Do I control your body or your mind?

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.”

Leave a comment

15 Comments

  1. Great post Kent! Glad to something from you on the site.

    I wasn’t particularly impressed by Loved for a variety of reasons, but even so the peculiar sub-domme relationship between player and game is always worth exploring.

    Mighty Jill Off (http://bit.ly/amWqWi) and Tower of Heaven (http://bit.ly/9N5j7O) are both games which I feel address this relationship with a bit more success.

    Anna Antrhopy, the author of Mighty Jill Off, talks about this exact thing all the time on her blog (http://www.auntiepixelante.com/), so that’s probably worth following for anyone who’s interested in the topic.

    Reply
    • I played through Mighty Jill Off yesterday. It was quite fun! It was certainly abusive in the sense that it was difficult and punishing, but it didn’t really break the game-player pact that I talked about. Like, I trusted that there would always be a way to make each jump, and there always was. I do like the coy wink at the end though, hah.

      I’ll have to play through Tower of Heaven today. It looks cool from the screens.

      I’m curious–why didn’t you like Loved?

      Reply
      • Swell, glad you enjoyed it! I guess I don’t feel that a game necessarily needs to break your trust for it to be an interesting comment on the game-player relationship.

        To me, Loved came across as a game with little connection between its interactive elements and its themes. I feel that a game should be able to convey a message without resorting to throwing up cutaway screens of text. Also, years of dumb morality and dialog systems have probably soured me on the sort of binary choices Loved presents. Outside of the graphical flourishes, the game doesn’t really change to reflect your decisions, and I had a hard time believing that my choices had any weight.

        I’m also pretty particular about jump physics, so maybe it was just the wonky controls that inspired all this ire. Not sure.

    • lauramichet

       /  July 13, 2010

      I played tower of heaven shortly after it came out. It’s my favorite of all the ‘abusive’ games you’ve mentioned here.

      Never finished mighty jill off, unfortunately.

      Reply
      • Agreed, Tower of Heaven is neat. More games need to switch to monochromatic graphics.

        I can see how Mighty Jill Off could be difficult to finish. It’s kind of a shame that the second half of the game, “Jill Off Harder”, is only available to people who are dedicated/insane enough to beat the first tower in less than 12 minutes. It has a lot of interesting ideas that very few people will ever see.

  2. I can’t decide how to interpret this game. The first time I played through just looking out for myself, and by the end it felt like I was desperately trying to escape the suffocating confines of an abusive relationship (I know, I know, alt-F4). The second time I forced myself to be a good little “girl,” and it suddenly felt as though my trust was being rewarded–the condescending tone faded as I went on.

    So one way seems designed to test my resolve and patience, while the other suggests that a little tolerance can go a long way. Neither time did I think to see it as an interaction between player and developer, although I wish I had.

    I should probably go play Mighty Jill Off and Tower of Heaven now, shouldn’t I?

    Reply
  3. Harbour Master

     /  July 11, 2010

    It’s interesting that you read the game differently to me. I saw it as a dysfunctional relationship, but your reading of it is quite interesting, opening up that Pandora’s Box of the relationship between developer and player. I like it when a game spins off multiple interpretations like this, and I hope Alexander Ocias never tells us exactly what he had in mind.

    A few weeks back I got into a little discussion on this very site regarding whether we play by the developer’s rules or according to a social code. Shnissugah said that all gamers are subject to a social code, that you play according to the way other people would deem acceptable play. I said I didn’t think that was necessarily true, having spent most of my gaming in a sort of gaming solitary confinement, playing alone for a personal cause.

    When a developer gives you all the tools to play a game any way you wish, but actually designs a level to be played a certain way, is it cheating to use those tools to circumvent that design? The developer god is flawed and imperfect; do you play the way the developer intended? Or do you deviate from the path? (That reminds me, doesn’t the Path have a mechanic where it expects you to “defy” it’s principal instruction?)

    Jim Rossignol’s review of Trine on RPS: “I found myself sidestep what seemed like entire puzzle sets with a clever use of the grapple, or a combination of bodged jumping and the wizard’s created items. You feel like you bodged or cheated your way past any number of situations.”

    Is this cheating? Was this intentional design in a game full of tools?

    I tend to trust the developer more than choosing my own path. If I sense that I’m not supposed to do something using method X, then I might not – because I might break a really interesting set-up, or worse, break the game. I generally make a pact with a developer, because they are supposed to have designed quite the experience for me. Why would I skip that?

    I would skip that if they failed that trust. I played Septerra Core many years back and never finished it. Sometimes the way to progress was not clear, and to keep trying different things I’d have to trudge back and forth through large areas with enemies that respawned as soon as you left the area. It was a waste of our time. The developer god lost our trust. Mrs. HM and I uninstalled the game and never returned. We weren’t allowed to skip, so we avoided it’s world entirely.

    Although you can interpret Loved as a statement about the trust a player puts in the developer, at the end of the day, I think the binary choice that Loved offers is really the player/developer compact in disguise. You soon learn – I did – that whatever you choose, the developer has a journey, an experience for you. You accept that and then descend. And it’s worth the ride.

    Reply
    • Ack, I screwed up the first link. Gimme a preview, WordPress.

      I saw it as a dysfunctional relationship

      Reply
    • You know, recently I’ve been listening to Idle Thumbs, and they’ve inspired me to revel in the strange idiosyncratic quirks of game worlds. It’s fun to find the bizarre things that the developer didn’t really intend for you to see. Like, I was delighted to discover that if you stab cardboard boxes in Singularity, they explode, and quite sad when the game took away my knife. Or one of my favorite memories from World of Warcraft was when my friend discovered that you could use a weird little trick to get to the other side of an otherwise impenetrable barrier, and we discovered this huge empty place, which looks like it was going to be a raid dungeon, but they never put anything in it.

      Reply
  4. One of the things I loved about the game designer/player relationship comment that I think the game is making is what the distortion you see when you disobey the commands is saying about that.

    The game has a reality to present to you. The less you believe in it, the more you see it as simple component parts. Detail gets lost, objects that are dangerous become red squares whereas when you obey the voice they are more detailed drawings. In some ways, it’s easier to tell what is dangerous and what isn’t when you are looking through the game in that way – but you are also giving up on the illusion, like a street fighter player who is counting frames.

    That’s always been one of the most interesting parts of games for me, the ability to buy into the illusion or not, to be the role player at the table or the rules lawyer, and I love the way this game represents that visually.

    Reply
    • This is an interesting reading, Switchbreak.

      What about how obeying clarifies the world–makes it sharper and more detailed? Does trusting the developer-god equal buying into the illusion?

      Reply
    • I’ll be honest: I really do like Switchbreak’s interpretation here. The illusion is stronger if you follow the commands laid down to you by the developer.

      Reply
    • I like this interpretation as well, though I’m not convinced the author intended it.

      The interplay between a game’s rules and its fiction is always fun to examine. I don’t think that they’re always mutually exclusive though. There are plenty of games out there where investing yourself in the mechanics can help you buy into the illusion.

      Reply
    • Aonshix

       /  July 15, 2010

      I really like this reading. Good work!

      Reply
  1. Gamer’s Epicerie | I always loved you

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