EarthBound Dress Rehearsals and The Beginnings of Interaction:

Toby Fox and Gaster’s Deltarune Part I

It feels like everyone, and their mother too, has already been talking about the first chapter of Toby Fox’s new video game Deltarune, the spiritual sequel to the popular 2015 independent game Undertale. So many secrets have been uncovered, and speculations have been written. The prevailing observation seems to be that while Undertale is a game where you can choose, whether to kill or spare your enemies, Deltarune seems to dispense with choice entirely, and make a point of stating that your choices, as the player, simply do not matter. However, this may be too premature to state given how this is only Chapter One of the game, the rest of which will be released in their entirety at some as of yet undetermined date.

There is already so much speculation, fan art, and fiction cropping up well after this past Halloween — when the first chapter was initially released under the guise of a “SURVEY_PROGRAM.exe” file — and I would really like to avoid retreading too much of the ground with which others are already delving. What I would like to look at, instead, is a cursory examination of the forces that led to the shaping of Deltarune, and how that is reflected by both it and Undertale.

Let me try to be clearer with what I mean about the particular elements I want to look at that have influenced the creation of Undertale, and Deltarune, and how they relate to what seems to be an overarching narrative element in Chapter One of the latter.

Toby Fox himself has been inspired by the 1995 Super Nintendo game EarthBound, originally released on Japan’s Super Famicom system in 1994 as Mother 2. This isn’t particularly a revelation at this point: as many of Undertale’s game mechanics as well as its self-aware quirky, fourth wall breaking humour and narrative elements, take after the beats of the SNES role-playing game. It goes even further than that when you consider that Toby Fox, when he was sixteen years old, created the infamous EarthBound: The Halloween Hack of 2008 where you can see Fox’s ideas for Undertale — and in particular his musical soundtracks — begin to form.

Yet it goes deeper than that. I’d known for a while, even before playing EarthBound myself, that the game — which didn’t do as well commercially in North America, but whose clay images of the characters as previewed in Nintendo Power #70, and officially introduced in Issue 73 caught my eye and imagination for years — gained a cult classic status for many players years later. Entire online communities were created, and operate today around their love of, and their own explorations into, Shigesato Itoi’s Mother series of which — again — EarthBound as Japan’s Mother 2 is a part.

On community forums, such as EarthBound Central, and STARMEN.NET, and among others I’m sure, users have written about the plot elements, characters, backgrounds, world-building, and — in particular — the unused game assets, and code of EarthBound itself. And this isn’t even going into articles, and the aforementioned fan art and fiction created as appreciation for this world. In fact I really didn’t have a true appreciation, myself, of the influence of these online communities despite having been part of several others in general for over a decade, until I began watching a Let’s Play series: where Emile Rodolfo Rosales-Birou, more well-known as Chuggaaconroy to his fans, replayed EarthBound while interpersing it with citations of the game’s trivia and minutiae.

It was, in fact, watching Chuggaaconroy’s video series long after having finally played EarthBound myself that made me very aware of the various beats that inspired Undertale. When I told Chuggaaconroy on Twitter, back on August 22, 2018 how much I love his series and saw these parallels between this game and Undertale, he even mentioned that Fox “was a member of a forum I was on when I was 14 or so and even back then, he was writing stories based on EarthBound.” This statement was something that stuck with me for a while until I also recalled finding a 2009 link to Fox’s Halloween Hack on EarthBound Central, the one year Halloween anniversary of its creation in fact. These two facts came together in my mind, especially with the release of Deltarune, along with one other aspect.

Going back to how many in the EarthBound communities examine unused assets and code, Chuggaaconroy made me aware in a few of his videos of an exploit or a glitch in EarthBound itself. Essentially, at the Tent in the city of Threed, if you go into the right lower hand corner of the tent itself, and press the SNES controller’s L button or some analogue equivalent, you can cause random text to appear, even out of its box in some cases. You can even go as far as transitioning, almost instantly, to the inside of Jackie’s Cafe which — fittingly — is a gateway to the twisted, surrealist, hallucinogenic equivalent of Fourside called Moonside. It isn’t uncommon, at that point, however, to get trapped in the Cafe and for the game to crash and — if you don’t make a copy of your file — having it completely obliterating your game.

Yet what I found very striking about this glitch is if you do it enough, there is a chance that you can access EarthBound’s debug menu. What does that mean? Well, the debug menu is a user interface that the designers of the game utilized to place and test game assets. They essentially used it to make the game. And if you can access it, it can allow you to manually add or take away Items, change character statuses, appear in various locations, manipulate sound, and possibly do a whole lot of other things that I do not have the game or technical background to explain properly.

But what I took away from this is that some people in the EarthBound community found a way to access this menu, either before joining the online forums, or after to toggle around and alter their games: or at least those meticulously saved in one file beforehand. It reminded me of the days when I used to experiment with DOS, and in particular created scenarios for Civilization II and its Scenarios expansion packs: where I would use codes, and use the base game to attempt to create my own. This included my very crude attempts to make new 8-bit unit sprites and terrain squares through Paint, and even soundtracks.

