Games

The release of dark visual novel We Know the Devil on Nintendo Switch may herald a more inclusive industry, but it’s far from marketable ‘diverse content’.

By Jini Maxwell.

We Know the Devil on Nintendo Switch

Jupiter and Neptune in We Know the Devil.
Credit: Worst Girls Games

We Know the Devil is a game about shame. Set in the Midwest woodlands in the dregs of summer, the visual novel conjures up a summer Scout camp charged with a dark, otherworldly energy. With its characterful, two-dimensional collage of photographs and sketched character portraits and soundtrack of tinny, distorted synth that waxes and wanes, the game creates an intimate, low-fi sense of dread.

Neptune, Jupiter and Venus comprise Group West. They resent their time in the summer camp; they resent the evangelical pep of the camp captain, who oversees them with a deceptively Machiavellian attitude. Jupiter is a high achiever with a tendency to choke in critical moments. Neptune texts her friends about her boredom, but not about her secret, unspoken romance with Jupiter. Venus is anxious about his unfixed sense of identity and as a result he is passive and accommodating, with the occasional spike of panicked viciousness.

Now it is their turn to stay in one of the cabins that skirt the woods, where they will finally face the devil. This game is a knowing deconstruction of the magical girl genre in which teens fight the monster and save the town. Where Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sailor Moon depict teenage empowerment, We Know the Devil paints a portrait of the disappointments of adolescence. Neptune, Jupiter and Venus are not empowered characters; they are confined in a religious context that they buck against but can’t leave. Moreover, they are ill equipped for the task at hand. Venus complains early on that the summer Scout cohort are not provided the “crystodyne diodes and transformation sequences” that other camps offer.

First released on PC in 2015, the visual novel soon gained an ardent following. Developers Date Nighto freely responded to community questions and made the game available to play free in browser. We Know the Devil was re-released on Nintendo Switch last month as one of a small number of explicitly queer games available on the platform, including Irish trans visual novel If Found… and dating simulator Dream Daddy.

The narrative hinges on several key decisions made by the player. Rather than manifesting these decisions as dialogue options, as many visual novels do, the player decides at critical moments which two characters will pair up on a task or conversation, inevitably leaving the third behind. In a game obsessed with the heightened experience of adolescence, this structure captures a familiar intensity that defies intellectualisation: the connections that spin out from these brief, often evasive conversations inflect their actions with an instinctive mutual understanding, rather than directly offering explanation.

The game’s language also shifts as the central pair becomes more established. Early in the game the text is primarily composed of a combination of direct dialogue and surreal truisms – “the devil is weak and humans are strong, and that is the way it always has been”, the narration reads at one point, “even a kid can kill the devil. All she has to do is try.” As the central pairing is established, a protective “we” emerges that experiences the world together. In stark contrast, the teenager who is most often excluded will be taken by the devil.

We Know the Devil has a more interesting approach to genre than just straight subversion. The one transformation sequence these magical girls are afforded is when the devil takes them and they manifest their desires, dreams and fears. Rather than a glittering transformation sequence, these internal realities take on a monstrous form. As soon as this occurs, they are exorcised by the closer pair in a public ritual. After reaching a few different endings, the narrative began to feel communal, even collaborative. It felt less like a game and more like a campfire ghost story or urban legend – metaphorical narrative structures that exist to articulate communal anxieties.

As well as the intimacies of queer adolescence, We Know the Devil is interested in its pervasive alienation. Apart from brief, often elliptical conversations, the characters’ relationships are structured by what is unspoken, until the final moment when the devil appears. During a game of “seven minutes in heaven” they play to pass the time, Jupiter and Neptune kiss – seemingly not for the first time. Immediately they assert that what they feel for each other is meaningless. “Anyone could have said that, about anybody,” Jupiter insists, and Neptune, seemingly relieved, replies, “The Midwest is great. All you have to do is not say it out loud.”

In this sphere of silence, only one voice fills the gap: the voice of god, who speaks to them “on that unmistakable frequency”, through the captain, the radio and their internalised shame. The binary of an external, perfect god and the internal, irredeemable devil becomes absolute: “The devil is only the shadow of man cast from the light of god,” the voice of god tells the trio over the radio. “It is absolutely certain the devil is already here.”

It’s a deft portrayal of the machinations of shame: the same force that indoctrinates these teenagers into shamed silence then dominates that silence. Despite their resentment, they don’t seriously question that they must isolate themselves and fight the devil. When their friend is taken, they solemnly exorcise the beast without asking what they are trying to dispel. In this context, the title takes on another dimension: the characters know the devil because they have learnt to see the devil in themselves.

In a different seven minutes in heaven pairing, Neptune lays bare a fundamental emotional tension of the closeted experience: “Venus, your problem is that you are very nice. But you want something. And you think being nice is going to give it to you. But it never will. And until you figure out what it is you want. Every kindness of yours will be filled with that want. Like mine is.”

Far from the freedom magical girls are offered through their secret identities and supernatural powers, this trio is confined and judged. They have secret identities but rather than being a source of empowerment, they fear and repress them. They sometimes judge each other but, more than that, they understand themselves as deserving of judgement. In the ending where Jupiter is taken, her response is resigned. Moments before she transforms into an amorphous, grasping manifestation of sexual desire and ambition, she says, “I can try hard, but I think… god knows my heart isn’t really in it.”

Anyone familiar with Nintendo’s puritanical approach to brand management will be surprised to see a game about queer teens processing religious trauma selling for $US6.66 on the eShop. Since the ’80s the company has traded under strict guidelines that banned mentions of religion, sex, sexuality, and alcohol and drug use – and particularly queer attraction.

Is this game’s appearance on Switch an indicator that the industry is becoming more inclusive? It’s certainly a sign the market is changing. But We Know the Devil is as far from marketable “diverse content” as it is possible to be. It is a taut, metaphorical, unrelenting piece of writing about being closeted, and the intimacies and alienation that the experience of prolonged shame engenders.

We Know the Devil’s dark tone and zinelike art style is so out of step with the Switch’s bright, user-friendly design that playing it makes the “family-friendly” console feel genuinely haunted – a creature from another dimension, making first contact with an alien megacorporation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "Devil’s advocate".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.