Please remember: nothing you can do is wrong.
With Those We Love Alive exists in an altered dream world, a place with empresses who smell like dead candy, whose slick you lick from the floor in seeming devotion, whose bones are picked clean by worms. But beneath this intense surreality, as in many games from Porpentine, is an undercurrent about the reality of abuse and our discourse around it.
Inside the game, you’re given free leave to explore the world. To meditate in the garden. To create a telescope in your workshop. To explore the city and watch the rat children. The world is as perverse and fully realized as a Porpentine creation gets — even though she describes things you have never seen in real life, the sparse details she uses create vivid mental images that are hard to forget. I can still see a figure draped in ectoplasm, even though i’m not entirely sure what ectoplasm looks like. Quickly though, you find that you’ve completed everything there is to that world and you barely get out of bed in the morning except to look and see if there’s anything new. It was a skillful way to allow the player to experience the sensation of depression, the way you are tied to your duties just to make things for the empress, even if they are things she will never truly use.
The game doesn’t just request user interaction, it demands it. Early on, you’re warned that you will need a marker or pen that can write on flesh. The game then prompts you to cover your body in sigils, to mark yourself with things that represent new beginnings, that represent looping thoughts, and that ultimately represent you. I say that because it doesn’t actually tell you what the sigil looks like. What does pain look like to you? Loneliness? What symbols do you have to represent these emotions, these situations, within yourself? A quick look at Tumblr or Twitter will tell you that almost everyone sees them differently.
These are mine. It feels weird sharing them, as if I’m baring part of my soul. This is a strange sensation to get from a game. No one has to know which one of these is about pain, or why I chose to draw it in the manner that I did. The personal connection is one of the ways that With Those We Love Alive creates a new interactive experience.
It calls to mind another Porpentine work, their angelical understanding, but feels very different in a few key ways. With Those We Love Alive reeks of the mundane, the rituals that we persist in creating and maintaining. There is the ritual of taking regular hormones, but the game is not restricted to that. It touches on the rituals of the world that Porpentine has steadily created. Forgotten rituals involving the dreams of children, the ritual of creation, the rituals that the Empress practices. It even talks about how damaging these rituals can be — especially when they are ultimately harmful and no one does anything to stop them:
A custom that persists because people are scared that if they question the custom they will fall victim to the intense cruelty of the custom, which persists because they fail to question it.
There is brightness to be had, at least in my estimation. It isn’t when we forget the marks on our arms, but rather when we seem to reach the point of embracing them and moving past them, that the game ends.