Well, it would’ve been nice to start this year without controversy. But, that simply isn’t our lot in life, is it? So, last month Christine Love released her latest work, Ladykiller in a Bind, onto Steam. While it was met with more positive reviews to add to its already long list of kudos, apparently there were some complaints on two scenes near the end of the game. I have read the original script for those scenes and let’s all be clear from the jump: these are rape scenes. Period. Ironically, I don’t really care about the larger argument that has sprung from Love’s decision. Plenty of people can and have opined on that and, frankly, it looks at the entire event in a vacuum in my humble opinion. No, I’m here to reflect on the inevitability of it all and how our reviewer cultural lends itself to controversies like this.
This sort of stumble was always going to happen with Christine Love: always. If it wasn’t Ladykiller in a Bind, it would’ve been something else she came up with. Why? Because the line she pushed with that game are lines she has been pushing for a while now: mixing philosophy and ideology into a Molotov cocktail and spilling most of it on herself. No one noticed it…or rather; no one chose to notice it. Speaking as someone who has covered three of the five VNs that make up the LCA catalog, I can say it’s easier looking back now and seeing the varying philosophies that run through her games than it was at the time. My only explanation to this is that her games covered so many different ideas that it was more interesting, and dare I say easier, to focus on the ideas that seemed most interesting than to dig under the surface to the darker, unifying train of thought.
So, to better understand this, let’s go back and start where I started back in 2011: don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story.
This one…this one had far more going on than just its promised narrative of digital surveillance. The first title I played from Christine Love rode a very thin line by not only giving you the choice to see some of the nude photos from one of your students, but also to engage in a romantic relationship with a teenager. The dividing line is that Canadian law allows for a sixteen-year-old to consent to a sexual relationship, so there is nothing de jure wrong. However, for those about to use that excuse, as the Good Reverend said, ‘If you have to hide what you’re doing, that means something you’re doing isn’t right’.
And wouldn’t you know it? Hiding what you’re doing. This game puts you in the position of an observer for most of its run. You can give your opinion, but outside of said relationship with a student, your opinion really doesn’t matter. Interestingly enough,Rook’s relationship to his student isn’t necessarily important to him either: Rook all about says it during the course of said relationship. He continues to go through with it for unspoken, squicky reasons and spoken reasons to not crush his student’s feelings.
Along with this, DTIP also gives us a peak into Love’s mindset is how she portrays antagonism. Since it’s not your story, there are no good or bad choices for Rook to make: at least when it comes to what your choices affects. There is only one character’s actions who the game outright condemns and that honor goes to Taylor: a young woman scorned who tries to break up her ex’s new homosexual relationship. She is not only an unrepentant bitch but also sadistic in many ways. Again, because your opinions don’t matter, she completely ignores any attempt Rook makes to try and stop her attacks. And yet, by the end of the game, the door is left open for her and her ex boyfriend to potentially get back together. (Yup. Go back and read the private message before the game ends. It’s there.)
Why? Ultimately, while the surveillance state and advent of technology are important themes, it isn’t the key one. Ironically, the same can be said of what I took as the key theme in my first playthrough: the degradation of what could be called ‘traditional values’, and even an overall disdain for them, as a new, more ambiguous morality built largely on the emotional natures and sexuality of the younger generation takes its place. But, the new hasn’t replaced the old. The game never says it has.
It just mocks Rook for thinking these kids would look at something the same way an adult would.
Their world hasn’t really changed. I was just so hyper-focused on one classroom and the petri dish of youthful hormones and drama it contains, I don’t notice that just how small this world really is. After all, for all of talk about youth embracing technology and the status quo shifting with that embrace, these same kids don’t venture too far outside of the school’s intranet where they know exactly who could be looking at whatever they send out. It doesn’t make what they send to each other any less risqué or completely removes the privacy question, but it does make the entire thing much safer than it would be on the broader Internet. And that’s the thing, it’s wild but ultimately safe. It has its borders and everyone is playing within those borders.
This also makes Taylor’s antagonistic role and lack of punishment for her actions far more interesting. However, I can make that point better later on. Besides, the overall introspection gets much clearly when you re-read my 2012 EVN of the Year – Analogue: A Hate Story.
