Indie Game Challenges Players to Re-Think “Winning”
Malta-based indie games developer Mighty Box Games has released a short, interesting browser-based game called Will Love Tear Us Apart? – sure to be considered in any discussion regarding classification of games as art. Mighty Box bills itself as emphasizing innovation and experimentation in its games. WLTUA appears to be its first release, and the game bodes well for future offerings from Mighty Box.
The game takes the player through the process of ending a relationship — hardly groundbreaking territory for a game in and of itself, but it creatively defies both conventional narrative structure and traditional gaming approaches. WLTUA makes no secret of its conclusion: the relationship cannot be saved. The game is about the end of a relationship, not a possibility of salvaging it. As the player moves forward through the game, he or she is presented with subtle reminders that each step forward is a nail in the coffin of the relationship.
Although, like every game, progress through the game is defined and accomplished through the achievement of objectives, the game provides gentle reminders throughout that there is no possibility of a satisfying ending. The artistic interludes between each level explicitly invoke thudding heartbeats and the painful breaking point of a thread stretched too thin. Although the game’s title implies a question, one could reasonably conclude it a rhetorical one; the game provides no possibility of any “reward” or sense of accomplishment for completion of the game. Instead, the player is left wondering at the fatalistic undercurrent hinted at by combining a game mechanic with an ultimately destructive experience that underlines the sense of immovable conflict in a doomed relationship: the game requires “doing,” but the only thing that can be “done” inexorably leads to loss.
Will Love Tear Us Apart?
PC (browser based)
Developer: Mighty Box Games
Released: May 31, 2013
MSRP: Free to play
It is difficult to meaningfully talk about the game without “spoiling” it to some extent. The game has three fairly short levels, only one of which presents the player with a stated objective, and none of which presents the player with any clear rules. The first level opens on a couple arguing, after which the two of them sit down to play a game of cards. The player is told to choose one of three cards to respond to the partner, without any indication of either the intended result for selection of the card or, indeed, the purpose of the card game itself. The second level involves a dual-protagonist maze wherein the two actors (representing the two individual partners) are controlled by a single keystroke. The third and final level presents the player with an apparently open-ended choice to convey the player’s interpretation of the effects of love. The player’s transition from level to level is signified by an artistic interlude incorporating black-and-white surrealist animations.
WLTUA‘s barebones, pre-ordained narrative belies the complexity of its emotional experience. Game creator Gordon Calleja conceived of the game by asking himself a question in the summer of 2011: “How does one go about adapting a song or poem into a game?” WLTUA is the answer to that question. WLTUA is based on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a 1980 single whose lyrics and tone reflect lead singer Ian Curtis’ failing relationship with his wife, and whose title is an ironic reference to the much perkier “Love Will Keep Us Together” (popularized by Captain & Tennille).
Each of the game’s three levels is intended to convey themes underlying the song’s three verses. The game’s soundtrack begins with a simple thudding sounding in time with a graphical image of a beating heart. The game opens quietly, invoking the song’s lyrics through a series of statements conveying the pain of an ending relationship:
We turn away on our sides
All our failings exposed
Our bedroom, a cold desert
Love has run dry
WLTUA then introduces its central theme, a question that recurs throughout the game:
Will love snare, heal or tear you apart?
What is perhaps most fascinating about the game is how it manages to make the player think about traditional game objectives — winning, accomplishing tasks, obtaining items — in the context of a relationship. The end of a relationship entails feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, frustration, and loss. So, too, does the experience of gaming. Games, however, have defined goals and marked endpoints. Games explicitly present players with challenges to be overcome, thereby signaling accomplishment through the reaching of an endpoint. For relationships, endpoints signal only endings, not successes. Successful relationships have no true end point or quantifiable objectives. You don’t “win” a relationship by beating the final boss; indeed, focusing on “winning” in a relationship is as likely to ruin it as it is to provide a sense of accomplishment. WLTUA cleverly uses this dynamic to effectively pit the player against the relationship: you move forward only by taking actions that ultimately harm the relationship. Gameplay is thereby, perhaps ironically, stripped down to its barest functionality: proceeding through each level doesn’t feel like “winning” so much as finding the necessary combination of actions to move forward. The ending presents a choice, but no matter which choice the player makes in the final level, the relationship ends.
In this sense the game denies the player the satisfaction of completion. By reaching the end of the game, you have won nothing. The frustration you felt of taking the time to figure out the mechanics of progression for each level have moved you forward, but there is no reward for moving forward. The time you invest into the game is not recognized by any sense of accomplishment. Indeed, attempting completion of one of the game’s tasks will result in the somber pronouncement that there is no amount of skill that will grant you the desired ending. There is no way to achieve your goal. You can only move forward, toward the end. The game’s closing credits are simple and straightforward, with a delicately haunting rendition of the song’s underlying thematic riff, accompanied by soothing heavy bass tones. After completion of the credits, the game starts all over again.
Gameplay is brief; I was able to complete the game in less than thirty minutes. The game proceeds as slowly or as quickly as it takes the player to figure out the mechanics for any given level. And while the challenges are fairly minimal as far as straightforward game mechanics go, the quiet, unimposing style of the game veils an underlying impatience. The first level pushes you forward with an occasional frustrated declaration that your actions are getting you nowhere. The second level — the most recognizably “game-like” of the three — relies on a failure/restart mechanic, heightening the player’s aggravation and inviting the player to call upon familiar gaming strategies (and ultimately subverting them). The final level allows a sort of exploration, chastising wayward players with soft discordant music. Each level takes a different approach to urge the player onward, but none of them recognizes that movement as worthwhile — rather, forward movement is merely necessary.
Will Love Tear Us Apart? is a unique and intriguing game offering an experience that is more accurately term artistic and reflective than objective-driven. Gamers looking for more active and challenging gameplay may find the game unsatisfying; my enjoyment of the game came primarily from the reflection that followed. It’s probably incorrect to say that the game is “fun,” exactly; but it’s nonetheless a worthwhile experience and serves as a nicely “grown-up” addition to the indie game line-up.