Saturday, December 26, 2015

We Know The Devil

This is a follow-up post to an earlier post of mine where I mentioned We Know The Devil and A Good Gardener, two games I bought last week. This post will detail mainly We Know The Devil, seeing how A Good Gardener was somewhat of a disappointment and I barely have anything to write about it. Yes, some of the plants you grew looked like weapons, so that was a bit of environmental storytelling foreshadowing. But there was just too little of everything, even if the game was under an hour. It ends in a loop of Sisyphean prisoner-of-war effort, but I'm not sure it's very interesting or satisfying. I just wish the experience was more fleshed out, or more suggestive. As it is now, it's neither, just a short conceptual piece with gardening gameplay that feels like doing chores and doesn't lead anywhere in particular. I guess that's part of “the point”, but yeah, that's what I have to so about that!
So. In the visual novel We Know The Devil (WKTD), queer teens Jupiter, Venus and Neptune are in a Camp for bad teens. In this camp, participants are in groups of three, are told that the devil is among them, and that the devil will show hirself during camp week. You play through the last night of the week, and you will know the Devil.
I understand WKTD to be about how structures of oppression are handed down from generation to generation and the rituals that are performed to solidify hierarchies and separate insiders from outsiders. The Camp is such a ritual, and the way in which the activities during that camp are set up shows us how such rituals might take place and also how one might resist them. The common knowledge in the game seems to be that being alone, or different, means that the chances of becoming the Devil dramatically increase. And yet the groups of threes (our planetary trio is named Group West) are told to fix sirens when they start wailing in the forest, but also that they must stay in their cabin. The groups can't do both, and thus pairings must take place. Ideology goes in, the Devil comes out.
But there is more to the indoctrination than double-binds and unfair camp experience design, as it would seem that to various degrees the participants have internalized the ideology or oppression handed down to them (even if they also resist that very same internalization and throughout the last day negotiate what it means to not like oneself, “be wrong”, wondering how normal teens would do, wanting to sacrifice oneself, being part of a group, apologizing all the time, having self-respect, wanting to be like their friends, having ones own identity, etc). One might wonder why they don't just stay in their respective groups, not leaving anyone alone, thus not bringing out the Devil at all. One might wonder why Neptune only brought two shot glasses, and why that means that only two of them can drink and drunk-talk together. And the answer is ideology and how structures of oppression work in a modern, self-policing, social context (post-Foucault).
"Group South does everything perfectly and is the fucking worst. The best kids in a camp for bad kids are absolutely certain to be the fucking worst.”
What does it mean to be good or bad? Is it a good thing to be awful? Is getting in trouble a good thing? Is being perfect too much? If it is, why would one be jealous of someone who is perfect? In WKTD, there are a lot of mixed emotions that Jupiter, Neptune and Venus express. Their communication is playful and especially Neptune can be quite sarcastic, and I believe that their speech patterns are a product of the double expectations and/or the wrong expectations placed upon them by the adult world and the imbalances which takes root in their hearts because of it. It becomes a way for them to maneuver the world, trying to make sense what is expected of them and who they really are. God might always be at the same frequency (109.8FM) in this world, and God is the one who finally announces what one person is the Devil, but other than that, our trio is very confused as to how they should behave. Even that doubleness in itself is a minefield of a double-bind: the system is designed to encourage fear and uncertainty in what one should do, and yet doubt is in its essence wrong – the Devil is never at the same frequency but is heard between radio stations, which means one has already taken a step away from Gods channel and tried at walking between the default paths.
There are more seeming paradoxes in how one navigates the world in WKTD. How one might be hanging out with the worst crowd so they'll leave you alone. How one might bully someone because one likes them. How one might be in a place where people force one to do things one doesn't want to do, yet is willing to pick dare in a game of truth or dare. How one might be considered good even when one claims that one isn't good because what else kind of person would hate themselves but someone who was really good?! And then there is the question of the Devil hirself. The Devil and the double nature of being good, the double nature of being bad, and the fetishistic appropriation of both. About the fear of turning into the Devil and the pain that brings, but also about the lure of being the Devil and how liberating it might feel not to care about the opinions of others anymore. How liberating it might feel not to hate oneself and hide anymore.

At one point, Neptune tells Venus that zie is too nice – that zie wants something and believes that being nice is going to get them that something, but that until they figure out what it is they want, every kindness of theirs will be full of that unknown want. Well, when Venus turns into the Devil, it is not as a man (everyone has referred to Venus as a man throughout the game and we aren't told otherwise), but as a woman. That zie doesn't have to be nice anymore seems to follow. But when our trio chooses to not separate at one of many crucial moments, it is not God who speaks to them and announces who has fallen – it is the Devil. What zie tells them is critical – “there is room for three in my world, but only room for two is His”. It's all about scapegoating in His world, then, and about trinity and multiplicity in the Devil's. Or as Jupiter says: “What's ugly isn’t having choosing one to be the scapegoat, but to choose at all”.

