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The Uncomfortable Honesty of We Should Talk’s Power Dynamics

Being supportive or abusive is just a few words apart.

Playing We Should Talk put me in a position I’ve made a point to never find myself in, but have found myself on the receiving end of before. 

We Should Talk has your character sitting at a bar, texting her girlfriend (or just girl she’s dated, depending on how you decide to label the relationship in conversation) Sam while she drinks, talks to her ex, and at one point deals with a guy who appears to have been stood up and is going through the motions in that particular moment. 

At a glance, your ex-boyfriend Dante and the possible creep, but maybe just misguided Jimmy are framed as possible temptations away from your relationship with Sam. But in a perfect world, if there were residual feelings for your ex or you’re just feeling like getting messy with a stranger, there’d be a chance to let Sam down easily and give you both the freedom to move on. But that’s not what happens in We Should Talk. At the core of the stories the dialogue-driven game tells, how you speak to Sam in the midst of all this external stimuli is the bulk of what We Should Talk is, even if it would be easier to just say “we should see other people.”

Choosing dialogue in We Should Talk is elegant in its clarity, while also being uncomfortable when you put pieces together and see the sentence you’ve made. Sentences you text to Sam or utter to your potential surrounding suitors are made by shuffling through what are essentially drop downs, changing one word of an established phrase fundamentally alters your intent, and in turn how anyone you’re talking to perceives you. Yes, that’s how talking in the real world works, but seeing options for how to respond is different than just speaking your mind. You have to find the combination of words that clearly communicate what you want to say, and the other options are on the screen alongside them like intrusive thoughts of ways you could respond. Even if you shake those thoughts and what you imagine their consequences to be away.

There’s an acknowledgement of the power of what you say and how you say it, and how those words can drastically affect someone’s perception of you. It’s far more tangible than most dialogue options in video games are. Like Ren wrote last week, RPGs and other dialogue-driven games give you full sentences to speak, and while yes, in the backend of We Should Talk these crafted sentences mechanically function the same way, there’s a difference between being handed sentences to write and having to choose everything you say more carefully. But with that same authorship you’re given, the opportunity to be terrible to someone because you’re afforded the opportunity to do so is just as present in your mind as it would be in real life. 

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In my personal life, I’ve made a point to never really put someone in the position Sam is in during We Should Talk. She’s invested in the relationship but unsure about how you feel. Given things she says, communication issues have been a major problem with the relationship, and she’s doing her best to pull out an answer about how committed you are to the relationship. This is from simple tests of whether or not you’re willing to do things she wants to do like going to the gym together, or diving in headfirst by saying she considers you more family than her blood relatives. In choosing my responses my first time through, I was attentive, did my best to quell her fears, and it ended positively, with us deciding we’d go to couples therapy and work out our issues as a unit.

But by being a game with multiple endings, all determined by the dialogue you choose, We Should Talk encourages you to take the road less traveled, and in doing so allows you to be dismissive, unwilling to change, and even gaslight Sam while she is desperately looking for a connection with you. I’ve done my best to never put anyone in Sam’s position, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been put in it myself. 

The discomfort of We Should Talk comes in its honesty of how abusive relationship power dynamics can be. It doesn’t feel good to be on the other side of the phone, trying to rationalize how people who know they have a possible significant other wrapped around their finger make the decision to drag them along. But there are people out there who aren’t tuned into how their words can affect people looking for the most basic of decency and care. Or they are, but straight up don’t give a fuck. At times, dialogue options I could string together came off near comical in the disdain they directed at Sam, but anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship knows that someone you once believed wouldn’t hurt you can show what feels like a calculated lack of respect for your emotional needs.

We Should Talk manages to capture so many dynamics of budding relationships in such a short time. Each route is like a short vignette of the ways two people can either come together or just crash and burn. As nice as it is to see it blossom, nothing exists without the possibility to wither away. It just doesn’t feel great to be the person who is actively depriving it of water and sunlight, even if those who make that decision exist. I think I’ll stick with the ending where Sam gets what she deserves. No one should feel like they have to fight to be heard by the person they want to talk to most.

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Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Georgia-based writer who still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.

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