Some time ago, I shared a flash game called Dys4ia that dealt with one person’s experience with hormone replacement therapy.
There were gameplay elements to it, but I argued for it as more of an interactive narrative that required user interaction to tell parts of the story.
This week, we’ll discuss a similar game with similar theming. This game also attempts to tell a story through gameplay, and it also tries to make you a little bit uncomfortable.
The game (or “short story,” as creator Alexander Ocias classifies it) is called “Loved,” and you can play it (for free) right here in about 10 minutes or less. It tackles gender roles to an extent, but the game is really about making players understand the nature of an emotionally abusive relationship.
This is a game that antagonizes you from the outset. First, it complicates your gender role by asking you to self-identify, and then immediately telling you that you’re wrong.
In fact, there’s a very subtle thing happening here. Not only does the narrative change your preferred gender identification (immediately putting you in a position to switch your perspective), but it also very discreetly belittles you.
The game asks if you are a man or a woman. If you say that you are a man, it doesn’t just say you are a woman, it says you are a girl. Conversely, if you say you are a woman, it will say you are a boy. It’s a subtle switch, but an effective one, aimed at making you feel smaller and weaker.
The moment you feel a sense of that, the game intensifies it.
Notice the tone here. This is the second screen of the game, and the narrator is already a character that is positing control and dominance. It asks you, “Will I teach you how to play,” so you understand that the narrator knows more than you do. Regardless of what you choose, the game looks to reinforce that feeling of powerlessness.
There is no right answer. Either you say yes and the game says “You do not deserve it,” or you say no and the game tells you “You will fail.” In other words, if you need help, you are worthless, and if you try to be independent, you are powerless.
This game tells its story by having the “narrator” become an actual character, and one that routinely tries to exert power and dominance over you. Every line that appears in the game comes from the perspective of who assumes dominance. It’s discomforting, and deliberately gives you a feeling of powerlessness. Ostensibly, the game becomes about your relationship with the narrator.
You’re dropped into the game with no idea how to play, and so your first instinct as a player is to experiment and press buttons you expect to do things like move and jump. Press a button that is not part of the control scheme, and you are greeted with a “helpful” note.
And so the game goes about its mission of making you feel stupid, powerless, and helpless. And this is all within the first 30 seconds or so. You haven’t even started playing the game yet, and already you feel antagonized but unable to do anything about it.
As you progress, the “narrator” issues orders. At first, they seems harmless enough. You’re told to do things like jump over pits of spikes and touch checkpoints. These fall right in line with your goals, anyway. Why would you not want to avoid spikes?
But later, you’re given goals that run increasingly counter to your own instincts. When faced with two different paths, you’re told to take the more difficult path. Then there are moments when you’re told to do something that is obviously hurtful to you.
Follow orders, and you’re patronized (and sent back to the last checkpoint). Ignore them, and you’re chastised. If you follow orders regularly, the environment shows more detail, there are less obstacles, and the game is easier to play. But you feel bad as a person for not pushing back against the person heartlessly ordering you around.
If you push back, the game gets more difficult. You start to see colored squares pop up around you that make it difficult to see obstacles, or even yourself. Jumps are harder to make. There are more obstacles. Eventually, you’re crushed under the weight of expectations, and it gets to look like this.
I won’t spoil the ending, and there are also some messages about body image and gender expectations that I’ll let you find for yourself, but this game is another great example of how to tell a story and deliver a message using gameplay elements to make a point. In this case, the game itself takes on the role of the abusive significant other, antagonizing you throughout the game but penalizing you if you try to do anything about it.
It’s elaborate, but effective, and another great digital narrative to try out. If you missed the link at the top, try it out right here, and prepare to be made a bit uncomfortable.