Children’s literature frequently receives an unfair and undeserved stigma in the wider world of written fiction, often in the way that children themselves are misunderstood and misinterpreted by the adults around them. In literature specifically, those bright, illustrated covers, simple names and places, and smooth, comprehensible prose can lead critics to question the genre and its tropes’ value on a higher level of understanding—a conclusion as invalid as the idea that children are just less-developed adults, without their own particular ways of seeing, feeling, and interpreting the world around them.
This is a much wider divide in literature than in newer media, but still it exists in film and television; where, particularly in America, animation is regarded as a medium designed specifically for children (something diagrammed extremely well in this piece from The Ringer). Video games, perhaps because of their origins and perhaps because of a cultural association between children and play, have perhaps the smallest divide. Yet, paradoxically, even games designed expressly for children seem to avoid the tropes we diagram in children’s literature—sure, coming-of-age stories are common (looking at you, Pokémon), and plenty of games toe the Pixar line of entertainment that can be appreciated on several levels of maturity, but rarely do games seem to purposefully invoke the kind of tropes and devices that abound in books like Bridge to Terabithia: a book that invokes otherworldly tropes and the trappings of childhood to tell a story, at its core, about loneliness and loss.
Loneliness and loss, however, are at the core of Toby Fox’s recent follow-up to Undertale, the demo(ish) “Chapter 1” of a game called Deltarune. And while Deltarune does on the surface pull a lot from its predecessor (and perhaps even more from EarthBound), the comparisons that stuck out most to me were twofold—to the novel I already mentioned, Bridge to Terabithia, and to one of the few other video games that feels like it truly understands the aim and methodology at the core of children’s literature: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
But first, on Deltarune itself. At its core is a departure—the relatively normal, common, and understandable departure of the main character’s brother (Asriel, named similarly to a key character from Undertale) to college, and the hole that opens in the main character’s life as a result. But there’s something deeper there: this character, Kris, is the only (ostensible) human in the game’s otherwise-recognizable town. Every other character is some kind of monster—most of them, again in a very Majora’s Mask twist, duplicates of characters from Undertale. And because of that, Kris is, one might say, a bit of an outcast. From the interactions the player can start with the game’s townspeople in its quasi-epilogue, he seems largely quiet, unassuming, and regarded as something like the town oddity. One of them—Noelle, one of the schoolkids Kris spends the beginning of the game in class with—acts surprised if the player engages in a long conversation with her. Another, the waitress at the town diner, remarks that she remembers Asriel and Kris’s family always coming in after church and ordering their special… until they no longer did. Some kind of parental separation is implied—some unnamed conflict or schism that pulled the mother and father apart (as differing views on, well, murder, did to their doppelgangers in Undertale). After that, only Kris and Asriel would come in—to order hot chocolates and draw in their breath on the diner windows.
It’s these small remarks and slice-of-life moments that act as trellises for the game’s core story—a story in which Kris and Suzie, one of the other school-age townsfolk, end up on a Lloyd Alexander, Lewis Carroll-ish adventure through a “Dark World” that hides in their school’s supply cabinet. On this adventure, they meet a kind and gentle healer named Ralsei (the letters of which, you might notice, rearrange to Asriel in the same way that Deltarune’s rearrange to Undertale). And in some ways, this “Dark World,” its characters, and Kris’s journey through it mirror the underworld or monsters that gives Undertale its title.
But, while the core reality of Undertale‘s monster realm is never questioned, Deltarune seems much more in line with Bridge to Terabithia—a make-believe world created by a pair of lonely outcasts in an attempt to, in a sense, play through that loneliness. And with the context that later comes from Deltarune’s surrounding town: Asriel’s departure, and their parents’ separation, Kris’s journey through that “Dark World” starts to feel more like a role-playing therapy session. In short, an attempt to work through those feelings of loss and loneliness by becoming someone else.
This, of course, creates some added subtext in the game’s final moments, when, having woken up and sleepwalked to the center of his bedroom, Kris reaches inside his chest, tears out the heart-shaped “soul” that (both here and in Undertale) represents the locus of the player’s control, and throws it into a cage beside his bed. Then he turns to the camera and brandishes a knife (another callback to Undertale’s Fallen Child), and the game ends.
Obviously, one way to read that ending involves the invasion of Chara—Undertale’s ultimate antagonist—into the world of Deltarune. But I’m going to take a more Majora’s Mask-informed approach to this, where in fact these characters aren’t quite related to that degree. And if we remove Undertale’s implications from that final scene, what we instead see is a young teenager who you, the player, have spent about three-or-so hours not just controlling, but sending through an adventure-slash-therapy play session with an imagined analog to his absent brother. Kris resents you. He resents your control. In those feelings of loss and loneliness, he resents the attempts to try and make him interact and converse with the people around the town. He feels like a shadow—lost and alone—and clearly losing control of his own destiny and actions doesn’t help.
It’s something that, if Deltarune ever becomes a full game, might grow even deeper. Right now, it’s rough around the edges, clearly a bit unfinished, but still crystallized in a way that feels wholly rougher, odder, and more unique than its more polished predecessor. In that very literal sense, I hope it does end up as a Majora’s Mask to an Ocarina of Time—a piece of art that leverages the iconography of a (brilliant) original to tell a weirder, rougher kind of story. One wholly appropriate to the brand of children’s literature it draws from, and the control-based medium in which it makes its home.