A few weeks ago I started to notice @porpentine retweeting photos of people’s forearms, marked with a column of icons drawn in felt-pen or sharpie. This week I finally got a chance to play With Those We Love Left Alive, and was really impressed.
I always feel that settings like Pendelton Ward’s “Land of Ooo” are very much psychic landscapes: I get the impression that I am inside the author, reading a stream of consciousness etched in code on the skin of their veins. It takes a special kind of storytelling to be able to render such settings intelligibly, and that’s something I love to death about all of Porpentine’s work. Just like every episode of Adventure Time is refreshing and strange — but consistent — Porpentine’s games always feel to me like they are facets of one place… Porpentine! Standing on my balcony, looking through my telescope, I swear I can just make out columns of sludge-mist dancing above the swamp factory.
Watching twitter fill up with photos (I keep almost calling them screenshots… what’s wrong with me!?) of player’s forearms made the release of With Those We Love Left Alive feel like an international event. I really felt like something was happening — like something was brewing — and I wanted to be part of it right away. It felt like this could go away at any moment. Porpentine’s work inspires me, and I trust her as an artist, so it’s inevitable that I play her games, but it often takes time. It took me about a year to go download and play through Armada, whereas I was ontop of this one immediately. Asking humans to draw on themselves as part playing her games is some serious next-level porp!
That’s all super cool and very clever, but it is also a gimmick akin releasing a game for Oculus. The strength of this work is deeper than that:
In With Those We Love Left Alive, you spend your time in two places: the palace, and the city. Mechanically, this isn’t a game about exploring or finding things; it is a game about clicking a link that says “sleep”. You can probably play through it in a depressed haze, sleeping constantly and only emerging from your chambers to craft the Empress’s regalia. Despite this, I never went a day without wandering around. The locations are full of tiny tid-bits of culture and background, which are not all available all of the time. Visiting and revisiting the same places, which change only slightly from visit to visit, made the whole setting very familiar. Later in the game, when events are taking place, I know where they are happening. I know what the throne room is like, or what the portrait of the Empress looks like, because I’ve visited those places a dozen times before.
The story, the icons that gradually fill your arm, advances around the sleep action. Every few days, your consciousness will be whisked away to some turning point in the story: celebrations surrounding the crushing of Princess spores; memories of a painful past; or encounters with a once lover. These events, strung together by themselves, would make a fine work of interactive fiction. No question! If this game had just been about clicking through those events and drawing on your body, it would have been good. What makes it amazing, though, is the care given to the time you spend dithering about between these important moments. Porpentine puts you in a tight, compelling, playground and gives you a “skip” button to use at your discretion.
I explored With Those We Love Left Alive almost compulsively. It became a ritual: Every day I would wake up, step out onto my balcony and watch, through the telescope I had crafted, the vast wastes or the denizens of the death jungle. Satisfied, I would daily walk to the city, to look for my little friend the slime kid in the maze-like streets. Usually my feet would then carry me to the canal or the temple, to see what could be seen. Finally, unerringly, my stroll would end at the dream distillery, where I would sample that which I could not have. I basically never missed a day, and when the plot points were heavy I would actually spend more time dallying in the world… maybe as a coping mechanism?
Tiny personal spaces, and tiny personal rituals, feel to me like a common thread through Porpentine’s work. My experience playing With Those We Love Left Alive reminded me of a tweet I made about Howling Dogs back in 2012, when I first came across her work:
How interesting! I didn’t sleep forever. Is that a good thing? I just wanted one more citrus flavoured nutrition pack. Thanks @aliendovecote
The thing I loved most about that game (somehow) was the ritual of washing, eating, and drinking. I remember there was a choice that seemed pretty important at the end of that game, and that my decision was based on actually just wanting to continue to repeat that ritual. I didn’t want to lose that, and I guess I was in a position to? I would have to go back and replay (and maybe I will!) to know for certain, but the point is: I enjoyed the ritual more than whatever may have been the message that I was being asked to embrace. When the game ended, it felt ambiguous as to whether my ending had been an ending at all.
This didn’t happen in With Those We Love Left Alive: despite the ritual elements having earned my engagement, I was also invested enough in the plot (the events happening outside of my daily ritual) that when it came time to abandon them, I didn’t even notice whether I was given an option not to! Maybe I could have spurned my former lover and continued to while away the days in a soup of decadence and dread! The point is: I didn’t. The game let me establish myself in a space I could feel, gave me small things to cling to, and then showed me what they were really worth.
With any luck, I’ve internalized some of this ^o^// thanks Porp!