Full Disclosure: We Know the Devil was my first foray into the Visual Novel genre/medium and I can’t think of a better first choice. I’m a big fan of comics and manga in general, and I have heard quite a bit about Visual Novel games from some fellow gamer friends over the past year or so. The whole medium has a lot of storytelling potential, allowing the reader/viewer/player to consciously decide what their experience consists of and what kind of directions a given introductory plot can take. But We Know the Devil’s greatest strengths come from its eerie atmosphere, terrifically deep lead characters, and undeniable David Lynch (specifically Twin Peaks) vibe.
I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between Visual Novels and those Choose Your Own Adventure books we all probably had a few copies of circa third grade or so, but such comparisons really don’t express the amount of investment Visual Novels are able to inspire. When you’re a participatory part of the unfolding story you’re bound to get more involved in what happens to these characters as they move along their still-predetermined but alternating paths. And when a smart design team creates relatable characters and a strange, engaging world to participate in (as is the case with WKTD) it really makes for a great, off-kilter experience.
The basic premise is you follow a group of three teenage friends through one evening at their religious summer camp. There’s Jupiter (the cool, collected girl who’s good at everything she tries), Neptune (the cynical, wise post-goth chick whose face is always buried in her phone and whose commentary is always cynical, smart, and hyperbolic), and Venus (the nervous guy who’s both overly earnest and overly apologetic about everything); they make up Group West. You follow their conversations and interactions with fellow campers and their Camp Captain (who are all drawn in a far cruder, more cartoonish manner than our protagonists), and a few times each scene or so you’ll be able to decide which two of the three perform a needed task without the third. Given the medium, there’s not so much playing as watching, listening, and reading. There aren’t too many choices to make but each one matters so damned much.
Plot, character, and general ambiance are far more important in WKTD than in more traditional games because they’re really all you have and all three are guided completely by the scant choices you make in-game. Very quickly after the story gets going you start to figure out that this isn’t your average religious (ostensibly Christian but DEFINITELY not mainstream) camp. The whole little world that’s presented here has a few more elements of dystopia, satire, and science fiction than the real world. Between long, sometimes heartfelt conversations there is an ongoing (unclear) first person narration which links scenes together, picturesquely describing what physical action is happening, and ratchets up the mood and tension with brief imagistic stabs of prose that can be greatly affecting at times. Here’s a little snippet: “We hold hands. We’re looking for the signal. We can tell the difference between god and the devil; finding god is pretty easy. He’s at 109.8 FM.”
The plotting is pretty fantastic all the way through. When I first read the synopsis for WKTD I was intrigued, but worried it might come off too much like a Young Adult novel. Having played through a couple times and seen two of the possible four endings there are to find, I can safely say We Know the Devil has more in common with a movie like It Follows or a novel like It than anything you’d have read in early high school. I’m not trying to knock YA fiction, by the way; I’m just trying to say that WKTD is more a reflection on youth than a statement from it. The supernatural elements and over-heightened sense of reality are both excellent but they come from the place that all great horror comes from: real life fears and experiences.
Yes, god and the devil (both left lower-cased in-game) speak through the radio. Yes, these kids live in a world where radios run on incense coils and derelict cabin’s doors have complicated wiring in their locks. And yes, the devil is somewhere in the woods and he’s coming for you. But what sells all this strangeness is the very real relationship between our three protagonists and the very real things they are going through: realizing they’re somewhere between childhood and adulthood, struggling with their sexuality, learning that even though you don’t intend to and you wouldn’t ever want to, you will hurt the ones you love. You come to know Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune as very realistic people and have to actively make choices about what happens to them. As the game/story progresses those choices become less casual and more damning, more about making the best of a wretched situation.
I’ve got to mention to the great visual and musical style of We Know the Devil. Black and white anime-style characters take up the foreground while grainy analogue photographs of generic woodland America make up the backgrounds. The music is beyond perfect throughout, a bed of synthesizers reminiscent of John Carpenter and Angelo Badalamenti. Often employed in dramatic, almost non-musical fashion but still retaining a powerful vein of melodicism throughout, this is a soundtrack I’m definitely going to have to add to my collection.
If you haven’t played through a Visual Novel yet, I highly recommend keeping an open mind and playing though We Know the Devil a few times. If you enjoy the genre, I highly recommend purchasing this game as soon as possible. And if you don’t enjoy the genre, I still recommend giving We Know the Devil a try just because it’s so well put together and such a moving story. It’s a wonderful, heart wrenching experience that’s honestly opened my eyes to a whole new world of exciting storytelling possibilities.