Meta/stasis: Little Red Lie

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Are “personal games” a thing, in 2017?

They most certainly were a thing back in 2013, as evinced here, and here, and here. I think the case can be made that they were still a thing in January 2016, when That Dragon, Cancer, one of the most buzzed-about “personal games” in existence, finally released. But are they a thing in 2017?

Signs point to “no.” Not in the sense that people stopped making them—au contraire. What happened was that the floodgates opened. Digital distribution made its way to the masses, in the form of itch.io, and Steam’s post-Greenlight non-exclusivity. Twine went from a footnote in Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters to a designated week in every digital media course offered in North America. People are even making and distributing dreary anti-consumerist Super Mario Maker levels.

So, the games themselves have not abated. But the writing about them, the treatment of them as a definable “scene”: yeah, I think that has gone away. Part of this might be about queasy caution among game journalists, who pointedly remember how a non-existent review of Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest (2013) sparked Gamergate. But mostly, I think, it’s that there are now just far too many of these games to keep track of, and treat as a coherent thing. Now that seemingly everyone is making games about their deepest and most private anxieties, there is little incentive to build any sort of critical consensus on how to survey the how to survey the zinester scene, who to determine what games are worth checking out (if only to pointedly critique), and which creators should be checked in on every now and then, to see if they’ve done anything interesting.

Case in point: in 2013, Will O’Neill released Actual Sunlight. The game became a central text in the conversation around “personal games” movement, and cemented O’Neill as a figure to watch in the interactive fiction/visual novel scene. Fast forward to June of 2017. Will O’Neill (now operating under the moniker WZO Games Inc.) releases Little Red Lie, to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever. It is by sheer chance that it didn’t slip under my radar entirely. As of this writing in November, I have found precious little writing about it anywhere online.

Which is a shame, because Little Red Lie deserves to be talked about. So I’m going to do my own part.

Actual Sunlight is a game that ends in suicide. As such, it’s frequently lumped in with Depression Quest in the category “games about depression.” This description is accurate. But it is also limiting. The subject matter of Actual Sunlight is simultaneously more specific and more broad than “depression.”

It is more specific, because Actual Sunlight deals not just with depression, but with a very concentrated form of self-loathing. It is about hating everything that you are and everything that you do with every fiber of your being, until your options wither away, and you find yourself hurtling down the worst of all possible paths.

It is broader, because Actual Sunlight deals not just with one person, but with a society. It is not just about a self-loathing man, but about a vast neoliberal order, filled with bullshit and busywork (some well-compensated, some unpaid), in which any vestige of meaning has been utterly drained out of everything. Actual Sunlight is a potent capsule of righteous fury, a primal scream against a version of capitalism that has perfected the art of alienation. Playing it is not a pleasant experience, by any measure. But there are few who can call out the evils of our current socio-economic order in a frighteningly clear voice as O’Neill can.

So I knew what I was getting into when I booted up Little Red Lie. Right off the bat, one of its characters, Sarah Stone, launches into an eloquent inner monologue about dystopian fiction as a moral crutch. The dystopias we dream up, she announces, allow us to indulge in the fantasy that we are morally-driven agents. That we are capable of feeling outrage and indignity, that we would rise up in rebellion if forces conspired to crush us. This allows us to conveniently deny the reality that we are cowardly cogs who have accustomed ourselves to the banal hell that is late capitalism. Dystopian fictions are the horror stories we tell each other as a way of normalizing the horror that we’re living our everyday lives in.

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In other words: this is a Will O’Neill game, alright. And a sizable one, at that: my playthrough of Little Red Lie took me six hours, to Actual Sunlight’s comparatively svelte 75 minutes.

To be clear, this is a lot of time to spend in the company of O’Neill’s horrifying moral clarity. Little Red Lie is potent stuff. I would not recommend playing it in a single sitting any more than I would recommend watching all three films in Kobayashi Masaki’s The Human Condition trilogy in a single sitting.

