expect choices to have consequences and for mysterious set ups that lead to game-changing payoffs aimed straight for their heart, which deltarune denies from the very beginning. It’s unnerving, to say the least.

As deltarune progresses, it becomes apparent how hard the game clings to RPG and fantasy tropes without question or commentary. Waking up in Toriel’s house feels reminiscent of Pokemon, Chrono Trigger, and EarthBound, the Light and Dark prophecy feels like something out of any Square Enix title, and the party makeup of a silent swordsman, a hot-blooded fighter, and an empathetic spellcaster feels all too familiar. Most importantly, this game utilizes the Fight and Mercy mechanics from UNDERTALE, but with the added mechanics and third person battle screen, it feels remarkably less personal to make these choices. Should you fight? Should you have mercy on these creatures? Is there a difference anymore?

These questions and seemingly deliberate opposing narrative choices come to a head when you realize that this first chapter doesn’t seem to care all that much about Kris, the player avatar. Kris lacks both the vacancy of blank slate silent protagonists for players to insert themselves into their role, like Frisk, Ness, or a Pokemon trainer, as well as the agency of other named RPG protagonists, like Crono or Cloud Strife. Instead, they are a social outcast (even to the player, as there is likely some wariness to the fact that they resemble Chara) whose only clear goal is to act as the key to get them and Susie back home. You could replace Kris with a key or stone to the Light World and the plot would remain relatively the same. This is not Kris’ story, or the players story. It’s Susie’s.

Unlike Kris and the player, Susie has agency in spades, driving the action forward and flipping sides all the way until the end of the adventure. Susie has so much agency in this plot that she can’t even be controlled for most of the game. She is the one who forges a connection to the Dark World, both through opposition with Ralsei and friendship with Lancer, and eventually grows to be a kinder monster through her actions. Everything that happens to Kris and the player is the result of Susie, essentially making her the protagonist. And, as the program warned you from the beginning, you just have to accept it.

I could digress on deltarune’s details for much longer, but I want to get to this question: Why does this all matter in relation to UNDERTALE? To address this, I want to reference a quote from Sans in UNDERTALE that encompasses much of what that game is about. If the player kills Papyrus in their run, Sans ends his judgement before Asgore by asking them an important question: “If you have some sort of special power… Isn’t it your responsibility to do the right thing?” The special power, of course, refers to the player’s “determination” to finish the game and their ability to save and replay events, which is hugely important in a game where the choice to kill or have mercy on monsters can alter events entirely. And because this is treated as diegetic and the player is treated as a force and not a spectator, the act of killing anyone is actually destructive to the game world and, in turn, the player.

Ultimately, deltarune asks a contradictory but relevant question: If your actions have no impact on the game world and if neither you or Kris has agency in the story, are you still responsible to do the “right thing”? Is there even a “right thing” when the game imposes no penalty or change for doing the “wrong thing”? This reflects deeply back on UNDERTALE, as the saving feature in deltarune now emphasizes “power” over determination, something that Chara explicitly discusses in the Genocide ending: Is there power in being able to kill or have mercy without consequence? Is that power good, evil, or dependent on the player? This in turn continues the commentary on RPGs and video games as a whole, where we as players have undoubtedly slayed countless monsters mindlessly and have still come out as heroes in the end or, alternatively, decided to do a Mercy run on deltarune solely because it’s what we learned from UNDERTALE. deltarune is a game about UNDERTALE insofar as it asks us to reflect on the latter’s themes and what we’ve been taught about video games and choice from it.

This, to me, is what this chapter is about, and it would be interesting to see this theme develop further in later chapters. I can’t say for sure what will come in the future of deltarune, but judging by the ending of this chapter, it seems that we have no way to control the path that Kris is being led down other than playing the game how we believe we should.

 

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