IF Comp 2011: Sentencing Mr Liddell

Sentencing Mr Liddell is a surreal story about domestic unhappiness, with a touch of Alice in Wonderland flavoring.

At least, so I assume. I didn’t finish this game, and am not submitting a rating for it, because it went to a place that I am just not willing to be complicit in right now.









In the game as far as I played it, here’s what happens:

I am a guy who works in a hat shop. I leave my hat shop for the evening to meet my wife, who is cold and unhappy and has spent the day with my toddler daughter in a stroller. I try to kiss her but she’s too miserable to respond. I try to talk to my wife about her unhappiness, herself, and our child, but she either gives nonsensical answers or refuses to reply at all. I think some of the responses I received are meant for later in the game. Then the stroller rolls into a river. I dive after it, and wind up on a train where my ailing mother hands me a squealing piglet. The piglet explicitly represents the lost daughter. Attempts to feed, cuddle, or calm the piglet don’t work. I’m told to hit it. The hints and walkthrough indicate I’m going to need to hit the piglet repeatedly in order to proceed with the game.

So, okay. My character may be in some kind of dream state at this point, and it’s not at all clear that the piglet’s experience is in any way linked to what the protagonist’s daughter is actually experiencing.

Buuut. I just didn’t want to do it. Really didn’t want to. Took a couple turns dithering around trying to psych myself up for it, and failed. It may be symbolic, but hitting the piglet is still clearly about enacting child abuse. Despite the surreal setting, it felt like I was being asked to empathize with the leap from “weak dependent is annoyingly loud” to “it is appropriate to react with brutality.” A couple of people close to me have been abused in the recent past. It’s raw, and I’m still helping deal with the practical aftermath of those events. I’m not in a headspace where I’m willing to playact abuse, not even to find out whether the game has something valuable to say about domestic violence.

So I’m not finishing or rating. What I saw had some implementation flaws that were confusing, but nothing game-stopping. I can’t speak to its overall quality or thematic success beyond that.

9 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: Sentencing Mr Liddell”

  1. The tips at the end of the game say that there’s another way to calm the piglet, though I sure don’t know what it was. Walking back and forth between the train carriages and singing, which is what I’d try, didn’t work.

    I also think the game makes it pretty clear that hitting the pig is abuse — the people telling you to do it are awful, awful, horrible people, and when you do it, you get an entirely deserved earful from Cat — and in some ways it may be effective at putting you in the place of someone who might do that. (The place where you’re just thinking “make it stop, make it stop,” about your horrible family as much as about the screaming piglet.) I haven’t played “maybe make some change” yet, but it seemed to me like this situation might be similar in the way it puts you in complicity with some horrible actions. Though you could feel like the surrealism trivializes the situation (and in some ways it might be more uncomfortable because it’s a lot more like situations you and I will find ourselves in, not living in war zones).

    I’m absolutely not telling you to play the game or saying that your reaction is invalid, by the way, It did an effective job of making me feel really shitty (I already felt pretty shitty about the whole stroller in the river thing), and though I think that in part that’s an effective artistic goal, it still made me feel really shitty.

    1. Yeah. I didn’t mean my comments here to imply that I’m morally condemning the game for entering this territory, and I’m not especially complaining about the surrealism either. I’ve played two other games in the very recent past that tested my complicity, and in both cases I went ahead and finished the piece. (One was “maybe make some change”; the other was another competition game in which the protagonist is doing something obviously horrific.)

      But (a) this particular subject matter is tough for me right now and (b) surreal though it was, the presentation was very visceral and stressful. I felt here, more than in the other two games I just mentioned, as though I was not just being coerced into commanding an action I didn’t approve of, but being set up with the necessary mindset to support that choice: a combination of stress, helplessness, and anger that can’t go in any useful direction, so gets taken out in entirely the wrong way.

      In a way I even admire that as a way of exploring a very damaged character, and I’ve gotten a lot out of playing damaged characters in the past (see Rameses). Here, though, I was already feeling pretty alienated from the protagonist because of my unsuccessful attempts to make him be a little more sympathetic and have a productive conversation with his wife. When it got to the piglet-abuse section, I hit a wall of very strong visceral DO NOT WANT.

      I’m not sure whether this reflects any rational objection, or whether it’s my subconscious asserting that it doesn’t want to deal with any confusing/stressful/painful fictional input on this topic when I need to be as clear-headed as possible about the non-fictional cases.

      1. “as though I was not just being coerced into commanding an action I didn’t approve of, but being set up with the necessary mindset to support that choice: a combination of stress, helplessness, and anger that can’t go in any useful direction, so gets taken out in entirely the wrong way. ”

        Yes, this is exactly why I thought it was so effective, but effective precisely at taking me to a horrible place. I came pretty close to quitting myself.

        (And I’m sorry about your loved ones having been abused.)

  2. Maybe the game has been changed since you played it, but there is an option to hit your mother, instead (thus Cat’s reaction when you ask about her). The option isn’t listed in the walkthrough – you have to look for it. You’re given a similar choice later on, the hints and walkthrough again neglecting the other option. In this case, you’re betraying your father. Do you continue to perpetrate the cruelties of your parents, or break the cycle? My own parents were abused as children and tried to be kinder themselves, so this really stuck a chord with me.

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