sweet pool is the Best Cronenbergian Erotic Horror Game Ever Made

Doing body horror (mostly) right

“Creating as a woman, for female readers, [Hagio] found herself wanting to make every action more realistic and plausible. As she put it in her 2005 Comics Journal interview, ‘it came out sort of giggly.’ It was important that the characters be Other in order for Hagio to explore the themes, some quite abstract, that she wanted to explore.”

– Rachel Thorn, introduction to The Heart of Thomas

When legendary manga artist Moto Hagio set her groundbreaking 1974 manga The Heart of Thomas in a European boys’ boarding school, she was hoping to add a degree of distance for her female audience to process the story’s themes of faith, love, suicide, and surviving sexual assault. In the process, she co-created  the genre of BL (boys’ love or m/m romance). But I’m not sure she could have guessed it would lead to 2008’s Cronenbergian erotic horror visual novel sweet pool. Just take a minute to absorb that list of descriptors, I’ll wait. Good? Cool. I need you with me on this, because it’s going to get way, way murkier the further in we go. While sweet pool is definitely a tough sell, with a very dark storyline and a foot in several niche genres, it also deserves recognition for its terrifying depictions of consent, uterine anxieties, and puberty in horror games — even if it trips and falls at the finish line.

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Meet the Parents

sweet pool is the child of a few famous names — Gen Urobuchi of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Psycho Pass fame is listed as an advisor on the game, but the true credit for the story goes to Kabura Fuchii, the main scenario writer for the (in)famous Nitro+CHiRAL. The studio has built a cult following over the years through fan translations, particularly of 2012’s DRAMAtical Murder, but it wasn’t until late 2018 that any of their games received official English releases courtesy of JAST Blue. And the game they chose as the first salvo was the Cronenbergian cultist conspiracy about pooping meat. It’s perfect.

No, it really is. Fans of Nitro+CHiRAL are drawn to the studio’s high-concept BL stories, but one of the first things a newcomer is likely to hear about are the bad endings. CHiRAL protagonists have been dismembered, eaten (alive), assaulted, brainwashed and more, and the macabre enjoyment of seeing how gruesome things can get is at least as fun as going for the happy endings.

sweet pool doesn’t have any happy endings. While CHiRAL’s other games are predominantly genre fiction with horror undercurrents, sweet pool is out-and-out a horror game. It’s also a structural odd duck: there’s really only one “love interest,” while the two endings with other characters are glorified game overs; the game uses third-person rather than first-person narration; and it spends at least a little time in the perspective of almost every major character.

Your Body, the Enemy

The nominal protagonist of sweet pool is Youji, an eighteen-year-old who’s drawn to look as if he’s about thirty-five. Not that I’m complaining, given the game’s content. But it does create unintentional hilarity when the characters are asked to display very teenage vulnerabilities with their “just bought a mortgage” faces.

And boy, does Youji have problems. Sickly since birth, he’s returned to school (is it a Catholic school? Of course it is) to find it alienating and uncomfortable, as all his classmates have moved on without him. He can’t bring himself to eat, and has agonizing stomach pain alongside blood and weird horny daydreams. It scares the shit out of him, not least because the only people who seem to notice these changes are looking at him like fresh meat. It is the least subtle metaphor for the horrors of uterine puberty I have ever seen.

Things get even worse when the blood escalates to solid objects, and Youji finds himself, for lack of a better phrase, shitting meat. “Giving birth,” if you’re feeling generous, to little veiny flesh blobs. At the same time, the other guys at school are getting into his personal space because he has some kind of special smell. Yes, readers. This is an Omegaverse story, released a full two years before Fanlore’s proposed invention of the genre in 2010 (though for the record, this is very much not a fandom-exclusive trope, so there’s no need to hop onto any “fandom is dumb” high horses).

For those unaware, Omegaverse or A/B/O porn is heavily focused on pheromones and fertility, with an “alpha” character who flies into sexual frenzy by the “omega” character in heat, with both of them driven by Wild Animal Instincts™ that they can’t ignore. Along the way, you can often expect some really gross unconscious shit equating sex characteristics and behavior, and probably some natural butt lube. Google “knotting” at your own risk.

Diving Deep

Now, we don’t have time to unpack all of that, but I bring it up because it’s a key part of sweet pool’s frustrating duality. It is very fun to introduce this game to people as “the A/B/O visual novel about shitting meat” just to watch their faces, and the long pseudo-philosophical text dumps about how its biology works are as hilarious as they are overwritten. This is the first layer of the game.

The second layer is the downright brutal punch the game achieves in its early hours as Youji stumbles through his days, frightened and unsure what’s happening to him. Fuchii’s writing shines in its small details, repeatedly taking small note of all the times Youji is offered food he can’t keep down until he’s all but a walking skeleton and at one point noting that the protagonist can still feel things actively crawling out of his exhausted, wrung-out body. The script’s horror is at its strongest when capturing the building unease of feeling like you’re losing control of your body, and no one seems to notice — much less want to help.

