Reposted from PopMatters Moving Pixels.
2010 was either a very affectionate or very cynical year in the field of independent games, with at least three single-named titles taking a spin with ol’ l’amour.
My first review for this site back in July was on Alexander Ocias’s Loved, in which the past tense is used to signify guilt and manipulation of the player rather than more innocent connotations. Earlier in March we saw the release of independent user-generated MMO Love from Eskil Steenberg, the painterly aesthetic of which much has been written. A final entry, unrelated to Steenberg’s, is the new flash game Love which has just shown up on Kongregate from designer Contrebasse.
I haven’t found the time or spare funds to invest in Steenberg’s MMO but Ocias’s Loved and Contrebasse’s Love, both published on Kongregate and showcased in places such as IndieGames and Rock, Paper, Shotgun, seem more profound in their differences than their similarities. While Loved was a harrowing yet ultimately cathartic experience for me, Contrebasse’s Love (for the sake of clarity, we’ll stick to just talking about that one) just left me incredibly depressed.
Contrebasse’s Love is called a model of friendship, in which players control a white square moving around to establish a gravitational pull on other floating squares. The closer the squares’ proximity, the stronger the pull, but if the squares collide, the player’s piece is eliminated– an analogy for a destructive relationship. However, move too far away, and the bond is severed. The trick, then, is to maintain a close enough bond with the maximum number of other squares, enhancing your own maximum happiness until a collision finally does you in.
Perhaps the most cynical part of Love are the “random tips” displayed after a game-over, which continue the analogy. “Sometimes weird, unexplainable stuff happens in love,” one quips; “don’t waste time trying to figure out how or why. Just react accordingly and adapt quickly.” Another goes, “Be careful, love sometimes brings back painful memories.”
Loved, on the other hand, is if anything a deconstruction of games as a model for romance. The relationship implied is vague but menacing and one of two things happen: either you disobey, and the game’s world becomes corrupted, or you obey and your ending is a deliberate and obvious take on Super Mario, in which the player reaches for a single rotating coin. Neither nets you the princess; indeed, after the mind games the narration plays with you, it’s unclear what role gender or sexuality has in any of it, except as a source of dehumanization.
Love, meanwhile, is quite neutral in its model of relationships, including its distinction between platonic and romantic affection, which some players might find a little problematic (you’re encouraged to maintain several relationships of equal intensity at once, but one of the tips mentions “scoring,” which certainly doesn’t help). Added to that is the problem of space: while the boundaries contract and shift, possibly to represent periods of transition or social upset, the available “friend” squares remain constant. You are continually alternating among them, not moving on to greener pastures, as it were. And they don’t get into gravitation with one another, as shared friends often do. Apparently, you are the center of their world, whether you are connected with them at the moment or not.
The cyclical and ultimately nihilistic nature of Love contrasts heavily with Loved, which is many uncomfortable things but certainly not endless. Ocias’s title has you either reaching to embrace a hurtful relationship again or walking away from it; either way, it is a conflict with a single individual that is being resolved. Contrebasse’s work, on the other hand, has only one possible resolution: eventually, love is going to kill you.
We speak a lot in film (as well as games) with respect to open or closed frames. The frame is always there, of course; it’s just a matter of the viewer/player’s awareness of it, and how their relationship with it is organized by the designer. Neither Love nor Loved offer a great deal of spatial freedom compared to most long-form titles, but the cramped and contained nature of Love is palpable by comparison. Loved, ultimately, offers the player some degree of hope. Love only offers us resignation.