As I grow older, I become more sentimental. I tell myself that this is normal. Though is it also normal that I become more and more susceptible to the simplest forms of emotional manipulation in fictional media? I know what buttons cheap writers push, when and why. And yet, I find myself increasingly defenseless against what these bastards do to me. 25 years ago, I would have laughed Tender Loving Care off for its cheap soap opera themes and its lack of interactivity. When I played it now, it touched me much more deeply than I ever thought possible. So far that I had to stop playing several times to catch a breath, distract my mind with other things, because it got just too intense.
Indeed, the game mostly received mixed reviews at best at the time of its release. It is no surprise. The standards professional game reviewers of the 1990s applied focussed predominantly on game mechanics and Tender Loving Care is not strong on those when looking for classic formulae.
Most of the time is spent moving around a house. Exploration is free, but there is just too little to discover. The search for hotspots which can be interacted with is a bit of a chore rather than being interesting. This is for two reasons. First, hotspots are scarce and the space to explore is the same one over and over again. Searching for the small changes at each point in time is not particularly interesting in the first place. Second, interaction is limited to looking and reading (e.g. diaries or computer screens). A rather awkward way of communicating to the player, as the designers failed to let the environment itself tell its story with little things lying around, the overall impression of rooms as they are, as they change etc. The one aspect where this repeated exploration works is sound design. Depending on the state of the things, differently themed musical pieces are intertwined with whispers, voices and other sound effects reflect the mood changes efficiently.
The rest of the “play” time is further split into two phases. First, watching non-interactive full motion video cutscenes. The bane of all game reviewers of the 1990s, because… where is the game? Second, answering multiple choice quizzes within which most of the questions are not even directly linked to the ongoing plot. So, yes, it is not even a Japanese style “Visual Novel” where occasional player choices would at least send the story off to a different branch.
The person in front of the screen can only observe, they are not much of a player, are they? It is true that Tender Loving Care has close to zero interactivity in the classic adventure genre sense. There is no direct agency. The player does not take the role of any of the characters in the story, but they are a sort of disembodied observer. It only makes sense that it turned into a critical and commercial failure. By the time it was released, the short fad of “interactive movies” had already come to an end anyway.
Coming from the people who made The 7th Guest, it was accompanied by an advertising campaign promoting it mostly based on the “erotic love and lust triangle” angle. Feeding exactly into those expectations of cheesy FMV soap opera “experiences” akin to the Voyeur games which nobody wanted anymore.
And yet, nowadays, I enjoyed it a lot. Not just due to its production values. It opens with a helicopter shot of a car driving through the countryside accompanied by melancholic music. Certainly a statement of grandeur in the 1990s. The game delivers throughout in this respect all the way through, evidenced for example by the use of physical sets instead of bluescreen, effective use of lighting etc.
The true reason being emotional resonance. On the surface, it plays on the expected cheap thrills. Jody, the five-year-old daughter of Michael and Allison, has died in a car crash six months ago. Since then, Allison has been in a delusional state, believing her to still be alive. Michael is taking care of her, but it's getting too much. Their psychiatrist, Dr. Turner, proposes that a live-in therapist, posing as a nurse to treat “injured” Jody, takes charge of the case. Enter Kathryn, blonde bombshell/femme fatale.
The opening scene of Turner, played by no other than the amazing John Hurt, pulling up in front of a remote mansion in his red sports car, with horrible midlife-crisis hair and acting all sleazy, seems to confirm expectations raised by such plot summaries and the aforementioned advertisements. The player is lured into the comfort of believing to be at a secure distance from what they are about to experience.
And indeed, the game delivers on the expected cheap thrills. In her very first scene, Kathryn starts opening her blouse before sending Michael out of the room. About ten minutes later, she recreates Sharon Stone's famous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct. Not the last explicit movie reference.
It's not subtle at all, but right on the nose. However, turns out behind the curtains, it is also smart and intelligent. It is often heavy-handed, but also heavy.
Because really, it is a take on Plato's allegory of the cave. The power struggle between Michael and Kathryn about the definition of Allison's perception of reality. The ethical dilemma of how far one can go to snap someone else out of their catatonic state. Whether it is even right to do so. The pain of personal guilt, real or perceived, and how to deal with it. Responsibility for others and how far it goes. Imbalanced relationships, how far they can work or whether they actually may be a good thing. A long-standing inferiority complex leading to a desire to show the world, up to the point of overcompensation. Repressed homosexuality may very well be touched upon. Along with other facets of masculinity and what it means in today's society; the impossibility of showing weakness, the pressure of always being strong, protective and caring.
