games as art

Deltarune Chapter 2 was a Fever Dream

...and a case for narratives in games.

This article was originally published in October 2021 on Medium.

This article contains mild spoilers for Deltarune Chapter 2. If you haven’t played it yet, go play it! It’s free.

WHEN I FIRST PLAYED DELTARUNE CHAPTER 2 ON A DREARY LATE AUTUMN EVENING, I felt something different. It was the childhood feeling of the unknown. The feeling of being engrossed within a work of fantastical fiction. The type of mesmerising feeling where just when you manage to get your bearings upon its presence, it’s flipped on its head through any manner of ridiculous satire or surprising twists, turned in a way so unwieldy yet brilliant such that it sends shockwaves throughout your body and makes you force a grin of sheer stupidity. It’s the type of feeling that you wouldn’t get by watching a cinematic film or reading an elaborate novel.

Deltarune Chapter 2 can be best described as a piece of absurdist humour. It is a reflection of the internet’s culture in ways that seem so ludicrously absolute when presented upon a non-contextual canvas; a sense of humour cast over every well-crafted scene, line of dialogue, and piece of flavour text.

Deltarune Chapter 2 can also be described as a far-reaching commentary. It explores many different and varied themes — the potent appeal of fiction, the presence of manipulation within video games, the metaphorical exploration of the player as a puppet, the dangers of a purely intellectual worldview, the satirical analysis of the modern world, the obligatory critique of capitalism.

Deltarune Chapter 2 can also be described simply as a brilliant game. The turn-based battles are filled with charm and witty brilliance in the form of well-balanced attack patterns and an overall great sense of difficulty. The battles themselves are fun, entertaining, and generally provide the foundation for a masterful video game.

The point is, Deltarune Chapter 2 is a lot of things.

Every other month, an obscure unheard game journalist complains about how games should be worlds focused solely on gameplay; that games should be built for pure unadulterated fun — with GPU-breaking graphics to match, of course.

(This is obviously an exaggeration)

Now, I’m not here to argue that games made just for escapism and entertainment should be erased from the gaming landscape. Such an idea would be completely mad. I am also not here to argue that video games can replace traditional film and written media. Instead, I propose to you to think about how video games can tell stories in better and more engaging ways than their non-interactive counterparts. Stories which enhance the fun of gaming and build our world for the better.

Not far into Deltarune Chapter 2, you’re hurled into a skyscraper-high bumper-coaster battle against a bright classmate-turned antagonist. As the wind whistles by on the tracks miles above the city’s skyline, the neon glow of the cyber world lights the scene in an elusive, trance-like fashion. The karts drive forward with no hint of slowing down, controlled only by your decision to bump into the opponent. As you dodge between gusts of air, an intense techno track plays in the background alongside the irritating monologue of an insensible classroom nerd.

But Deltarune Chapter 2 has no three-dimensional perspective. It has no grand booming orchestral scores or pitch-perfect dramatic voice acting. Instead, what it does have is writing. Subversive, irrational, yet cohesive writing. Put Toby’s methodical, insightful story, however, in the form of a book or a movie, and you’ll soon find that it has lost some of its charm. It has lost its connection. It has lost its uniqueness. Remove it from its context and you’ll find that it has lost its soul.

In the very first installment of The Legend of Zelda, creator Shigeru Miyamoto cites his inspiration for the game as being his childhood experiences of exploring the uncharted forests of the Japanese wilderness. This essence can be seen scattered throughout the game’s retro open world design, level layouts, and presence in popular culture. It puts you, the player, in the front-row seat of an immersive experience where you can shape the world and the world can shape you.

Although video games have commonly been panned for their implementation of unexciting narratives and boring stories, the idea of digital experiences themselves have only been several decades old. In comparison, cinema has existed for more than a century. We must realise that we are still in a phase of experimentation. One where we can amplify the positives of games to create more memorable and fun experiences.

What benefits do games bring to the narrative landscape? Some clear and obvious aspects include stronger emotional connections, mechanics that can comment on a meta-textual analysis of the human condition, and the atmospheric mood built as a result of clever writing and level design. Games aren’t meant to replicate film. Instead, we must learn to write stories for games that take advantage of its pros and rid it of its cons.

As mentioned in the title, my experience with Deltarune Chapter 2 was akin to that of a fever dream. With no information or context going in, every twist and revelation was packed full of chaos and emotion. An adrenaline rushing trek through a cybernetic field — an encounter with a humanoid spam email chanting to you a sales pitch in the back of a dark alley.

And that is what games fundamentally are! Video games are dreams. They are stories told when the mind hijacks the senses. Where you are the protagonist guided upon a path with opportunities to exercise your own decision and determination. Video games may be the closest we come to engineering our own dreams. Dreams that we can share with others. Dreams that can change the world.

As such, if the regular game is a dream, then Toby Fox’s Deltarune is a fever dream. Throughout the game, the parts feel so sporadic, the twists make you recoil, and the humorous timings and scene pacings make everything feel so real yet intuitive. However, if it takes being submerged in the art of fiction to understand what is is really about, then we need to step back and view a work from afar in order to grasp and analyse it to its fullest potential.

Deltarune’s main plot thus far is about “dark fountains.” Worlds separate from the boring, old reality — instead full of interesting action and still-life that has come alive, creating a split between darkener and lightener. The legend within the game, then, states that if there are too many dark fountains, the world will descend into chaos and become eternally submerged in a sea of haze.

Analyse the game further, however, and you’ll see that the game elaborates further on the true nature of the dark fountains. Deltarune Chapter 2 ends on a revelation that the supernatural dark fountains we combat as the player are in fact easily reproducible. That any lightener (A person from the real world) with sufficient-enough will and determination can make their own dark fountains. Fountains, mind you, that possess darkeners seemingly made of creative potential and fictional prowess. Darkeners that arise from the environment around the fountain.

When Deltarune creator Toby Fox released Undertale all the way back in 2015, the internet went wild. It soon became the source of memes, analysis, fan-art material, and discussion within every corner of the web. Of course, a game with such success spawned those who were obsessed with its story. A massive response to a simple work of fiction.

Therefore, it would not be a far stretch to assume that Deltarune is Toby’s response to the wild reception of Undertale. To point out to us that fiction is great — to a point. That to enjoy lessons and have fun with our fictitious stories is fine. To obsess over them to the point of disfunction — that is not so good. One fountain of fiction is fine. A sea of darkness, however, drains the light out of the world.

After discussing that of games and stories and fiction, I think it is critical to think about our relationship to art and literature. To consider what we are really doing. If one thinks about the human condition, it can be realised that the entirety of civilisation — the entirety of human achievement — can be attributed to stories.

But what are stories? A novel may just be someone’s imagination put into words. A film, someone’s vision depicted on the big screen. They are artefacts of a uniquely human world. But in the grand scheme of the abiotic, what good is a leather-backed bundle of gibberish? A series of light rays that shoots out into the abyss?

From this we realise the literal nature of the game. We become emotionally attached to lines of code and ones and zeros. Numbers that transform themselves into narratives and characters and experiences numerically uncountable.

In the end, a game is just a series of numbers. A book, the markings on a page and a film, sequences of light. It may seem sad how we as a people have descended into becoming attached to the virtual within a screen. Yet, I’d argue that there is something magical about the ability of human storytelling and its association with technology. We can synthesise a dream. We can synthesise a fever dream.

     There is something truly special about how a few lines of code can turn into such memorable, magical experiences.

Back to