[Trigger warning for discussions of abuse and misgendering.]
The first thing Loved asks is whether you are a man or a woman. Already I have a sense of unease; I am neither, but as I am a woman some days, I chose ‘woman.’ The game is quick to not only misgender me, but to infantilize me by calling me a boy.
In 2010, when I first played Loved and was a cis girl, I was annoyed by the game and instead refreshed before choosing ‘man,’ forcing the game to acknowledge my gender. Six years later, I accept that I am wrong and the game is right. It has to be. Because emotional abuse is not a topic often brought up in video games and — even if it is brought up — none of them hold the same weight as the game Loved by Alexander Ocias.
When I first played it, I followed the game until it told me to do things that seemed illogical. Of course I was going to jump over the barbs and touch the checkpoint statue. Why wouldn’t I? Taking the lower path filled with barbs only to jump into barbs wasn’t right, so I disobeyed. I was rewarded with color and the game insulting me.
I rebelled throughout Loved and felt a smug satisfaction as the game became more colorful. I closed the page and didn’t come back to it. I saw no need.
Fast-forward through six years and one emotionally abusive relationship later, I approached the game again. When Loved first asked me to take the harder path, I did so, dying several times (to my annoyance and slow internet). When the game asked me to jump into the pit of barbs, I paused. Six years ago, I would have laughed. Now, I jumped in.
As I continued, I felt like I was back in that relationship. When I accidentally disobeyed the game by dying and I was first insulted, it hit me hard. Far harder than it did all those years ago. When the letters changed to capitals, I was determined not to fail again. I came to the end and the game asked me “Are you a boy or a girl?” I dutifully answered ‘boy.’ Then game the said: “No, you are a man” and ended, leaving me breathless and crying. I’ve cried during video games before, I’m not ashamed to admit that, but this was different. This hit me close.
Loved was described by Alexander as “confrontational” and many reviews have talked about how “the game hates you.” Others talked about the ambiguous ending or the idea of identity. I didn’t feel those things. For me, this game was about emotional abuse. The game followed all the classic signs. At the start, it demeans you and misgenders you — makes you feel inherently bad and almost determined to deny it.
Then when the game starts, it tells you to do sensible things. Jump over obstacles, touch the checkpoint. This is the entrapment stage — usually before the abuse begins. The abuser makes the victim feel safe, at first, and showers them with compliments. From misgendering and demeaning to compliments and assistance, this is a subtle act of gaslighting. The victim is confused by the sudden shift in behavior and rationalizes that the demeaning part didn’t really happen, and the abuser feeds into that thought.
Then comes the first stage in the abuse cycle: tension-building. The game tells you to take the lower path even though the higher path has no obstacles. Previously, the game said if you touched the statue it “would forgive you.” In much the same way a victim would not want to anger their abuser, you don’t want to anger the game.
At this point, the victim will change their behavior in order to avoid triggering the next stage. In Loved, this is done by the player ignoring their instinct to take the easier route and instead taking the obstacle-filled route that goes against every instinct the player has.
The second stage is the incident of abuse. The game tells you to jump into the pit of barbs, and for me, this is where the game focuses more on emotional abuse. The game gives you a choice that isn’t really a choice if you are the victim. You “choose” to jump into the pit of barbs. You make that decision. The abuser can twist this into saying that it is your fault — that it isn’t abuse because you “choose” it.
Except you didn’t.
With emotional abuse, while there are outbursts of anger, there is also the slow process of taking over the victim. The incident of abuse isn’t seen by many as abuse because they didn’t touch you. They didn’t directly hurt you. How can it be abuse? This is where the game, for me, manages to capture the truth of emotional abuse. The abuser doesn’t lay a hand on you — they don’t even force you to do something. They simply make a request that you know, due to prior experience, if you disobey, they will become angry and they will hurt you. It is a threat, and thus, it is not really a choice.
The game’s version of the third stage — reconciliation — is scattered throughout the process. If, during each incident of the game asking you to do something is seen as abuse, when the game compliments you, this is seen as the reconciliation. Loved cares about you and only wants what is best for you. After the abuse stage, reconciliation comes in the form of asking simple things from you.
Then come the fourth stage — the calm stage. After you have finished the game and completely obeyed it throughout, the game asks if you are a boy or a girl. I answered boy, as that is what the game had been calling me throughout. This time it responds with “No, you are a man.” There is no infantilization.
The game compliments you again, allowing you to “grow up.” Loved restrains itself from harming you in this moment, much like how an abuser may restrain themselves from harming their victim. The game finished by saying: “I loved you, always.” This is your reward. This is the reward for obeying the game — for staying with your abuser.
Then it repeats, cycling through the four stages again and again.
Loved is a game that has endless interpretations but, for me, it is about emotional abuse. It holds one of the most accurate portrayals of emotional abuse I have ever seen in a video game and for that, I will probably never be able to play it again.