And finally, one of the largest taboos even today: a parent possibly being unable to love their own child. Instead of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, we find ourselves waist-deep in The Babadook. And instead of watching from a safe emotional distance, I found myself immersed much more into all of this than what was probably healthy.
Even the gameplay makes a tiny bit of sense in this respect. As flawed as it may be at first glance, the neutral perspective, not experiencing the plot through anyone's eyes, does give players the oportunity to see different facets of it. Awkwardly presented in written form, the diaries do show the changing states of mind of the different characters. Michael's phone calls tell a lot about him. Kathryn's email inbox contains weird threatening letters. Other items allude to Turner himself also not being quite the selfless angel. Yet, it is all just observation with no on-the-nose interpretations being spoon-fed. Careful observation being rewarded, casual play being allowed. It all takes a bit too much effort, but the result is worth it.
Even the sometimes weirdly detached quizzes have their merit. Fully appropriate to the vulgarized Freudian themes, there are a lot of questions to be answered based on association with pictures, a technique apparently called Thematic Apperception Test. Other times, Turner quizzes the player on their interpretation of things. Can Kathryn be trusted? Who do you think was driving the car when it crashed?
The thing with these questions and tests is that their influence on what is going on is not always immediately apparent, yet it exists. Although the player is sometimes asked something like “Should Michael go along with the plan?”, regardless of the answer, Michael will do what the standard script tells him to in the next scene, even if contradicting the player's wishes. After all, although the player's perspective on what is happening does roughly follow Michael, they are not Michael. The bulk of the plot scenes play out the same on every playthrough, regardless of player choices. In the same manner, regardless of whether the player answers they think Kathryn is attracted to Michael, in the next scene, they can find the same statement concerning this very question in her diary.
The only exceptions where choices make a difference being how much nudity will be shown in those scenes and the ending everything culminates in. The ending being defined by the sum of all player choices rather than specific choke points from which different branches A, B or C emerged. The effect of invididual answers remaining rather opaque in most cases. Making it very hard to “optimize” towards a certain ending in a gamified way.
It is not a game really intended to be played several times for all these reasons. Just think about it. The bulk of scenes being identical each time. Targeted play towards a specific ending made very hard. It all communicates: accept “your” version of this story as it is. I.e. the one you got first round. Without feeling the need for an analytical view, I probably wouldn't have launched it another time. It could have been very interesting to explore a bigger flexibility over the whole course of the story. But then, this could have taken a lot of its bang out of it as well, because it would likely have made choice effects more immediate.
The way it is, Tender Loving Care makes a brave attempt at the master class of storytelling. That is, charging those scenes which play out the same way no matter what with an ambiguity which allows for retrospective re-interpretation depending on the overall outcome. It does a good job of maintaining a balance. Just when players may think they have finally seen who the real culprit is, whose side to be on, they find another diary entry or recording shedding yet another light on the situation, pulling the rug from under their feet again. Keeping things truly open without the storytelling turning weak.
Will this be enough for players? Maybe not. For me, it was a highly immersive experience in spite of minimal classic interactivity. Tender Loving Care is highly manipulative, but also highly effective, and it never makes it easy for itself. It spares us the big Psycho reveal at the end explaining who, after all, killed the dog, who sent those emails, what would have happened if Kathryn could have gone through with her plan. It allows for a run-of-the-mill interpretation such as: Michael had an affair with his co-worker and when his wife found out, he staged an accident hoping to kill her. It didn't quite go as planned, but now he intentionally keeps her in this confused state in which she doesn't remember. This status quo is threatened by the arrival of Kathryn. Yes, this is what how I would have summed it up 25 years ago, shrugged, and written a couple of snarky lines about it.
Now, each time Michael barges into the house again for the final confrontation like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, it had me on the edge of my seat, anxious to see how it would end this time around. If this had been a movie on late-night TV, would I have watched it? Yes. Did the interactive presentation of it make me enjoy it more? That one remains a mixed bag, but it's still a yes!
It may have been a product of chance, things just coming together. The writers and designers from Aftermath tried once more. Point of View, however, showed all the signs of a much cheaper production. Acting, direction and technical means strongly reminding of private home video experiments at best. But then, even though Aftermath failed, would highly acclaimed modern-day games such as Telling Lies exist had it not been for people like them at least trying?
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