Indie Nation: Handle With Care

Our “Indie Nation” series highlights interesting games from the world of independents.

Handle With Care, the sequel to Polaris and second game in Robert Yang’s Radiator series, came out yesterday. 

It’s interesting.

Where Polaris revolved around a relatively unusual core mechanic (stargazing) placed inside a wholly believable and unspectacular world, Handle With Care is the exact opposite. I don’t want to say too much in that direction, as much of Handle With Care‘s charm comes from the sheer audacity of its premise (and not the fact that two of the main characters are gay, which I fear will become a focal point for those who are easily amused or offended).

You can get it here, though you’ll need Half-Life 2: Episode Two on order to run it. Alternatively, you can hit the jump as I try to sort out my thoughts regarding this most unconventional installment in an already unconventional series.

I like the premise, execution, and style of Handle With Care. I also completely disagree with what it has to say.

The basic idea is as follows: as a man named David goes through marriage counseling with his husband Dylan (the only non-player character in Polaris), while you, as a member of the Internal Repression Service, run around inside David’s mind trying to take David’s memories and feelings (symbolized by fragile wooden crates) and repress them by organizing them into progressively harder-to-reach slots in a massive series of memory shelves.

Except, maybe you aren’t. 

Every successfully repressed memory effects a subtly negative reaction from the therapist outside David’s head. By repressing the truth, he simultaneously lashes out at Dylan and the therapist. Conversely, should the player break any of the intensely fragile boxes within David’s mind (presumably letting out all the emotions and repressed memories held within), he receives conflicting feedback: the therapist congratulates Davis for opening up and the player is treated to an orange-tinted recollection of one of David’s memories, but the inside ofthe Internal Repression Service is rocked with explosions and floods as it breaks down. The worlds within and outside of David’s head provide conflicting goals for the player: will it be better for David’s relationship if he represses his memories, or if he lets them all come out?

The ending(s) make no value judgments either way. Should you let out all of David’s memories, Dylan sees how you’ve truly felt over the past few months and decides you should get divorced. Should you succeed in repressing David’s true feelings, his own lies and self-delusion save the relationship. Is it better to stay married at the cost of lying to yourself, or get divorced while being honest? Given that the therapist rewards one course of action while the inside of David’s head rewards another, the game thankfully refuses to boil down these ultimate choices to simplistic “good” and “bad” outcomes. 

But that’s not what I disagree with.

The actual act of stacking and organizing these memory boxes is so goddamn difficult, and requires such dexterity, that Handle With Care‘s symbolic spine simply broke in half once I reached the game’s midpoint.

David’s memories will break apart if you so much as look at them sideways. Brush one against a wall one too many times, and it’ll explode. Try to use one like a stepping stone, and it’ll explode. Drop it, and it’ll explode. While the cosmetic act of exploding matches what the explosion seemingly tries to represent — emotions violently escaping from David’s subconscious — the sheer ease with which these boxes detonate seems to run completely counter to everything I feel about the act of self-delusion.

It’s easy to be completely honest with yourself, the game says. Symbolically, you can just run into your mind and start throwing shit around willy-nilly, and you’ll soon experience true self-realization. Conversely, the act of lying to yourself is much, much harder and requires an incredible amount of planning and dexterity. If you’ve gotta repress a memory by placing it on the very top shelf where seemingly no ladders can reach, you’re going to have to build a staircase of other memories, then very lightly step on those memories, then throw the memory into the slot and pray it doesn’t hit the sides and come tumbling back down at you. Any slip in this process, no matter how small, will result in the true depths of your psyche forcing their way out of your head. 

Something about that just doesn’t ring true for me.

In real life, isn’t it easier to lie to yourself? Doesn’t the act of self-realization require a devastating amount of honesty, effort, and courage? Sure, it’s cathartic and satisfying to run around David’s mind, haphazardly tossing crates into one another once you realize the point of the game, but the metaphor just rubs me the wrong way. After the game’s halfway point, your shelving assignments get so insanely difficult that telling the truth to yourself actually becomes the easy way out. Maybe it’s just me, but that feels incorrect. 

Then again, that’s almost besides the point. The fact is: I’m critiquing Handle With Care not on the basis of its graphics or fun factor, but in terms of what it is trying to say. Regardless of whether or not I agree with anything Handle With Care says, it presents those ideas clearly and imaginatively. It’s not even worth comparing to Polaris given how sharply its metaphors and metaphysics clash with Polaris‘ directness, but it definitely serves as an interesting complement to the first Radiator game.

Get it here.

Anthony Burch