Deltarune and the formulaic fallacy
When we refer to something as “formulaic”, we often mean it as a bad thing, a criticism or insult. After all, once you recognise the formula of something, it ceases to be distinct or even surprising, or at least in the eyes of many. But what this notion misses about formulas, is that a game can surprise you because it adheres to one. The perfect example of this is Deltarune, an episodic game from Undertale’s Toby Fox. Though it tries new things, for the most part, it follows the formula Undertale established.
Until it doesn’t.
Undertale itself is a game that uses a formula inspired by SNES-era JRPGs, but what it takes from them is a template of its own. The game goes like this: you get a couple of rooms of exploration and combat, then a room that’s essentially a comedy skit. Though there’s some divergences every so often, like a boss fight or a more tonally serious scene, for the most part the whole game follows this template closely. It also fits into a bigger pattern of the game being divided into areas marked by final bosses. Though it isn’t a replica of these games, Undertale stands on the shoulders of these giants and creates something new in the process.
More compelling twists
On paper, Deltarune doesn’t seem as transformative. Though it adds new things such as multiple party members, Deltarune follows Undertale’s formula almost exactly. You’ve still got exploration sections, punctuated by comedy segments featuring the antagonist of that chapter. The fact that Deltarune is episodic only further highlights the formulaic nature of the episodes. By the time you get to Chapter 2, the game starts to feel like it’s settling into this pattern, that there aren’t any surprises left.
And indeed, Deltarune Chapter 2 does start to feel a little too familiar, a little too much. Chapter 1 already felt like an elongated Undertale biome with a similar flow, but here it’s repeated ad nauseum, albeit in a new, glitzy computer city setting. If you look at Deltarune from a distance, you can see that Toby Fox is recreating the normal lengthy JRPG—one that’s divided into discrete arcs—and delivering each arc as an episode. While the entire seven-chapter saga will likely feel cohesive and fresh once it’s completed, waiting years between installments makes each entry feel more rote than it normally would, which threatens to call into question the game’s specialness.
At the same time, what this misses is that the formula serves as both a solid foundation to build the rest of Deltarune on, and a standard to which everything in the game is measured against. It gives players something to grab onto as the game whisks you away, but more importantly, it also contrasts strongly against potential surprises. It’s like how painters use contrast to draw the eye to specific elements of a painting. Here it works similarly, where mechanics that heavily diverge from the formula stand out. You wouldn’t think that you’d have to do a Punch-Out-inspired minigame, or a simple area control board game in Deltarune Chapter 2, and yet when you do, it hits harder because it’s such a divergence from what you’ve been conditioned to expect.
This iterative structure also puts the characters in the game front and centre, especially the newer ones and their influence on the existing characters. Though the structure of both Chapter 1 and 2 are similar to Undertale’s, the difference is how the characters come to the fore and interact. Chapter 1 got you used to the three-character party system and focused on establishing Suzie and Ralsei’s characters.
Now that that’s been incorporated into Deltarune’s formula, the new characters are able to shine in surprising ways different from Chapter 1’s. The newer chapter is especially character rich, with a new, lovable antagonist in the computerised wine mom Queen, two more characters being fleshed out in Noelle and Berdly, and more character growth for the core team stemming from their interactions with the new characters, especially Suzie. With this formula, it showcases the depth of interpersonal relationships even more effectively, and how our own feelings may crash against other people’s.
People’s expectations, when coming to grips with a piece of art’s underlying “formula”, can be a bit out of whack. Be it templates, styles, or whatever you want to call them, they serve two distinct functions: letting players latch onto the work easier, and as a baseline for drawing contrasts and attention to specific scenes or themes. But most of all, it provides an unlikely pedestal for the work’s strongest features to shine through. It may initially feel like Deltarune Chapter 2 is a formulaic game that’s delivering diminishing returns, but look closer: you’ll see that this entry is working its own kind of magic—one that’s facilitated by a well-worn template.