Video Games

The Game Fans Love Too Much to Spoil

When this creator put restrictions on sharing his game’s secrets, his fans actually listened.

A face is seen hushing next to a scene from the game Undertale
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus. Screengrab from Deltarune.

Spoilers no longer come as a surprise to any content consumer. Manifested as memes or fan art, or just tweeted live as our favorite character meets their demise in a show premiere (I’ll never forget you, Game of Thrones), there is no escape from plot twists or surprise moments. Which makes Undertale developer Toby Fox’s request to his fan base—he asked players to refrain from sharing details from his second video game, Deltarune, publicly for 24 hours—especially bold, to say the least.

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“For those who completed Undertale it’s really important you check @Undertale 24 hours from now,” reads a tweet from the creator from Oct. 30, 2018. “I want to make something new, and it all begins with your feedback.” This was three years after the release of Undertale on Sept. 15, 2015, a period in which fans who’d loved and played and replayed the game couldn’t stop wondering what Fox’s next project could be. YouTubers, in particular, spread their enthusiasm for the game like wildfire—to the point where MatPat, from the popular channel the Game Theorists, gifted Pope Francis a copy of the game back in 2016. The day after his cryptic tweet, Fox tweeted a download link for a survey. But this turned out to be a ruse—the download was for the first playable chapter of Deltarune instead.

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The standard reaction to a major surprise release like this is to share excitement about it publicly. Yet Fox added one specific request on the download page: “For public safety, you are advised to refrain from discussion of the program for 24 hours.” But that’s not how the internet works. Within hours after the game’s release, players swarmed YouTube with walkthrough videos exposing its story and gameplay. At the same time, though, there were also players who did respect Fox’s wish to safeguard Deltarune’s secrets; it was only after the 24-hour grace period passed that these fans sent tweets asking Fox their lore questions or shared Reddit posts discussing their theories about Deltarune’s next chapters. Cut to three years later: On Sept. 17, 2021, when Fox released Deltarune’s second chapter on a moment’s notice, he didn’t repeat the request to keep the story under wraps. Yet many of those same loyal fans who heeded his plea to hold off on talking about Deltarune’s first chapter three years before remained committed to keeping initial discussion of the game’s newest part spoiler-free.

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This commitment to spoilers—or, rather, the prevention of them—feels at once unique and in keeping with much of the media’s feelings about keeping story details close to the vest these days. Not only are people wary of talking about the buzziest new release before they’ve seen it, but they have another thing to worry about: leaks, which can provide huge info dumps even before an episode has aired, a movie has premiered, or a game has launched. Despite the marketing efforts behind the #DontSpoilTheEndgame campaign around Avengers: Endgame in April 2019, numerous people watched leaked material from the movie anyway. In this particular case, however, the efforts to preserve the biggest surprises were quite drastic, to say the least. Spider-Man’s Tom Holland did not get the film’s script during the production of the film, while Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr. was involved in writing fake scripts. In the interview in which that fact was revealed, Paul Bettany, who played the character Vision, talked about spending “24 hours reading a script that I was never gonna make” after being handed one of the aforementioned fakes. This reading session took place in a secluded room with an iPad labeled as “code red.”

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On the video games side of things, developer Naughty Dog was particularly secretive about the story in The Last of Us: Part II. This request to protect players from plot details seeped into reviews of the game, in which the press had to follow strict guidelines regarding what it could and couldn’t mention. But, as happened with Avengers, this came months after leaks had already surfaced online. In addition, Naughty Dog showcased a particular case where the marketing of the game, mainly around trailers, painted a picture around story events that wasn’t truthful.

This dedication to allowing players or viewers enter a world with fresh eyes was part of the release of Undertale back in 2015—making it an entrenched part of this fandom from the get-go. The eerie role-playing adventure, the first video game project from the illustrator of the hugely popular web comic Homestuck, garnered attention with a clear premise: Killing your enemies is optional. This raised questions like “Is it really possible to win without defeating a single enemy?” and “What happens if you do try to destroy everyone who crosses your path?” The answers to both of these questions could only be found in what fans baptized as the game’s Pacifist and Genocide routes, respectively. Over time, players discovered Neutral (which happens if the requirements for neither of the aforementioned routes are completed) and No-Mercy runs (triggered by killing a specific list of characters throughout the story) as well.

