The Unsettling “Pacifist” World of Deltarune

It’s no secret that I love Undertale. I think it’s a masterpiece of heart, soul and meta gaming commentary, and I thought I’d never play a game like it again.

At least, until Halloween this year, when the creator surprise dropped… something on Twitter. A demo. A first chapter. A three hour gaming experience. A new Undertale. Deltarune.

But from its very beginning, Deltarune wants you to understand that you are not playing Undertale any more.

Create a Vessel

The first thing that Deltarune asks you to do is “create a vessel” — your player character for the game. So far, so RPG, as you pick a head, a torso, legs, a favourite color, a personality trait… but already, something is wrong. The music in the background is incredibly ominous, to say the least. The body options grow increasingly identical. One choice for favourite food is “pain,” and when asked about blood type, you aren’t asked to PICK a blood type, but which one your favourite is.

You can name your creation, and then are asked for your name. Of course, I gave the character my name before I realized I had to name myself as well, to which the game voice simply commented “very interesting.”

And then it’s all wiped away, because “no one can choose who they are in this world.”

The Game is Watching You

From the first moment, the game has a sense of sentience about it that Undertale players will find familiar. “Are you there?” the game asks, in white text over a black screen, while that strange humming sound fades in and out in the background. “Are we connected?” The familiar red heart that represents the soul in Undertale appears, and the voice continues. “Excellent. Truly excellent. Now we may begin.”

It’s an incredibly ominous beginning to the game, and that ominous vibe doesn’t go away through character creation. You are not just starting a game and making a character. The game is speaking with you, connecting with you, and its voice isn’t a friendly one. It sounds powerful, distant, judging.

As a total wimp, I was actually fairly on edge during this section. I’d just downloaded a file from the Internet, I had no idea what it was, no one had had time to play through it all yet… and the opening was creepy as all hell.

And rather like Flowey the Flower giving us a nice, friendly introduction to the world of Undertale, before tricking us and screaming that in this world, “it’s kill or be killed,” it plays with your expectations for the game. Flowey is a cutesy character giving you a tutorial, until he turns out to be the main villain. This voice is guiding you through character creation, until it’s not.

It was easy, over the next few hours of gameplay, to forget the ominous voice at the beginning of the game. The voice that connects you, toys with you, and then puts you in control of Kris. The fact that we forget it makes the ending even more impactful — but we’ll talk about that later.

No Such Thing As Free Will

If Undertale is all about free will and player choice, Deltarune’s first section puts a lot of effort into making sure you know that you’re not playing Undertale any more. You do not have a choice. Toriel will drive you straight to school, and you cannot leave or explore once you get there. THIS is the way to your classroom, THIS is the way to the supply closet, and don’t you dare try to go anywhere else.

Even once you have greater control over Kris and can explore as you please, you still can’t control other characters’ decisions. Although we expect RPG companions to have their own storylines and make their own choices, we also expect them to follow our instructions during battles. Yet until very late in the game, Susie rebels. She refuses to engage with anything other than violence, and you have to spend significant time and energy to prevent her from messing up your no-death playthrough.

Because you’re playing a no-death playthrough, right? That’s what Undertale is all about.

Except, as the game has worked hard to make clear, this isn’t Undertale.

The Power Of Kindness!

Unlike Undertale, Deltarune spends a lot of time telling you about the power and value of pacifism. Don’t fight anyone, Ralsei says. Treat them all with kindness. If you ACT instead of FIGHT, everything will be okay. Undertale gives us only the vaguest hint of the pacifist option, with Toriel telling us not to get into fights, balanced out by Flowey’s insistence that the world is kill or be killed. Deltarune explicitly makes it the main conceit. And how could it not? Everyone playing this has played Undertale. They’ve probably played a True Pacifist run. They know that their choices matter, and that everyone can be pacified with kindness. Play this game like Undertale, it tells us. I half expected to face an enemy that absolutely couldn’t be defeated without violence, but the game plays it straight all the way through. Be a hero, be kind to people, and all will be okay!

Undertale was a subversion of how we typically play RPGs. Delta Rune… it’s too early to say what it’s really doing, with only one episode released. But I highly doubt it’s pushing us to follow our Undertale-esque expectations in order to play out the same scenario again. Maybe Ralsei is the true enemy, and the pacifism is all a ruse. Maybe making these choices will cause further harm in a later episode. After all, in the final fight, pacifism almost gets you killed, and Lancer has to use violence to save the day.

