Physically Interactive Fiction: With Those We Love Alive

Look, you try taking a good photo of your forearm with a phone camera.

One of these symbols I drew on my arm is a lie. With Those We Love Alive tells you to draw icons on your body to represent key choices and reactions, see, which is a lark until you realise you’re marking and changing yourself in response to cruel and oppressive things. One icon represents something I like to think about myself, but know isn’t true. I stared at that lie a lot the next day.

With Those We Love Alive is a free Twine game by Porpentine, a moving visit to a mundanely monstrous world. Her writing is so carefully measured, vivid yet small bursts, and a soundtrack by Brenda Neotenomie wraps the world around you. It is a beautiful and terrible game.

In a world filled with dead people, you’re pressed into the service of a Empress who’s literally monstrous. Her introduction, rising from black waters – “Her larval skin floats across the lake like the carcass of a pale leviathan” – sets the tone for a world where things are nightmarish but no one bats an eyelid. Horrors, violence, and death are everyday.

You stay at her palace, tasked with crafting weapons and ornaments, but have freedom to explore the grounds and the city beyond. With a handful of words, Porpentine creates space for a world that’s wild and fantastical yet broken and defeated. It’s exciting to explore at first, watching life go by at the canal, wandering streets, visiting temples, and walking the palace gardens, but soon you’ve seen it all. Then you’re just there, isolated and alone, waiting for something to happen. The game runs on a day cycle, see, advancing when you sleep.

Days go by and you start barely getting out of bed because everything else seems pointless. New places open up, you sample lurid dream drugs, and you get to see more of the world from afar, but the novelty wears off. It’s a sad world where people cling to whatever they can or simply give up.

You’re waiting for someone to make a demand of you, to ask for your attention, your presence, or your skills. You can express yourself a little with the weapons you create for the Empress, choosing the materials – angel leather, blood-watered wood and other spooky materials – then inscribing and wrapping them, but they end up unused on the wall of her throne room. You start to sleep again. And then Things happen. I won’t spoil it, but the mundanity is broken, and you find hope of being who you want to be.

It’s a game about how we create ourselves in the space we’re allowed by society, and how we respond to its demands and the many forms of violence that surround us. It’s about the roles we have to play, and the choices other people make for us. It’s about complicity and complacency. It’s about abandoning hope and finding it. It’s about the routines and demands of bodies. It’s about being so, so tired. (A trans allegory runs through it all, but it feels weird to explicitly state that.) And, at key points, we have to draw our reaction to these things somewhere on our body with an icon of our own creation. By the end, we’re marked with the decisions we’ve made. It’s a fun excuse to draw spooky sigils on yourself, but feeling the pen tip pressing to your flesh and later seeing your identity on you is powerful. I stared a lot at the lie I tell myself about the kind of person I am, about how good I think I am and how good I wish I were.

I found it awfully moving. Porpentine’s careful language and the melancholy soundtrack invited me to fill in the rest of its world with mine. I can close my eyes and see the canal and the rat kids scratching for lungfish, snatches of London, Paris, and, curiously, Dark Souls.

Here’s how my arm ended up. I ran out of space and moved onto my palm then my fingers:

Look, it's really quite difficult.

[Porpentine used to have a column on RPS. It was really good.]

12 Comments

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    Bluerps says:

    It was. :(

    When playing this I didn’t want to draw on myself, so I used a piece of paper. The symbols still meant something to me (and I still have the piece of paper), but I think some of the effect was lost.

  2. tgizbert says:

    I found this game honestly underwhelming and derivative, compared with other porpentine games I’ve played. Here are my notes when playing for ifcomp:

    ….

    > Another porpentine (NO CAPS EVER) Twine game. Expect obtuse non-stories about gender identity.

    > I haven’t even started playing yet and it’s asking me to draw on my own skin. There’s a limit, okay? Also trigger warnings for violence, drugs, child abuse, and self-harm are not instilling me with a desire to play this one, though I absolutely recognize that they’re apropos.

