Little Red Lie: A Novel Game | A Short Pause Review
Much like Actual Sunlight before it, Little Red Lie is a difficult video game to review.
On the one hand, developer Will O’Neill has once again managed to create an unrelenting, occasionally uncomfortable, modern social critique that is unquestionably a unique experience in this medium. On the other hand, Little Red Lie is barely a game at all. It’s a digital novella that defies genre categorization; a razor sharp, intricately constructed piece of interactive prose that has more in common with Catcher in the Rye than Call of Duty. Little Red Lie is not going to be a game for everyone, and it’s not supposed to be. Some of you will look at it — probably confusingly — maybe read through its first “essay,” and dismiss it without a second thought. To those of you willing to embrace its format, absorb its commentary, and discuss its ideas, you’re in for an unusual and potentially rewarding niche gaming experience.
At the heart of Little Red Lie, creator Will O’Neill’s writing remains as potent as ever. Actual Sunlight veterans will know what to expect here: evocative prose, dark humor, mature themes, and poignant societal observations. The dialogue is believable and the characters’ internal monologues — the game’s main vehicle of delivery — provide meaningful insight into their inner workings and thoughts. In terms of the quality of the writing, it’s not often we see this level of craft in this industry. Narrative construction and execution remains an evolving skill in gaming and, while we’ve seen great strides made with this in recent generations from both the AAA and indie space, there’s still room to grow before this industry reaches its storytelling zenith. That’s why it’s so interesting to see a game like Little Red Lie come along. As a primarily prose-based piece of interactive fiction, it behooves Little Red Lie to stand out from the crowd and deliver a compelling experience strictly through its writing, and that’s what O’Neill has managed to accomplish here. Of special note, O’Neill’s brief Twitter bio lists him as a writer first and then a game developer, and it makes sense; his pen here has a literature-level quality about it and that alone, for some, is going to be worth the price of admission.
I say all that to say this: perhaps Little Red Lie’s greatest strength is in its ability to incite discussion. I say “perhaps,” because I haven’t had the chance to actually discuss the game with anyone (I don’t know anyone who’s played through it yet). I do know, however, that when the credits rolled, I wanted to talk to someone about the game. I wanted to talk through my questions and compare theories and ideas about what had transpired over the course of the story. I wanted to talk about Sarah Stone, Little Red Lie’s main protagonist, a young woman approaching middle-age at a crossroads in her life. I wanted to talk about the fact that her sister is suicidal, her mother is sick, she’s lost her job, and her father is overwhelmed. I wanted to talk about her role in the family, her relationship with her sister, and her place in society. I wanted to talk about Arthur Fox, Sarah Stone’s foil and Little Red Lie’s second protagonist (antagonist?), an upper class elitist with an air of invincibility that has convinced him nothing is off-limits. I wanted to talk about the fact that he is a selfish prick who takes what he wants when he wants, and how he expects everyone else to get out of his way. The game raises so many questions that beg further discussion. How does Arthur tie into Sarah’s story? What conclusions are we to draw about classism, wealth, sexism, and the broader questions raised about women and their place in a variety of economical and societal situations? Red text in the game denotes a lie (or does it?); what is the overall thought and purpose behind this mechanic? I’d actually love to sit down with Will O’Neill one day, pick his brain about Little Red Lie, and get his thoughts about what he was thinking when he was writing this game. This all calls back to the point I made earlier in regards to the quality of the writing. There’s a lot be mined from this game and a variety of layers to explore; Little Red Lie could easily be the subject of discussion in a Language Arts course or game discussion group in the future.
Where I remain torn on Little Red Lie, and where the the game will be polarizing for most, is when it comes to the actual moment-to-moment gameplay, or lack thereof more specifically. The “game” part of Little Red Lie is simply you moving your character from object to object, or character to character, in order to trigger the next piece of prose or conversation. I suppose there is some semblance of a puzzle as you attempt to figure out which person or thing starts the next part of the story, but most will want to interact with everything available anyways to take it all in. Little Red Lie is not a short game, either. While O’Neill’s previous effort Actual Sunlight could be knocked out in a scant 90 minutes, Little Red Lie clocked in at around 8 hours for me when all was said and done. It’s a little jarring to sit in front of your big screen TV or computer screen and “read” a game for 8 hours. It would have been nice to see some aspect of more traditional game elements (or less traditional elements for that matter) sprinkled in throughout. A more elaborate puzzle mechanic, or even something as simple as making a decision that affects the course of your playthrough, would have gone a long way in this game. There actually are dialogue decisions you can occasionally make in the game as a player, but they don’t seem to affect the outcome of the game narrative one way or another. It’s a bit of a strange mechanic, but I’d imagine there’s a particular reason for its inclusion here. It’s another one of the game’s many questions that is worth a deeper look.
I want to say this, too: if you have the opportunity to experience this game on the Vita, as opposed to the PS4 or PC, I would take advantage of it. That’s not to say the game has issues on the PS4 or PC; I played through the game in its entirety on the PS4 and it works perfectly fine. Little Red Lie is a narrative heavy experience that is akin to sitting down with a good novel, and the Vita is much better at conveying that sort of intimate, tactile experience. It’s very easy to curl up in your favorite chair or bed, Vita held close to your face, and take in the story of Little Red Lie as you would your favorite book. While I haven’t played through the game in its entirety on the handheld yet, I’ve taken in enough to know this is the optimal way to experience the title.
I cheekily titled this review “A Novel Game.” While it is assuredly a unique experience in gaming, it’s also literally a novel game. The device you play Little Red Lie on, the graphics, the way you control the character and interact with the environment, it’s all a vehicle for you to read the story that developer Will O’Neill has penned. And there's nothing wrong with that. While I would have loved to see Little Red Lie take advantage of the medium and include more actual gameplay, I understand that's not the way the game was designed. If you’re looking for something off the beaten path with a heavy focus on character and narrative, give Little Red Lie a look. If you’re a gamer looking to read more, I actually think Little Red Lie is the perfect way to facilitate and reconcile a love of gaming and the desire to read. This title won’t appeal to everyone, but to those that do take the plunge, a distinctly rewarding game awaits, especially if you’re able to talk about it afterwards.
A very special thanks to Will O’Neill for graciously providing us with a digital copy of the game on PS4 and Vita for review. Thanks Will!