We Know the Devil: The Shadows of Friends Left Behind
Welcome to An Adventure in Small Games, a monthly series focused on games that cost less than $20, ideally less than $10. In this series Eve Golden Woods will focus on the indie game and what it has to offer the world of gaming. This month brings you her in-depth analysis of We Know the Devil by Aevee Bee and Date Nighto.
Spoiler Warning and Disclaimer: Date Nighto provided a review copy for this article. WWAC Member Jo Fu works with Date Nighto, but had no involvement with this review.
One of the things I like about reviewing smaller games is that their limited scope gives them room to breathe. Unlike AAA games, which generally demand the inclusion of vast amounts of content and many different mechanic-focused systems, smaller games can concentrate their energy on being one particular thing, whether that’s invoking a particular experience or conveying a specific emotion. We Know the Devil is one such game. It’s a game about the chrysalis of adolescence, and what it takes to crack and break from its taut silken strands. Saturated in references to anime and manga, filtered through the lens of magical realism, We Know the Devil is on the one hand a reaching-back to the teenage years of its writers and audience, and on the other an extremely modern game, complete with language that feels very of the moment.
[pullquote]“It’s loneliness though, that feeling of looking at a friendship from the outside in and knowing that you can never really be part of it, that I remember. These, I think, are the ghosts of this game—the shadows of the friends we left behind, the shadows of the people we used to be, the shadows of the personas we once adopted to hide and protect ourselves.”[/pullquote] The game itself is beautiful to play. The art style is simple, but evocative, the photographed backgrounds in contrast with the paper-sketch feel of its characters, and the music is superb, both earthy and atmospheric. The story is told almost completely through dialogue, and the dialogue itself is indirect, speaking around issues rather than to them directly. There’s no exposition here—the narrative never feels the need to spell out its characters issues or labour over their struggles. It trusts you to put together the pieces. At times there is a tension between this and the visual novel format, which can make players impatient for each choice to present itself, but if you give We Know the Devil the time and space it needs the story seeps slowly into your mind. It gets under your skin, tangles into your heartstrings. I’ve heard a couple of people say that it made them cry—I didn’t cry, but I find myself remembering it at odd moments. It’s a game that haunts you. It is a game that is full of ghosts.
It’s interesting how a game can both reach you and feel completely disconnected from you at the same time. We Know the Devil is an intensely specific game, pinned to a certain experience of American adolescence rooted in conservative Christianity. There are parts of it that I have no way to relate to; rural Ireland, where I spent my adolescence, can be shockingly conservative, but I grew up in an area populated by artists and writers and environmentalists. Many people I knew were pagan or non-religious, and even the Catholic catechism I remember from my childhood was focused more on confession and prayer than on the devil or hell. The claustrophobia of We Know the Devil, the social expectations that hem in its main characters, is something I never had to contend with. It’s loneliness though, that feeling of looking at a friendship from the outside in and knowing that you can never really be part of it, that I remember. These, I think, are the ghosts of this game—the shadows of the friends we left behind, the shadows of the people we used to be, the shadows of the personas we once adopted to hide and protect ourselves.
[pullquote]“It is about consequences, and choices, and how sometimes you make decisions you can’t take back.”[/pullquote] I find it interesting that We Know the Devil is such an areligious game. 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. Radios are interesting because they are used to broadcast news and opinions to a wide group of people, and yet many radio stations remain intensely local, with a day-to-day knowledge of and commentary on the lives of the people in the area that no other medium achieves. In We Know the Devil this balance is literalised. God resides permanently on one station, fixed and eternal; the devil seeps through the static.
It’s normally my policy in this column to avoid spoilers, so that readers can find explore the games I talk about for themselves. However, I’ve decided to make an exception for We Know the Devil, because there are many spoiler free reviews already available (my wonderful editor Al Rosenberg wrote one you can read here), and because We Know the Devil is its ending. It is about consequences, and choices, and how sometimes you make decisions you can’t take back. If you haven’t played it yet, please do that before you finish this article, because the ending deserves to be experienced without prior interpretation. Draw your own conclusions before you come back and read mine.
The three obvious endings are fairly straightforward. Exclude one of the characters, be it Venus, Neptune, or Jupiter, and they will become the devil and then be destroyed. It’s a elegant tangle of narrative: 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.
These ending passages are where the writing really shines. The descriptions as the characters transform are beautiful and poetic and incredibly sad. Their problems, their fears and desires, everything they have tried to conceal comes bubbling up. What the devil brings out in them is what they have repressed. Gender and sexuality are a big part of that, but there is also conflict around the kind of people they want to be. In becoming the devil, they become monstrous, but there is a great and terrible freedom in that monstrosity, a true rejection of the society that has confined them and held them back.
One fascinating things about the devil in this game is that the devil is sympathetic without being Miltonian. This is not a ruler in hell; the devil here is not a towering figure of misplaced pride or a conqueror of regions unknown. The devil is small and quiet and subtle and easily defeated. As the game itself says, “There is nothing to fear when it’s two against the devil.” The devil is a marginal figure, and against the bulwark of societal convention, reinforced by the complicity of two people, it has no chance.
One person can let the devil in. And, as it turns out, so can three. In the fourth ending, where the player choices balance the three relationships, so that no one is left out, they embrace the devil together, and rather than defeating the beings it makes them into, they reign triumphant. 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.
[pullquote]“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.”[/pullquote] Adulthood is often characterised by the acceptance of social norms. Even now, there is a very clear and distinct path “set out” for people to follow: go to college, get a good job, get married, start a family, buy a house. It can be shockingly difficult to deviate from this pattern, even if you’re aware of the falsity of its claim to be the only way to grow up. 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.
In her short story Paradises Lost by Ursula le Guin, one character, Luis, talks about freedom as the largest, heaviest word he knows. In We Know the Devil freedom seems equally large and compelling. It’s a game that imagines freedom as expression and community, where mutual bonds of love and affection give the characters the space to truly be themselves. I don’t know how many people are lucky enough to find that place for themselves in or after adolescence, but even the promise of it is crucial. Fiction can show us not just who we are but who we want to be. We Know the Devil is a game that explores those possible worlds we might build together, those alternate adulthoods we might imagine, the kinds of freedoms we might one day reach. It’s a sad story and a hopeful one, a story about repression and a story about expression. It’s a game with a strong clear voice and a thoughtful tone. I feel very lucky that it was made.