GOGathon: The Devil Got Overindulgent Here

So, we’ve come to the end of our reviews of the Devil Came Through Here trilogy, and as with all the reviews in the series a ton of content warnings apply. I’m not going to give an exhaustive one for the game, not least because I can’t 100% guarantee that I’ve seen all the content in the game, but this review has content warnings for suicide, abuse, abuse, abuse, more abuse, abuse and abuse.

Lorelai is the story of, well, Lorelai, an 18 year old who arrives home from her job at a nursing home to bear the stress of her hideous family life. Lorelai’s father died of cancer when she was 12, and whilst Lorelai’s a survivor by instinct and has by and large kept it together in the intervening six years, her mother has largely gone to pieces.

In particular, she’s struck up a relationship with John Doe, our antagonist for the game. John’s an Afghanistan war veteran who hasn’t remotely adjusted to civilian life, especially after his job at a brick factory vanished when the factory shut down, and he divides his time between violently abusing Lorelai’s mother and being extremely creepy towards Lorelai. He’s glued himself into the family fabric in part by siring a child with Lorelai’s mother, little Bethany, and Lorelai’s intent on keeping her head down and earning enough money that she can move out and take Bethany with her, since it’s evident that her mother just can’t bring herself to leave John.

This dreadful night, however, Lorelai becomes concerned when her mother locks herself in the bathroom and won’t come out or respond. With the aid of the boy next door, Zack, who has a very obvious crush on her and who she may or may not have a crush on in turn, Lorelai forces her way into the bathroom to discover that her mother has hung herself. John shows up, laughs at the situation, and then ends up brutally assaulting Zack and slashing Lorelai’s throat open with a broken bottle.

That’s when the Queen of Maggots gives Lorelai an opportunity much like she offered to Susan in The Cat Lady: a sort of immortality which would allow her to come back and keep trying until she can defeat John and, if not save her family from him, at least stop others suffering at his hands. Lorelai’s processes of resurrection will prove to be a bit more involved than Susan’s, however, for the Queen is grooming Lorelai to one day succeed her…

 

On the whole, I didn’t like Lorelai. As the first Harvester game to be made in Unity rather than AGS, it makes good use of the graphical possibilities offered by the system for the trippier parts of the game – but these are thinner on the ground than in previous instalments, moments of surrealism interspersed with long, drawn-out sequences in the conventional world. Unlike in The Cat Lady, where the occasional flashback or other diversion over the course of the story all turn out to be crucial to the story and are also carefully measured out so as to not trip up the pacing, here the flashbacks and side endeavours are quite long, drawn-out, and self-indulgent.

Remiguiusz Michalski, auteur of the Devil Came Through Here trilogy, reportedly had enough trouble with the development of Lorelai that he ended up doing the revised version of Downfall to help grease the wheels. Whilst part of the issues have been put down to coming to terms with Unity as a game development tool, I have to wonder whether there wasn’t broader writing issues here, because there’s some major problems with the story of Lorelai’s issues with John Doe – which is a big problem for the game because in principle it’s the main axis of the plot.

The first problem is that there just isn’t enough substance to it to sustain the game for a suitable length of time – the long digressions are necessary to stop the game being frustratingly short. A second problem is that, even taken by its own, the John plot seems padded out to an annoying extent, which multiple instances where it seems like you’ve killed him off only for him to have survived. By the time you finally off John, it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment, in part because you kill him in an extremely mundane way compared to some of your previous attempts, which makes it seem anticlimactic, and partly because he’s survived in an utterly cheap way so often that it doesn’t really feel like you can trust that he’s actually dead.

Another issue with John as a character – and therefore the entire John plot – is that it’s necessary to the plot that you keep trying to off him, so rather than giving the player an actual choice about how they feel about John, or even the illusion of choice (a matter I will take up later), you are really given no choice as to how you feel about John Doe. To be fair, he’s an absolutely irredeemable character without a single saving grace, a terrible human being who blights every interaction he takes part in. This seems a curious call for a game and a series which is, in part, about how everyone has their own interior struggles and is varying steps away from a breakdown themselves – a moral explicitly stated in the version of the ending I got.

Now, of course, the various Parasites in The Cat Lady were flat-out murder-happy goons themselves – but then again, the ultimate foe, the Eye of Adam, very clearly has understandable reasons for going down the dark path he took. I think the problem here is that rather than having brief encounters with a series of Parasites, as takes place in The Cat LadyLorelai boils down to one long, slow grapple with a single Parasite, which makes the shallow, empty characterisation of John all the more apparent.

In fact, now that I think about it Michalski is arguably kind of bad at writing antagonists, largely because whenever he does so he abandons the psychological plausibility he applies to every single other character for sake of sub-Silence of the Lambs scenery-chewing. The Cat Lady works around this by having a series of antagonists, and having the last one not offer any dialogue in the conventional manner; Downfall does this by spreading the antagonist role among a number of characters (more or less all of whom talk like cheap Hollywood spoofs of serial killers when they’re in antagonist mode) and by not leaning so heavily on the “psychological plausibility” angle and dialling up the “hallucinatory phantasmagoria” aspect. The Queen of Maggots across all three games, meanwhile, remains firmly in Mephistopheles mode, rather than being any sort of human character you can expect human emotions and motivations from.

