With Those We Love Alive
Porpentine’s writing is evocative. Before you even begin your game proper, she asks you simply to choose what month you were born, your element, and your eye color. But the months have names like “Ocean Cloud,” and if you choose that month then your default element is “Petal.” I don’t know about you, but these kinds of words immediately have my mind bifurcating away on endless rounds of suggested imagery.
One scene in particular evoked H.R. Giger, the artist behind the design of the alien from the movie Alien: An "Empress rises from the water [of an “inky black lake’], dragging her train of leaves and ichor. Her larval skin floats across the lake like the carcass of a pale leviathan…Her aide…[cleans] the skull of the Empress, running her tongue along the effluvial curves.”
I suspect, having played some of Porpentine’s other works and read some of her postings, autobiographical elements to the story. You play an “artificer” who “make[s] things” and was “noticed…from your showings, and sometimes victories, in the festivals.” Reminiscent of an artist, a writer, a web developer, a game designer.
Further, like the protagonist of Porpentine’s “Their angelic understanding,” the protagonist suffers from a childhood trauma that makes it nearly impossible for her to find joy in life or her surroundings. The protagonist regulary injects hormones, and drinks others’ distilled dreams because her own dreaming faculty was stolen. As in “angelic understanding” (and “ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III”), redemption comes in the form of a friend.
The world is built splendidly and logically. Society is ruled by an insect-like class. People are occasionally hunted for sport. Heretics are killed in various ghastly ways. The town is beautiful but blasted. The garden is peaceful but built around ruined war machines from a dead culture, now called “statues.”
The juxtaposition of horror and beauty is repeated endlessly. The grotesque, merciless Empress whose bones are on the outside of her body, who commissions daggers of heretic bone and whose abdomen drags the floor, wears “atlas beetle horns” and a “mantle of moth fur.” If you imagine an actual mantle of moth fur, that’s extraordinary.
If I have any complaints about With Those We Love Alive, it is that the player is too powerless and the resolution comes too suddenly. For much of the game, you can’t advance the story except by going to sleep. Repeatedly. If ever there was a protagonist with a motivation issue, this is her. It’s likely intentional, but the lack of agency is still agonizing to play after a while.
[spoiler]The player is essentially rescued by the fortuitous appearance of a beloved but estranged friend. After a reconciliation, you rescue your friend from certain death and escape society to a hotel on a distant shore. Fine. Wonderful, even. But too fast. If you finally decided to act on something, why? You were unwilling to save yourself, and unwilling to leave the situation to find your friend elsewhere, but once she arrives you flee with her. Some rationale, some change in the protagonist’s thought processes and outlook on life needs to be explicated.
One other minor issue is the dead people you see all around you. It wasn’t clear to me that these were hallucinations until late in the game. I thought they were simply people doomed or condemned to death by virtue of being lower class.[/spoiler]
These problems aside, as always Porpentine is a master of mood, setting, and imagery, and for the most part, pacing. This is a good, ambitious piece worth playing and marveling at.