And unlike The Human Condition, Little Red Lie doesn’t even have the benefit of being set in a far-off time. It is resolutely of the here and now. “Here” is Scarborough, Toronto. “Now” is 2017-ish, give (don’t take) a year, or five. (I had previously pegged Night in the Woods as the “most 2017” game of 2017, which is why I already credited it with telling the most vital story of the year. It retains that honor on a technicality, because Little Red Lie is possibly set in an ambiguous near-future.) The characters we meet over the course of its two parallel stories are deeply divided by wealth and by generational experience. But they remain bound together in how much their lives are defined by the continuing reverberations of the 2008 financial crisis. The economic climate that has followed in the wake of that historical event has defined and circumscribed the paths of their lives: their assets, their debts, their life trajectories, and, most crucially, how these things have disrupted and destabilized the teleological myths of family.

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What progresses from the opening monologue falls in line with O’Neill’s previous work. The game hasn’t been built from RPG Maker assets this time around, but it’s about as close as O’Neill could graphically get in Unity. We click on things to hear the character’s inner monologue, but otherwise our agency is limited: the non-choices of the game’s dialogue system make it clear that we are here to witness this story, not to shape it. There’s one additional wrinkle, this time around: as the game’s title announces, these characters keep themselves going on a steady diet of lies. Whenever we’re in control of one, their lies (to others, or to themselves, in inner monologue) are rendered in red text. The game’s interact button itself is bluntly labeled not “interact” or “inspect,” but “lie.”

Taking advantage of its ample length, Little Red Lie is split into two stories. First, there’s the story of Sarah Stone and her family, quietly but suddenly slipping out of the middle class. Then, there’s the story of Arthur Fox, a rich asshole motivational speaker who reads like a cross between Robert Kiyosaki and Donald Trump, if Trump had decided to turn Trump University into a traveling motivational speaker roadshow, instead of grifting his way to the US presidency.

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The overall structure is reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s film Naked (1993), transposing that film’s diptych of post-Thatcher London to Trudeau-era Toronto. Leigh, in Naked, is clearly more interested in the lower-class Johnny Fletcher, and uses the character of Sebastian as an avatar of slimy wealth to act as Johnny’s foil. Similarly here, O’Neill sets us up to be more invested in Sarah’s story. It is through Sarah’s interactions with her family that we encounter most of what the game has to say about the intergenerational burdens of homeownership, debt, and lost hope in the post-2008 order. Arthur is mainly just there to confirm that yes, the worst people really do rise to the top, and yes, the rich really do deserve to be eaten. His half also has have a distinctly “gamier” feel than Sarah’s half. In what feels like a use of platform to reinforce character, it is only ever his interactions with the environment that unlock Steam achievements, giving us an extra little meaningless pat on the back that Sarah never receives.

Sarah’s life is tough, and Arthur is obnoxious. Six hours is a lot of time to spend with these people. To be perfectly honest, if Little Red Lie was just the misery of Actual Sunlight, stretched out to greater length, I don’t think I could have gotten through it. And, for awhile, it threatened to be that. O’Neill’s holy anguish was as on-point as ever, but there’s only so long you can remain in a headspace like that without getting overwhelmed.

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Then, just when things were getting tiresome, O’Neill threw a curveball.

(There are spoiler-y aspects to the paragraphs below. Nothing too bad.)

Around the halfway point of Little Red Lie, we’re introduced to a character that can break the fourth wall, and directly address us. At first, her comments merely poke fun at the overall superfluousness of the game’s player input, acknowledging the meaninglessness of its “choices,” and overall “notgame” feel.

But very soon it becomes clear that this character has a wider range of powers than just being able to directly address us. Taking cues from a suite of precursors including Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015), OneShot (Team OneShot, 2016), this character ends up wielding a wide array of modernist powers. She can force-quit the game. She can scramble our save file. She can hold achievements hostage. And she will do all of these things, as a way of commanding our attention, and demanding our obedience.

It’s a pretty wild development, and it took me utterly by surprise. It is certainly a welcome change of pace for the game. But what does this character actually accomplish? How does her relationship to the player interact with the game’s overall themes? Here, things get a bit sketchy, and my thoughts reflect that.

