A few hours in
“I’m gonna get through this silly ‘meeting the devil’ metaphor,” I said. Past Jarenth, you self-confident scrapheap.
It’s important to note that I was right initially. Spooky evening in a spooky spook-house, wooo. Heart-to-heart chats were had, games were played, and at once point Neptune revealed a stashed bottle of some terrible, D-grade alcohol.
And then, er… stuff happened. Which is to say, there were developments, and then…
Which is to say, a thing happened, and…
So I figured, that, maybe I’d try again, so…
And I don’t know how to talk about this game.
Regular readers will know that I tend to use this line a lot. ‘I don’t know how to talk about this game.’ Usually, this is then followed by a three thousand word stream-of-consciousness rant that is exactly me talking about the game. But in the case of We Know The Devil, I just… I don’t know what to say. And what not to say. I don’t even know where to start.
Should I do a just-the-facts-ma’am details overview? ‘We Know The Devil is a visual novel themed around religion, horror, and relationships. It has a semi-branching storyline with seven decision points that terminates at one of four endings, depending on aggregated choices. It’ll take you between one or two hours to read through all of them, depending on reading speed and how quickly you figure out the central mechanic. Has some frightening graphics, and one or two moments that could conceivably be felt as jump scares, depending on personal fortitude. Marked as $6.66 on the official website, which is clever but not actually in line with the Steam price.” That seems accurate, right? It is. It also does absolutely zero justice to this amazing game.
Maybe I should flip the script and play the hype man role? Because We Know The Devil is extraordinary. Literally extraordinary, in that the experience is so far removed from what most visual novels manage to offer that it deserves a class of its own. This game is a masterpiece. A masterclass, in sharp character writing and audiovisual immersion and slow, creeping horror that sticks with you. I used to think, a long time ago, that books and other text media couldn’t really do horror, because all they have is non-interactive text and how can that be scary? Just close the page, bro! I already knew that idea was wrong when I started this; one of my favourite books of all time is David Wong’s John Dies At The End, and that book has some exceptional slow-burn horror. But even knowing this, I was surprised to how much We Know The Devil had seeped into my subconscious. Normally, I think the early winter darkness looks chill and inviting, but… Anyway, I’m rambling. Point is: if you have any interest in seeing what visual novels can do as a medium, go check out We Know The Devil right now. Right the hell now. Close down the review, buy it, and play at your earliest convenience. That’s my official Indie Wonderland recommendation, right there.
What I find I want to do most of all is just talk about this game. And the story, and the characters. I get now why my timeline was buzzing with We Know The Devil back at launch day. I figured people were talking about, like, routes and stuff. But…
I want to talk about things, but I also don’t want to spoil it for you. I went into this game sight-unspoiled, and look at how I’m raving now. But I also want to talk about. So, while I’ll try to keep it light, last ‘warning’: if you want to experience We Know The Devil in its best possible way, here’s that purchase link again.
The first thing We Know The Devil nails is low-key world building. It’s almost too low-key in places: I didn’t quite grab what was going on until… Well, let’s just say that reading the Steam blurb at the start might not be a terrible idea. I thought things were metaphors and they very much were not. Every kid can kill a monster, after all, that’s why they make all the vampire hunters teenage girls. And what is the devil if not the biggest monster on mankind?
But with the benefit of hindsight, I think We Know The Devil‘s world building succeeds mostly because it’s so low-key. There’s a power in introducing strange concepts in ways that aren’t strange. So many fantasy authors do the inverse, and spend pages and paragraphs telling us about how cool and extraordinary their Unique World Elements are. But We Know The Devil just… presents. These kids have been at Monster Hunting And God Praising Camp for the whole summer. Of course they wouldn’t need to lengthily explain why the sirens are there. Of course everyone knows what their radios are, and why that’s significant. And of course the cabin was warded. Shittily. By Group East. It’s an approach that leads to uncertainty at first, but that forces the reader (/player) to construct their own world view out of the disparate elements. It’ll be shoddy and vague at first. But then things happen, and new information is presented, and they iterate. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get what the Germans call an aha-erlebnis: that moment where suddenly something clicks, and the world makes more sense, and you feel super cool for having worked it out yourself.
The slow world building approach also helps with the horror. There is horror here, deep and uncertain. It doesn’t have to be! I could tell you what is going in this game (as far as I understand it), right now, and it wouldn’t invoke horror at all. It’d be weird and maybe a little scary, but not horror. But instead, We Know The Devil gradually drip-feeds revelation. Not even overtly so: so many things you have to get between the lines, or interpret from events that don’t seem to matter or make sense alone. A lot of it opens up on second and third playthroughs. Or eight, in my case. True story: sorting through screenshots and paragraphs for the previous page, I only while writing it down realized how much what happens in the first act suggests and foreshadows things to come. I… want to talk about my favourite examples, but again, that’d be ruining it for you.
