I’m going to talk about Loved now. If you haven’t played it, you should go fix that. It won’t take long.
I believe that all games require trust. When we start playing a game, we form a pact with it. To some extent we’re giving ourselves to that game—we’re allowing it to affect the way that we move our hands, and maybe even the way that we think. To play a game is to surrender. We allow ourselves to be led. We trust the game and, more abstractly, its maker.
Well, Loved is a game about trust. It’s about a child and a god. “Are you a man or a woman,” it asks me. I can’t know that the asker is more important than the answer. I click on man. “No, you are a girl.” It’s so strange for a game to begin with a contradiction. I am asked a question and I answer honestly. I surrender to the game, and it betrays me. Why are so many games afraid to jerk you away from yourself, to break your trust, to reject your answer? It’s so effective, so startling. It asks me who I am and then it tells me who I am.
“Will I teach you how to play? Or not?” If you click on play, the speaker responds, “you don’t deserve it.” If you click on not, the speaker says, “you will fail.” Either way he’s taunting you. The strangest thing about this proposed tutorial is that your decision has no effect whatsoever on the game. The prompt only provides the illusion of choice; the demeaning responses of the program are coupled with the demeaning implication that your decision doesn’t really matter, that you don’t know what’s best for yourself.
And so begins our abusive relationship: me and the game maker; the little girl and her god. I hop across the silhouetted land, and he gives me orders. “Jump across those barbs… good girl. Touch the statue and I will forgive you.” The first meaningful decision comes at a branching path. The top path looks easy and safe, while the bottom path looks perilous. “Take the bottom path.” Do I trust him? I take the top path.
“Ugly Creature.” A flash of light, and I continue.
There are two ways to play the game. Either you trust the narrator or you don’t. Either you obey or you rebel. The game maker sets up his stand-in as an antagonist from the beginning, with a brash contradiction and a couple of insults. As soon as I disobey him, he insults me again. So I keep disobeying, even when it wouldn’t hurt me to obey, even when he’s only asking me to stand still. I won’t stand still, I keep moving, and something strange starts to happen. I don’t notice it at first, but my surroundings become increasingly clouded with colored boxes, giant pixels, until by the end of the game they fully obscure the details of the environment. I can barely discern my surroundings: there’s the sky (blues), the ground (multi-colored), and danger (red). Maybe this is all that I need to finish, but it’s frustrating. It’s like the world around me is disintegrating, becoming cloudier. In the final hallway, I run, red blocks descending in pursuit, and I fall….
“Why do you hate me?” No decisions at all. I can only click on hate. The game responds, “I loved you.”
Strange. I play a second time, and I take the lower path. In place of insults I get condescending praise. “Good girl,” he says, like I’m a dog. This time there aren’t any colored blocks. In fact, everything appears in black and white. At the same time, the world becomes clearer, building in detail and intricacy. Vines trail from the ceiling and flowers grow on the ground. Maybe the colored blocks were some sort of punishment, and the detail is a reward.
Is the black and white world really better than the colorful and abstract one? I think that the colorful world is harder to navigate, but it’s also more vibrant.
I believe that all games require trust, and perhaps all movies and books do too. Maybe art is about surrender. Maybe we surrender our eyes and our minds every time we look at a wonderful painting, every time we hear a beautiful song. But compared to games, other art forms are passive. Midway through the game, Loved asks you, “do I control your body or your mind?” The more I think about this question, the more it disturbs me.
The truth is: I trusted Loved, and it abused my trust, and that is why I love it.
I toe the edge of a precipice lined with barbs, and my god tells me, “jump.”