Review: Little Red Lie

Developer Will O’Neill’s bluntness fulfills Little Red Lie’s philosophy of being honest no matter what.

Little Red Lie
Photo: WZO Games Inc.

In red-letter editions of the New Testament, red text indicates the words of Jesus Christ. The intention is to draw special attention to moral truths that might interest those who seek salvation. At first glance, Little Red Lie doesn’t appear to have much in common with this practice, as the red letters in the game’s dialogue signify when a character is being deceitful. Developer Will O’Neill seeks to depict a society where lies, even if seemingly harmless, conceal the dire reality of a contemporary capitalist state. By the end of the game, the story doesn’t present a message of hope like Christ did, but in breaking the fourth wall and taking direct aim at the audience, it does stand as a compelling moral challenge: namely, for us to carefully watch our words.

O’Neill’s game follows two middle-aged protagonists in modern Toronto: Sarah Stone, a jobless woman forced to live with her parents, and Arthur Fox, a wealthy motivational speaker. When controlling either character, the player walks around and interacts with people and objects to trigger reams of dialogue. During these interactions, Little Red Lie will order you to lie about a variety of topics, and you have no choice but to oblige. These prompts (such as “Lie About Pseudospiritual Nonsense” and “Blame The Internet”) can be extremely cynical, but they’re part of the unique critical eye that O’Neill uses to call attention to the words and motivations of every character.

Throughout, Little Red Lie might imply that there are those who are more honorable than others (Fox’s misanthropy renders him an obvious villain), but the red text that frequently appears within dialogue exchanges indicts the entire cast of characters from a standpoint of absolute morality. Stone, for instance, fibs to her father about her financial debt, while Fox bullshits a crowd on the meaning of life. Because Fox tries to exploit others for money, he could be seen to be more sinful than Stone, but O’Neill’s insistence on coloring every misleading phrase shows how even basic conversations between loving people can carry a level of mistrust, which in turn complicates their ability to function in a society that revolves around money.

There are few video games as focused and uncompromising in their messaging as Little Red Lie. In one scene, Stone’s father promises his sick wife that he won’t try to lift her as she attempts to walk up the stairs; red-highlighted text immediately identifies the man as untruthful, and a later event demonstrates how his good intentions don’t justify a falsehood in the long run. Since the game never lets up on its premise, the implication that everyone is a liar can be exhausting to digest. Sometimes only one word of a character’s monologue will be in red, and if the deceit isn’t blatant or malicious, you must think of how the word points to a lie based on previous dialogue or from a general standpoint (like “How might this phrase be misleading?”). Such mental exercises may lead you to consider what you say to people in real life and how much of the truth you might obscure to bolster an appearance of confidence, adequacy, cooperation, and more.

Little Red Lie is also notable for unflinchingly depicting women’s anxiety about men. After Stone sleeps with a man who seems like a prince, she goes out of her way to avoid further intimacy with him. Her fear and sense of inadequacy speak to a status quo erected by alpha males like Fox, whose sexual experiences are at times predatory and criminal. The curt responses of a female assistant whom Fox preys upon are powerful in their repressed despair, indicating why many choose silence over outrage in “professional” life. As one character puts it, “We make so many choices, and then it all comes down to carrying the choices that other people made instead.”

This game would not be as daring as it is, though, without its unusual coda, in which a character addresses you upfront about what you’ve witnessed in the story. Regardless of whether this person represents O’Neill himself, Little Red Lie ends with an everlasting assertion that you, even if you think of yourself as an activist, have contributed to a world of greed by being a moral coward. The game is a cry against the woes of a dishonest society (Fox, for example, is representative of how the rich get away with heinous acts), and its finale provokes players to examine if they’re unknowingly reinforcing a collective immorality of sorts. O’Neill’s perspective is harsh and bleak, yet his bluntness fulfills Little Red Lie’s philosophy of being honest no matter what.

 Developer: Will O'Neill  Publisher: WZO Games Inc.  Platform: PlayStation 4  Release Date: January 10, 2018  ESRB: M  ESRB Descriptions: Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs  Buy: Game

Jed Pressgrove

Jed Pressgrove's writing has appeared in Game Bias, Film Quarantine, and Unwinnable.

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