The Web’s endless legions of Undertale fans are still reeling from Toby Fox’s unexpected reveal of Deltarune. The pseudo-demo for a theoretical new game set in the same (or at least very similar) universe as Fox’s debut hit. By all accounts it’s something to get excited about. But some fans have cried foul in comments sections across the internet.
They’re not upset about the game itself. Rather, a handful of players didn’t like fan sites and major news outlets publishing their first impressions of Deltarune just hours after its reveal. Fox’s work has spoken for itself on the issue of spoilers in video games before. The enigmatic creator even included a secret message embedded in Undertale to ward off would-be game detectives.
Accordingly, Fox included a now-removed warning on the Deltarune download section. It pleaded with players to wait at least 24 hours before discussing the game openly, for the sake of “public safety.” Some fans rankled as outlets ignored the message and “announced” the game. Clearly, not everyone was playing along.
Editor’s note: all images on this piece are from Undertale and its Steam page because I haven’t had time to play Deltarune yet. It’s not because of spoilers.
Spoiler Phobia in Action
As with the rest of Fox’s work, this stab at spoiler prevention balances on a knife-edge between sarcasm and sincerity. Some might even call it cloying. That said, many in the greater fan community share a more clear-cut distaste for spoilers. It’s been a divisive part of fandom since perhaps its very inception. There’s still very much a sense that any piece of art can be drained of its dramatic power simply by revealing the raw events of its plot. It’s such a pervasive phobia that discussion forums and other enthusiast spaces create community rules and structures to prevent the wholesale “spoiling” of recent works.
For example, /r/SquaredCircle, Reddit’s largest pro wrestling fan community, disallows users from discussing recent events in post titles for up to 24 hours after a show airs. It leads to an avalanche of vague titles like “Smackdown Superstar Returns” in the wake of a major pay-per-view. The practice can inhibit clarity of discussion and even create micro-dramas itself. What am I about to click on? Which discussion am I walking into? Is it even something I should care about?
Likewise, a brief gameplay clip of Red Dead Redemption 2 leaked just hours prior to the game’s launch. The video starkly divided the game’s subreddit—with users producing memes to congratulate themselves for resisting the siren song of spoilers. Although the leak only showed about a minute of a cowboy standing around and shooting two NPCs.
Red Dead’s teaser trailers were far more revealing of the game’s actual content, but the gut reaction built around words like “leak” still sends some fans running for the hills. Even now, a few weeks after launch, the Red Dead subreddit has a zero-spoiler policy. Users must take great pains to tag even minor spoilers or face the wrath of the banhammer.
Action and Reaction
Despite their best efforts, however, people get spoiled every day. And it’s often completely accidental. You might overhear a conversation between friends, or read an apparently-unrelated news article. But all of our online spoiler defenses centralize in places where people explicitly go to learn about and discuss a piece of media in the first place.
Of course, trolls deliberately deploy spoilers as a form of malicious griefing. I haven’t forgotten about the “Snape Kills Dumbledore” campaign of 2005. 4chan users with advance copies of the sixth Harry Potter book (and too much time on their hand) spread memes about Dumbledore’s demise around the internet and the real world, spoiling teenage readers just like me. That only gets easier as social media becomes more ubiquitous. But Twitter and Facebook are typically self-policed (by users muting certain keywords) or just plain impossible to control on the user end.
Those digital spaces build barricades to hop and mazes to navigate, all to avoid trollish tactics. But the detector is sometimes keyed a little too wide around them. Most of the writers announcing Deltarune were very careful to avoid specifics—besides acknowledging its existence and pointing Undertale fans to something they might enjoy.
Yet several fans still left complaints in the comments, or on forum threads about the game. While this heavy policing goes appreciated by the community, in a world where some consider a game’s setting to be a grave revelation, what exactly constitutes a spoiler, anyway?
When you assume every member of a game’s community must be protected, your discussions become a byzantine mass of black text. Post titles are inaccessible piles of vagaries and innuendo. I understand fans wanting to respect the wishes of the author, but chiding others for talking about a game outside of tight-knit communities seems overzealous at best, and outright paternalistic at worst.
Both Undertale and Deltarune traffic in ever-expanding puzzle-box narratives. They rely heavily on oddball twists and turns to keep the player invested. Considering that, Fox’s warning comes off as benevolent to his fans. But his well-meaning plea to give fans the “best possible experience” suggests you must engage the work on its terms, rather than your own. While it’s fair for an artist to desire the best possible light for you to consider their work, it isn’t fandom’s job to enforce that wish, and aggressive attempts at it have the treacly stench of fan obsession—the same obsessiveness that pushed many people away from Undertale altogether.
Angst and Anticipation
If narrative-focused games like Undertale truly shrivel and die under their first contact with sunlight, then perhaps these stories rely too much on the inherent shock of abrupt twists. Personally, I don’t believe Fox’s work is so fragile. I waltzed into Undertale knowing the gist of many of the game’s high points. And I still thoroughly enjoyed it.
When recommending art to friends, it’s sometimes necessary to spoil the work to pique their interest, build anticipation, or prepare them for moments they might not want to be surprised by. That’s exactly what happened with me and Undertale.
Creators like Fox can issue all the spoiler warnings they want. That’s their prerogative. But it’s time for self-described super-fans to question who they’re actually serving. Are they protecting the games, which might benefit from extra room to breathe anyway? Or do they just want to dictate how everyone else experiences the thing they love?