Placebo Love review: a lesson about loving
The narratives of video games often appeal to me more than gameplay.
I first played To The Moon in March 2013 after reading about it in 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, the book which inspired me to start blogging. I remember completing it in one sitting whilst sitting on my bed with my laptop and being unable to stop the tears at the end.
As with a lot of narrative titles, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re hoping for something which is going to challenge you with its gameplay, this really won’t meet your requirements. But it’s amazing if you’re looking for a title which focuses on telling an emotional plot about love in a heartfelt way. This is one video game story which is going to stay with me for a very long time.
When To The Moon’s developer, Kan Gao, retweeted a tweet about Placebo Love in May last year, I was intrigued. It looked a little too much like a dating simulator for my taste, but I figured he must know a good narrative when he sees one and so I added it to my wishlist anyway. The Steam summer sale and a few days away from work this month seemed like a good opportunity to find out what it was about.
My first impression was wrong. Twelve Tiles’ release uses the notion of ‘soulmates’ and features characters you can spend time with, but it isn’t all about dating them in a romantic or sexual way and finding true love. There are also no simple solutions here either: not everything becomes clear after a single playthrough and I’m still thinking it over after three. Placebo Love is better described as a friendship simulator but it’s also much more than that. Let me explain how the game works and I’ll come back to this later.
Not every action has an immediate result and the consequences of some may not be revealed until much later in the game.
It tells the story of Lorne Volley, a likeable 26-year old who’s still trying to figure himself out and what he wants to do with his life. What he’s strongly aware of though is just how lonely he feels and how much he believes in soulmates. Things begin to change for him after he starts a temporary job at the Mesinbo drinks corporation. When Lady Love contacts him at his work email address to offer help finding ‘the one’ and he accidentally replies twice, he’s put in a position where he meets two perfect women.
Players don’t control Lorne though. Instead, you’re a butterfly-shaped muse who has been selected as his attendee and it’s up to you to assist him in finding his path. You might not be able to command everything he says or does, but how you direct his honesty and manipulate his daily schedule will earn you Influence points. These can be spent to increase your abilities or affect bigger decisions. Not every action has an immediate result and the consequences of some may not be revealed until much later in the game.
The temporary Mesinbo job lasts for 18 weeks and Lorne spends alternate weekends in different locations. The urban town of Castanet is where his work office is based, along with soulmate Nadia who he meets at the train station on his first evening; and his mother resides in rural Belltree, not far from the coffee shop where soulmate Diana can be found the next day. As he begins to rebuild bonds with family members and friends from his past, they introduce him to further people who may end up playing a role in his life.
It’s your responsibility as his muse to choose who he should hang out with on these weekends. Spending time with a character will strengthen their bond until they become ‘connected’ after ten sessions. It sounds easy, but it isn’t possible to meet with everyone during a single weekend and you might have to make some tough decisions. Ignoring a character will cause them to feel ‘neglected’, and you’ll have to spend Influence points to encourage the protagonist to overcome his guilt and awkwardness the next time he sees them.
You’ll also have to choose whether he should tell the truth, a lie or something in between when he has moments of indecision where he’s unsure whether to say what he’s really thinking. Telling a character what they want to hear has the benefit of granting you more Influence – but what Lorne says will also affect his friends in different ways, such as how much they choose to open up to him. It will also have an impact on how he deals with he future and the options available to him at the end of his time with Mesinbo.
As mentioned above, this isn’t a dating simulator. There are several Steam reviews which express disappointment at being unable to see anyone romantically other than Nadia and Diana, but this really isn’t what the title is about. It wouldn’t make sense in terms of the narrative anyway. Why would a guy who ends up mysteriously meeting doppelgänger soulmates then spend time dating other people, when his priority would surely be figuring out to do about these two lovely women?
Placebo Love is a mystery at its heart rather than a love story. You can choose to concentrate on friendship and getting to know the cast of characters; or you can make the right connections and obtain support from Lorne’s friends, so he’ll eventually discover Nadia and Diana’s backstory. I spent around 11 hours on my first playthrough and arrived at an ending I felt suited him, but was none the wiser about the soulmates. I dived back in for another two attempts over seven hours to find out what was going on.
And that right there is this game’s strength. I’m so surprised at having spent so long on such a title. Visual-novel-like releases usually end up being dropped after a couple of hours because I find them kind of boring, but Placebo Love held my attention consistently during my initial playthrough. Not only that but I also didn’t hesitate to immediately start a ‘New Game+’ once I’d finished. This is something I’ve done with only a handful of games in the past and it happened here because I wanted to know more.
Go into it with an open mind and commit to more than one playthrough if you can, and I can guarantee you’ll learn something about love.
This magic is created through its cast of wonderfully realistic and touching characters. Each is unique with different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs which shape them into real people. I discovered something interesting about all of them during every playthrough after selecting different responses or subjects to talk about. It felt as though they were choosing to open up to Lorne a little more each time, revealing themselves to be just as messed up, scared and insecure as the rest of us.
A few of their stories particularly resonate. There’s an old friend who feels like they’ve always had to hide who they truly are for fear of people not loving them for what’s on the inside. A colleague shares that their family has been unable to accept their sexuality, while an acquaintance is worried about not having enough love to go around after the birth of their second child. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling what makes Placebo Love special but it’s definitely worth getting to know these characters.
Placebo means ‘I will please’ in Latin and the developers have picked a great title. This theme is cleverly interwoven throughout the game. Whenever you decide to tell someone what they want to hear rather than the truth for Influence, or when you choose to have Lorne concentrate on his soulmates at the expense of those around him, you’re reminded of it. Sometimes we focus too much on finding ‘true love’ at the detriment of realising there are so many other types of love which are just as fulfilling and worthwhile.
As for Nadia and Diana: I felt satisfied when I eventually learned their backstory. I had a playthrough where Lorne ended up with neither, another where he formed a relationship with one of them, and a final attempt where he kind of ended up spending his life with both, in a way. I can’t say that any of them were truly a happy-ever-after. I guess that’s just like life though: you only get once chance at it and must do the best you can, so maybe the ending you get is the one your decisions deserve.
More people need to know about Placebo Love. If you’re into video games more for their stories and characters than action and mechanics, do yourself a favour and give Twelve Tiles’ release a try. Go into it with an open mind and commit to more than one playthrough if you can, and I can guarantee you’ll learn something about love.