"We" is an important word. As a syntactic element, it is a subject, a pronominal marker of first-person plurality, an argument. As a concept, it encapsulates the legacy of much of the arts. The epic poetry that constructed origins for nations, the medieval painting that defined the boundaries for religious communities, and the Soviet Realism that wanted nothing less than its embodiment, all pressed for and rotated around nothing less than an ultimate definition of "we." The horror genre fashions arguments around the idea that the world is a place where "we" has been overextended; science fiction and fantasy and video games and all other fields which predicate (and are predicated upon) fandom presuppose themselves to be the shibboleth for the proper "we." Even the novel, with its valorization of "I," is caught endlessly vacillating between refusing the "we" and supporting it with added nuance; because no matter the grand arc of a form, the individual objects that make it up will rarely agree.
All of which is a way of saying that the first word in the title of the new horror visual novel, We Know the Devil, written by Aevee Bee, illustrated by Mia Schwartz, and scored by Alec Lambert, has some weight to it. The last, of course, does too, as does the second, and, it wouldn't be too hard to argue, the third. Words tend to be like that. Their usage through history, the forms of culture they are interpolated by, their materiality, their linguistic properties, and their shifting relationship to referents are all wrapped in the web that is at once the universal and the particular. Language is heavy.
This isn't a revelation, of course; in a certain sense, it is the first principle of writing. "Language is heavy" (or some variation thereof) is a necessary precondition for the use of language in a formalized context. Especially one where language itself is the—or at least one of the—primary vehicles for communication. As, for instance, in a visual novel. Just as the relationship between a particular work and the form it engages is not necessarily fractal, the principle of the weight of language does not necessarily mean that words themselves must be treated as precious objects, or as jigsaw pieces to be meticulously puzzled together. A well-wrought urn has its place, but it is ultimately only one container among many.
As a visual novel, We Know the Devil is closer in some ways to a comic or graphic novel than to a novel as such, or to what the hegemonic imagination of what a game is. The player interacts by clicking (or tapping) within the game space. This advances, most often, the dialogue, usually the illustrated character portraits, and occasionally the background photographs. At key points throughout the game the player will be offered a choice; each of the three main characters is represented by a symbol, and the story will require that some combination of two of the three will take the lead in the ensuing scene. Will Venus ♀, the shy, self-effacing one, pair off with the cuttingly sarcastic Neptune ♆ or the all-rounder (with a sometime mental block) Jupiter ♃ when confronted by the preppy clique of the best kids at a camp for bad kids? The player chooses, and the scene plays out. And while it does, the narrative "we" becomes slightly less inclusive, at least for a moment.
The point of view (in the literary technique sense) of We Know the Devil is the first-person plural; no one member of the group is treated as the protagonist, and no third party oversees the proceedings. Each individual is characterized, both in their speech (while all utilize certain constructions or idioms that might broadly be called "Tumblr speak," they each incorporate the dialect in a way that defines their own personality) and in their gestures. Some of the best characterization comes from the way Venus, gaze generally averted, will stare dead ahead with eyes lit up when he sees what no one else does, or how Neptune's head will cock with certain statements. The characterization isn't simply narrative best practice, though: it feeds into the games mechanics, which require the player to choose which two of the three will pair off (or which one will be excluded). Likewise, the narrative point of view reinforces the situation. "We" covers three comfortably, but all it really needs is more than one.
The action of We Know the Devil takes place over twelve hours in the last week of summer camp. The bulk of these are spent waiting in an isolated cabin in the woods, making sure the devil doesn't come—or if he does, that they can handle him. Even then, the bulk of the time is spent passing; they discuss shirking their work, smuggle in some booze, and play games that no one particularly wants to play. Once things start getting hairy, with the warning systems ringing and the tension high, they do the only thing available: they fix the cabin radio to contact God. All God really offers is an assurance: tonight, the devil is coming.
How the devil comes branches depending on the choices made by the player. The means to access these variant branches is fairly obvious if the player has any familiarity with visual novels or interactive fiction in general; even if they haven't, an attentive play-through should make it clear why what is happening is what is happening. There is, also, a fourth ending (called the true ending in the press release) which follows a parallel logic. It wouldn't be difficult to see all four endings with only a couple hours investment.
That God is a DJ is neither the only cute joke nor as straightforward as it seems; the world of We Know the Devil contains hints of the Sfnal, in addition to the horror structure. Prior to entering the cabin, the group has to wander the grounds "fixing the sirens," which involves passing crystals up a pole to fix diodes. Presumably electronic locks are found broken and fixed by a teen with some found wire. The Sfnal here is less in the mechanics than in the description, the exact opposite of how it functions for the radios.
Each member of the group has a radio, as does the cabin itself, and each of them remain conspicuously undescribed and unillustrated. They are devices used to listen and to broadcast; one route has a character suggesting that, should anything happen, their radio will be used to call for help. But they are also suffused with a strangeness. Another route has another character offering to wrap their radio around the door, which won't let anyone but the other two in; one character uses hers to stand up. And they are, ultimately, the tools which stop the devil. The way that We Know the Devil uses the word "radio" is sort of like the use of jargon in science fiction, attempting to put word to what is specific to a fictional space. The use of a common word, rather than an invented one, is testament to Bee's respect for the heaviness of language. A coinage might underscore the uncanniness of the world, but the specificity of the word "radio" is telling of just what the substance of these last resort objects are. No matter what they may look like, they are associated in the player with communications platforms, tied to public listenership.
We Know the Devil similarly engages a trope of the horror genre with care. In the first section of the game, Venus, Neptune, and Jupiter are headed to a bonfire. They arrive late and are addressed by a character by the name of The Bonfire Captain. He scolds them mildly, then proceeds to strum his guitar and tell a story.
The Bonfire Captain is, for all intents and purposes, the old man who warns the teens to turn back at the beginning of the horror film. The point of this trope is to mark the point at which the film shifts—he is usually shot in-frame excessively tightly, with equally over the top foreboding music accompanying his pronouncements. The vagueness of the warning itself tends to offer an excuse to gesture at the films' ostensible themes. Is he warning the teens to turn back because the land is cursed or because they don't belong?
The Captain, in contrast, is not marked as a stranger, and he is the one who commands the group to spend the night in the cabin. But his pronouncement is marked by a shift in the music—the Carpenter-esque synths are layered upon with a (presumably diegetic) guitar—and are vague and clearly thematically inclined. He tells a story about how he himself had two friends growing up, and how, though he didn't like one as much as the other, he worked extra hard to include the third. In spite of this, or because of it, the third ended up the worst off of the three, and The Bonfire Captain suspects the friend would have been better off had he not been shepherded around by the Captain.
The particular ways that the importance of the choice of implicating public communications or the ominous old man as camp counsellor, or of the choices going into the point of view and the characterization, relies to some extent on the power of We Know The Devil's "true ending." It is an ending (and a whole game) worth experiencing. To speak of it broadly, though; We Know the Devil is a game about teens, which is to say it is a game about creating the world. The world that this particular group creates is not about ominous men or publicly accessible communications, but it is certainly informed by them.
In this particular story of creating a world, which is another way of saying of learning to navigate a world, with these particular teens, "we" is the axle. The narrative point of view is the first-person plural, and the story revolves around that. It revolves, too, around the goals of epic poetry, of medieval painting and Soviet Realism, of molding a world in which that plurality can be given substance. We Know the Devil revolves around the syntax of the subject, an argument to the predicate; not at the foundation, but able to change it.
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