Making a Difference

But your choices can make a difference. The game has two endings — one where the Darkners rush to the king’s aid and Kris and Susie have to flee, and one where the Darkners help you to overthrow the king and put Lancer in his place. In the first, there’s not time for anything more than a quick goodbye to Ralsei, while the second lets you wander back through the world like after the Undertale True Pacifist run, talking to everybody, and discovering the second, secret boss that lurks beneath the castle and unveiling cryptic hints about more of the plot to come. Making Lancer king or keeping his father as king is a pretty big difference for the end of a first episode.

There are other differences, too, but they’re all pretty superficial. Lancer and Susie blow up your fighting machine, whether it’s a tank or a duck. You get to pick which of the characters names the group, so I ended up with the Lancer Fan Club vs the Dark Lancer Fan Club (clearly the best choice), but you don’t know what you’re picking before you select.

No matter what you do, or how violently you act, you’re still designated a hero. And no matter how kind you are, you cannot change the game’s true ending. You can explore the town as much as you like, but eventually, you must go to bed, and you must face the twist that comes.

Nightmares

I’ve read a lot of interpretations of the game’s final scene, where Kris tears out their heart and throws it into the bloody cage in the corner of the room, before pulling out a knife, their eyes glowing red.

One theory is that Kris is breaking free of the player’s control in order to be their true self again. The red heart is what we control in battle, a symbol of our influence on Kris and the game world, and now it’s been torn away. After all, when you save the game for the first time, you are forced to overwrite an existing save file for a player called Kris, replacing it with one with your own name. No one can choose who they are in this world, and Kris was a person of their own before you took control.

Another explanation is that Kris has been possessed by Chara, which would explain the red eyes. This final scene certainly echoes the scene at the end when a player completes a “True Pacifist” run after previously completing a genocide run, where everything is safe and happy, until Frisk’s eyes glow red, and you know Chara is still there, ready to wreak havoc again.

Right now, I’m leaning towards it being both at once. That Kris is Chara, and is breaking free of your control. After all, nobody can choose who they are in this world. It’s possible that Kris isn’t the hero at all — the prophecy did say that the three heroes would appear after the balance between light and dark was broken, and it hasn’t been here yet. Perhaps Kris is the villain.

And there are parallels between the timelines that support this theory. Kris is Toriel and Asgore’s human child in a town of monsters. Asriel, their other son, has gone away somewhere, and Asgore and Toriel are separated. Toriel is furious at Asgore over something, although we don’t know what. Things in this world are different, and yet somehow still the same. If Kris were a parallel to a character in Undertale, it wouldn’t be Frisk. It would be Asriel’s friend and brother, the adopted human.

An Alternate Universe

Although Toby Fox has stated that this is not the Undertale universe, so not a direct sequel or prequel, and that all the characters are safe in the ending you left them with, that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply connected. In Undertale, Sans hints at having seen many timelines, and having a place he wants to go back to, but knows now he never will. We know that some characters can exist outside the timelines of the game — Sans, for one, Flowey, and Chara. So even though Sans is new in town and doesn’t know anyone here, he winks at the player as he says it, and seems clued in to the idea that the player has met him before, even if Kris hasn’t.

I don’t think anyone can claim to know the true connection, with only part one released, but I don’t doubt that there is one. Several timelines all overlapping, with this narrative voice watching over them all. Chara speaks to the player in Undertale, and they speak to the player here as well, in the game’s opening moments. No one can choose who they are in this world.

Is Kris Chara, before they became Chara? Is this the original universe, the one Sans hints about wishing to return to? Who or what even is Chara, really? Hopefully, Toby Fox will manage to develop the rest of the game, and we can find out.

With You In The Dark

Deltarune ends with a beautiful song about love and friendship. Or it ends with Chara, or another dark force, reminding you that you cannot escape her. As you try to process what on earth you just saw Kris do, the ending credits roll, and a haunting female voice sings:

When the light is running low
And the shadows start to grow
And the places that you know
Seem like fantasy.

There’s a light inside your soul
That’s still shining in the cold
With the truth
The promise in our hearts.

Don’t forget
I’m with you in the dark.

These could easily be the lyrics at the end of a game about pacifism and friendship and love, where Ralsei is right and kindness saves everything. But considering we just saw Kris’s eyes glow Chara-red as they ripped out their own heart, that final line is horrifying.

The game is over, but don’t forget. She’s always there, with you in the dark.

What do you think?