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The numerous ways to play through Undertale helped build up its intrigue and popularity; arguments emerged about the “right” way to play or the game’s “real” ending, based upon the differences across all of these story and gameplay variations. “Discovering that you didn’t have to fight monsters to progress, and that this violence will not be forgotten by the game, is a kind of shock because it breaks your expectations of how games behave,” explains the game designer Younès, who goes by the moniker Pyrofoux for their own published games. More than Undertale’s story, it’s the gameplay that helps create a relationship between players and the game that, in turn, encourages them to allow everyone to have a fresh experience. Younès says: “It’s not the story that is spoiled. It’s the way the player is implicated. Not so the content of the communication between the player and the game, but more about its nature. At that time, before we got used to it, that was kind of mind-blowing and really impactful if you could feel it yourself.”

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As players discovered how the game responded to these different queries and more of its compelling secrets, they began sharing them on social media, forums, and elsewhere. This made Undertale an unexpected success: It’s sitting between a 92 and 94 average review score on Metacritic across PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch, with critical interest generated based almost largely on word-of-mouth praise. There was a special downloadable costume based on the emblematic character Sans in the megahit Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, accompanied by an exclusive arrangement of the song “Megalovania” made by Fox for Ultimate. Undertale received several gaming awards in the months after its launch, and ardent fans even voted it all the way to the winning spot of GameFAQs’ popular Best Game Ever contest in December 2015. These players’ reverence for the game led to general interest and, eventually, obsession. It turned out tthis was a unique game whose premise was actually satisfied, not just emptily promised. But some details—possible spoilers—were kept from the public eye for a longer time. Just as Fox had wanted, there was silent agreement set in place within the emerging fan base, people banding together to prevent new players from getting spoiled.

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I remember friends on Facebook chatting about some of the encounters in a fairly loose manner, mostly as a way to incentivize other people to give the game a try. It took me until early 2019 to finally play the game, and by then, I was going in pretty much clueless—despite the fact it had been released more than three years prior. All of a sudden, a cascade of existing online references that I’d gleaned but never understood finally made sense to me. But I was glad to have had no deeper knowledge of what to expect from the game itself, which is something I can’t say for a lot of other story-heavy games or other media these days.

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For example, I’m glad that I didn’t know about the character Shyren’s concert before I played through the game myself. Playing a Pacifist run of Undertale leads to many alternative dialogue options with enemies; in Shyren’s case, choosing never to fight or kill an enemy can lead to a storyline, of sorts, where you both become rock stars who go on a tour. Eventually you end up splitting up, but not without crafting memories that will last forever. This all happens within two minutes of playtime at the most, and it occurs only through dialogue. But it’s an unexpected, unforgettable sequence that’s specific to one playthrough, and one that fans were intent on safeguarding.

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But one fan I spoke to over email recalls how difficult it is to keep all of these secrets safe for as long as I was able to stay away from them. “Certain things from Undertale became common knowledge almost immediately,” says Victoria Lacroix, who’s loved Fox’s work ever since Homestuck, “like the fact that the No-mercy Run exists. Who all the bosses in that path through the game are, all the critical moments in that path—those were all pretty well-kept secrets for about a month after release.” Folks like Lacroix, who is “loosely around” the Undertale and Deltarune fandom, are more likely to be exposed to spoilers while they frequent these dedicated spaces. “But now, the most popular Undertale videos are the ones from the climax of that route. It’s all people ever talk about.”

