Unearthing Desire in a Digital Age

Trigger warning: There are brief mentions of sex, mental illness, anorexia, self-harm, and suicide in these impressions.

In Kara Stone’s (@karaastone on Twitter and karastone on itch.io) own words about this game on Twitter, the earth is a better person than me is “about being a woman, queerness, psycho-social disability, and having sex with the world.” Like other recent indie game projects we’ve discussed recently, such as Heaven Will Be Mine, Patriah, and circuits, Stone is reinventing the visual novel genre by broaching topics that are often neglected, misrepresented, or marginalized in the mainstream games industry.

The earth is a better person than me doesn’t feature as much of the traditional visual framework for visual novels as the aforementioned games do, however. To me this project feels more like a cross between a creative non-fiction essay and a performative art piece, which follows since Stone is both a scholar and an artist whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, Wired, and Vice. The narrative of the protagonist Delphine is at once raw, personal, and often symbolic in an archetypal way. Stone expressed during the launch of the game on Twitter that although she sees parts of Delphine in herself, the experiences referenced in the game are as much auto-biographical as they are her friends’ stories, or stories that reflect on similar experiences as well.

One story that surfaced in my mind after I played through the game a couple times, was that of the Oracle at Deplhi, who Delphine shares the root of her name with. The Oracle at Delphi was always a woman, because she served Gaia (the Goddess and personification of Earth) and one that received her insights from a chasm in the earth. The oracle would sit precariously above this chasm on a tripod, ingest laurel leaves, and inhale volcanic gases to gain visions while in a state of ecstasy. While Delphine isn’t performing as an oracle in the narrative of “the earth is a better person than me” she has intercourse (both orally and sexually) with various aspects of nature that deliver personal revelations. These revelations shore up issues of societal pressures on women, particularly regarding how women should appear, behave, and desire. The Oracle’s chasm, and the connection of the Oracle to Gaia, speak to two of the game’s most prominent themes as well, of the chasm between urban and green spaces, and of queer love and sex.

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Delphine’s intercourse with nature offers commentary on the urban versus nature divide, and how that gulf is widening every day in our digital age. Only recently have we begun concerted efforts to reconnect with nature in a way that brings more mindfulness into our lives, but technology invades even there. While there has been in a rise in trends for forest bathing or ayahuascua retreats, there are countless mobile apps that let you meditate or focus on nature-based ASMR audio design—whilst interfacing with your phone or laptop.

As a brief related aside, the game’s audio design is ambient yet powerful. The soundtrack is composed by Chris Zabriskie of 2015’s Her Story, another game which delves into the complexities of being a woman struggling against feminine archetypes. The soundtrack acts as an important marker of Delphine’s mental state throughout any playthrough, at one turn hitting ranges that are calming like ASMR and another dissolving into dissonance that skillfully nettles the player.

A prime example of how the soundtrack intertwines with the narrative design can be found in the Dirt path, when Delphine is feeling suicidal. In that path you’re given the choice to let Delphine hang on to her cellphone and contact her loved ones or throw it away as “waste” as the Dirt decomposes her body. As you let Delphine be buried alive, the waves of the soundtrack become heavier, giving you a sense of how weighted down Delphine is. We share a complex relationship with our technology, sometimes it’s our lifeline and at other times a tool that perpetuates a cycle of endless comparison, anxiety, and isolation despite the social networks it affords us. Not to mention how technology spurs our preoccupation with productivity. At several points throughout the game, Delphine chastises herself for not having a specific goal during both her forest walk and sex. She always wants to have a purpose, whether fussing over the Flower, or giving pleasure to the Tree or the Sun. Tackling this issue of overactivity in the medium of a game is significant too, as most games are at their core a series of goals we pursue to reach an end state (hopefully where we are winning).

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Delphine says flippantly of her forest walk during one of the game’s 6 main paths: “I just needed a change of scenery. People always talk about the healing power of nature or whatever.” Her apathy is a superficial thing though; when she communes (or clashes) with the different aspects of nature she’s surprised by how poignant her physical and emotional responses are. Everything in the forest from a tree to the sun and moon, and even the dirt makes Delphine react and reflect on who she is at her core. The Tree and the Moon show Delphine compassion and counsel her on coming to terms with her sexual desires and identity, while the Sun and the Dirt are unforgiving forces that make Delphine question her worth as both a woman and a human who is unfamiliar with nature. These two latter paths are arguably some of the most sinister of the game, dealing with toxic sexual partnerships, self-harm, and obsession to name a few.

