With Those We Love Alive

With Those We Love Alive



[spoiler]Does anyone read Swinburne now? There is, to my ear at least, something of his lush profligacy with words, his combination of the beautiful and the cruel, the elements of sadomasochistic decadence in Porpentine’s work:

It is hard to believe how popular Swinburne was with the Victorians. He fell rather decisively out of favour with the arbiters of taste (especially academic critics) in the 20s and 30s. But it seems to me, as I read Porpentine’s work, that I can understand some of what the Victorians saw in Swinburne. There is the outstanding mastery of the form, and a heightened but rigorously controlled writing style. Consider this:

That is very carefully done, and very nearly overdone. The alliteration in “meal, lithe little” and again in “claws cracking cocoons”, and the contrast of the staccato “c” there with the fricatives in “soft fleshy … inside”. We are, as we are throughout much of With Those We Love Alive, reading something that might as well be poetry; there is always a sense of language not merely as a medium, but as something to be savoured for its own sake.

And, as with Swinburne, we have the striking image, often violent, with much emphasis on the physical — on blood, and sweat, and vomit. Swinburne’s “drained out pores dripped thick red sweat” could easily be found here. Indeed, it goes further, for this is a mythical world: Porpentine’s queen (empress actually) unlike Swinburne’s, is some sort of insect — rising with terrible cruelty from a lake:

But the world is, in some sense, also classical: a world of palace and temple, part fairy-tale, part nightmare. It is compellingly strange. In With Those We Love Alive that strangeness is helped by the score, by Brenda Neotenomie, which adds strikingly to the atmosphere.

And finally, as the Victorians felt about Swinburne, this feels decadent, dangerous. We are about as far from crappy apartments or satires on office life (or, for that matter, suburban Cthulu cults) as one can get. Nothing here is simple, or cosy, or entirely safe. It feels counter-cultural, oppositional, subversive. With Those We Love Alive adds to this the clever trick of asking us to write icons on our skin as we play — an act that makes us, in some sense, complicit with it, or so at least it felt to me. (In a clever bit of self-reference, jars of such arms are to be found on display in the Temple in the game.) I found it hard not to get swept up in the rather fervid emotional atmosphere.


But there is a reason why — admired as he was by many of his contemporaries — Swinburne is not exactly revered today. He is thought empty. It is thought that he put technical brilliance and rather crude, perhaps rather false, emotional manipulation above the sort of “serious” truth that came to be seen as the touchstone of the best literature. And I think it is legitimate to ask the question: does Porpentine do the same? Is it too easy to be swept along by a virtuoso rendition of strangeness, decadence, pain? Does the poetry and dreamlike logic (where so much is left unexplained) cover an emptiness?

The answer I would give is that this is an unfair criticism. But the fact that I think it worth asking suggests that it has elements of validity.

It is unfair in so far as it might seem to suggest that Porpentine has nothing to say. That is far from right. If anything, perhaps, there is rather too much being said here — there seem to be quite major themes of power (and the relationship of power to oppression, and the response to power in resignation, complicity or revolt) and of connection to others and responsibility towards others (prominent, indeed explicit, in the reaction to the “princesses”, in the PC’s betrayal by her mother, and in the relationship with the friend/lover). But other elements tend to clutter things up; for instance, the dreamlessness (which seems important, but didn’t quite work for me — I think because the dreamlike quality of the game was so strong that I didn’t really feel any lack of the oneiric), some reference to the significance of gender, exploration of damage and healing, and of love and hate. Ultimately, I think, there was maybe too much going on for me, I would prefer a cocktail with rather fewer ingredients and rather cleaner flavours. But it certainly cannot be doubted that there is much more happening here than clever wordsmithing or modish image-making. This is a story with something to say.

I said, however, that I thought there was perhaps some element of validity to the criticism. That element is this. By building a world of deep strangeness, of insect-empresses, moth-riders, witches with ectoplasm who carry daggers that will exist only later, strange workers with exotically imagined materials — by creating this world, Porpentine is relieved of the obligation to be in any sense realistic. Every relationship and incident can involve a mixture, in unknown quantities, of the heroic or antiheroic, and at any rate fantastical, and the recognisably human. Every character acquires, in this way, a sort of archetypal quality. But that technique comes at a price, and the price is the loss of what I suppose I want to call, rather piously, truth-to-life. It becomes perhaps a bit swaggering, a bit simplistic, a bit brash. It’s one thing to announce that power demands oppression, and to show an insatiable and unredeemable tyrant wielding it thus. But does that actually get us close to the more complex reality about how power is actually wielded, about how the oppressed oppress, about how the oppressors justify their actions, about how things (sometimes) change for better or worse? I wonder.

Swinburne, on the verge of alcoholic self-annihilation, was apparently taken by a friend (perhaps, in fact a lover?) to Putney. He was saved by this friend, who turned him from a wicked decadent into a respectable and ostensibly dull Victorian gentleman. Which is, apparently, sort of what happens in With Those We Love Alive. I certainly don’t think Putney is ready for Porpentine (or vice versa). But superb as I think the achievement of this game is, I would love to see the author’s incredible facility at writing serious interactive fiction turn somewhat away from the overwrought fantastical world we see here and see what might be done with slower movements, softer instrumentation, fewer pyrotechnics. It must be incredibly difficult for an author who has found a voice that is distinctive and widely appreciated to consider setting out in new directions, but I wonder whether that time may be approaching.

Still, I don’t want to end on that note. This is really good stuff. It sets out to do something important and interesting, and it achieves it with panache.[/spoiler]

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