There is power in “not choosing”, and there is power in numbers. Group South fell back on the default path of being identical to each-other (learn teamwork, be the same!) in fear of becoming unique and alone, but when our Trio sticks together and doesn't leave anyone behind more than anyone else, they choose unity through difference and become Devil's all three. The planets align and the meaning of the adage “the devil is weak, humans are strong – even a child can kill the devil, all she has to do is try” is flipped on its head; “the devil is strong, humans are week – even a devil can kill an adult”.
But isn't becoming the Devil bad? In the non-true endings (which means the endings you probably got the first couple of times) it would mostly seem that way. But there is a difference in becoming the Devil alone and out of self-hate, and in becoming the Devil by ones own free will. When one does it by ones own free will, dares it together, then the opinions of others don't have to stop to matter and one doesn't have to unleash the beast inside and become a monster as the Devil. One doesn't have to shut out the world in order to give in and live out, but can negotiate a position in-between, as both part and whole.
The devil is lonely, it's been claimed, but here, in the true ending1, the devils song is loud and lovely. There is nothing to fear when there is two against the devil, it's been claimed. But our trio has claims of their own now, and they can't wait to see what the others will do with their exorcism-radios and their spells and their God against the three worst girls since Eve.

Caveat: there is danger in solely defining oneself as an outsider, even if there is power in that as well. I've always considered myself an outsider, and I've had it both empowering and disempowering me. I've long been fascinated with the liminal figure of the “alienated other” (the outsider who can see things in their capacity as outsider), and the idea of fetishistic attachment through distancing by means of the “oppositional stance”2. Sometimes when we try our hardest to break free, we don't realize that the tools of fighting back have become so ingrained that we start fighting shadows as well as oppressors. And this is a dangerous thing. It is not the point of community, or society, or being a Master – it is the equivalent of someone screaming at you but really being mad about something else. Instead, every “circle” is the exploration of a modus vivendi which permits the situation to be lived in such way that when it comes undone, those who will have participated in the weaving come out of it more alive, having learned and become capable of teaching others what they have learned, capable of participating in other circles, other weaving processes3. One cannot do that if one decides to never leave a circle.
After the trio has become Devil's, it is claimed that the Camp Captain has no stories left to tell because they were all lies. I do wonder about that. Surely the Captain has a story with some truth in it? Thinking zie does not is turning hir into an unwilling Devil. And although it's not everyone's responsibility at all times to bring out the good in others or in trying to leave safe spaces, there is little to be gained from black-and-white color palettes.
Another danger I wish to warn about is related mostly to some trans women, who as Venus don't believe being mad is OK and rather would be made fun of than being “mean”. I think this can be a real problem. Trans women and other women might try to live their lives as women and thus follow ideals concerning women, which in turn might lead to confusing having integrity and being assertive with being masculine. When one associates masculinity with something negative (and ones own masculinity in particular) then one just might throw out the baby with the bathwater and in fear of being perceived as being masculine one might instead become submissive.
Related to this, for me, is the paradoxical relationship I have with queer communities in that I don't necessarily feel more comfortable or safe there than anywhere else. I've thought that this might mean that I probably don't have need for safe-spaces and thus don't belong in queer communities, but I think that's just the voice of the evil queer hive-mind in my head. I think it has to do more with a feeling of my not being able to assert myself the way I want to in those type of communities and often second-guess myself and my actions in a way that just makes me feel bad and isn't very productive for my personal or social growth. The norms in queer communities can be really hard to fit, much harder than those in society in general or other communities. That's part of the practice of constructing a safe space in a queer setting, but it's never been my safe space, and even if I get comfortable enough not to see Devil's everywhere and think others are out to get me, I'm just not sure queer communities will ever be for me what I think it is for other queer people who seem to live almost exclusively in queer communities. It goes without saying that it's not only in heteronormative communities that some people (often the loudest ones) confuse being an asshole with having integrity. And you know, “the best people in the worst group”...
If I have some bad things to say about WKTD, then it's that it's very static and non-responsive to input in the long run. Who in our trio becomes the Devil is not foreshadowed very much, instead it comes suddenly and only takes one small “mistake” from the player. The work would feel much more deep and genuine if it didn't just tally the pairings and make a judgment based on that at the end of the game, but instead changed some dialogue around depending on the pairings that the player chose and the conversations that took place because of that. As it is now, all dialogue is the same throughout, no matter what pairings are done during the game. When a game is so short, more could be expected I think. Or rather than to talk about expectations, let's just say that the experience would feel much more alive if it acknowledged the path chosen by the player more.
Shouldn't it be harder for one person not to become the Devil if they've been left out a couple of times already? In WKTD that doesn't matter as long as you just keep count and balance things out at the end. I also wonder if the Devil couldn't conceivably come out even if our trio is together, or paired. Surely one can be alone together with others, or hurt other people without excluding them. These sorts of things are not explored in WKTD and although it would take much more work to acknowledge these sorts of possibilities mechanically and in the narrative, I think the game would be much better for it and I wish the creators would try out a more rich approach in their future games. The dialogue and characterization are really strong in WKTD, and on that much can be built.
1Referred to as such by the developers.
2Being a rebel (without a cause or otherwise) means not necessarily that you are free and autonomous, as you are bound still with the object of your oppositional stance. Over-investing in this link can drain the existential life force out of you. You will never be able to join the community with those ties because as a rebel your identity depends on your autonomy being the result of a screaming and if not an indiscriminate “no”, then at least an over-invested one, that entails being a cynic, or a critic for whom individuation equals righteous insurrection or a taste so acquired as to be beyond the insulting world of mere mortals, a community of non-humans due to their being made simply all too human. The result is perpetual conflict.
3Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell, Isabelle Stenger