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Little Red Lie asks you a series of personal financial questions when you first start playing it, the answers to which supposedly shape certain aspects of character dialogue. I’ve only played the game once, so I don’t really know what the effect is, if any. But I think that both the questionnaire and the game’s meta-moments are both being used to tailor the game’s message to its players. O’Neill wants to find new and innovative ways critique his own players—about their cushioning from economic disaster, their play style, their responses to authority, their chasing of arbitrary social rewards (hello, achievements!), and even about their tendencies toward overly-abstract intellectualism (see the screenshot below). It’s as if the very notion of “interaction” has folded in upon itself, passing through “immersion” and circling back into something Brechtian. What better way to be critically distanced from a game than to know that it is constantly looking right back at you, judging you as a social and moral actor?

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I also think that this ties into the ways in which neoliberal capital pits us against each other, makes us judge one another, and puts blinders on us: as long as we’re hyper-focused on perceived injustices against ourselves, we miss the ways in which we are complicit in larger structures, and lose the chance for greater solidarity. But I won’t say much more about that now … some of it will have to wait for the discussion of the game’s ending.

This unexpected burst of modernist playfulness in the middle of Little Red Lie reinvigorated my playthrough, and helped me get through its otherwise dour six hours. I’d be lying, though, if I said that I wasn’t emotionally exhausted, again, by reaching the end of it.

There is just no way around it: Little Red Lie is tough to play. It doesn’t offer the humor or subtle optimism of Night in the Woods. Its characters are older, lacking that spark of adolescent possibility. And unlike the critiques of capitalism and authority one finds in Jonas Kyratzes, there is no held-out promise that solidarity will save the day. Things are bleak in Little Red Lie. There are no real heroes—individual, or collective. We’re all just fighting for the scraps.

This is especially true of the game’s ending. By this point, we’ve already been asked to spend half of our time with Arthur, an utterly abhorrent character. Then, there’s a twist (if you could even call it that, given how much the game primes us to expect everything to be as awful as possible), and a character in Sarah’s story is revealed to be just as monstrous. This sets us down a path to a remarkably cruel ending.

And I mean it when I say remarkable. Nobody would ever accuse O’Neill of being subtle. The final minutes of Little Red Lie contain some of the most melodramatic anti-capitalist misery porn I have ever seen, single-handedly besting nakedly propagandistic Soviet filmmakers and depressing social realists in one fell swoop.

And then there’s a post-credits scene, which is really truly weird, and which I’m still trying to suss out. (MAJOR spoilers from here on in.)

After the credits, our one fourth-wall breaking character makes a return appearance. It is here where the haggling over achievements takes place. She announces that our Steam profile has been flagged, making it impossible for us to ever see this scene again, after our first playthrough. Then she announces we have a choice: grab the final achievement needed to “100%” the game, or hear something that will “radically re-contextualize everything that you’ve experienced.”

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As has been clear throughout,  Little Red Lie is not afraid of being hostile and combative to its players. This is especially the case when it comes to its achievements. Out of all of the art games I’ve ever played, only The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013) comes anywhere close to displaying such naked contempt for players who are addicted to the extrinsic reward of little badges decorating their profile. As I mentioned before, achievements are a defining feature of Arthur’s half of the story. Chasing after them is coded as shallow—an in-game approximation of Arthur’s own toxic materialism. (I had wondered why the game was Steam-only, despite the fact that Actual Sunlight is available DRM-free on itch.io. Here, I had my answer: Steamworks integration was absolutely necessary to the game, which needs a connection to this sort of external gamer profile for its social critique to work.)

And so, of course, I made what seemed to be the “correct” choice, when one is playing an anti-capitalist personal game: I chose to hear more of the story.

And I discovered that the joke was on me.

