With Those We Love Alive is a choice-based nightmare-fantasy game, with music, which also requires that the player draw on her own body during play. I played it to completion.
Better to live on beggar’s bread
with those we love alive,
than taste their blood in rich feasts spread,
and guiltily survive — Bhagavad Gita
With Those We Love Alive tells the story of someone who lives at the beck and call of an alien Empress, creating new objects in the Empress’ service. Many of the hallmarks of Porpentine’s past work are here: the use of blood, bone, and bodily fluids in disgusting but evocative ways; the idea of a protagonist deeply scarred by past abuse; the fantasy of an empire run on alien lines for alien reasons; the beautiful strange words. The music adds another layer of emotion, often brooding, sometimes alarming.
From time to time the game stops to tell you to draw an icon on yourself, representing some particular idea from the game. I am not a great artist and I was drawing with fine green ink which does not show up well in pictures; but I have seen images of other people’s arms after they finished play, and they are impressive.
In any case, this was a strange and striking mechanic. It is arguably inconvenient, in that it restricts the contexts in which you can play this (probably not at work, or on the bus, or right before a job interview) and it asks the player to do something rather intimate in response to the game. It incorporates a sensual experience, the touch of pen on skin, and it asks the person drawing to think about how they would inscribe certain ideas. And where to inscribe them: I not only found myself thinking about how I would draw a symbol representing, say, “chasm”, but also where on myself I would put that symbol in order to carry the most weight. Our bodies are geographical; there are places on the skin that mean “vulnerable” and parts that mean “strong” and parts that mean “receptive, empathetic”; places that are scarred or calloused.
This sensuality and boundary-breaking reminded me, in a good way, of some of the work of one of my favorite tabletop RPG authors, Avery McDaldno. In a similar way, With Those We Love Alive seeps outside the borders of regular gameplay. Where and how to draw the game icons is entirely reflective choice, but it is also creative and intimate choice, which is highly suitable to the game’s themes.
The moment when the Empress has spawned is for me the key to the whole game. There are tiny pink princess-spores everywhere. They are both pathetic and monstrous: they huddle together and mewl when approached, but it’s hard to forget that they are also the offspring of the Empress creature herself, who is terrifying and cruel and hunts people for sport.
The player has a choice: to be a person, one with others, or to be separate and alone. This choice is presented in isolation, before we understand how it will constrain us. In what follows, we discover its importance. If we choose to be one with others, we are then forced to participate in the eradication of the princess-spores, going around stomping the new-formed creatures to death. We can show them mercy only if we have determined to separate ourselves from the rest of humanity. I did not like stomping them to death, and I did not like declaring myself separate from all other people, and I also feared letting them live to perhaps become new Empresses (but the world building here is so allusive that it is hard to know for sure what will happen if they survive). The entire passage disturbed me regardless of which way I played it.
After this sequence we are invited to draw an icon representing what we feel about this turn of events. My icon was a ball of spikes.
Juxtapose this with the immediately preceding scene: no one interrupts the Empress’ vicious hunt of living human subjects because no one dares. That scene contains perhaps the game’s most overt piece of social commentary, to the effect that everyone fears becoming a victim, so no one stands up, when only such opposition could possibly dismantle the system of victimization in the first place. In the Empress’ hunt of humans, people are too afraid to stop the hunt. In the human hunt of the Empress’ offspring, no one refrains from violence because violence is the source of common identity.
Meanwhile, another of the main topics of the game is the extraction of dreams — and not dreams in the sense of “daydreams” or “aspirations” or “wishes,” but the actual dreams one has while sleeping. They are siphoned out of sleepers and distilled into a usable product; or, as happened to the protagonist, they are burned out all at once, leaving irrevocable psychological scars. There are various ways one could read this, but it spoke to me about the commodification of that which is most creative and most personal to oneself and also least automatically accessible to others. The protagonist of With Those We Love Alive is drawn to the dream distillery and may partake of these dreams as often as the player allows it. The products of the unjust system are often seductively beautiful and it is difficult to avoid being drawn to them.
Even having the tools for artistic creation requires cooperation with tyranny: our protagonist remarks that she has never had access to such materials before she came to the workshop of the Empress. We create astonishing art-weaponry for the Empress out of the bones of her enemies. It is a monstrosity, but we are drawn to this as well.
In other words, participating in community and joining in connection with other humans is inextricable from participating in systemic violence and oppression. It is only possible to retain one’s empathy and the ability to exercise individual conscience if one at the same time remains alone and capitulates in no shared ethos at all. If there is hope, it is that we are allowed a friend (or lover), allowed to escape with her. Individuals, perhaps, can somehow exist outside the system, outlawed together, avoiding the feast of blood.
But any more collective group, any economy, any community of principle, risks falling victim to itself, the rules becoming a weapon against the people.
I played this game right at the beginning of the competition, but saved it for late to write about. I needed some time before I could face it. The work itself is beautifully made, the words and images striking, the music effective, the mechanic of skin-drawing evocative and lovely. But, like several other games this comp, it was also painful and demanding to experience. I want to believe that there are alternatives, that communities need not be destructive, that connection need not be impossible.
At the same time, game communities I care about are currently in the middle of imploding, so it’s hard to counter that argument with sunshine and optimism just at the moment.