I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot
With Those We Love Alive
By Porpentine (author), Brenda Neotenomie (composer)
Choice-based / Twine
Play online: http://www.ifcomp.org/1207/content/empress.html
Porpentine is, in my opinion, the most important Twine author out there. Her games are often used as examples of the medium used as a literary device, breaking previous conceptions about what a “game” should look like. Check out Crystal Warrior Ke$ha for one of my favorites in its outrageous, unapologetic surrealism. Her Twine work usually have some kind of social commentary, often about empowerment or disempowerment as that ties into class or gender oppression. Her prose is some of the best I’ve ever see in a game – she describes things in short, poetic, but extremely powerful language. There is a dreamlike quality in everything she makes.
For an example of her writing, I traveled to a dream distillery where,
Pale, shriveled humans sleep forever on the floor. Pipes run from their heads into iron barrels.
This batch has a pale chartreuse color. You take a sip.
A bouquet of drowning, a delicate flavor of hope, and an aftertaste of injustice.
This introduction should give you an idea of where this With Those We Love Alive fits. It’s surreal, dark, incredibly imaginative, with a pink gothic fantasy that leaves you feeling disturbed. It won’t appeal to those looking for mechanics and gameplay over narrative, but I highly recommend it if you have literary leanings and enjoy a sort of interactive poetry of dreamlike language. It is a short story about humanity, custom, dreams, and fitting into a hostile society. Even if you don’t dig into the underlying meaning in the narrative (which I’m not entirely convinced I have right), the dreamscape she creates is worth reading on its own.
Stylistically, it’s beautiful in its simplicity. The background’s radiant colors fades into dark at the bottom of the screen, and colors change over time with the feel of the game to reflect major events. The music is wonderful – dark, brooding, exciting, depressing. Make sure to listen to this game with audio. It’s meaty too. It took me longer than two hours, largely because I found myself pausing to think or to draw glyphs on my arm as instructed by the game.
I don’t often see games try to break the forth wall and make a player interact with things other than the video game interface (the board game, the computer, the game console, etc.). In “With Those We Love Alive” the players are asked to draw various glyphs on their arm at specific points in the game, symbols for “burial” or “insight”, leaving the reader to their own interpretation. This pause in the game, where it even asks you to leave the room to draw, forces the player to reflect on the game and allow their emotions to guide their creativity. This is a really inspired gameplay mechanic that suits this sort of literary fantastical games extremely well.
The game treats choices as essentially irrelevant when it comes to branching narrative, but incredibly powerful when it comes to emotional impact. Normally I like Twines that embrace player choice and agency. Porpentine’s games usually don’t have much agency, but the narrative impact of your choices are huge and makes up for this. There are some choices between events where you can explore the city, but besides some randomized text (such as at the dream distillery) there’s no reason to travel around once the novelty wears off. Instead, most of the games events are triggered by choosing to sleep in your chambers.
The story in “With Those We Love Alive” is really good – I have my own interpretation, and I am not sure it’s entirely accurate. There are just a lot of layers of meaning within it that I could write about for ages.
Initially, the story seems to be about a worker or disciple serving an Empress – one with a carapace and that ascends from a lake with her larvae, that hunts humans for sport and births fleshy blobs of princess spores, whose hounds gnaw on the bones of heretics. This alone gives you fascinating glimpses into the world – anyone interested in world building should take a few lessons from Porpentine’s brief prose.
My interpretation of the game is that it’s about living in a hostile, feminine world. The Empress is always introduced with bright pink fuchsia backgrounds and a music change, a dark and powerful sound. Her gender and violence are both front and center in everything she does. You are not really part of this alien world – you used to be different, look different, and are estranged from your family. You regularly “reapply hormones” – described as glyphs (not unlike the ones you draw on your arm) and describe yourself as “a horrible creature of gender”. There’s more – especially in the last half of the game, where the fantasy starts to break down and reality sets in with the visit from an old friend.
Much of my interpretation of the game comes from a single line when the Empress decides to hunt humans for sport:
A custom that persists because people are scared that if they question the custom they will fall victim to the intense cruelty of the custom, which persists because they fail to question it.
You feel traped within this cycle. You must follow the customs of femininity – or be thrown to the dogs “gnawing on heretics bones”. You must participate in their mob violence, else become victim of it yourself. Another line seems to support the idea of the Empress as a more abstract symbol of gender, rather than a concrete thing:
You imagine yourself making more and more things for the empress of increasing intimacy, until you are making her bones themselves, and then the individual components of her soul.
Until she is finally replaced by that which came from your hand alone.
This is the ship of Theseus. Everything you do in service of the Empress – the jewelry and weapons you craft for her from exotic, dreamlike objects – goes to support her, until eventually the only reason she exists is because everyone has helped built her up. She is the sum of all of her parts. She is the embodiment of custom or tradition, which cannot exist unless many people buy into it and then, at some point, it becomes a force of its own upon others.
“With Those We Love Alive” has many layers of meaning, and I certainly didn’t touch on all of them – especially the topic of dreams, which has heavy emphasis throughout. Instead, I talked about just the one that resonated with me the most. I’m sure others will have their own impressions.