A Second Chapter With(out) Nostalgia

The words displayed on screen as I interacted with the very first save point in Deltarune’s recently released second chapter stopped me in my tracks: “You are filled with the power of immediate nostalgia.” Seemingly innocuous, this message had a very peculiar effect on me. Or perhaps it is more accurate to call it a chain of effects. Because at first, I was unsure how to react, what I was meant to read into this sentence. Was it merely a little quip reflecting on the three years that had passed in the real world since the first chapter of Deltarune suddenly appeared in 2018? I chuckled briefly, but then I paused. Maybe that was not it…

For my doctoral dissertation I read and think a lot about nostalgia and videogames. And strangely enough, this academic journey has been accompanied by Deltarune in its entirety: The first chapter arrived just as I was beginning to recognize this new direction in my scholarly work while the second chapter saw its release around the time when I started focusing on my dissertation in earnest. One thing that makes nostalgia so unique is that even the most fundamental questions surrounding it do not necessarily have a simple and undisputed answer — which includes the very definition of the term. Apparently, what exactly nostalgia is can depend on who is being asked and under which circumstances.

My own relationship with nostalgia has long been colored by skepticism. Contemporary culture, throughout its ‘popular’ expressions, tends to exalt the emotion and videogames are no exception to this rule. Yet, all too often nostalgic reverie quietly erects sturdy walls around the heart and mind, preventing players from making new fulfilling and meaningful experiences. Disappointment can thus feel like a foregone conclusion. Sometimes it even turns into anger. Is it not prudent then to stay wary of an impulse that yearns for an idealized past and seeks to recreate it — an ultimately impossible task?

The more I learn about nostalgia through academic literature or by observing the world around me, the more it seems like an inevitability and the more pressing it becomes to acknowledge its impact and try to find the good within it lest its problematic side run rampant. With this in mind, I wondered while reading the words Toby Fox chose to include so early into the highly anticipated continuation of Deltarune: Are they, too, a warning against harboring wrong expectations? Are players asked to leave their nostalgia at the door before embarking on this new adventure?

When he released the first chapter three years ago, Toby Fox addressed the pitfalls of nostalgia in an unambiguous manner. He knew that many people would come into it hoping it could recapture what they had felt when playing Undertale before. And he also knew that their expectations would most likely remain unmet. Maybe his new remark about nostalgia was written to serve a similar purpose. Or maybe my initial chuckle was its successfully elicited true objective after all. Either way, all I can do — all I in fact wish to do — is to try to take Deltarune’s second chapter for what it is, to appreciate the memories and emotions it seeks to create and evoke. Even though I might be warning myself, I am more than willing to heed the warning.

Because, whether intended or not, it does feel incredibly gratifying to travel light through yet unexplored videogame landscapes, unencumbered by nostalgia.

A collection of short personal pieces on videogames and the culture that surrounds them. Marki’s stream on Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/markichin