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This discussion around spoilers continued through the years since Undertale’s release: what spoilers for this game truly meant, what they looked like, and if they were truly unacceptable. And the discourse ramped back up with Deltarune’s release in 2018, creating inner conflict in this fandom. While similar in terms of art style and genre to Undertale, Deltarune is a role-playing adventure focused on party groups (controlling not just one, but several characters at the same time) instead of a protagonist that travels alone. In terms of structure the story is divided into fairly self-contained chapters, which is a big departure from the loose navigation between areas in Undertale. But this difference in storytelling created diverging opinions in how to treat spoilers.

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Over on Reddit, mods were quick to create a spoilers policy, asking people to tag and filter their posts accordingly. In addition, all posts had to be approved by a mod beforehand. It wasn’t until nine days later that the initial rules began to loosen up, although certain restrictions remained until Oct. 5, when the spoiler rule was lifted completely for both posts and comments. An interesting example of how this bore out can be seen in a thread from Deltarune’s release day, titled “I Will Respect Toby’s Wishes By Not Discussing The Game for 24 Hours.” In the comments, people were conflicted about this. While some decided to support the idea, others opted to talk about bits of the story or specific questions by using spoiler tags. And Lacroix says that “I did my best to stick to [Deltarune’s 24-hour spoiler-free silent period] for as long as I could in public. But in private, I was totally talking about it with friends. It was still behind spoiler tags on Discord, but I suppose that does violate the decree. Sorry, Toby.”

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The biggest secret people were eager to discover on their own and not through leaks was whether this was a sequel to the first game or not. After all, it is described as “Undertale’s parallel story” in store blurbs. The title in itself is an anagram (with a similar logo), for example, and characters such as Undyne, Toriel, Alphys, as well as the popular Sans were included. This motivated players to jump on it as soon as possible.

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“You’re looking for clues everywhere, and you gasp at every possible reference to the first game,” Pyrofoux says of Deltarune. “Even the narrative themes of Deltarune gain a new depth when you try to think of its relation to Undertale.” To Pyrofoux, discovering these callbacks within the game is a crucial part of the experience, as Deltarune invites you to deconstruct the design foundations first imposed by Fox in his previous release. Not being able to name your character, for example, or how your choices don’t really impact the world (even though you can pursue a Genocide route) comes as a shock after Undertale.

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“Deltarune Chapter 1’s release kind of affected the way I react to a lot of media,” reads a Sept. 15 tweet from Fred Wood, who worked with Fox on Chapter 2. The mantra of “keeping the surprise to oneself” led Wood to make an effort to “dip out of pre-release media/reviews for things I am interested in” going forward. As a result, he wrote, this “makes everything taste sweeter.”

That sentiment—the delight in discovering surprises on your own—continues to resonate with people within the greater Undertale fandom. Seeing a communitywide dedication to preserving memorable moments is rare. Moreover, this unique publicity tactic, leading people to play the game themselves and not just read the spoilers, has bolstered both Undertale and Deltarune’s popularity over the years, as well as Fox’s own fame. During the first week after release of Chapter 2, for example, Fox made Rolling Stone’s Artists 500 chart. He debuted at number 413, based on more than 7.3 million streams of the game’s soundtrack, which he composed (as he did with Undertale’s soundtrack back in the day). This is but the latest of personal milestones for Fox—by October 2020, Undertale reportedly made $26.7 million off Steam sales on PC alone, which is a huge financial success by most merits.

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Someone out there is always going to try ruining the surprises of a story—that’s just how the internet works. Fox himself recognized this on Twitter after the 24 hours passed, thanking those who tried not to spoil Deltarune’s surprise launch for anyone else. As a token of sympathy, he then tweeted screenshots of his script ideas for Deltarune from back in 2012. “To everyone that did talk about it, it’s OK,” Fox wrote. “I understand what it’s like to have to wait before you can talk about something.”

As of now, I remain unaware of the twists and turns of Deltarune; I have yet to play either chapter. I think it’s safe to assume I’ll be able to go in blind by the time I get to play it, no matter how many months or years from now that may be. The fandom’s ability to keep things well-hidden remains impressive. If you’re also currently in the dark about the story or surprises in either game, you have the efforts of the community to thank for your spoiler-free future experience.

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