After three long years, Toby Fox and his talented team have returned to give us Deltarune Chapter 2. It’s a wonderful follow-up to the first chapter, expanding the world, gameplay systems, and story in many ways. As I played through both chapters, I kept coming back to one theme over and over. Deltarune’s Dark Worlds, and its overall Light and Dark philosophy, have some interesting things to say about the potentially dangerous side of escapism.
I want to be clear that this article is not an attempt to explain Deltarune’s story in full or unravel its many mysteries with an elaborate theory. It’s a rich and layered game that can be approached from many angles, and we’re not yet playing with a full deck of cards. That said, it is an exploration of some of the game’s themes, and that means there are going to be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
The sad world of Deltarune
Deltarune’s main characters lead sad and troubled lives. Kris is the only human in a town of all monsters, and it’s not clear how that happened. Were they orphaned or abandoned by their human parents? They were taken in by loving monster parents, but Asriel and Asgore are now divorced and on icy terms. Kris has few friends, and if you speak to monsters around town, it’s clear they view Kris as a quiet, creepy kid. Kris’s adoptive brother Asriel, loved and admired by all, was their closest companion. But Asriel has gone away to college, leaving Kris behind in a shattered home.
We know far less about our second protagonist, Susie, but all the signs point to an equally troubled life. Susie may be the only person in town with fewer friends than Kris. Her tattered clothes suggest she lives in poverty, and there are numerous hints that she’s malnourished. In Chapter 1 she remarks that all she’s had to eat all day is chalk, and in Chapter 2 we find out she regularly drinks milk she finds in a bowl in an alley. It’s not even clear if she has a home. We’ve never seen it. And when Toriel prompts her to call her parents and ask permission for a sleepover, she says she will, but never does. Either there’s no one around to call, or she has an extremely distant relationship with her parents. All of this leads her to be closed off and violent. She’s a bully who pushes people around because she’s terrified of being vulnerable.
Chapter 2 expands the party to include Noelle, who may be dealing with the most emotional distress of all. Her father lies in a hospital bed with a serious ailment that doesn’t seem to be getting better. While we haven’t met her mother yet, several characters imply that she’s incredibly strict and controlling. In fact, her father seems desperate to get out of the hospital mostly for Noelle’s sake. But it’s not just her mother. Her best friend Berdly treats her like a doormat, and at one point she remarks that she can’t say no to anyone. Additionally, Chapter 2 drops numerous hints that something horrific happened to her sister in the past. It’s not clear if she died, but she’s not around anymore, and Noelle exhibits strange and erratic behavior in her absence.
Into the Dark World
All three of these characters are desperately struggling in their home lives, and it’s left them all feeling isolated and helpless. If anyone could use a dose of escapism, it’s them. And that’s exactly what they stumble onto in the form of the Dark World.
In Chapter 1, Kris and Susie discover a portal to the Dark World in their school’s supply closet, and soon they’re off on a fantastical adventure. Kris, abandoned by his brother, is doted on by “Ralsei” (an anagram of Asriel) and becomes the Leader of the team and the great Hero of an ancient prophecy. Meanwhile, Susie befriends Lancer, whose endless admiration of her means she can’t bully him away no matter how hard she initially tries. Throughout the journey, these troubled characters are happier than ever before, and they grow to become close friends.
When they return to the regular world, Kris and Susie find themselves in an old, unused classroom filled with playing cards, chess and checkers pieces, and other toys. Many players initially theorized that the Dark World was all in their heads, and they were simply playing a tabletop RPG using the contents of the room. Chapter 2 makes it clear the Dark World is more complicated than that, but the symbolism still holds true.
Escaping into a fantasy role-playing game is a great way for many people to explore their imagination and express themselves. It can help otherwise isolated people connect with others who share their interests. Dungeons and Dragons has no doubt been a safe refuge and creative outlet for many. And even just board and card games by themselves can be a fun way to pass the time and connect with others. Chapter 2’s Dark World is based on computer games and the internet, which serve similar purposes. And although we can’t say for sure, it seems likely that Chapter 3’s Dark World will be based on television, continuing the theme of entertainment.
Light and Dark, Hopes and Dreams
Deltarune’s central prophecy describes the world as needing a proper balance of Light and Dark, Hope and Dreams. We’ve already explored how the characters escape into the Dark to live out their Dreams, and Light and Hope form the other half of that equation. Because as much fun as the Dark World is, the players must eventually return to their real lives and their real problems. But the world of “Light” is seriously lacking in the Hope department. While Deltarune explores the benefits of escapism, it also warns against over-indulgence.
In Chapter 2, Ralsei remodels his castle to include new rooms for our heroes, carefully designing them to appeal to their desires. He explains that he hopes this will become a second home for Kris and Susie, no matter what troubles they face in the outside world. Later, we see this paralleled by Queen in Cyber World, but with a twist. Queen designs rooms that she believes the characters will love based on their internet searches. But while Ralsei suggested his rooms be used as a second home, Queen locks the characters in their rooms by force. Ralsei recognizes the need for a balance between real life and fantasy, shooing Kris and Susie out of the Dark World when he finds out they’re supposed to be doing a school project. But Queen would keep them in the Dark World forever if she got her way. Furthermore, she argues that the inhabitants of the Light World are already locked up.
Think! Lightners have already been enslaved by me and my kin. Each day they spend hours worshipping in glorious rapture, our screens of funny animals and candied games. Staring, tapping to receive joy. Staring, tapping to avoid pain…Until recently, when the town’s internet disappeared. Now the refuge they take in screens will slowly fade. Noelle… then who will help her? Her strange and sad searches, who will answer them?
Queen believes that the inhabitants of the Light World, especially Noelle, need to be glued to their screens. That there’s no other way for them to deal with their problems. She isn’t really “evil” in the sense of wishing ill on anyone. She believes humans can’t handle reality, so she wants to expand the Dark Word to consume everything, providing a permanent escape for the Lightners. And when she explains this in full… your party largely agrees. Noelle, Susie, and Berdly decide that the Dark World is just better than reality, and plan to open up a new Dark Fountain to create their own Dark World.
Escaping from escapism
At this point, Ralsei angrily interjects to remind them about the prophecy and to reveal more details about it. If Queen succeeds in completely overwhelming the world with Darkness, it won’t grant her unlimited power to fulfill the dreams of the Lightners. Instead, all Darkners will be crushed under the weight of the endless dark and turn to stone. Without Darkners to guide them and help them live out their dreams, the Lightners will live out the rest of their lives in absolute darkness.
The forms of escapism that we engage in can be extremely healthy and worthwhile. But they can also become obsessive or even harmful. A favorite song can be replayed on loop until you never want to hear it again. Browsing memes on social media can spiral into endlessly doom-scrolling to pass the time. A hit indie game with branching story paths can be endlessly replayed until you’re button-mashing through cutscenes you once found hilarious or emotionally impactful. If you’re not careful, the things you love can slowly turn to stone, devoid of any meaning.
As expected from Toby Fox, Deltarune gives us a lot to think about. But maybe the most important lesson is that we shouldn’t think about it too much. I had a great time diving into Chapter 2. As a big fan of the first chapter (as well as Undertale), you could even say it was a dream come true. But now it’s time to leave the Dark World behind go cross a few things off my to-do list in the real world.