IF Comp 2014: With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)


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.

15 thoughts on “IF Comp 2014: With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)”

  1. I played this game after it was linked on a popular news blog and I loved the writing/story. I admit, I was slightly obtuse and didn’t know as the player I needed to draw on myself. So I kept waiting for the page to load some kind of drawing app which never appeared.

    I wonder though are there multiple endings? I got to the end but apart from the nice music I didn’t necessary gain any new ideas about the conclusion.

    1. Porpentine put up an alternate ending on her website, where you can choose to side with the Empress. I’ve only played once, so I don’t know if it’s possible to fail to escape.

      I developed a routine where I’d visit most areas on a given day, just to see if the descriptions varied. And that’s one way the game pulled me in that I hadn’t expected–on days where I met Slime Girl, I stayed for a while, enjoying time with someone else. I drank dreams every day until I learned I’d been a victim of that machine; I went back once, was disgusted with myself, and never went again. I remember thinking the description of the weapon on the wall had been that I was proud of it, and the shock I felt when I read it again and learned that the opposite was true (did it change, or did I change?). By the end, I was either checking for Slime Girl or sleeping. I don’t know if I would have felt the story so strongly if I hadn’t tried to visit every place at the start.

      1. I started out visiting all the places but unless there was a special event most of them remained the same. I did end up going to the dream machine because it was the only thing that changed. I didn’t actually meet anyone other than my friend when I traveled around. I did sleep a lot too to see if I could speed up the events.

      2. I never found a slime girl! I revisited the telescope and the canal often just to be able to look at a world outside myself (I similarly stopped drinking dreams after I found out my own experience with them), which made for a surprisingly vivid feeling of a solitary routine, and like you said, pulled me in in a way I wasn’t expecting. Every now and then, a dead person would suddenly appear in one of these contemplative spots, and it was almost more upsetting than the obvious horror bits — I had gotten used to the lake always being the same, for example, and liked that, and it seemed worse for the dead person to be there so completely at random.

  2. Finally got around to playing this. Beautiful, well worthy of ranking next to Porpentine’s other visionary fantasy games like “Howling Dogs” and “Their Angelical Understanding”. The only thing that bothered me about it was the extremely leisurely pace – but then, even that underscored the protagonist’s powerless status.

    Some stray observations to fill in everyone else’s. Spoilers, necessarily.

    I spent the longest time deciding whether I felt anger or longing upon receiving a letter from my family. Now I, the player, have a very good relationship with my family, and so my impulse was to roleplay as myself and choose the “longing” option. However, the fact that the game came with a trigger warning for (among other things) child abuse, coupled with the frightening music in that scene, made me feel that the protagonist resented her family and that missing them would be going against the plot of the story. It was hard, but I eventually chose anger and to throw the letter to the wind. Within hindsight of the revelation about what the protagonist’s mother did, I felt happier about my decision.

    I had an idea that choosing to be part of the community would make me join in the hunt of the spores, and thus chose it consciously. However, actually killing the spores made me feel very regretful.

    Like Christine, I stopped sampling dreams after finding out what happened to me in childhood. I also enjoyed spending time with the Slime Kid. While dialogue-less, she provided a sweet and companionable NPC presence in an otherwise grim and detached story, and made me feel slightly better about having stomped on kitten-blind princess spores.

    (For those who couldn’t find the Slime Kid: clicking on the word “mazelike” when in the city will take you to an alley where there is a puddle of slime. On certain days, you will instead find a Slime Kid, who will turn out to sometimes disguise herself as a puddle.)

    Finally, bringing this up because it hasn’t been mentioned yet in this discussion: the idea of using people’s literal dreams as a commodity is a major plot element in Porpentine’s earlier game “Parasite” (http://www.ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=69oek8g46zvpn11x ). The parallels are close enough that “With Those We Love Alive” feels almost like a pendant or a further development to “Parasite”. In “With Those We Love Alive”, the protagonist has had her ability to dream mutilated by having her dreams stolen in childhood; in “Parasite”, the protagonist is a poor transwoman, reduced to selling her dreams to a company to be used as a kind of VR entertainment for paying consumers (meaning that they will no longer be available to her) to pay for her medication.

    Just scattered thoughts on an awe-inspiring game. I’ll probably have more to say about this.

  3. Something I forgot in my earlier post: in addition to this game feeling like an expansion or commentary on “Parasite”, I’m wondering whether it might also be related to another of Porpentine’s games, “Skulljhabit”. There are no particularly explicit links, but some minor ones. In “Skulljhabit”, your possible titles all contain the word “skull”, making me feel like you could be at the bottom of a hierarchy with the Skull Empress at the top. There is a somewhat similar set-up where your job involves corpse parts: in this case, skulls, which you dig up from a pit and can sell to travellers. There are more distant similarities to “With Those We Love Alive” as well, such as the rhythm of work and sleep, and the protagonist missing a female friend or partner. I’m wondering if the big city glimpsed in “Skulljhabit” is similar to the one where “With Those We Love Alive” is set, but it’s been too long since I played “Skulljhabit” for me to be sure.

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