With its lush art and lovely music, visual novel He Beat Her sounds like an easy sell. The way it handles its subject matter, however, lacks the nuance it deserves.
[Given the subject matter of the game, this article will discuss domestic violence and mental illness. This is your content warning.]
He Beat Her is a visual novel made for weekend-long game jam Ludum Dare 39 by Zephyo, an 18-year-old developer. Its core gameplay mechanic is clever. The game is about a lawyer defending a male client accused of domestic violence against their female partner. The player is told “You’re practically powerless.” The lawyer can only perform one action, which you type in a text box. More often than not, what you do will lead to new information, but you will still fail. You can ask your client about their girlfriend and learn something about the relationship, but you’ll still lose the game. It’s kind of like how 999's good ending only makes sense once you’ve seen all the bad endings—you have to use all the information you’ve gained by playing the game over and over to defend your client.
It’s a visually evocative game. Motes of dust float around during scenes, and the dramatic lighting in the illustrations creates an oppressive tone. The music has a noir-ish tinge, and on the whole it feels the game is incredibly polished, and takes interesting risks with its gameplay. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular visual novels on Itch.io right now. But as I played it, I got a bit uncomfortable.
Your client is accused of domestic abuse, but in the end, it turns out that his girlfriend has undiagnosed bipolar disorder and attacked him with a knife. Overlooking the odd idea that your client has a large scar on his neck that he is covering up with a turtleneck and no one has noticed, this subject matter needs more sensitivity than He Beat Her gives it. It perpetuates certain myths about domestic violence and mental illness, perhaps as a result of its mechanic, which asks the player to make a lot of assumptions very quickly.
The theme for the game jam He Beat Her was submitted for was “running out of power,” and this is a creative interpretation of that theme. Men can be victims of intimate partner violence. According to the National Coalition for Against Domestic Violence, one in four men will experience intimate partner violence in a relationship, and they face many barriers to reporting on it. The game’s focus on “a few words” being taken as absolute truth in its opening moments suggests that the accuser is automatically believed in cases of domestic violence, and that this is something women do to get back at their exes. In one ending, your client is found innocent the moment the evidence of his accuser’s bipolar disorder is brought to light even though her act of violence isn’t brought up as testimony, erroneously conflating mental illness with violence.
He Beat Her brings up complicated issues but fails to examine them with nuance, instead seeming to come off as condemnatory of mentally ill women and suggesting they accuse men of domestic abuse. Mechanically He Beat Her is interesting, and its presentation is phenomenal. Players have widely responded positively to the game. I want to like it, but it treats tough issues with a shallowness that fails to do them justice.