    > I’m liking the music though. The atmosphere is evocative.

    > Okay, I’m in some sort of palace waiting on a larval queen. At least it hasn’t asked me to draw on my own skin again. The writing is surprisingly pedestrian:

    “Stained schematics depict a metal tube with a glass lens. You tried to build one before but didn’t have the materials. The glass is fine and pure here.”

    > It says I’m too tired to work even though I literally just slept like TWICE!

    > More workmanlike prose:

    “This alley leads to a dead end. The stone is stained with smog and acid rain. A puddle of green slime is here.”

    > What, were you writing while asleep, porpentine-no-caps? I like the idea of a dream distillery, even if the end product has “A bouquet of malignant narcissism, an intense flavor of zealotry, and an aftertaste of humiliation.”

    > “It’s hilarious how many ways there are to destroy someone”, apparently. I’m not getting a true sense of character from this protagonist.

    > AHA! IT’S JUST ASKED ME TO DRAW ON MYSELF! NO CHANCE, GAME!

    • Monggerel says:

      Remarkable!

    • hernique says:

      aside from the other criticism, are you really this resistant to the idea of drawing in your own skin? really really? maybe you just have to accept that you’re not the audience (it’s okay, tho).

      porpentine’s games transport me to a different state of mind, every time. but i usually don’t like them. sometimes it gets too obscure and i get a little alienated. with those we love alive, though, hits the spot. i think she measures how far can she go much better in this one. i do agree that the prose goes purple, sometimes, but i still find it an oddly attractive game, a very special one.

      trigger warnings, on the other hand, are necessary. i don’t see possible for it to be “the absolute worst thing you can give to a person suffering from horrible experiences”. the sole purpose of it is to give the chance for people to judge if they feel ready or not to face such traumatic themes. what do you expect? no warning at all? that the artist can’t talk about dark themes as these? really, what

    • Gratis says:

      Also Trigger Warnings for: Videogames, Graphics, Sound, CPU, RAM, GPU, RPS & Porpentine. God save us all! (Trigger warning for religious beliefs)

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Derivative? Of what, exactly?

  3. Monggerel says:

    A trigger warning is the absolute worst thing you can give to a person suffering from horrible experiences.

    That aside, I think the “draw on yourself” idea is kinda oddly charming.

    • Dilapinated says:

      “A trigger warning is the absolute worst thing you can give to a person suffering from horrible experiences.”

      As such a person, I would like to say: Bullshit~

      Either a) You are a person who has never been through such things, so stop speaking over us, or b) You are a person who has who doesn’t find trigger warnings helpful, in which case I’m sorry to hear that, but many of us do and don’t pretend to speak for all of us.

  4. KDR_11k says:

    Those symbols look like they’re from the Necronomicon…

  5. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    This, and I must add I haven’t finished it, felt really oppressive. It felt to me not as if it was my story to shape because of the way to protagonist seemed dejected or perhaps alienated from him/herself. That also made it feel really constricting to me and being forced to repeat similar actions fruitlessly time and again only reinforced that.

    That isn’t to say it’s bad. It’s pretty good and evocative. Especially if one assumes the protagonist struggles with these things internally, which I doubt, I must say. But because of the oppressiveness of the game and a lack of feedback (thoughts of the protagonist) I just want to turn it off and be free. For me it needs a bit more than just immersing myself in negative atmosphere and emotions. Cause I tend to get enough of that already.

  6. Rikard Peterson says:

    I guess I’m admitting to being stupid here, but I didn’t get this one at all. (And it is better to admit to stupidity in the hope of becoming less stupid than pretending to understand and learn nothing.)

    I encountered it in the IFComp, so I stuck with it until the end because I wanted to be fair and give it a chance, but I would have gained as much from reading it if it had been written in French (which I don’t speak). Am I simply being stupid, or is there some context to it I’m missing or something?

  7. Premium User Badge

    picniclightning says:

    For what it’s worth, I liked it quite a lot. Ended up with an armful of sigils and wouldn’t have it any other way.