"Throw Yourself Into the Barbs": Morality, Pixelation and Spatial Legibility in Alexander Ocias's Loved

Curator's Note

The video game Loved by Alexander Ocias begins with white text on a black background. It asks, “Are you a man, or a woman?” If the player chooses “woman,” the text addresses you as the opposite: “No, you are a boy.”

This menacing voice appears throughout Loved, at first asking the player to complete basic tasks one would expect in a platforming game: “Jump over that pit of barbs,” or “Touch the statue. I will forgive you.” As the player continues through the game, however, she begins to question the text as it asks more and more of her: “Throw yourself into the barbs,” it orders, and, if the player chooses to obey, she shatters into pieces.

Loved presents uncomfortable moral choices for the player by asking her to accept a questionable framework for what actions are “good” and which are “bad.” If the player chooses to disobey, the voice ridicules her: “Disgusting,” ‘How disappointing,” “Ugly creature.” When the player completes the tasks asked of her, no matter how self-destructive, she is rewarded with praise: “Good boy,” the voice says, misgendering her.

The player’s choice to obey, or disobey, the voice directly impacts the aesthetics of the game. If the player chooses to obey the text, the scenery sharpens into fine details. The first time the player obeys, the red blocks, or danger zones in the game, become needle-like teeth embedded in the ground. If the player chooses to disobey, the game’s landscape becomes increasingly pixelated, and difficult to discern. The screen dissolves into a series of blue, green, and red blocks that prevent the player from being able to see her surroundings clearly and hinder her ability to avoid obstacles and reach platforms.

Loved implements game aesthetics as in-game barriers and obstructions: The aesthetics of the game respond to the player’s “obedience” and her choices affect her experience of immersion in game space. Is pixelation really a “punishment” if it means the player is able to choose freely? Are detailed visuals more desirable if the player is asked to perform morally questionable tasks? Loved questions the validity of moral codes and structures in games by causing the player to question frameworks of choice in digital narratives. Who gets to determine morality in Loved? Can we trust the game’s framework of what is good and bad, or are we able to resist it and build one for ourselves?

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