If you have known me over the last year or so, you could probably hazard a guess that the video game Deltarune means a great deal to me. The game has probably been the most special of my various special interests since the release of the second chapter back in September 2021, an impressive feat for a game not even a third of the way finished. It’s one of the few games that I actively read fanfiction of in an attempt to counteract the long waiting periods between the release of new chapters of the game. (By the way, if you’re looking for an absurdly lengthy and exceptionally well-written deltarune fanfiction, I would recommend the stellar and recently-completed Dream Come True. Assuming you don’t mind reading something that’s over a third the length of the bible.) Something that I noticed while perusing said fan content was that despite both the game’s unfinished nature and relative lack of ubiquity compared to the omnipresence that its predecessor Undertale enjoyed upon its release in 2015, Deltarune-based fanworks seem to be more thoughtfully composed and emotionally resonant than anything that I’ve seen come out of the Undertale community. While this can attributed to a variety of factors, such as people’s desire to fill in Deltarune’s story gaps preemptively and the game’s larger scope when compared to Undertale, I do think that the disparity of Deltarune’s higher quality fanfiction and lack of popularity compared to Undertale is significant. A Google Trends search reveals that Deltarune has only eclipsed Undertale in search popularity once, during the release of Chapter 2. Even during the release of Deltarune Chapter 1 more people searched for “undertale” in order to find the new game than its actual name! In order to articulate why Deltarune has been able to capture the hearts of so many despite being far less well-known than Undertale, I decided to replay both chapters of the game, and upon completion, I found myself with a better understanding of why Deltarune is so captivating: beneath the whimsical and adventurous exterior that the game is known for lies a surprisingly depressing backstory that’s somewhat easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.

Backstory aside, when one thinks of Deltarune and upsetting elements in the same breath, they’re mostly likely thinking of the alternate story route hidden within the game’s second chapter, which was discovered by fans the morning after its release. Despite Undertale’s multilayered nature and storyline that changes in response to the player’s actions, pretty much nobody (myself included) was expecting any sort of branching storyline in Deltarune, both as a result of the first chapter’s storyline being player-determined in only one relatively minor scene, and due to creator Toby Fox’s insistence that the game would have “only one ending.” As such, the circulation of a Google Doc detailing a supposed alternate route through Deltarune’s second chapter the day after launch was met with skepticism from many. The description of a route in which you manipulate the kind-to-a-fault reindeer Noelle into killing her classmate and study partner Berdly, amongst other things, felt both at odds with the cheery vibe of Chapter 2 as a whole, as well as seeming a bit too similar to an urban legend or creepypasta for many to find it believable. Of course, some (myself included) still decided to boot the game up for a second just to make sure it was fake. This decision quickly snowballed into a two-hour long emotional gauntlet of realizing that what I thought was some made-up joke actually existed. The creepypasta-esque nature of the storyline I mentioned before adds to the unease that one experiences while playing it as well, as the essential plot outline of the chapter remains almost exactly the same despite the massive changes in character dynamics that occur as a result of the decision to play the game like this. Something feels deeply wrong with the way the story is led off its standard path in a way that Undertale was never able to manage. Despite this chilling atmosphere, though, vibes alone cannot make a story that’s affecting enough to be widely considered more uncomfortable to play through than the already emotionally taxing Genocide route of Undertale, something that should be in theory more uncomfortable due to its dire circumstances, involving the destruction of the universe. Which brings me to the main point of this article: what exactly about Deltarune gives it so much emotional weight?

Replaying this alternate route (often called “the snowgrave route” by the game’s fan community), I initially thought I would be able to remain composed despite the horrible deeds you are required to commit in order to progress the game, but I was proven wrong rather quickly. Early on in the segment of the game in which Noelle accompanies Deltarune’s sort-of-player character Kris through the Cyber City, the party comes across the first of three puzzles in which you must maneuver a set of blocks to guide mice into a hole that triggers a means of progressing through the area. Though the other two both have a physical means of preventing the party from moving forwards, this first puzzle is unique in that the only thing stopping the party from moving forward is Noelle’s fear of the mice that run throughout the grounds of the puzzle. As such, Kris (under the player’s control) can leave the room whenever one wishes. Upon attempting to leave the room without solving the puzzle the first time, Noelle protests that Kris “needs to deal with the mice first.” While this dialogue may look like the sort of text loop often used in RPGs to prevent the player from entering an area you’re not supposed to have access to yet, attempting to leave again will yield a different response from Noelle, one that immediately stripped away all confidence I had in finishing this playthrough of the game unscathed. “Kris, you, um… aren’t gonna leave me here, are you?”, she says. “Th-think about all the p-pencils I gave you! The… the peppermint cookies I shared with you!” Upon attempting to exit again, Noelle at first says nothing, then blurts out “I’ll do your homework for you.” Another move towards the bottom of the screen prompts her to say “Kris? Are… you really going to leave me…?” You are then presented with a dialogue box presenting two options for Kris’ response: “Sorry, I’ll do the puzzle” and “Proceed”. Upon selecting “Proceed” (multiple times, so as to drown out her protests), Noelle will eventually wordlessly hurry across the puzzle field, allowing the party to move on to the next room.

