Little Red Lie is the misanthropic, dark-as-tar game from indie developer Will O’Neill. Gaming editor Sam Brooks played it – and was disturbed by what he found.
Video games can get away with a lot that other media can’t. The interactivity and engagement with the content is unparalleled, and it creates an emotional investment that can override other elements: the writing, the graphics, the performances. The relative youth and alarmingly fast development of video games as a medium, and an artistically recognised medium, also contributes to what games can get away with – we don’t know what to expect yet.
Will O’Neill’s Little Red Lie both benefits and is held back by these lack of expectations. It’s a simple game to describe – a visual novel that follows two characters: a downwardly mobile in every sense of the word woman called Sarah, who lives with parents who can’t support her and realises in their old age that she can’t support them either, and Arthur, a motivational speaker who is a cross between Tom Cruise in Magnolia and Roy Cohn (or at least how Angels in America portrays Roy Cohn).
The only thing you do in the game is lie. Literally, the only interaction you have with other people is highlighted on screen with a ‘Lie About X’. In the dialogue, each lie your character tells is highlighted in red, giving the game its unsurprisingly literal title.
That’s about the extent of the ‘gameplay’. There’s a little bit of walking from objective to objective, and a small amount of verbal choices that the player can make to shape each character but for the most part this is a visual novel with exactly as many bells and whistles as you might expect. The selling point of this game, and indeed, this entire genre, is not the thrilling gameplay.
It’s the writing. There’s no doubt that Will O’Neill is a clever, observant and sometimes brilliant writer. There were quotes from this game that I wrote down – “In reality, your best friend is a cellphone – a good one, if you’re lucky”, “A collapse is a sudden thing long in the making”, “People were never meant to be continuously wired into the pain of others like that” – that were like little gut punches. For the first half hour, even the first hour, it’s entertaining to play this game. You’re chuckling and nodding along at his observations about the world.
But then you realise that Little Red Lie is saturated wall-to-wall with these kinds of observations. The screen literally fades to black to accommodate them – and they only get more and more nihilistic, more and more misanthropic. As seen below:
The sheen wears off. Will O’Neill’s pearls of wisdom become dull and commonplace. It’s something I’ve noticed from seeing lots of theatre, lots of people writing their first plays – they’ve saved up all their best lines and now they’ve finally got a chance to use them. In theatre, it’s hard to do that. Some lines don’t suit some characters or situations. In video games, and especially in the kind of video game where you’re doing everything like O’Neill is, you can just fade to black and spout your philosophy for a bit.
This would be fine, but O’Neill’s philosophy is unrelentingly misanthropic, constantly reminding us that we’re the generation who doesn’t have enough money, we’re the generation attached to our phones and yet always lonely, we’re the generation who is surrounded by depression. After an hour, it stops being profound and starts being downright adolescent. It’s the headspace that drives a person, namely a teenager, to listen to Evanescence, because the only truth they’re living right now is a dark truth and the all-compassing self-pity masquerading as hatred against the world is the only truth they can feel.
There’s an argument to be had for this philosophy – especially expressed in a game where both the protagonists are suffering from life-debilitating depression and not being up front about it – but it doesn’t make for a super engaging game to play. More often I found myself rolling my eyes at what I was being told rather than being engaged with the characters. I never bought them as having the thoughts that were being typed across the screen during these fades to black. Instead I felt the writer peering over his laptop screen to whisper his latest genius thought at me.
But that’s fine – and it’s kind of the lay of the land with these types of games, and it’s what makes indie development special. In no other modern artform do you really get the unfiltered, uncompromised voice and style of an artist, and the accessibility of this particular form also makes it special. However that unfiltered and uncompromised voice also has its downsides: it means you’re getting a lots of babies in your bathwater.
Where the game gets difficult, and honestly, impossible – for me as a player and me as living breathing human being – is Arthur’s character. Whereas Sarah’s scenes are relatable, largely revolving around her not having enough money, being unemployed, and having to deal with her family’s isssues, Arthur’s scenes are cartoonishly dark. Sarah’s lies are the white lies that we tell each other and ourselves every day (“I’m fine”, “I don’t need money”), Arthur’s are the kinds of lies we as an audience can spot a mile off.
