An Exploration of Emotional Abuse & Gaslighting in ‘Loved’

Loved

[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.

Loved

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.

Loved

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.

Advertisements

8 Comments on “An Exploration of Emotional Abuse & Gaslighting in ‘Loved’

  1. I had a similar experience to this; I think the one thing worth doing in your case might be replaying again to intentionally disobey the voice. That, to me, is the ‘escape’ from the abusive relationship. Your world loses the rigidly defined rules that have been laid down by your abuser; you can’t see the shapes they TOLD you to see anymore, but now you see color, blurry and confusing but a promise of something else.

    It is a really upsetting kind of game though. I feel as though it specifically deals with transphobic / gender role based emotional abuse specifically.

    Like

    • Completely agree with what you said. I think that’s the interesting thing about the game though, I’ve seen so many interpretations and articles about what the game meant to them and all of them were different opinions on what the game specifically dealt with and I think that’s how Alexander Ocias meant for it to be.

      He actually says as the description: “Can games carry the auteurist intent and interconnection of traditional cinema and writing? Can we tell stories through games that aren’t disposable? That live on after you’ve stopped playing? This is a short story in the form of a platformer that answers these questions.”

      Thank you for reading!

      Like

  2. I played this game years ago, and never actually got the end because it made me so uncomfortable and I could never pin down why. I did, however, really enjoy the moment that I figured out that disobedience meant more colour.
    Thanks for bringing this game back to my attention, and for your wonderful and interesting thoughts on it.

    Like

    • There is something satisfying about getting the colours even if it was overshadowed by my own personal experience when I played 6 years later.

      Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The use of color as a consequence of disobeying orders didn’t click for me until later in the game. Far from feeling like a reward, it made me desperately want to go back and do things “the right way” aka, as I was told. I realized suddenly that failing to obey orders made it much harder to navigate the landscape and, consequently, avoid the obstacles (which feels very much like part of the metaphor). I started hoping for more instructions so that I could prove myself and make predicting the pitfalls of the map easier. The abuse aspect didn’t really hit me until the end, when it asked “Why do you hate me?” Which is a question that’s uncomfortably close to home, relative to my own experience. Even now, I’m still compelled to go back and do it “the right way,” to appease the game, as an apology for failing it. Thank you for writing this article.

    Like

    • I agree that it is all a part of the metaphor. This game is complex and, for something so short, tells a rather large story.

      Thank you for reading!

      Like

  4. This is fascinating to me, thank you for sharing it. I’m the kind of person who hears commands and asks why, or gets threatened and laughs while walking away, and it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to interpret Loved like this. I would have assumed the developer was a troll and just stopped playing. I appreciate your perspective.

    Like

    • I think that’s the fascinating thing about Loved, how our experience and our personality changes how we perceive and interpret the game. 6 years ago, I was in the same mindset as you and it really is intriguing to see how it has changed down the line.

      Thank you for reading!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: