You don’t have to know anything at all to enjoy Super Mario Odyssey. It’s a game whose language consists entirely of movement and loud, bright cartoon visuals. Controlling the stubby little plumber, players understand the virtual world presented through the game by bouncing around its Technicolor environments—the look and feel of each digital centimetre communicates everything necessary. Mario slides a bit on ice; he folds into a ball and rolls down sand dunes; he submerges in water and floats through it with chunky limbs guiding his motions. Everything is intuitive.
In movies like Gravity, The Martian, and Apollo 13 the cold indifference of space is a challenge to overcome. Smart, determined people use a combination of science and grit to handle disasters that, by all rights, should leave them dead. Though set beyond the boundaries of our planet, these are stories about human ingenuity, the classic “man versus nature” narrative transplanted to environments so extreme that surviving them takes on mythological proportions.
Little Red Lie is a miserable story. Set in present-day Toronto, it’s a game about, above all else, needing money. A familiar problem and one whose portrayal feels, often, like it needs dramatization to hit home for those fortunate enough not to understand its enormity, Will O’Neill’s latest is concerned with exploring the depths of a modern economic culture that grinds so many down while senselessly elevating others.
In one of Perception’s first scenes, a mansion appears from out of the darkness. Cassie, the game’s protagonist, walks through its front door. Outside the wind whips snow; inside it’s quiet except for the creaks of old wooden floorboards against the weight of her footsteps. Without needing to be told what kind of story is about to be told, the environment communicates everything about its genre. An abandoned house, old and huge, layered with decade upon decade of history will always be a ghost story in and of itself. Its halls and rooms contain eras past and present all at once, defying linear time like the spirits of the dead.
Deep within the hold of a gigantic ship, a little girl in a yellow rain jacket huddles beneath an oversized bed. Next to her, the frame and mattress are roughly the size of truck. She’s hiding from a man whose proportions seem more in line with the setting he inhabits—until the player sees his horribly distended arms. Though of the proper size to walk through the ship’s enormous doors and passageways, the man looms over the girl like a giant. He’s a powerful, terrifying presence not just because of his appearance, but because he’s bigger than the child he hunts. His arms make this clear. They reach further than they should.
Clenched in the jaws of a bright blue lizard, Rain World‘s slugcat looks tiny–a ragged doll whose furry body seems insignificant in scale next to the other creatures it shares a world with. The slugcat, a snowy little animal that finds the natural meeting point between the boneless malleability of bug and cat, is meant to seem less powerful than everything around it. It’s small. It doesn’t have sharp teeth or claws. It’s midway up the food chain, eating plants and plucking opportunistically from swarms of bats. The slugcat isn’t much of a hunter, which is a point the player realizes quickly. Remembering it is important.
There’s a Riot Goin’ On opens to the sounds of an urgency it desperately wants to hold on to. “Luv N’ Haight”‘s chorus is a continual climax, moving up and up and up toward something that’s just out of grasp. The bass hammers toward some indeterminate end point instead of thumping and popping around the margins of Sly’s shouts. It works in purpose with the upward swell of the backing vocals and strain of horns to suggest that this is a band with some real optimism–the kind that can play “Higher” and “Dance to the Music” with honest, unfeigned conviction. But, the climax is abandoned partway through the song, and the delirium that swirls around the edges of the entire album takes over. Purpose and clarity is lost and the song nods off into something sloppier and darker.
It’s in this tone that “Just Like a Baby,” the following track begins. A lazy day of a song, it (along with the unimpeachable groove of “Family Affair” and the caged aimlessness of “Brave and Strong”), comes close to defining There’s a Riot Goin’ On‘s ultimate theme: pretending at a happiness that can be hard to believe in.