If you’ve been following along for a while, you’ll know that friend of the site and big bossman of DigitallyDownloaded.net Matt Sainsbury has been beavering away at a series of visual novels of late.
Collectively known as My Time With Dee Dee, each “volume” of the series focuses on a particular aspect of literature and explores it in depth from a practical perspective, both through the volume’s own narrative and a bonus academic-style explanation of the genre or school of thought.
To date, we’ve taken on the erotic thriller in the first volume, the concept of the male gaze in the second, and existentialism in the third. Now, with the upcoming fourth volume, Sainsbury has set himself a challenging goal: to explore, challenge and confront the ideas of the Marquis de Sade. To that end, he sent me an early version of the new game to take a look at and see what I thought. So let’s do just that!
I’ll preface this by noting that, at the time of writing, I have little familiarity with the Marquis de Sade and his work aside from what one might regard to be “common knowledge” — the fact that the word “sadism” stems from his name, and that his work is filled with a variety of challenging themes, particularly regarding sexuality, violence and the interaction thereof.
And yet, from what I understand, the man has remained a subject of constant fascination for literary critics and philosophers alike over the years; his more morally reprehensible behaviour is often looked at as a side-effect of him being one of the most truly free-thinking individuals the world has ever seen. Or so the theory goes, anyway.
As with the previous My Time With Dee Dee visual novels, however, no prior knowledge of de Sade is required to understand and appreciate what is going on — in fact in many ways it might be best to go in blind with as few prior expectations as is possible given such potentially provocative subject matter. So that’s what I decided to do; I didn’t read up anything on de Sade before starting the game, and just dove in blind.
Sade, as the fourth volume is simply titled, begins with a subversion of the expectations the rest of the series has set. In prior volumes, the initial scene has provided the player the opportunity to enter their name and insert themselves as the participant narrator-protagonist — though there has always been the implicit assumption that said character is male. Here, however, the name you enter is almost immediately discarded in favour of another: Gideon.
This is a clever move, as very quickly it becomes very apparent that the narrator-protagonist of this particular installment is not the same bumbling, hormonal late-teen idiot of the previous volumes; this time around, Gideon appears to be a seething mass of rage at society, ambition to take matters into his own hands, and a relentless desire for ruthless sexual conquest. He’s not necessarily someone that the reader will feel comfortable stepping directly into the shoes of, so by discarding the reader’s own name almost immediately in favour of canonical nomenclature, the novel allows one to place something of a protective barrier between oneself and a participant narrator who looks set to be a fascinatingly, compellingly objectionable lead.
The My Time With Dee Dee visual novels have been designed to each stand by themselves and not require any prior knowledge of the previous volumes to appreciate. With this in mind, the characters are best thought of as “virtual actors” playing a part in order to best deliver the novel’s core messages. But at the same time, there is some consistency and ongoing character development between volumes, and the thing that makes Gideon slightly uncomfortable is the fact that he clearly remembers some of the experiences that the self-insert player character from the previous volumes had.
In this regard, we can also look at Gideon as something of a “what if” scenario. People don’t stay the same forever, after all, and the narrative in Sade is established early on to take place several years after the high school shenanigans of previous volumes. Had the player-protagonist continued on their path of frustration at never being able to get anywhere with the growing group of girls he had found himself attracted to, might he have one day found himself in a dark corner of the Internet, receptive to the message that he is “owed” sex from women simply because he is male?
It’s hard to say, and that ambiguity makes Gideon a fascinating character. We have several opportunities to learn a bit more about him over the course of the various branches the current demo takes, including the fact that he obviously has a lot more sexual experience than the previous player-protagonist was implied to have had — and, more significantly when considering the de Sade inspiration, he most certainly is not above making use of those sexual experiences as a means of advancing his own career or social standing.
At the same time, though, Gideon finds himself continuing to put up a “front” to the main cast of the novel — who, in this volume, add the bit-part volleyball player from Summer Loop and the rather formidable Aisha to the mix. Outnumbered by five young women, all of whom can quite reasonably be described as “strong” in very different ways to each other, it’s understandable why Gideon might not want to rock the boat too much — regardless of whatever his long-term intentions might be for these girls. Though tellingly, the one time he does allow his baser instincts to get the better of him… well, for now, let’s just say it doesn’t end well.
The narrative in the current demo begins in a similar fashion to previous installments in the series. An opportunity to reunite with Dee Dee and her friends is presented to the protagonist, and the preparation for said get-together provides the chance to interact with one or more of the core cast members prior to the “main event”. In this case, a three-way choice towards the start of the narrative presents the possibility of enjoying three very different events before the narrative threads reconvene on the night of the reunion party, at which point we get a tantalising teaser of the troubles that lie ahead, as well as a few more activities to enjoy together with the girls.
While structurally this setup is very similar to the previous volumes of My Time With Dee Dee, the addition of Gideon in the leading role makes for a very different atmosphere and feel. Whereas in previous installments, we could feel like we were right there enjoying ourselves with the group — and when the protagonist put his foot in his mouth with an inappropriate comment, it usually felt like an honest, clumsy, awkward teenager-style mistake — here, we’re always conscious of the fact that we’re seeing things through Gideon’s eyes. And whatever Gideon might be showing on the surface is absolutely not what is going on inside his head.
Because we can hear what is going on inside his head. We can practically feel his internal sneering at the situations unfolding in front of him. We can hear the cogs turning as he ponders how he might be able to turn a difficult, troublesome and potentially dangerous situation to his own advantage. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling — but it’s also absolutely fascinating, and you just can’t quite bring yourself to look away.
If this is a reflection of the appeal of de Sade, then I have to say — I think I get it. I understand why people feel simultaneously repulsed and drawn in by this sort of thing. Human nature can be terrifying — particularly if you ever find yourself contemplating how some of the things an obviously odious individual is saying might, from some perspectives, have some merit to them.
Fiction — particularly interactive fiction — is an ideal means of exploring these themes, because you’re able to look at the consequences of these attitudes and viewpoints without anybody actually getting hurt. It’s valuable, helpful, even essential, to consider, confront and interrogate challenging viewpoints — if only to get a better understanding of how certain individuals might end up thinking and behaving the way they do.
If Sade can live up to that potential, then Sainsbury is going to have a fascinating work of fiction on his hands. One that some people will find to be a struggle to get through, I’m sure, but one definitely worth attempting to engage with, regardless.
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