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.
The story switches between the perspectives of two main characters—Sarah Stone, a woman nearing 40 who lives with her elderly parents and Arthur Fox, a middle-aged businessman with far more money than he needs. The comparison between two people, one rich and one poor, may be obvious, but it avoids the cliché it may easily have become. O’Neill attempts to get into the heads of both people, understanding the ways in which their financial situation affects their sense of self without resorting to outright caricature.
Sarah’s story sees her floundering. Having lost her job, she stays at her parent’s suburban Scarborough home, feeling adrift and unwanted, worrying about her terminally ill mother, put-upon father, and depressed, shut-in younger sister. Arthur’s scenes are, as expected, the opposite. The player follows him as he gives feel-good motivational speeches to packed rooms and sells books on financial advice he can hardly remember writing. Where Sarah’s life is presented as a crushing struggle simply to carry on, Arthur’s is shown to be something like a perpetual vacation. She looks for ways out of a situation that seems impossible—she’s “overqualified” for the jobs she needs and priced out of the city she lives in—while Arthur tests the limits of his self-perpetuating good fortune with ever-escalating drug and alcohol abuse and the physical and sexual intimidation of those around him.
As the plot progresses, both characters end up having to deal with escalated versions of their everyday problems. In Sarah’s case, another medical emergency throws her sense of helplessness and economic peril into stark relief. For Arthur, his behaviour leads to consequences so extreme the player wonders if even he, rich and well-connected, will be able to recover. The clear arc of their stories functions like a modern parable—at least until their conclusions, which avoid the kind of pleasant comeuppance that would ring entirely false when showing the end result of the rich behaving badly and the poor trying to better their lot.
The strength of the plot structure isn’t always matched by the quality of Little Red Lie’s prose, though. All of the characters, from Sarah and her social circle to Arthur and his, speak in the same voice. Their internal monologues too often alternate between either thin melancholy or jeering bitterness, often appropriate for Sarah’s self-pitying thought cycles and Arthur’s narcissistic behaviour, but unnatural in dialogue. There’s a flattening to all of it, the same style of language used by a racist, sexist blowhard flowing too seamlessly into what’s thought and said by characters typically unlike him. If the point is to identify a basic commonality in the cast (and there’s an argument to be made in favour of this), it’s lost on a story that feels most true when it understands how wide the gulf is that exists between economic classes.
The common voice that runs throughout Little Red Lie is more noticeable, too, because it defaults to a distinctly accusatory tone. The bile with which O’Neill comes at a topic as profoundly fucked-up as the current economic climate is warranted, but moments (especially those that break the fourth wall), assume too much about the player’s own circumstances to hit home. They believe that the audience, like Sarah, has a somewhat healthy, supportive relationships with their parents or inheritances to help dull the effects of volatile job and housing markets, useless university degrees, and the dire financial straits all of this results in.
As archetypes, Sarah the well-educated but struggling child of boomer parents and Arthur the thriving beneficiary of a privileged background, the characters work. But their universality is compromised in attempts to indict the player, someone whose life (outside of some access to a computer) can’t reasonably be guessed at in such broad terms. A story like Little Red Lie’s doesn’t need to make these assumptions to force its audience to question their own life. This may be its greatest downfall (and something greatly exacerbated by its post-credits final scene). The experiences of poverty are vast and trying to identify a throughline, even within the current generation of southern Ontarians, falls flat.
There has to be an attempt, amidst so much darkness, to find some kind of point—some lesson that can be gained from several hours spent inside the heads of these characters—but the neat summary of a widespread issue that comes from guessing at the player’s life isn’t it. Small moments in the game, like Sarah overcoming her self-loathing to attempt a relationship, come closer to the mark. Little Red Lie is consistently grim, sometimes to the point of melodramatic parody and this approach, it seems, blurs out the humanity that keeps these characters alive. More than familial obligation or the temporary self-annihilation of drugs and alcohol, it’s the possibility that even the most deeply perverted social systems can be undermined (or even destroyed) that makes going on feel worth it. In the oppressive darkness of Sarah and Arthur’s world, where people are ultimately nasty, angry, and narcissistic even when they act with surface level love or kindness, there’s nothing to warrant even the most modest shred of hope. Nobody cares about one another; everything is self-serving deception. Even the most misanthropic worldview has to entertain the idea that this is too flat an outlook.
Little Red Lie is a necessary game, well structured and thoughtful in its attempt to understand what motivates even the most wretched people. It illustrates the depths of rot affecting our culture, poisoning the future of a generation fed a lie about where education, hard work, and perseverance would take them. It’s only fitting that a game willing to dirty its hands grappling with this subject matter would come out pessimistic, but allowing its natural misery to colour the entire story in such a monotone makes Little Red Lie too relentlessly grim to reflect even the most awful reality.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.