Behind Every Great One, by Deconstructeam (2018)
The division of labor in Gabriel and Victorine’s household appears quite clear-cut: Gabriel works at home as a successful painter and he’s currently riding the financial and creative high from a particularly successful recent exhibition. Victorine works at home as a housewife. She carries the balance of everything. In the first scene of the game, Gabriel vocalizes his gratitude for and acknowledgment of everything his wife does for him.
Gabriel spends his days in his studio while Victorine goes about the house, keeping it in order. Gabriel calls Victorine his muse, but paradoxically refuses to let her see his studio so long as his projects is incomplete, a kind of superstition. The player controls Victorine directly and quickly becomes intimately familiar with the bounded space of their home, beautiful in its in-game visual design but also utterly mundane. As she approaches objects, they become outlined, indicating available tasks: she can do dishes, iron laundry, read, smoke, and more.
As Victorine performs each of these tasks, the color of the background gradually changes from a bright sunrise pink, through a deep afternoon blue, to a burning orange sunset, ticking down the hours. There’s only so much time in a day. Each thing Victorine does is something else left undone. Perhaps she can catch up on that tomorrow.
As time passes with tasks or leisure, the game’s camera closer to our protagonist. As the camera gets closer, the game screen starts rocking, and we as players intuit that the distance of the camera represents Victorine’s emotional state. When it gets too close, something has to happen to release it. Something she can’t let anyone else see.
Beyond the time management and housewife simulation mechanics, the game’s narrative unfolds through dialogue. The structure of the writing is smart, presenting numerous parallels and reversals that say much more than is explicitly spoken.
People from outside Gabriel and Victorine’s home make their way in, but we never see Victorine leave it. Visitors alter the landscape of the home, a home that threatens to swallow Victorine up.
The game’s authors at Deconstructeam offer an essential stage-setting prologue for the game on its website:
“Gabriel is a really driven succesful artist. Victorine doesn’t have any personal passions but supports Gabriel as a housewife. They love each other.”
Every word in this preamble matters, and is up for examination as you play Behind Every Great One. What makes a successful artist? What constitutes support? Does Victorine really not have any personal passions, and if not why? And does the couple really love one another?
There are no easy answers for these questions. I believe the game ultimately understands that, yes, they do love each other. And that’s one of the game’s great strengths. Gabriel sometimes comes off as insensitive to his wife’s experience, but these mistakes are all too familiar from the way men often take women and their labor for granted in heterosexual marriages. As society, family, and friends do constantly.
The walls close in on Victorine. It’s a game about depression. And relationships. And sexism. And so much more.
Behind Every Great One is available for Windows or in-browser for free at itch.io. You can follow Deconstructeam on Twitter.