ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Porpentine about With Those We Love Alive, a text-based browser game about love, power and an alien empress.
With Those We Love Alive opens on a blank black screen inscribed with a lonely pink heart. It’s a game about love. It’s about a lot of other things, too, but primarily it’s a game about love, and expression of love, and oppression of love.
With Those We Love Alive describes the life of a transgender woman in a strange and alien world. Players inhabit her flesh as they decorate their own; at various points the game asks you to inscribe sigils representing new beginnings, shame, and a half dozen other moments and feelings on your body with a marker or pen. To Porpentine, the game’s developer, these runes are love. When it’s finished, the game has left its mark on you, stark and undeniable, if impermanent.
Clockwise from top left: Andrea Walker, Jess Schulz, Marras, Eliza Orlando, Eva Giselle
Porpentine has been overwhelmed by the images participating players have posted online since With Those We Love Alive launched in October. “It represents this emotional infusion. Just the idea of having a stranger draw something on their skin because of you is a very intimate thing, no matter how remote it is,” she told ANIMAL. “It’s haunting for me, because it’s not really necessarily an easy or a fun thing to have on you.” But it’s an essential element of the game, as it bridges the divide between the digital and physical divide that Porpentine finds troublesome.
“I’m often frustrated by the flat, immortal, smooth sleekness of the digital,” she said. “I wanted to have another dimension. I wanted to feel something.” She’s eager to promote this game, to spread the ideas it contains, but when she takes screenshots she does it with a phone camera pointed at her monitor, in order to capture the textures and flaws of the physical world.
With Those We Love Alive is a game built with Twine, a niche interactive storytelling platform that produces works comprised mainly of text. Gameplay consists of reading and clicking links, with ambience provided by shifting background colors and an evocative score by one Brenda Neotenomie. It can be played in just about any web browser and on any machine.
Language is everything in this game, and Porpentine uses it to eerie and mesmerizing effect. Caromine—one of many names the protagonist can wear—serves the Empress, a multi-faceted being whose appearance — naked bone, spider legs, moth fur, slithering coils — is determined by players’ own choices. Although technically a prisoner, Caromine has the run of the palace and city — she can visit a glass and leafbone garden filled with half-sunken statues, meditate by an inky, dead lake, and sip intoxicating potions at the dream distillery.
In this world, “jellyfire ripples into the sky in gorgeous sheets of color” while an “angel corpse rots in the sun.” A puddle of ooze becomes a child, bounces off the walls, and settles back on the pavement. Caromine is haunted by dead people — or maybe a single dead person — who appear in her workshop and on her balcony and in her dreams. She absorbs hormones through the flesh of her thigh. And Porpentine describes this effervescent, otherworldly, horrifically beautiful place with a delicate touch, every word and phrase lovingly chosen or crafted.
The various elements of With Those We Love Alive coalesced in her mind over a long period that she finds difficult to describe, but once they did, she had the game up and running within a couple of weeks. That lightning fast turnaround is essential for her, because she can’t stand to work on one thing for too long, and once a project is complete she feels the urge to distance herself from it. “Very shortly after leaving my hands, the things I make, they turn kind of dead and repulsive,” she said. ”It’s like when you notice your limb in the morning and it suddenly doesn’t seem like a part of you. It seems like this repellant, dead part of you and you desire amputation for it.”
The game’s Twine node map
The Empress is cruel and oppressive, and her subjects — including Caromine — both worship and revile her. She represents a system of power that lives in thoughts, a power whose allure is undeniable even when it goes against what you believe — and even when it proves dangerous. “That is the nature of power,“ Porpentine said. But she insisted she doesn’t “set out to make metaphors; more to write to the truth of my experiences.”
“My games are like my diary, just set in some fantastic world. It’s like if each diary entry had a new world generated around it, like the shell of some kind of sea creature. That’s the only safe way to really talk about these things,” she said. “The world of the arts is very dangerous for transfeminine people.”
So is the world of With Those We Love Alive dangerous for Caromine. She flits from place to place in a dreamlike state, observing life oddly distanced from it, until a loved one from her past appears at the palace. Lovely Sedina disrupts the power complex at the heart of this world, and the two are forced to flee for their lives. This is the danger of love — or, at least, of certain types of love—in this fantastical world, and also in the world in which we live, Porpentine purports.
“The events described in it are all reflections of the emotional parameters of my life,” she said. “Other people are already built into the world. They’re born into the world, and parts of themselves have already been understood and prepared for. But everything that I value does not exist in the world yet.”
There is a central question to With Those We Love Alive: “Are you part of the world, one with others, a person, or are you alone and apart?” And unlike the game’s other choices, this one has a right answer.
“The more someone identifies themselves as being part of a social organism, the more they surrender of themselves, the less able they are to help the weak,” Porpentine said. “Trauma and abuse are very private things. They are things that you’re taught to keep secret, and I feel that having this kind of awareness and this conversation can — I mean, it certainly helps me feel less alone.”
With Those We Love Alive can be played for free at aliendovecote.com.