I replayed Analogue: A Hate Story recently, and while it is important to not use the game as the definitive portrayal of Korea’s Joseon era (seriously, read up on it yourself and make your own call), it’s still holds up surprisingly well as a piece of dystopian fiction. I think that’s because while sex plays a very important role, the overall themes of life in a repressive autocracy takes up most of the limelight. These themes tie into and are reflected through our main girl Hyun-ae, whose life and death on this ship are central to everything. Her story is tragic, however there is a bright spot in the narrative that isn’t mentioned in most of the reviews I’ve seen. Namely, Hyun-ae’s marriage to the ship’s Emperor.
There are two important pieces of information here that get washed over in the discussion of Analogue: Hyun-ae’s age and her condition. While I cannot find a definitive answer, just going by the various entries in both Analogue and Hate Plus, I would place Hyun-ae’s age at twelve at the oldest and ten at the youngest when she was brought out of cryo-stasis. She would then spend three years with the abusive Kim family before being married off. This means, if my math is accurate, the oldest she could’ve possibly been when she lost her virginity was fifteen. According to the game, that gives her three more years maximum to live.
You’d think that having her tongue ripped out and sold off to secure political power to a man over thirty years her senior added to the knowledge that she didn’t have much longer to live would be completely devastating. However, the exact opposite happens. Not only does Hyun-ae find a measure of peace in the imperial household and form a close friendship with the Empress, she is also quite clear in how much she enjoys sex with the Emperor.
Every writer looks at narrative and character arcs differently, as they should. A character arc written by JK Rowling won’t be the same as a character arc written by Brad Thor who will both be miles apart from how Samuel Beckett looks at it. That is because each of this authors have a different idea of what point a character’s arc climaxes at. Some characters experience their narrative climax after being broken down, or learning new information, or sometimes dying or being removed from the narrative before they can experience that turning point. For Christine Love, the climax of her character’s arcs are quite literal. The highest point for her characters is when they embrace their sexuality and the desires it brings in them. Hyun-ae is the straightforward example here as her happiness as the Emperor’s concubine is shattered when the Empress dies. Since that time was the peak of her arc, this leaves her nowhere to go but down (SHADDUP). She would’ve died anyway soon enough, but a mixture of grief, rage and a broken psyche that had finally shattered beyond repair resolves her storyline before her disease could get to her.
We see several of Love’s characters go through similar arcs that develops them within their sexuality, but this narrative choice removes them from the events of the story until they become targets of a less-than-forgiving society. This becomes clearer with DTIP when you focus on in Taylor. After providing minor antagonism to her fellow students for most of the game, Taylor steps on the gas at the end of the first act when she decides to rip the her ex and his new boyfriend out of their school’s gilded cage and harass them until both start acting in a way she deems fit. That’s what makes Rook’s inability to stop her, and her and her ex talking again at the end of the game, both terrifying and enlightening because Taylor ultimately wins.
Taylor the one spot of reality in the entire story of a bunch of kids who don’t get how the real world works, and she ultimately gets her way. As for Hyun-ae, she is a modern-age girl dying of an incurable disease in an autocratic dystopia where women are second class in every sense. There was never going to be a happy end to her story, but the arguably kindest end would be to live in her own gilded cage inside of the Imperial household until she passed away. The cruelest path for her would be to spend her life with the Kims: a family who represent the coldest aspects of Mugunghwa life and doctrine. In these scenarios, Love chooses the hardest possible path to culminate her characters’ stories with: forcing them to face, and ultimately be crushed by, a society that despises them.
As dark as this road is, it mostly takes a back seat to other narrative threads in Analogue and DTIP. That changes in Hate Plus along with another idea that is also woven into the background, but finally is allowed time in the limelight. Hold on to your butts folks: because it’s about to get rough.
For people who have followed Christine Love her entire career, most of what we just covered will seem pedantic, to put it nicely. After all, both her supporters and detractors will gleefully point out the feminist themes and sexuality in her work when either defending or attacking said work. However, I’d like to offer another hypothesis, and that is that Christine’s feminism and queerness (for lack of a better term) is not as important to her writing as the rest of us make it out to be. Yes it’s there, but so is political intrigue, dystopias, mystery and annoying teenagers in their respective titles. Using Hyun-ae’s story from Analogue, I’d argue that at the heart of these narratives is a connecting philosophy that goes beyond what most critics, even her favorable critics, discuss and that is Christine Love’s nihilism.
Remember, the relationships we’ve seen so far exists outside of the societies Love builds. Those societies are usually framed as the actual villains and provide the antagonistic force in her work. This creates an odd sensation of premonition with Hate Plus, because we know how the story ends. Quick sidebar here: Hate Plus is one of the few regrets I have as a critic, as it deserves to be analyzed in my current mindset the first time around, not with the rose-colored glasses I still had on in 2013. However, beyond the political intrigue of the Mugunghwa, I was struck replaying Hate Plus with the pointlessness the character’s lives.
