Trust Toby Fox to have the greatest Halloween trick of all prepared for us: teasing an upcoming Undertale-related announcement on the same day as Nintendo announces a new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate direct, so we have to spend the spookiest night of the year fearing the “Sans for Smash” nonsense might be true. I haven’t been this terrified since the Tories got into power, or when I opened a new bet365 account and hoped to win.
But as it transpires, our sacred Smash Brothers is safe from silly skeletal scallywags (though not from a ridiculous plant, and I don’t mean Flowey) and we were instead treated to a demo(ish) of Fox’s next project, Deltarune; a pixel-art role-playing game that defies many tropes of the genre. Given the similarity to Fox’s last project, a pixel-art role-playing game that defies many tropes of the genre – not to mention the titles are literally anagrams of each other, the cheeky sod – many have been quick to declare Deltarune the Undertale sequel we’ve all been craving like Katie Price craves attention. But asides from the superficial similarities (and the fact they’re being made back-to-back by the same guy, ignoring that), can Deltarune actually be considered an Undertale sequel? Or is that exactly what it wants you to think.
Lots of things make Undertale a great game; the consistently perfect writing, the engaging gameplay mechanics, Papyrus, I could go on. But what propels Undertale past “a great game” into the lofty echelons of a cultural phenomenon it’s regarded as (other than the lots and lots of porn on Tumblr, eck) is one simple thing: subversion. Subversion is something Undertale does better than any game – arguably any piece of media – that I’ve ever encountered; from the opening moments of Flowey toying with your emotions like a puma toying with a hamster, to the way you behave in combat being given pretty serious consequences, to the final boss of each ending throwing all the rules out the window like their office just introduced Defenestration Fridays. This is what gives Undertale its staying power, that “wham” factor that really makes it connect and linger with players; your choices have meaning in ways you couldn’t expect, and your expectations get picked apart regardless of your choices.
So what does this have to do with Deltarune and how it’s not a sequel, or basically anything I put in that particularly click-baitish title? Well, I’m getting to that. The thing with subversion is, it only really works the once; expecting subversion is by definition not subversive (sick of that word yet? We’re not even done). So, when it comes to making a sequel for a heavily subversive game like Undertale, this leads to a big problem.
A sequel is defined – by Google, not Merriam-Webster or Oxford-English, I’m not a hack – as “a published, broadcast, or recorded work that continues the story or develops the theme of an earlier one.” So, you could hit the same notes and subvert the same elements with a traditional sequel, but it won’t have the same impact as Undertale did and would generally be considered under(tale)whelming. But Deltarune doesn’t do that.
What Fantastic Mr. Fox (more original joke pending) has done with Deltarune is, in my opinion, the best possible outcome; Deltarune’s mission statement is specifically to subvert the expectations of those coming into the game with pre-conceived notions of how the game is going to play out because of Undertale. That’s a very wordy sentence, and despite my best wordsmithery I can’t condense it any more than that, so let’s try and break it down. Undertale (12th time I’ve written “Undertale” thus far this article (13th)), as discussed, breaks down standard cliches of the RPG genre to great effect by giving the player agency. People come to a new game that can ostensibly be considered “Undertale 2” expecting more of the same. What Deltarune actually does, then, is subvert those subversions and gleefully build back up all those cliches and tropes, giving you just a glimpse of a potential triple-subversion and laughing in your face as you desperately dig to find it. Whereas the player was entirely alone in the decisions they made in Undertale, and it became their burden to bear, Deltarune introduces two party members in Ralsei and Suzie, between whom represent the two choices the player could make between peace and violence, pacifism and genocide, which means you can project choices you don’t like onto the fluffy boy or mean girl. The minimalist menu interface in battles, that lessened the barrier between player and game, has been transformed into a much more traditional, albeit stylish, RPG menu, complete with all sorts of scaling bars and numbers and, general RPG things. At least twice the game actively revels in presenting you with a choice then taking it away from you, and I think all those looking for hidden “secrets” ala Undertale are going to be disappointed. So Deltarune doesn’t really satisfy either criteria for being a sequel; despite Undertale ending on a perfect cliffhanger, the story of Deltarune doesn’t follow on at all (or at the very least not directly) and instead of developing themes walks all over them like a cat walks over anything vaguely fragile or important.
And I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ve always been apprehensive about the idea of an “Undertale 2,” but we can rest easy knowing that it isn’t going to happen – and instead we’re getting the equally explorative, thought-provoking deconstruction that Undertale deserves. We also know that Toby Fox is the ultimate human / genius, and I can’t wait to play the full version of Deltarune when it gets released in, like, 40 years.