I have had Kara Stone’s game the earth is a better person than me on my desktop for about 2 years now. I only played it once, the day before yesterday. Why did it take so long?
I do know the answer to that, but it’s not one I like. I was scared.
Scared to play it in the same way that I’m scared of confronting my gender and sexuality, and that was the exact fear that drove me away from the icon hovering in the bottom left corner of my desktop for so many hours. I knew from talk around it at its release that it was about trouble with others and with self, with image, with sex and boundaries, and the feelings entangled there, and I bought it because of that, in the way I bought The Bell Jar as a teenager hungry for something that fit the image I had of my own self, living in fear and confusion. Yet, I stayed shy of the game, because these things feel so vulnerable in my head right now, having come to terms with my gender, and being forced then to re-evaluate my entire relationship to myself, my sexuality and sexual experiences, my body and my dissatisfaction with each of these through that lens. It’s not a process that I’ve gotten very far with because of how much it hurts, in a debilitating way, to admit these feelings under the social pressures and under the intensity of surviving abuse, and yet it’s a necessary thing. Necessary and on hold, until I finally played the earth is a better person than me.
I wasn’t wrong about the game affecting and jostling those thoughts, since it’s pretty direct in how it reaches moments of great emotional tension. You play through several forks in a path into the forest for Delphine, a young woman, wandering, with each place providing a form of anthropomorphic interaction with features of the earth and sky. They speak to her worries, impulses and desires, and she responds, hesitant, questioning, internal but since we inhabit her space and exploration of what it means to be in conversation with these things, honest to what the feeling is at that moment. A tree. A lake. The Moon. The Sun. A flower. These themes quickly become charged with bodilyness, pain and sexuality expressed to and through things that aren’t people but forces of nature with human personalities. Stone’s writing, the way she explores the power dynamics around relationships, with a natural, knowing tone that is full of self is more tender and real than any game I’ve managed to play for a long time. It brought me at several moments to severe reflection on how my feelings match Delphine’s, how self-destructive habits she has match my own, and those I’ve lived with in my close family and partners, a web of experience lived within by one character carrying intimate knowledge of pain, wanting to be unpicked by the very forces of life themselves.
This vagueness, in my writing about it reflects some of the hesitation I still have towards using words to express things. Words fail and I trip myself up with all the self-cloaking I’ve learned. Even when Stone’s writing is the thing that brought me to a standstill, my words can’t put that feeling truly into a container and ship them to you. I guess that’s what poetry is for. What the simple lines and shapes of the game’s art style, what its green eye possesses, that its words don’t.
I think there is also something so important here for designing games that can reach these points of emotional and artistic depth. the earth is a better person than me exemplifies choices that ‘don’t matter’, choosing text paths that ultimately don’t lead you to a win condition, because the game doesn’t state a win condition, but dictates how much time you spend with elemental beings, and which one brings Delphine’s woodland exploration to a close. It is not fixed, these paths are easily cycled back, and it is purely an exploration of a space and the different possibilities that exist there. The branching in a game like this might be considered unnecessarily obtuse, since if there is no win/lose condition, wouldn’t you want the player and Delphine to be able to experience every path as easily as possible, for a reader’s sake? That type of thinking really misses the power of an interactive story to be personal though, to be provocative and generative, to end when the reader or player and the writers and designers come to their natural point of resolution, their own climax.
Continually the earth is a better person than me asks questions of what it is to be yourself, how much space must a person ask for, how much love, before they are recognised, what must they do to be a person worth being? The questions it brings aren’t headed in a final direction, they are in the moment explorations of the warring thoughts about what a decision might mean for the development and growth of Delphine’s person, and the person of the player. You don’t need every ending necessarily, but if you do, you do, it’s not the point, the point is feeling. It’s a remarkable thing when you consider how games are seen as so narratively poor, when even this simple game of choosing where to go and how long to stay feels so powerful. It brings me in, it brings me to consider in what ways I am an actor with the people around me, in what ways am I myself and telling the truth, am I who I can be, who I need to be? What kind of sex do I need then? Who will I let hurt me in the good ways? What are my boundaries? What is my body to me?
What brings these questions, and ultimately the game, power is that Stone’s writing is more than personal journaling, the elemental pieces of the forest to Delphine don’t just provide plain confirmations that these are indeed questions, but respond with humanity. They dispute the choices Delphine makes and relate to her, with compassion, with confusion, with their own concerns, they indulge them, they cling, they stick and unstick.
I don’t know what this game did to me, but it does feel like something I don’t want to come back from, some closeness to myself, some self-love or knowledge somewhere, growing inside. Needing more.