Arthur’s lies don’t need to be highlighted in red – O’Neill highlights, underlines, bolds, and italicizes almost everything Arthur says so that we get that he’s a bad guy. There’s even a scene taken straight out of Angels in America, beat-for-beat, where he rails against hospital staff, who are correctly unsympathetic.
The following includes major spoilers for Little Red Lie, and a content warning for sexual violence. If you don’t want to read this – and I absolutely understand if you, don’t – then skip down to the last three paragraphs. But if you do – and this is key to what I think ultimately sinks Little Red Lie – continue on.
There’s an extended series of scenes at around the three hour point in the game. Arthur speaks at an event and proceeds to get very, very drunk, physically assaulting or trying to assault someone who is flirting with his younger, female employee. In the next scene of his, Arthur is going up in the hotel elevator with this woman. He is thinking things like ‘Sharp perfume, the shape of her shoulder blades’, ‘close enough to hear her breathe, the heaviest air, she wants it, she wants this’, ‘she didn’t stop you, take her hand, put it there, keep going before she keeps talking’ – and what’s worse is that the game makes you pick between these dialogue ‘options’. They’re not really options because very little of what you pick for each character to say in the game actually means anything or changes anything they say. The game fades to black after this.
The next scene is an awful tableau, even with the 2D sprite-imaging that Little Red Lie employs for most the gameplay. The female employee is bent over the toilet, naked. Arthur is lying on the bed. And then the red directive shows up on screen – the same kind of red directive that has started every scene for the preceding three hours: “Cover Up Rape.”
I turned the game off immediately. Not for any particular triggering reasons, but because this was where the game’s depiction of the world’s misanthropy stepped over the line from being merely adolescent and narrow-minded to being offensive and intentionally triggering.
Little Red Lie has a strange place in history. It was initially released in July 2017 and has only just been released on consoles in the past week, so is in the unfortunate (for the game) position of being released pre-Weinstein, but being publicised in a post-Weinstein world. Since then, the conversation around sexual assault, the agency and the voices of victims has thankfully changed. (The true north of morality around sexual assault, the depiction of sexual assault, and the discussion of it has never changed – so I’m not letting the game off the hook here.)
There’s a lot to hate about this scene, whether it’s the clear use of this woman as a prop to make the game edgy or the depiction of rape as just another bad thing that Arthur is doing. But the thing that is most vile is that it makes the player cover up rape. Even under the guise of playing a villain – or really an anti-protagonist – this is truly skin-crawling.
The same things that video games use to get away with a lot of shoddiness – the interactivity and the engagement – is exactly what makes this kind of scene feel so vile. If you saw somebody doing this action in a television show, a film or even onstage, there’s still a degree of review. When you make someone re-enact the actions, even through a 2D sprite, you’re making them complicit. You’re asking the player to relate to, to empathise with those actions. And that’s… bad.
(If you stopped reading, here is where you can start again!)
It’s the kind of a scene that casts a pall over the rest of the game. The things I forgave about it – how every scene was written like it was the most important conversation this character had ever had, the strange meta-narrative the game introduced around the time I quit – now seemed like big glaring holes. When a game asks you do what that scene does, you realise it’s not aiming at any depiction of or investigation into reality, it just wants to provoke you. It wants to make you ‘think’.
It becomes that one kid at high school who painted his nails black and listened to music you’d never heard of. You put up with it for a while because it’s interesting, but then you realise it’s as much a front as the things it’s criticising: There’s as little thought or feeling behind their provocation as there is behind someone following the masses. It threatens you to turn it off because it’s too real for you, man.
And I turned it off. Not because it was too real, but because even with video games – no matter how interactive they are, how much they pull you in – the strongest choice you have is to just turn the damn thing off. It’s no different from any other medium. You walk away from the TV, you leave the cinema, you storm out of a play (you can really only storm out of a play). And if it’s no different in that way, then why the hell are we still forgiving flaws in video games that we won’t put up with elsewhere?
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