Photo Credit: Gyiyg


What I realized is that players that found this glitch in EarthBound may well have learned the beginnings of hacking, and code, and even game creation itself. Certainly, EarthBound has had a great influence on a generation of independent game developers, or designers in the indie scene itself. And all I could keep thinking about was Toby Fox, messing around with this debug menu through one method or another — perhaps through direct computer ROM hacking — learning from others on the forums, teaching others, and eventually creating the Halloween Hack as part of his juvenalia, and then moving onto other collaborations beyond it until beginning to think about creating his own games entirely. So I suppose my argument is that, in experimenting with EarthBound’s code and aspects, as well as exploring its narrative, Toby Fox gained the tools as well as the inspiration to create his own unique spiritual successors.

But this idea of an online community, and forums is also important as well when looking at Undertale and Deltarune. You have to take into account that there is an audience of gamers — of game players out there — who are not only developers, or hackers, but also lore-seekers: people who want to know every little bit of information with regards to a favourite game, or game-related media of theirs. The idea of “easter eggs” in video game is not a new one. Certainly, Warren Robinett’s name in the Atari 2600’s Adventure back in 1979 at a time when game developer credits were not included in video games is a classic example that comes to mind. Secrets are always fascinating to find: whether they are in narratives, or between frames of motion, or winks from a particular creator. Even hacking or altering older corporate games to create or learn how to make independent games isn’t anything new either with such things being outlined by Anna Anthropy in her Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and ZZT books as well as the Scratchware Manifesto.

Yet the Internet itself, independently and parallel to video game easter-eggs has become something of its own culture: with its own lore, memes, and media adaptations. The Jesuit priest Walter Ong, referenced in a few articles I’ve written along with a Master’s Thesis, coined the phrase “secondary orality: the idea of an oral storytelling culture that exists through images and sound alongside written media. Whereas in pre-literate offline culture folktales and urban legends — stories passed down through word of mouth — develop, online the structure of urban legends can be adopted into forum posts that are copy and pasted throughout the Internet. These are known as creepypastas: horror stories that are shared, and made to be epistolary works. What I mean by that is that often these stories are made to resemble actual events that transpired by resembling journal entries, chat room dialogues, found images and footage, and even … bits of technical or computer code from time to time.

Certainly, video game forums amongst others would be familiar with the haunted video game trope. Aside from Polybius, a supposed arcade machine that destroyed the psyches and lives of children in the 1980s with mind control, and Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s that tells its background story through darkly interactive epistolary elements such as Easter-eggs, clues in obscure text, and exploits in mini-games you also have “YouTube footage” and Blog and Reddit forum entries making up such works as Alex Hall, or Jadusable’s haunted Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask game story “Ben Drowned,” among others. Other creators have played this concept beyond editing a game to create a narrative to record in the case of Jadusable, while Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club plays with the idea of an almost literal “ghost in the machine” or some artificial intelligences that still exist from a horror game that may have been “overwritten” by an attempt at a high school romantic visual novel medium.

But between an online subculture of game hacking, secret seeking, easter-egg hunting, creation, and electronic urban legends, the development of such tropes — and, more importantly a participatory element in searching for secrets, and even spreading the word, or getting audience interaction — from such, you can begin to see how that would affect a generation of independent games developers: such as Toby Fox.

In 2013, Toby Fox created a Kickstarter Campaign for his Undertale game: not a hack of another, or a collaboration on another property, but something of his own creation. He had already built up a fan base, and audience, from both his games collaborations, his music, and quite possibly his presence on EarthBound forums: especially from his time producing music for the webcomic Homestuck, and as a Moderator on, and manager of, the PK Hack Forum at STARMEN.NET itself until 2011 under his original handle for moderation, game hacking, and sound design Radiation. He certainly fit well into the independent gaming scene’s zeitgeist at the time: of repurposing a game’s mechanics, such as an RPG’s, to make a game where violence isn’t necessary, to say something about that, and become an element of participatory moral art. But in that same Kickstarter, as stretch goals were reached and exceeded, he promised something to the effect that anything extra would possibly go into “another game.” So this illustrates that Fox was already thinking of another game even as he was working on Undertale.

I will also say that — at least initially — Toby Fox seems to have included extra content in his game for those people whom he knew would be attempting to find its hidden secrets, and assets, having become one of those game developers that made Easter-egg hunting within the narrative, and in the code, into a game in and of itself. Often, you will find unused sprites, areas, or data in a game: usually leftovers from ideas, or narratives that the developers didn’t have time to include, or decided to scrap.

And this, my friends, is where we get into the character — or the non-character — of W.D. Gaster, and his role in Undertale. Just a warning before you read the next article: beware the writer that is going to speak in Spoilers.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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