The Fragility and Pain of Friendship in We Know the Devil
Friendship can be a strange, difficult thing to navigate.
Everyone loves to have pals, but how many of your dearest friends have you left behind over the course of your life? Can you think back to someone you spent every waking moment with for years, and when that simply stopped?
We choose to share our lives with people, growing more and more intimate, but then someone or something comes along and it all crumbles. Friendship is such a delicate, fragile thing, and is a major theme of Aevee Bee's We Know The Devil (WKTD), a visual novel about the difficulties, pain, and nuances surrounding that most precious aspect of our lives.
WKTD stars three teens, Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune, all stuck in a religious summer camp. Part of your time at this camp involves being sent to a cabin deep in the woods, where you and a handful of your friends will confront the devil.
Despite the fact that they're due to meet the personification of evil in this place, they spend the evening talking about their lives, growing closer as they share stolen drinks and secret stories. For all of the darkness around them, nothing is more important than the bond they share together.Yet, that bond cannot hold between three people, can it?
"'Friend' is a word that maybe fails to capture the strain of childhood relationships," says Bee. We're beings of finite time. When we get close to someone, we naturally distance ourselves from others. It can't be helped. Deep friendships take time to cultivate. You have to spend a lot of time with someone, sharing good times and bad, to develop a close friendship with them. That leaves you with less time to spend with anyone else. Slowly, this makes other friendships drift apart.
"I wanted players to feel both happiness and relief for the pair who found each other, but also regret for the one left behind," says Bee. "Not necessarily because I felt that it was inevitable, (that is why there is the fourth ending) but because it's a thing that happens; the difficulty of balancing the situation, the feeling that it's no one's fault directly, yet there's still so much harm that happens."
We see this in WKTD. Player choices will naturally pair up two of the three teens, leaving the third to languish, alone. This isn't done in an overt way, but at many points, the game asks the player to pair up the characters, letting the player's curiosity and their own attachments join them. The player can make an extremely concentrated effort to make sure all three have equal time together (and only when assisted by hindsight), but for the most part, our own tendencies will result in a pair.
Maybe we want to know more about one character. Maybe we just like their personality and want to hear more of what they have to say. It's not that the other character is someone you actively dislike, but in trying to learn more about one, you push out another.
When given the closed space of the game, we focus on one, maybe two characters. We have to, as the choices in WKTD will only allow us to pair people up. We don't have time for everyone. A third will always be left out. This is just as in real life. When we spend time with one friend, it can be difficult to find time for another, especially if we really want to know more about them. Why? Partially because one-on-one time is when we're at our most honest. Well, as honest as you can be with another person.
"I think I was a bit younger than those characters, but not too much, when I started to understand that people could act very differently depending on the social setting they were in and who they were with," says Bee. "I remember once having a very honest conversation with someone who was normally pretty mean to me when she was around her friends."
We change ourselves when we're around certain people. We obscure the truth with jokes and cruelty, but when we're all alone, with a single person who cares about us? Over time, some truth wriggles its way out.
It takes time to really get to know someone, and with people acting differently around others, it means we can only really get to know people one-on-one. Even in a setting with many friends, we crave the intimate conversation in the corner. We see someone we like, or are more interested in, and we pair off with them to learn more. That closeness of friendship means shedding the larger group in favor of one person. It naturally, and somewhat sadly, means casting off others.
Being close to someone is a good thing, though. Having a powerful friendship with someone can enrich your life, but Bee wanted players to know that there is a cost to that friendship. She wanted players to see that there is often someone hurt when two people come together. "Balancing intimacy with three people is incredibly hard," she says. "So hard that you're going to fail at it, and what you've gained will feel good but what you've lost will also hurt." Ever think back on that childhood friend you never speak to any more with pangs of regret? New friendships are lovely, but there is still a pain and sadness for what you've left behind.
WKTD wouldn't have worked with its message so well if all of Bee's characters hadn't been as endearing as they are (in their own ways). They are equally capable of drawing the player in and making them want to get closer. This is why it is so hard to watch one of them fall by the wayside, swallowed up by the devil as the price of being the one that wasn't chosen. "I worried so much about making sure all of the characters were likable - that it would be a hugely difficult choice to push any one of them out. That's sort of the point; these pressures exist, they are real and powerful and not your friend." says Bee.
