I’m reluctant to say this, but in addition to the spoiler warnings, this delving comes with a trigger warning. I feel silly saying it, but I think that’s my low self-esteem speaking.
Something non-spoilery to start with, though? I cannot begin to tell you how much I love Hate Plus‘s use of RenPy dialogue. The game is really good at using the interface and tropes of visual novels to play with how two characters express themselves. I don’t know if my original review made that clear enough.
The Unspoken Speaker
Let’s start with something little first. A storytelling element of this game that I think might be easily missed is to remember who and how those storytelling elements are being brought to your attention.
Every single thing you read was chosen by Old *Mute. Even the things that don’t seem important, or meaningful. Was it a massive, pointless data dump? I don’t really think so. I like to imagine that there was a reason Old *Mute, grumpy and cool as she was, selected what she did. She didn’t just want to show the *Mute she would become filtered and manipulated by Oh Eun-a’s ideals, things like the queer relationships, and how incentivising marriage shredded them. She didn’t just show her the reason for the declining birth rate.
If you didn’t have the reviews of Heo Ae-jeong’s plays, you could still infer what happened with her playhouse by the way she and her lover talked about it. You don’t need to see the shifting attitudes of critics to individual arts… right?
Why did Old *Mute save them?
The theory in my mind is that Old *Mute saved those documents to show that there were reviews. Reviews are not, as much as critical people like me would like to imagine, essential to the artistic process. Reviews as publications are a sign of a culture of an art form.
Old *Mute saved those logs because they mattered.
I like to imagine a tiny little voice in the back of my mind telling me that in some way, I am contributing to something by caring enough to talk about it.
Five times in my life, I have had a final communication with a person who I was sure I would never talk to again, not because I was a terrible communicator, but because they were going to die. Two were natural causes, and three were suicides. The first suicide crippled me for a day; I wandered around my school like an empty shell, completely silent – in fact, I was marked absent for the day, despite having been at school. The most recent time, I did everything in my power to fight what I saw coming. It was not pretty and I feel a bit embarassed about it – I found later I’d effectively prank-called a complete stranger on the other side of the world.
In every case, every time, I could not be more motivated to fight what was going on. When I couldn’t fight any harder, that was gone, and I broke. When I had to accept that poppa would never remember me – that I hadn’t been present enough in his life that there was hope I would be there again – just mentioning him was enough to cave my heart in.
This is how my grappling with death breaks in half. I struggle against a loss of hope and death with whatever I can, and then, inside, I let slip the pieces of my soul that I shared with that person slide away into oblivion. When I pull myself together again, I try to fill those spaces that are missing with their memories.
In Hate Plus, you have to have a final conversation with *Mute before she kills herself. If you don’t see it coming, it’s surprising and painful. If you do see it coming, which I did because of spoilers, it’s agonising. I have sifted through dialogue trees, I have sifted through old saves, I have striven so hard to find a way around the event, and I am absolutely certain that there is no way around the end. *Mute commits suicide, and that is it. That is what you get.
I wish it wasn’t the case.
The critical part of me, the analytical part of me is seriously impressed with it. Moreso than the Cake trick, moreso than the forced timer, moreso than Hate Plus‘s remarkable, clever framing devices and deliberately-explained dialogue wheels, this single storytelling device is probably the smartest thing the game does while playing with the narrative. It’s good that a videogame is disappointing, that a videogame does things that you wish it didn’t do, because games do that sort of thing all the time so we can overcome them. Hate Plus even reinforces this with Level Four Revive Materia achievment, which feels like it exists to thwart people who need perfect completion in an achievment list.
The emotional part of me hates it. The emotional part of me, which honestly was able to distance myself from *Mute back in Analogue wants to fight about it. It’s compelled me to write fanfiction. It’s compelled me to imagine DLC packages. It’s driven me to want to find some way to convey to the author of this game the energy and importance I would dedicate to buying one more day for *Mute, and not because I love her, but because fighting that urge is something that I feel is woven tight around my very nature of a person. I can’t not try to find ways to fight that impulse, to try and instil hope, to strive.
That’s why, I think, the achievment is so important to this message. There are some things you can’t do. There are some people you can’t save. Life does not come with save points, there’s no perfect path. At some point, you’re going to lose someone that you know and it’s going to feel unfair.
Welcome to the only game in town.
Hate Plus uses its achievement system to energise and tighten a point. It creates a feeling of helplessness by taking two established assumptions of videogames (there’s a right path in visual novels, you can get achievments), and telling you no.
When I finish with Hate Plus – when I have almost all of the achievements – I hope to do one last symbolic gesture. I want to play the game, get to that place, get to that question: Are you willing to shut down? and leave that game open, unchanged, for three days. Untouched. My space investigator reading *Mute’s manner, looking at her face on the screen… and refusing to leave her alone until Earth. That’s not how it works, that’s not the narrative the game can give you – but it’s the best way to represent what, in my mind, is what my Investigator would do.
I want to fight this impossible.