The speedbump that Michalski seems to struggle with is in depicting a character whose motivations and psychological outlook come from a plausible place, but who we are simultaneously not meant to sympathise with on any level. People as abusive as John Doe undoubtedly exist; the implausible thing about him is that he keeps his “abuse” dial cranked up to 11 all day every day, whereas actual abusive relationships don’t work that way. If John Doe had been as openly and unrelentingly horrible as he is in the game all the time, he’d have never have gotten close enough to Lorelai’s mother to attach himself to the family, after all.

A lot of discussion of these relationships is based on the idea of a cycle of abuse, in which periods of mistreatment and horribleness alternate with attempts to “make amends” (often after an episode of abuse has gone beyond the victim’s capacity to quietly suffer it and there’s a chance they’ll leave), before things arc around to being horrid again. That is, of course, a massive oversimplification of how these things work – but it’d at least have more psychological plausibility than the presentation of John Doe in this game. This might not be quite the problem that it is if the game didn’t feel like it was trying to go for psychological plausibility in all of its other decisions.

As I alluded to, whilst the matter of John, Bethany, Zack and your mother is both the most compelling part of the game and the one you would expect Lorelai to give maximum priority to, it’s not actually what you spend most of your time doing. The game gives a frankly self-indulgent amount of time to other matters, some of which seem to be intended to be the interests of character development but others seem largely pointless.

There’s a bit where you play through Lorelai’s early training in her job at a care home to a night-obnoxious level of detail, broken up with a few opportunities to be an utter shitter to your colleagues which I chose not to take up – and so far as I can tell, it has absolutely no bearing on anything which happens later on.

There’s a bit where you encounter and are given an abortive mission by Jimmy the Traveller, a rather shoehorned-in character who is an enemy of the Queen of Maggots. I was surprised to discover in the epilogue that Jimmy is an actual person, because his voice actor is fucking terrible, delivering his lines with so little affect that I was sure he was meant to be an illusory dream person. Jimmy in principle is there to nudge you into eventually siding against the Queen of Maggots, but the way he’s presented is so dodgy – and is so lampposted by particular dialogue options as being dodgy and untrustworthy – that it ends up creating an unfortunate illusion of choice: it would have been nice to have the option of siding with the Queen against Jimmy and becoming her replacement, an outcome which whilst downbeat and unfortunate would at least respect the player’s choices as to which apparition of dreamland they choose to trust and which they decide isn’t worth listening to.

Actually, part of me wonders whether siding with the Queen was, in fact, an originally intended optional direction you could go in. There’s a bit where as part of the process of giving you the chance to resurrect, she tasks you with haunting a guy called Al, an alcoholic (yes, yes, I know, I rolled my eyes too), and in your invisible spectral form you can either nudge him back into drinking as the Queen intend or help him stay strong in defiance of her will. Which option you take has largely no real bearing on the future course of the game, and given that this makes the difference between self-destruction and personal fulfilment for poor Al that seems extremely odd.

This leaves me with the overall impression that these extremely long diversions represented important decision points in early drafts of the plot, but Michalski ran out of time to implement the other branches of the plot, resulting in a much more linear game than it first appears. Indeed, so much time passes in the game between significant decision points that I kind of question the choice of format; perhaps Lorelai would be better off not as an interactive game, but as a game engine-implemented animated movie, particularly since there’s particular directions which Michalski clearly wants you to steer the plot in.

For instance, the perfect ending includes making the decision that Lorelai reciprocates Zack’s feelings for her. This is a somewhat Nice Guy-ish situation. I’d say that Zack is the sort of guy who won’t honestly divulge his feelings about someone even on the point of death, except he actually does overtly say “I love you” to Lorelai on the point of death in the game – but nothing less than this can compel him to do it. Given that the theoretically perfect ending to the game involves Lorelai marrying Zack and the two of them raising Bethany together, the implication here is that you are “supposed to” choose to have her reciprocate his feelings, and whilst you do get options in dialogue not to, the lack of a similar “perfect ending” where you’re just buddies strongly implies that this is the wrong decision. That sets up the deeply unhelpful implication that a woman deciding not to reciprocate a dude’s feelings is somehow making a mistake or a moral error.

Zack as a character is also kind of an annoyingly self-indulgent conclusion, seeing how he’s a self-deprecating indie videogame designer whose back catalogue includes the classic The Dog Gentleman… yeah. Given that Lorelai’s character design already looks like a pallette-switched version of Mitzi from The Cat Lady, the implication that Michalski’s coded in himself in a relationship with his fantasy woman might or might not be accurate, but it’s a decidedly unfortunate implication.

Overall, between the poor pacing and the sparseness of some of the locations, it really feels like Lorelai implements a flabby first draft of the game, which really could have done with further trimming, tightening, and revisions to the script and gameplay. In particular, it feels like an attempt to get the beats of the story in place before most of the puzzles are added in – there’s still puzzles in here, but they’re much easier than in either of the previous two games. The most tricky one involving remembering to pierce the film lid on your microwave curry with a fork before you cook it, which comes across to be as being a level of pedantic overfussiness that point-and-click adventures should have grown out of since the King’s Quest era. Compared with the nice balance between character exploration, and puzzles that The Cat Lady offered, it’s decidedly inferior, and the wild imagery on offer feels like more of the same after the phantasmagoria offered by Downfall or Cat Lady. Even the music’s uninspiring compared to the previous games – too much in the way of alt-rock whinefests, not enough badass industrial soundscapes.

This is a shame, because it’s clear given the amount of time he’s worked on it that Lorelai is an important game to Michalski, but it’s ultimately a disappointing close to the trilogy which suggests that Michalski has gone back to this particular well once too often and would be best served trying his hand at something different from his usual formula.

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