The “radical re-contextualization” promised turns out to be little more than a few self-involved, self-serving non-sequiturs spouted off by this character. The promised answers don’t arrive. What arrived instead seemed deeply irrelevant. The game, which had otherwise been so precise and cutting in its societal critiques, ended on a belligerently vague note. I was disappointed, and annoyed. The game, it seemed, had used some modernist cleverness to gain my goodwill, and then botched the landing, wasting that goodwill. I imagined other, better endings, then went to bed.

And after I had slept on it, I changed my mind completely.

When we encounter unsubtle anti-capitalist misery porn in the vein of Little Red Lie, we expect it to offer some sort of catharsis, or call to action. Mother (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1926), Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica, 1946), Kes (Ken Loach, 1969), and Salaam Bombay! (Mira Nair, 1988) all differ in their particulars, but at least offer some sort of moral and/or political clarity by their finish. Little Red Lie lacks this clarity. The muddled note it ends on dovetails with its overall nihilistic bent. And I now believe the nihilism to be purposeful.

In Little Red Lie, O’Neill isn’t just lashing out at the horrors of late capitalism. In the game’s first minutes, he offers up a mission statement: in addition to critiquing capitalism, the game is also a critique of the psychological uses of stories. Brecht was against catharsis. O’Neill, dare I say, does him one better: he is against both catharsis and clarity. The opening lines of the game critique the treacherous clarity of dystopia narratives. The more stories lull us into an imagined world of moral and emotional clarity, the more numb we become to the problems of the seemingly intractable structure we’re all embedded in.

After a player like me pats myself on the back for turning down an achievement, I expect this mysterious authorial stand-in character to provide some moral clarity, to explain what is bad about the world, and why it is bad. Instead, she went on a self-serving tangent—one that severely severely overestimated her own importance in the game’s narrative. Rather than authoritative, she came across as oblivious, petty, and defensive. Her “explanations” were nothing more than lists of extenuating circumstances, irrelevant tangents concocted to make others look worse. What’s more, her character is utterly unaware of the Sarah Stone half of the narrative. (It is fitting, in hindsight, that this “keeper of the achievements” character utterly neglects the half of the game without achievements.)

Despite this character’s unexplained powers, she remains firmly planted within this fiction. She can’t really get outside it. Despite her apparent privileged relationship to the game system, she’s really just another cog, trapped, cynically looking out for herself, telling petty lies.

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As the screenshot above indicates, the game hits you over the head with this pretty hard. Still, though, it took awhile for its overall importance to click for me. I think the point is this: Each of us is always the hero of our own story, even as many of us are, obliviously, villains in other peoples’ stories. On a broad scale, we know, in the abstract, that money corrupts. But we are very good at pointing to someone else that has even more of it. We’re good at deflecting responsibility, making others with more than us into Manichean villains. We’re good at this because we are intoxicated by the moral clarity of pat stories, be they future dystopias or communist agit-prop. We are intoxicated, in short, by lies. (Heh—I couldn’t resist.)

Little Red Lie denies us the usual clarity of lies. Its ending is purposely a confused, rambling tangent. It doesn’t tell us who the villains are. It doesn’t tell them they’re not us. It doesn’t absolve us. It asks us, uncomfortably, why we feel the need to be absolved. It instead asks us why we get so defensive when it challenges us. It raises the uncomfortable possibility just because we are “better” than someone else (i.e., Arthur), it does not follow that we are good. The structure of things implicates all of us, despite the stories we tell ourselves.

Even those of us who find themselves slipping out of the North American middle class still benefit from unsustainable global inequality.  Even those of us who deny ourselves an achievement because we consider ourselves thoughtful connoisseurs of art games don’t deserve any exculpatory moral clarity. (Especially us, as we may be naïvely prone to imagining we’re above the system. Lest we forget: we are getting all high and mighty about a fucking video game.)

There is something profoundly disquieting about this ending. By the time this woman with the strange powers over your achievements and save files has said her piece, Little Red Lie actually feels more nihilistic than Actual Sunlight. (Quite an accomplishment, given that that game literally ends with your character killing himself.)

But I think it’s exactly the game Will O’Neill wanted to make. And I can’t wait to play his next one.

Although I’ll definitely need to take some breaks while playing it.

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