This is their rite of passage to join society: by creating an Other, by knowing that the devil is somewhere outside themselves, in their former friend, they hide the aspects of themselves that are also demonized by that wider culture, and learn to assimilate.
The conflict between Jupiter and her friends begins to arc toward concordance when she truly looks at the inner self that emerged from the shell of Venus’s old body and finds herself correcting her habitual “he” to “she.”
To be the devil is to be queer, to go against the strictures imposed on us by our rearing.


In We Know The Devil, there are rules that must be followed, and authority figures are very insistent on letting everyone know that they will be punished for breaking them, yet the rules themselves are never made clear. This is true of a lot of things, obviously, but it’s as teenagers that we, that I, developed an acute awareness of how structural and unfair that is.
Venus deals with the rules by buckling and apologizing for any perceived slight the first chance she gets; she responds to the rules by making everyone aware of just how aware she is, in the hopes that they will deem her acceptable and let her move on. Jupiter internalizes the rules; she has become so good at following them or appearing to follow them that she sort of becomes the physical manifestation of the rules and the idealization of herself. Neptune, finally, kicks and screams and swears and claws at the rules every chance she gets; she defines the rules by being opposed to them and tries to get everyone else on her side.
the power trio don’t really fit into the world of We Know The Devil at all. No really, the shack where they have to face The Devil is literally 2/5ths too small for them. There is no room for Venus As a Girl or a mythologically incestuous lesbian power couple in God’s world, so they are left to pick at their bodies as much as they pick at their surroundings.
Group West is kidding themselves. They may have a future in God’s world, in the Real Scouts (the one where the buddy system works and you get transformation sequences), but only as deeply compromised selves. That future is one where others will hate who they really are, where they will hate themselves for who they really are. Already figures of authority—The Bonfire Captain, God—are teaching them to look for evil in each other or The other, The Devil, not in the system. In the mean time, those same figures of authority assume the worst of their charges.
one girl is far from unstoppable, even if she is The Devil. It is because they are together that they can fight against the third and drive her off. It is because they are together that they can weather God’s kingdom and convince themselves it is good. It is because two of them drew closer together that they did not notice the third hurting as much as she did. Friendships are a powerful tool for survival, but if you’re not careful with them, they can also be a trap: a little bit of honey that convinces you your situation might not be so bad after all.
if they could all become The Devil, then everything would just be fine and dandy, wouldn’t it? So, in the fourth, final ending, that’s what they do. They all become The Devil and they create literal Hell on Earth. And the jerks from South Campus join them, all the kids do. Of course those kids hated God’s world too! They were mean to the girls precisely because of how they embodied its rules to them.


Though God and the devil are central presences, it never really explores issues of faith. There’s no question of belief here: the main characters know for sure that these figures exist. Nor does it really tangle with the institutional power of religious organisations. It does, however, rely deeply on the cultural power of religion, its ability to define right and wrong for whole communities and the way that, over time, those definitions become unchangeable. The use of radios serves to highlight and emphasise this.
the one who speaks least is the one whose problems you see most clearly. The one you exclude is the one pushed to the forefront. At the very beginning of the game the camp counselor says that he had two friends that he tried to treat equally, but he always secretly liked one of them more. This, he says, was a mistake. He should have been honest about his feelings, and it would have been easier in the long run. His words set up the dynamic for the rest of the game. Your choice defines who is liked less, who is slightly excluded, and this isolation lets the devil in./.../ It’s hard to say that the fourth ending is a truer ending than the others. All the endings are possibility spaces, outcomes that exist in the tangle of emotions and choices these characters could make. But while the three individual endings seem to spell out a painful inevitability—you can’t stay friends with everyone, you can’t help everyone, you can’t love everyone—the fourth is aspirational. It dreams a different way of approaching the world, and perhaps a different way of emerging into adulthood.
The defiant embrace of the weird and beautiful and bizarre in We Know the Devil is a challenge to any conception of a normal adulthood. It also acts as a challenge to the notion that we should strive to be our best selves. Rather, it proposes embracing the whole self, with all its contradictions and painful conflicted feelings.
[It could be argued that it is the faith in society, friendship and oneself that is explored. "Do I exist?", and "how do I exist?" are central questions explored.]

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