Messy queer teenage emotions, a conflicted religious upbringing and imbalanced relationship dynamics are all things that many LGBTQ people have had to learn to deal with as part of growing up. Thankfully, very few of us also have to deal with the literal devil on top of that – but the trio of teenage protagonists in horror visual-novel We Know the Devil have no choice but to contend with all of these things over the course of one fateful night in an abandoned shack near their religious youth camp.
The Summer Scouts
We Know the Devil is the inaugural game of the newly-created bespoke genre, the “Cry ‘n’ Die ‘Em Up”, written by Aevee Bee, with art and creative direction provided by Mia Schwartz, music by Alec Lambert, and UI design by Lulu Blue, published and programmed by the Date Nighto team including Jo Fu and Conrad Kreyling.
The three teens at the center of the night of wrath are Neptune, a Mean Girl permanently attached to her phone and deeply critical of largely everyone and everything; Venus, an awkward introvert with a chronic need to apologise unnecessarily; and Jupiter, a tomboy trying her best to be a good person and the group’s would-be leader. They’re part of the Summer Scouts – a youth group intimated to be made up of what’s left when all the conventional, well-adjusted teenage magical girls are off saving the world. Each of the three characters have distinctive illustrated designs with multiple poses and facial expressions, and their many interactions with each other take place in front of photographs of the woods at dusk, the interior of a neglected-looking cabin, and various other locations spread throughout a rural forested area, casting an uncanny but oddly familiar atmosphere throughout the game.
As is common with visual novels, at certain junctures in the story, the player must make decisions about the flow of the narrative; in the case of We Know the Devil, situations demand that two characters pair off – such as exploring a location together, or sharing a tender moment together – that leaves the third person excluded. These decisions affect not only on the events that immediately follow, but also bring with them consequences which are made manifest as the game progresses into the small hours of the morning. It’s possible to get the two characters you’re most rooting for to become closer with each other – but it’s not always easy knowing that this closeness comes at the cost of the third.
This alternation and inversion of kindness and meanness (a more relatable binary than something as total as good and evil – but no less a binary) plays out in various ways throughout the whole game: an amicable demeanour and soft smile like Venus’ are meant to be signs of friendless and politeness, but that doesn’t mean they’re not masks for something more negative or self-destructive underneath. Similarly, although the incisive, snippy or blasé comments that Neptune swipes out with are antagonistic and cynical, that’s not to say they’re not completely true. Jupiter’s temperament floats somewhere between them, with conflicting tugs towards both, either, and neither.
The game has three pairing-based endings, depending on which of the trio is less close to the other two than they are to each other; but there’s also a hidden fourth ending that, while more tricky to find, feels vital to understanding and answering the inherent problem that led the trio to the cabin in the woods in the first place. This ending also feels suggestive – perhaps showing us how problems in our own lives, though much more mundane, may require answers that not only address the problem, but refute the false premises the problem is based on, and instead look for something more whole, all-encompassing and radical.
The Devil is in the Details
What makes We Know the Devil particularly significant are small pieces of flavour written throughout that, despite its fantastical, magical-realist nature, ground the setting in territory that is familiar to many (and complicated, if not hostile, for queer and LGBT people in particular). These aren’t always obvious and overt – and in fact many of them may seem completely innocuous or downright invisible, as I’m sure many are to me, as someone who was not raised in the American Midwest. For example, the casual flippancy with which people evoke the name of the devil in spite of his seeming omnimalevolence may be familiar to many who have been raised in Christian religious households; the way Jupiter performs small acts of penance throughout the game for reasons never specified but alluded to by the conspicuous timing of her snapping a hairband around her wrist, may be a recognisable shibboleth to those who used it when they were younger – passed along from teen to internet forum to teen – as a coping mechanism for ‘unwanted thoughts’. The devil, as always, is in the detail.
The way that Jupiter, Neptune and Venus talk and communicate also reflects the complex and multi-layered way that many teenagers and young adults express themselves while they’re attempting to find equilibrium between the disrupted scales of self-worth and social worth, vulnerability and armouredness; for example, during a moment of playing Truth or Dare, Jupiter and Neptune can have a discussion where nothing damning or potentially complicating is really spoken aloud, but which nonetheless communicates troubling feelings under a blanket of plausible deniability to save face in front of the others – in effect, ‘saying by not saying’. “Like how you don’t have to touch someone to touch someone,” Jupiter tells Venus earlier in the day.
In keeping with the low-key way of communicating, although there are frequent references to things at the camp which are definitely Not Quite Normal (transformation sequences, God on the radio, and strange sirens), at no point are pains taken to force you to learn the lore to be able to move through the story, which is a welcome relief from stories that offer or require heavy investiture in background politics, history and worldbuilding delivered through exposition and codices. There’s certainly much to read into and explore, but at no point does this overtake the group relationship dynamics that are the core of the game.
The music of We Know the Devil, provided by Alec Lambert, is filled with eerie, sprawling synth, ominous drone, and discordant noise. It’s easily comparable in scope and sound to the unsettling music of John Carpenter (especially Hallowe’en) or Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, particularly) – both apt for the game’s forest-in-the-middle-of-fuck-knows-where setting, populated by teens in peril. The soundtrack in full is also available for purchase via Bandcamp.
We Know the Devil is available for the ominous price of $6.66 via DateNighto, and can be played in web-browsers. It’s advisable to keep something to wipe your face with nearby for the darkly-relatable moments, when you find yourself sobbing and wondering why the fuck we’re put through such horrendous shit as teenagers; even if it’s not the literal devil, it still feels like hell.
This review was originally published on GayGamer.Net on September 2015.