This is a screenshot, of sorts, from Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive. I discovered this game through friends on social media sharing photos of their own symbols. I immediately wanted to play it, but put it off until I had real time to devote to it. I’ve got mixed feelings about how my gaming is more in short bursts nowadays (I miss long stretches of Civilization, and how I resent fitting that thirtysomething female player demographic, with my playtime hemmed in by all my adult responsibilities! Still, those adult responsibilities are for work I love, so…) but I would absolutely recommend waiting until you have enough uninterrupted time to play. This isn’t a gameworld for alt-tabbing in and out.
WTWLA begins by letting players know that no choices are wrong, and by offering some choices that seem mainly cosmetic. Pick a birth month, for example, from a list of twelve strange worldbuilding names. Good sci fi presents a world that’s both familiar and foreign, like the vague geography of the Hunger Games’ Panem, or the way Arthur Clark describes future tech, and WTWLA does this from the beginning.
A gross and creepy empress rules a world of dead people and dream stealers. The player is tasked with crafting things for the empress, a role I liked because, well, if you’ve read this blog for a while, I like to make things and when I’m not thrilled with my life and my surroundings, I make more thin, in my visitsgs. (Hey, did you see my story about liiving in the south plus magic, or my story about living the south plus aliens?) I also think being a craftsman is a great hook for a game protag, while being between two worlds usually makes an intriguing novel protagonist.
In the game, I could make small choices, but no large ones. When tasked with crafting something for the Empress, I could choose the least-gross of the material options. I could walk to the lake or to the gardens, and confirm that the descriptions hadn’t changed, except for the occasional dead person appearing. But I couldn’t leave my home in the palace or talk with any friends.
I crafted a telescope immediately, and then wondered endlessly if reading expat blogs while I was stuck in this terrible area was helping or hurting me. Oh, man, did I say reading expat blogs? I totally meant looking through my pretend telescope in this game! How did that slip out?
When I slept, I’d often wake up to a note or a summons from the Empress, so after exploring the permitted areas several times (Any self-respecting point-and-click adventurer investigates carefully), I found myself sleeping a lot in order to progress the game. What a terribly depressing mechanic, sleeping and sleeping in hope of something good happening next.
Sometimes we talk about whether interactive fiction games are fiction or gameplay. I like this conversation better than the one about whether games can be art, because it’s about whether we enjoy IF as reading or as gameplay. But when we talk about message games, about whether Twine games are game experiences if they’re novels you click instead of turning pages, and, geez, when we talk about meaningful game mechanics in general, we should mention this game mechanic in which players sleep days and days way with the hope of something good happening.
Every so often, I’d be told it was time to reapply hormones, but I didn’t want to. Partly because there were some odd things going on with gender and femininity in this game, and partly because I’m an exploratory players, and I wanted to know what would happen if I didn’t. But, since I wasn’t able to sleep without reapplying hormones, and I wasn’t able to advance the plot without sleeping, I just wandered around a lot hoping something would happen and I wouldn’t have to. Spoiler: I had to.
Finally, I met an old friend, and got to make large choices (that were still small choices, in a way). I wasn’t entirely clear on whether this person was a friend or a lover, but I don’t think it much matters. With Those We Love Alive blends careful and unusual language choices with carefully creative IF gameplay, and built to a satisfying storyline conclusion.
Oh, right. The screenshot. At points throughout the game, players are asked to draw a symbol of what their character is experiencing. You’ll be asked to draw symbols of burial or rebirth, loss or connection. There’s no wrong answer, no gameplay mechanic punishes you for poor art skills. I used glitter eyeliner for mine, and painted each symbol carefully on the side of my forearm. I’ve written a lot about about how we as players tend to empathize most with avatars who look like us or avatars we’ve customized and personalized to be more like the way we see ourselves, and actually drawing on my skin to connect with character experiences was an extreme example of both.
Then, of course, it felt weird washing it off immediately, so I found myself scrubbing a green glitter burial rune off my arm before work the next morning.