Noelle’s behavior during this sequence suggests that even beyond the harrowing events of the snowgrave route, all is not well with Deltarune’s main cast of characters. Noelle’s backstory is elaborated on throughout Chapter 2’s main story pathway, revealing that her family life has pretty much completely fallen apart by the time the game begins. Her mother is overbearing and absent to the point of having not been seen in-game at all so far; her father, who usually provides a more pleasant counterbalance parenting-wise, is in the hospital and implied to be worse off than he’d like you to think; and her sister Dess is presumably missing after an event significant enough that the entire town knows about it, as evidenced by fellow major character Susie’s discomfort when Dess’ name is brought up, despite Susie’s implied disinterest in the other citizens of Hometown prior to the beginning of the game. While a standard playthrough of Deltarune would reveal Noelle to be a bit more timid than the average person (or monster), she is still ultimately able to stand her ground against the chapter’s primary antagonist Queen, which eventually results in the protagonists’ victory when she refuses to go along with Queen’s plan to create more dark fountains. However, when confronted by the player of the game on the snowgrave route through the form of Kris, who is shown to have a close history with her prior to the events of the game, Noelle folds almost immediately, even though the actions “Kris” tells Noelle to undertake are significantly more negative in nature than those of Queen. This discrepancy in behavior is indicative of the toll that familial tensions and trauma have taken on Noelle, as she fears being abandoned by one of her few true friends enough to convince herself that “Kris” telling her to encase her classmate in a block of ice is an expression of their care for her. Through Noelle’s behavior, the snowgrave route is able to portray the lengths those with traumatic upbringings will go to ensure they feel like they are loved with an almost frightening level of accuracy.

In addition to the extreme lengths Noelle will go to make sure Kris still considers her a friend, her relationship with them is also utilized for a different, more metatextual sort of horror. One of the pivotal moments of the snowgrave route occurs early on when the player goads Noelle into (presumably) freezing an Addison, Deltarune’s personification of obnoxious online ads, in order to obtain the Snow Ring, an item that significantly boosts her magical ability. The Addison in question offers the Freeze Ring to Noelle and Kris as a result of the player’s decision to have Kris proclaim that the two are “something else” rather than “friends” as part of a route-critical dialogue option. This response, prompted by the Addison mistaking Kris and Noelle for a couple, plays into a general subtextual theme throughout the snowgrave route of the player forcing Deltarune’s narrative to shy away from the game’s LGBT themes, regardless of what it takes to accomplish this. While Kris and Noelle are both explicitly queer characters, the snowgrave route’s “pairing” of the two is dismissive of Noelle’s crush on Susie, a detail that forms the basis of one of the most emotionally potent scenes of Chapter 2. That scene may still occur during the snowgrave route, but the player is not able to view it, as the camera does not switch to Noelle’s perspective as it does in the standard route, furthering the movement of the game’s characters away from their queer roots. Similarly to the deprivation of romantic agency that Noelle faces during the snowgrave route removing her queer identity, Kris is positioned as the commanding, masculine figure in their “relationship”, despite them being canonically non-binary. This specific detail, especially when one considers that following the release of Deltarune’s first chapter a significant portion of the fandom mistakenly believed Kris to be male, but virtually nobody read them as female, seems to me to be a form of commentary on fans that “straightwash”, for lack of a better word, Deltarune’s themes of queerness.

Speaking of themes of queerness, Deltarune has a frankly ludicrous amount for a game made by someone that has never publicly acknowledged a queer identity. Of the four characters included in the main party up to this point, all but Ralsei have been confirmed as queer in one way or another, and there’s enough subtext with Ralsei’s character that I feel fairly confident in his queerness. In addition to their queer characterization, another thing that the rest of Deltarune’s main characters: Susie appears to be in a social prison of her own construction due to her status as the “class bully”, something that appears to have been adopted by her as a result of a poor family life similar to Noelle’s; Ralsei has been socializing with others for all of two days, spending all of his life before the game in complete solitude waiting for Kris and Susie to arrive; and Kris has been contending with being possessed by the player and losing control over most of their own actions. Despite all of these struggles, there’s a sense of healing through communion that permeates Deltarune, particularly the second chapter, in which the newly formed bonds from the first chapter blossom outwards towards moments of genuine connection and family, to the point that the chapter ends on Kris freeing themselves of the player’s control in order to create another Dark Fountain, enabling another bonding adventure to begin despite the Fountains’ potential apocalyptic properties. Through their communal adventures in the Dark World, Deltarune’s four protagonists begin their journey towards finding themselves and achieving happiness, turning away from the hurt of their pasts. As long as you let these characters move towards their happy ending as the player, Deltarune is a game that allows you to see the transformative power of queer love and friendship in the face of trauma, and I think that is why I’ve attached so much of myself to the game in the year since the release of its second chapter.