These moments hit particularly hard for me as a trans player, as the game underlines time and again that Youji is a man — and yet he is plagued with metaphorical menstrual blood, and the game’s religious cult is very eager to tell him about how his sex characteristics have determined his purpose in life as a “Female.” Youji is embattled on all sides by friends who turn into sexual predators, by society, and by his own body, and there is a horrific effectiveness in his slow collapse. Those scenes have drawn me back to this game many times over the years, and they’re haunting in a way that goes beyond the (pretty good) gore.

The Genre Problem

No matter what actions the player takes, sexual assault is an unavoidable part of the game. This is partly a hallmark of BL’s worst impulses: are you a terrible writer who can’t possibly think of a way these two guys would consensually want to bone down? Just have the aggressive dude be a rapist, that’ll kick start your romance! These genre expectations about the use of romanticized rape clashes with sweet pool’s talent for weaving deliberately upsetting horror, and that disjunction is at the heart of what ultimately makes the game a conflicting experience.

All three characters who express interest in Youji eventually assault him, from supposed Nice Guy Makoto to Youji’s destined “Male,” Tetsuo. While graphic, the writing’s keen eye for upsetting detail doesn’t stop during these scenes. The predominant focus is on the emotional and physical trauma Youji suffers, turning the downright prurient level of detail into a seemingly-unending trial. It’s not exactly the pinnacle of ethical depictions of assault survivors — someone is definitely still getting off to this, and the game knows it — but it stumbles into accidental honesty about the shattering consequences of assault in a genre known to play rape for titillation.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day this is still sold as a BL game, and for all its horror flair it still ultimately succumbs to the genre’s expectations in a few disappointing ways. While the player’s input determines whether Youji responds to certain situations with “reason” or “instinct,” those choices ultimately make little more than a line or two of difference outside of determining the ending. It is completely possible for the player to make choices that cause Youji to vividly relive his rape at Tetsuo’s hands every time the two are together, but the scenes will then divert back into Youji beginning to soften toward his classmate-rapist because the plot and magical biochemistry say so.

Square Trope, Round Game

This culminates in the game’s final unlockable ending, which essentially offers a normalcy-reset button that will implicitly allow Tetsuo and Youji to meet as normal humans, as though this is something the audience would want after ten or so hours of watching Youji trauma-bond to his rapist because literally everyone else in this universe is worse. Unlike CHiRAL’s other games, which often feature solid foundations for their relationships that make the happy endings worth rooting for, sweet pool feels like it’s undercutting itself.

Tetsuo is deliberately kept opaque for 90% of the game to make him a mysterious figure, which makes his character feel flat and the reasoning for his awful actions feel like after-the-fact excuses to the tune of “he just couldn’t help himself” — and while this is a stumbling block for many BL stories, it stands out here because sweet pool’s unusual third-person framing means that while most of the cast is outright repugnant at one point or other, the player is still left with an uneasy understanding of how they ended up where they are. Characters like Zenya, the “defective” product of a cult experiment and unfortunate bearer of a very Jay-and-Silent-Bob aesthetic, become downright tragic by the story’s conclusion.

Successful stories about dark, mutually obsessive romances (see: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal; no please, do see it) require a certain level of dreamlike, fairytale abstraction from real, grounded consequences in order to work. The audience has to be able to forget about the tangible human cost and buy into the very specific logic of why no other outcome would do. But while sweet pool attempts this, its most triumphant moments are the ones that cut through its absurd premise into extremely grounded fears about adolescence and sexuality. The two mentalities clash and nearly tear the game apart. But even then, one of the game’s five endings (“The Red Road”) manages to stick the landing as a thematically appropriate horror tale, paying off everything that came before in a way that’s right even if it’s not happy.

It’s a difficult title to recommend because of its extreme content — the gore alone will turn its fair share of stomachs. It is available on Steam with the rape scenes removed, but it’s difficult to imagine the story of Youji’s disintegration without them. Not because it’s terrible wicked censorship, but because it so often gets the horror of those scenes right, and because so much of what comes after involves using the game’s technique of drilling small, nagging, nightmarish details into the player’s head. And there are many who will, entirely fairly, find a story that is so thoroughly wrapped around sexual assault too objectionable to play. And for everyone else who hasn’t left yet, there’s the fact that playing a game to laugh at it runs a little thin after ten hours.

At the same time, it’s an undeniably unique experience and searing in its effective moments, painting the majority of its cast with unexpected layers of pathos and nuance among the splatter. “Fun” isn’t exactly the word, but it might be the most memorable visual novel I’ve ever played. Meat babies and all.