The Sun and Moon’s paths are, for me at least, contain some of the most significant revelations of the entire game. In the former path, the Sun is portrayed as a self-absorbed masculine force that can literally consume Delphine, both in body and in soul. Delphine puts the Sun first before even eating, commenting as she wastes away that she’s “like one of those monks or anorexic people who live on sunlight alone.” Recalling the Oracle mythos mentioned above, the Sun is like Apollo (who the Oracle spoke for), and takes credit for everything it influences. He even makes Delphine into a sacrifice to itself if she chooses to look directly at its form. There’s a lot to parse in this path about the male gaze and one-sided heteronormative relationships, such as how a man’s desire is put first before a woman’s, or how sexual dynamics are described in terms of men “taking” and women “giving.” The Sun’s path is deliberately filled with cliché sayings about longing for a male partner when you’re apart, needing to know if your male partner wants you just much, or wanting to be the only thing your male partner looks upon. These clichés accentuate how unhealthy an unbalanced relationship is, especially in regards to heteronormativity.

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The Moon’s path stands, naturally, in direct contrast to the Sun’s and brings to mind Apollo’s sister Artemis; the goddess who preferred the company of women and was the protector of young girls. The Moon consoles Delphine after any abuse (mental or physical) she suffers from the Sun. The Moon also acts as metaphor for constant change in the game’s narrative. Throughout all of its phases it’s devoted to Delphine and is patient as Delphine struggles to come to terms with her queer sexuality. The Moon represents selfless, unconditional love, as it will forget Delphine as it becomes a new Moon. As Delphine notes of the dynamic between her and the moon: “Where I see opportunity for power, it [the Moon] sees opportunity for balance.” The Moon’s path is about female communion and the restorative qualities of such companionship, as well as accepting yourself at every stage of your life as a woman.

Speaking of acceptance, Delphine sees her love for women as an obstacle to be overcome, which is a burden placed on her by urban society and its heteronormativity. She tells the Moon she is “stuck” when she cannot admit her queer identity, even though the Moon tells her it’s alright to be contemplative of her inner self before coming out on her own terms. In the forest Delphine is more free to love who she chooses, although she still battles with insecurities when she does choose a female partner such as the Tree or the Moon (both of which are characterized as mature and sexually confident women). Delphine always seeks to succeed at something, which sometimes sabotages her intercourse with the Tree or the Moon. In the Tree’s path, Delphine becomes so focused on pleasuring the Tree that the Tree tells her it’s too much. The ending of the Tree path sees Delphine realizing that having sex and making love are two very different expressions of intimacy, and that her sexual self is something that will evolve over time.

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The earth is a better person than me is a game that offers a ludic contribution to the ongoing cultural commentary about how humanity sometimes needs to disconnect from the trappings of society in order to regain a broader perspective. Writers within the Transcendentalist and Romanticist traditions, as well as Hannah Arendt, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Michael Finkel, and many more have explored how nature and our relationship to the world is complex, profound, and yet still personal. But Kara Stone’s game is perhaps one of the first games that we could say enters the conversation and offers a new way to engage with the politics of the self, society, and nature. For in playing a game about a woman reconnecting with herself through nature, we are by virtue of the medium delivering the narrative, forced to think about where we fit in the matrix of the world.

I don’t want to get too lofty about these impressions however. I think one of the game’s main strengths is to keep you mindful of what’s happening in each moment of your playthrough.  Delphine states at the beginning of one path not to “think about why I came here. Just enjoy it.” This game will make you reflect on a lot of things, as my impressions have hopefully imparted, but keep in mind that it’s also an experience which will offer different insights and enjoyable moments for each playthrough. The earth is a better person than me is an interactive meditation of sorts, one that we need in our digital age full of unbalanced systems and lack of self-care or love.
 

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