This brings us to So-yi Kim.
We’re not going to dig into Kim’s plot thread and bittersweet ending here. The major points most already know: Kim, a talented researcher, is the victim of rape at her work place, has a mental breakdown, manages to find some balance before she is ultimately fired and, although she discovers the cause of the Mugunghwa’s decline birthrates, is ultimately unable to solve the problem…mostly because if she was Analogue wouldn’t happen. However, let’s look beyond the tragedy of her character and eventual repair back to some sense of homeostasis to ask a very important question, ‘Why is So-yi Kim here?’ ‘What does her story line accomplish in the larger narrative?’
‘Well JP,’ I’m sure it’ll be argued. ‘So-yi’s story shows just how terrible and sexist the ship’s society was and how much worse it got!’ However, we already knew that. The other story lines show that while the aristocratic culture of the ship was being challenged, it was still strong enough to directly impact the lives of the characters. I’m aware that So-yi’s story line in particular evokes certain feminist ideas concerning rape in fiction, but in my opinion it comes secondary to the fact that it all accomplishes so little in the grand scheme. She really is just here to suffer, paving the way for the rest of the cast to be crushed by an ideology readily accepted by the larger society they thought they were safe from.
This for me, makes her rape so much worse in retrospect. Christine Love used rape here as just another weapon: same as a gun or a knife. On top of that, even if you don’t agree with Love’s ideology, the narrative crime banks on the audience being sold on the overall dreariness of the story not to be completely taken out of the tale. After all, since everyone here is doomed to be crushed under a tyrannical fist anyway, what is one more bit of suffering on the pile? Wow, when I say it that way, it comes off as cruel. But ultimately, it feeds more into a sense of pointlessness and pessimism that was in other LCA works before this. The world will eventually break these people and the ‘how’ is irrelevant: just that they end up broken.
Now, let’s combine it all: the increasingly overt nihilism, the need to show traditional society as the ultimate antagonist, the view towards using sexual violence in fiction, how Love’s character arcs are defined by their sexuality…and toss it into an explicit sex game. Again, I ask you; how was what happened in Ladykiller NOT going to happen?
For the record, I don’t think any of my analysis is a condemnation of Christine Love’s work. To put it nicely, I do not agree with how she uses rape and sexual violence, but that is something I’ve made clear in every game that treats sexual violence like this…yes there’s more than one. It is what it is: an analysis of the themes and style of her writing. I mention it because, as I said, once you start looking at Love’s games beyond the parts you enjoy, you can see the rape scenes in Ladykiller coming a country mile away. None of this requires any deeper level of thought, just a few moments of digging beneath the surface of LCA’s catalog and all of the connective thread lines and ideological points are there. So then, if it that easy to see, will we see any further discussion on it? Probably not, and that’s what bugs me about all of this.
It has been very interesting to watch my fellow critics run to their respective ideological corners as soon as Christine Love announced she was removing the controversial rape scenes from her game and unleash their best. Most of it was expected, but sadly what happened after that has little to do with Ladykiller in a Bind and more to do with each commentator’s opinion about sexual politics and culture. Because of that, it’s hard to find any discussion on the game itself that isn’t in one of these two camps and because of that any potential audience even considering this title cannot expect a fair critique of it. Ergo, any discussion about the actual story of Ladykiller is essentially DOA.
The audience deserves better from its critics, and I include myself in that number. There is a degree of intellectual laziness that has allowed potentially bad habits in developers to grow and for people who might be interested in titles outside of their comfort zone, or who find themselves disagreeing with with a game they’ve played for any reason, stuck inside the walls of an ideological herding pen. All of these are warning signs of stagnation and for a genre this young to already be dealing with that is dangerous. We all have to be more willing to dig beyond our ideologies and look for something deeper and we can start here with a writer whose work could use more than a tentative swipe. There is so much more to Christine’s work than just what we agree and disagree with and its high time those themes and styles are examined for all of us to learn and grow from.
It won’t be easy, of course. Old habits die hard. And I fully understand the implications: I like Christine Love’s writing too. However, we owe it to the audience, and the developers, and ourselves not to be so easily distracted and to dig deeper than the surface details. After all, especially with Christine Love’s works, even the more idyllic world is, at best, an island in the eye of a hurricane. JP3: OUT.