So let’s talk about the cast instead. We Know The Devil demonstrates just how much you can achieve with a small cast of well-written characters. There might be only three, but… well, five if you count the Captain and Group South. Seven if also count… but enough about that. The characters that matter, both in general and for the purposes of me talking about them, are the core three. Venus, Neptune, and Jupiter.
These three doofuses are just… so well written. Here’s how well-written they are: I only started playing this game last week, and I feel I could tell you about them. I could make predictions. I can see Jupiter sitting on the bleachers after a close football game, talking and laughing with other players and the fans in that half-engaging, half-deflecting way of her. Knees up high, arms around her legs, a little bubble of personal space that shifts a little whenever someone gets too close. I can see reluctant Neptune at a family gathering, leaning against a wall and a scowl locked on her phone while her parents look on disapprovingly. It’s like, yeah, of course she’s happy to visit grandma, but there’s also this chat that she’s having and that’s important too, okay?! She’s not gonna drop that conversation just because she ‘should’. And I can see Venus working a barista job, doing her best to be nice and helpful to everyone. Whenever a customer smiles at her she smiles right back, but whenever someone is curt or rude, you can almost see an imperceptible pall fall over her eyes.
I don’t know how accurate the above is. Probably not very, that’s not the point. The point is: even after relatively short play, I feel I know these characters well enough to envision them like this. I have a vision of who they are. A very personal vision, probably. The nature of slow world building and detail drip-feeding is that readers inevitably fill in perceived blanks themselves. Maybe my Neptune has a bit of my dry wit, or my Jupiter has a bit of my desire to bastion for others. The fact that I can ‘know’ these characters enough to think that I’m right in my read, that I care about being right, is an achievement even in most trilogy epics. In a two-hour visual novel, it’s downright remarkable.
And because these characters are so complete, so convincing, so easy to read, it makes it heartbreakingly obvious to see them move through the story. Trapped in prisons of their own creation, all three of them. Neptune is caught in loathing, loathing of herself and loathing of the others. It’s so obvious that they’re the ‘good’ kids and she’s the ‘bad’ one. Obviously she’s gonna be the scapegoat. Don’t they think she can’t see that? And it would be so satisfying, she thinks, if she could drag those goody two-shoes down to her level… just for once. Venus is trapped by desire. She wants to be nice to everyone, she really does, she wants to help others and be there and love everyone. But she also kind of wants be… be loved? Be loved, and be seen, and be appreciated for all she is and all she does. And is kindness real, if given that way? Jupiter is held down by distance. She’s been taught not to touch, and not to be touched, that’s just polite. And since she breaks everything she gets close to… that’s probably for the best, right? But she wants that touch so much. It’s an overpowering dance of push and pull, a storm that builds regardless of consequences.
And all three of them are locked inside the shitty cabin, which metaphorically represents a shitty cabin.
If that sounds like the setup for a sad story, a tragic story, that’s probably because it mostly is. Not all of it, though. All the kids’ bad sides are just good pulled to excess. Neptune doesn’t really want to hurt the others, she just wants them to stand up for themselves, to be less good for goodness’ sake. Venus wants recognition, but it’s okay to want recognition! The good that you do to be seen is still good. And poor Jupiter just wants to help. She’s scared of getting close and messing up and she’s scared of keeping distance and being alone, but at her core she just wants to be there for others. They’re good impulses, all. The devil just… twists them to excess. Feeds on your fears and your worries and your wants. But that’s why it’s important to never be alone. There’s nothing to fear when it’s two against the devil.
I haven’t even touched on the queer representation in We Know The Devil. I don’t know if I’m qualified to talk about these things; I’m as cis and het a man as you’re ever likely to meet. But rest assured there is a ton of queer representation in this game. Maybe you noticed that I switched from calling Venus ‘him’ to ‘her’ at the turn of the page? I’m not entirely sure I’m doing that right, but then again, neither are Jupiter and Neptune. And that’s just one aspect…
And the audiovisual immersion, man. I know some people dislike this game for its nonconventional soundtrack. I adore it. It’s not casual listening material, but it perfectly sets the mood in some scenes. And I already talked about the chalk-photo art contrast… the character art work in particular deserves some extra credit, too. It’s just… it’s all so good.
But the strongest final thing I can say about We Know The Devil, I think, is that days after completing it for the last time I’m still thinking about it. About the story and the characters, but also about the world and the concepts. I wonder about how it’d apply to myself. What parts of me are good in moderation, but bad in excess? And what would it take for me to…
I could go on. I could go on; once again, my ‘I don’t have anything to talk about’ is proven for the lie that it is. But it’d be self-serving ranting at this point, even more so than usual. I’ve told you everything you need to know about We Know The Devil. If at this point you have even the slightest inclination that you might like it, go pick it up and play it sometime. It’s a masterpiece, a veritable one-hoss shay. And then come back here and talk with me afterwards, because I think I’ll have things to say about We Know The Devil for quite a while longer.
Jarenth still hasn’t figured out who the ‘we’ viewpoint was supposed to refer to. But maybe that was part of the point. Give your interpretations on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?