That aspect is very important. Again, it's not that we want to throw someone away. We don't want to hurt someone, and don't even think of it in those terms. Natural closeness will just draw you to one friend over another. This is why Venus, Neptune, and Jupiter are all appealing, fleshed-out characters. You learn to like all of them in different ways, but without ever meaning to, you will push one of them aside for a favored pair.
And what of the poor third character who's left to meet the devil alone? When this occurs in the game, the character undergoes a dramatic change, one that is horrifying and beautiful at the same time. One character becomes a mass of eyes and wings. Another is enveloped in a storm of hands, grasping and needing different things.
"The devil is literally that which is desired but feared." says Bee. "I wrote all of the abstract imagery that the devil is described with by pulling from a palette of imagery from the character's name planet, with the purpose of using that imagery to convey whatever it was they simultaneously feared and desired."
Why would the one left out be the one to reach what they feared and desired? Wouldn't a close bond with someone allow you to accept the thing that scares you about yourself? This final act is important, as it reveals that, even though friendship can bring us truly close to sharing our truths with another, it often still isn't enough. There will always be terrible secrets that you keep, even from the people closest to you. We're still acting, even at our closest to complete acceptance.
The teenager that meets the devil has nothing, and no one, to lose though, leaving only the crushing weight of who they really are to be faced alone. They know who they are, and in the darkest night, staring into the blackness of the ceiling above your bed, don't you know, as well?
"Maybe what's changed is being seen and accepted for what they are. The one pushed out is the one who will suffer for who she is, but that doesn't mean the survivors find acceptance." says Bee. "The kids meet the devil when they have nothing else to lose, nothing forcing them to keep up appearances, but being the second or third worst kid is fine, because as long as there's someone even more messed up than you, they're the one who will be blamed."
Friendship assists us in opening up to someone. We can finally open up to someone and reveal some of our truths. Perhaps it's the appeal of letting someone see the dark things inside that draws us to others, but there will always be a limit. There will often be a place, even among close friends, where a line is drawn. Where the full, actual truth of who you are will be hidden, whether purposely or not. Friendship is a bond seeking mutual truth, but can we ever reveal the full extent of who we are to someone else?
"A community of two people is infinitely stronger than a person alone who has no one to validate or accept her. The survivors accept each other, yes, but conditionally: Venus can't change, Jupiter can't be open, Neptune can't be honest. They're surviving by clinging to the culture they know and it's crushing for them as survivors in a very different way that's as profound as the one who becomes the devil." says Bee.
This is the fragility of friendship, and maybe an answer as to why it is so easily broken and discarded in favor of another. The two that stay together bond over the truths they've shared with one another, but even these are limited constructs. They're not the full, real extent of who you are, which is only shared by the character who meets the devil. Only the dark can know the truths you don't share with anyone else, for fear of societal reactions or what your dear friends will think of your cruelest thoughts. The remaining two teens can't be fully honest with one another, coming close, but never quite to the point where they can be their true selves.
But we try. We Know the Devil is a kind of horror in that, even in the friendships we build, on some level, we are alone with the truth of ourselves. It is also a game of hope, because we still strive to have someone know us - all of us. We seek that truth out, even if it means hurting others unintentionally. We want that closeness so we can be who we truly are with someone, and we'll keep trying it for all of our lives. We push out as we draw inward and this hurts people, but we're all doing it. We will all be the devil and the accepted at some point, and we will all make people become the outcast devil and the accepted.
But we try. We will keep trying to find someone to be ourselves around. We'll spend our lives doing it. Players of We Know the Devil can keep trying until they get a final, hidden ending where all of them become friends. No one has to face the devil alone. We can keep trying to find the truth among other people. It will be very hard, but it's possible to face the darkness together. In the end, maybe we can make peace with everything about who we are to another person.
Society, fear, and our own doubt make that nearly impossible. But we try.