BASICALLY, Deltarune goes like this. You are a lonely kid in a small town. Your name is Kris. You have a sweet but slightly overbearing mother, a high-achieving older brother away at college, and a dad who no longer sleeps in your house. You turn up late to school one morning and find that everybody else is already partnered up for the big project. One by one you go around the room trying to persuade your fellow students to take you on. Then… Suzie kicks down the door.
Everybody is scared of Suzie, including your hapless teacher, who pairs you up as a way to mollify this hulking, mean-spirited lizard girl (everyone is a monster in this story, except for you). The teacher sends you and Suzie out on some half-assed errand to get the troublemaker out of the classroom. Out in the corridor Suzie briefly considers eating your face, but decides against it. Then two of you head on into the store room and through a wormhole into another reality.
There’s a kingdom in mortal danger down here. A kingdom awaiting destined heroes who, wouldn’t you know it, look just like you and Susie. Capes and weapons appear in a burst of light. A slamming overworld theme kicks in. The adventure is on!
Look, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on here. There may be layers yet uncovered – in fact, I hope there are – but when your teenage characters emerge from a chess-themed fantasy kingdom amid the scattered parts of an old chess board, or plunge into a frenetic cyberspace city while visiting the IT lab, obvious conclusions must be drawn. Someone is making this up. The only question is who.
Deltarune is the brainchild of Toby Fox, composer, writer, animator, programmer, and all-round indie wizard. Toby Fox is in a weird position. On one level, he has every artist’s dream: near unlimited resources, plenty of time, and an eager fanbase willing to lick the dregs of an idea from his outstretched fingertip. He can make whatever he likes. But whatever he makes, be it a cupcake or a clothing brand or a package holiday business, will be compared, inevitably, to Undertale.
It’s an especially thorny conundrum because Undertale was so narratively groundbreaking. It starts with crap puzzles and funny skeletons and evolves, perfectly, into the story of a human being sitting down to play a video game. And now we have this new remix/sequel/alternate universe-thing in the form of Deltarune. Does Deltarune go further, try and be cleverer, craftier, even more subversive? Absolutely not. It’s much more interesting than that.
The simple summary is that if Undertale is a game about games, Deltarune is a game about playing. Specifically, it’s about how we can become better people just by playing around.
The “Dark World” is where adventures take place in Deltarune, a bombastic counterpoint to the quaint small town overworld. Anything can happen in the Dark World: unlikely friendships, budding romances, unspoken feelings finally coming to light, action, adventure, standing up to a villain who bears an uncanny resemblance to an overbearing parent, the lot. When they fall into the Dark World, the school-kid protagonists get colorful costumes that seem to project who they want to be in the world above. Susie has studded armbands and a giant axe, while dweeb Berdly gets a cyber-suit and a Dragon Ball Z style orange eye visor. Player character Kris might be enigmatic, but we can tell a lot about them just by the billowing neon pink cape and sword they adopt in the Dark World.
And another thing. When characters leave the Dark World, they leave it better. A genuine bond forms between Kris and Susie after their adventure in the chess kingdom, and by the next morning she can’t wait to get back in the action, her face-eating days a thing of the past. At the end of chapter two, shy reindeer Noelle comes out of her ‘dream’ feeling a little braver, a little more ready to face reality. Even Beardly grows up a bit (mostly by getting his ass kicked).
It’s a self fulfilling prophecy, right? If you play football wearing your favorite team’s shirt, maybe you’ll play a little better. If you go to a convention dressed up as a superhero, maybe you’ll act heroic, too. Growing up is a lot of the time just putting on a costume and then trying to become that person. That’s what Deltarune is all about.
When Deltarune was first announced, Toby Fox claimed that there would be only one ending – a far cry from Undertale, where the conclusion changes dramatically depending on how you approach the game’s battles. It felt like a fitting change. Deltarune is about Kris and their friends, and that’s what players should focus on, rather than trying to pull apart every strand of some intricately coded narrative web. We don’t need another mystery box. Just tell the damn story.
Well… I don’t know if it was misdirection, or if Toby Fox just changed his mind, but Chapter 2 has a secret ending. Following a series of steps so complex that it’s almost impossible to do without a guide, you can change Deltarune from a sweet coming of age flick into a harrowing, wretched nightmare. Head over to Youtube now and you’ll find countless videos picking over every last detail of this damned alternate route, theorising about the implications, the lore, trying to stitch the “real” story together, trying to solve it. This drives me crazy. Even if I ignore the other ending, it’ll always be there, looming over Deltarune like an intrusive thought I can’t shake loose.
I guess it’s all part of the power of games, the power of playing pretend. The choices you make in a game matter, not because fake violence leads to real violence (sorry Republicans), but because the moment you decide to do some deeply messed up thing just because there won’t be any “real” consequences, is the moment you stop really believing in the story. That’s another, sadder way to come of age.
When Chapter 2 was announced at the Indie expo, Fox said, ‘When you make games, you can give people hope, or make them into terrible monsters.’ Deltarune gives me hope.