[19 July 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
When it comes down to it, Loved has very little to do with that particular emotion at all. But it has everything to do with control, guilt and abuse done in the name of it. Follow the game’s unnamed, genderless narrator and your player avatar will come to harm; disobey, and the game hurls insults and destroys your path as much as it can. Disobey it enough, and it starts to play the victim. “I loved you,” it intones, hoping that you won’t leave. But if you do stay, you’ll be trapped.
Loved is an independent flash platformer designed by Alexander Ocias with an average play time of 5-10 minutes depending on how much the controls frustrate you. And they will, trust me. Inertia is slippery, it’s all too easy to miss a jump, and there are plenty of obstacles to instantly pop your character into little glass shards. Gameplay-wise, Ocias’s Loved is honestly only just playable. But in this case, that’s all it needs in order to work.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Quintin Smith once wrote that games have “incredible untapped potential in the field of negative emotions” (“Butchering Pathologic – Part 2: The Mind”, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 11 April 2008). What he meant specifically is that just like early film, our young interactive media discipline is hyperfocused on the “lowest common denominator” of positive feelings—excitement, accomplishment, humor, titillation. Smith writes that “No games developer’s going to try and make its audience feel sad, or lonely, or pathetic, at least not for long stretches.” Nevertheless, by all accounts, these “unhappy” games can still occasionally find their footing in the mainstream. No one expected the emotionally weighty Heavy Rain to sell as well as it did, not even its own developers (“Heavy Rain Sales to Top 1.5 Million, Says Cage”, Gamespot.au, 9 April 2010). And while it’s debatable whether this is a sign of a larger trend or just good promotion, these recent negative emotion games focusing on negative emotions, like Heavy Rain, Pathologic, and indies like Braid and Loved, might represent a shift toward a different, starker area of interactive storytelling.
The game Loved begins with a simple question: “Are you a man or a woman?” This isn’t simply the easy aesthetic choice of a Bioware protagonist. When I answered “woman,” the game’s “voice” immediately countered, “No, you are a boy.”
Not five seconds into the gaming experience, I, as a female gamer, was already fully prepared to be chagrinned by this perceived push back into the status quo. Female protagonists are already grievously underrepresented in the medium; did a little indie flash game need to marginalize me too? It felt like a false choice. However, that isn’t what’s going on here at all—regardless of what the player says, the game always decides the opposite. It’s a way of stripping a player of his or her identity and overriding player choice, a sin by most developer standards and done with full intention and to great effect here. Playing through it a second time and selecting myself as a man, the ensuing praises of “good girl” when I followed the on-screen instructions were anything but satisfying. In fact, it actually became more degrading. While there is something at play here about a rite of adulthood, it’s all on the narrator’s terms. The game uses “boy” and “girl”—as well as “ugly creature” and “disappointing” – to describe the character, not out of whimsy, but out of a sick, disturbing form of shaming and manipulating the player.
All of this is played out in the most subdued of fashions with simple text and minimal colors and objects. Nevertheless, the story never feels absurdly cryptic or arty—just understated, haunting, and cruel. Follow directions, and the world grows more ornamented; disobey, and those insults come back, as well as progressive distortion that can make it hard to see where (or what) anything really is. The story branches with at least two endings available, depending on your choices, and for as short as the entire piece is, it still manages to feel complete as a narrative.
We are given no clues as to the relationship between the speaker and the player character. Lovers? Teacher and student? Master and slave? God and believer? The only thing that players can make out for certain is that there’s an unequal power relationship going on. Ocias says that he designed the game as “something confrontational, that would engage players to give thought to what they are doing both in and out of game” (“Loved”, Kongregate, 6 June 2010). It seems clear that, for all the myriad interpretations a player might draw out of it, the “confrontation” is about words, meaning, and the relationships that we build around them. Is this love? Was this ever love at some point in the past? Or is it just a word being used to hurt us?
Chances are, you won’t enjoy playing this game. Oh, at its most fundamental there is satisfaction in clearing obstacles in almost any platformer, but the tone of Loved is not about making you feel good. If anything, you might come away feeling sick. It doesn’t reward you; it condescends. It doesn’t just punish you; it guilts you. The catharsis that comes at the end doesn’t arrive within the game, but after you’ve completed it, which seems exactly like the designer’s intention. It might take you only five minutes to complete, but it will take hours to fully unpack.
Loved is available to play for free at Kongregate.