Ostensibly, we play video games because they give us a degree of power and responsibility unattainable in the real world. The stakes of a plot are higher when you’re the one making the choices, rather than simply watching a character act on their own. Increased power in a game tends to make its story that much more impactful. As such, I find it exceedingly ironic that one of the most compelling artistic video games I’ve played gains its power from the lack of control it gives you.
“Presentable Liberty” is a PC game released in 2017 by the late Robert “Wertpol” Brock as part of the “Menagerie” series. Design-wise, the game is exceedingly simple; using a conventional game engine, it all could be created in the span of a few hours. Simply put, it’s staggeringly basic—yet that simplicity only serves to bolster the core narrative.
You start in a small room with a bed and a bug on the floor.
The core mechanic of “Presentable Liberty” is its letter-receiving feature, which lets you read messages sent to you by various characters. The first one you receive is tattered and dark, from a friend named Salvadore. He asks how prison life is.
You start to piece together more information about your situation from the letters that follow. You’re in a prison run by a man called Doctor Money—this is your first clue you’re either in a dystopia or the U.S.—and you’re one of the only people safe from an epidemic decimating the population due to your solitary confinement. You’re assigned a “Happy Buddy,” Mr. Smiley, who mails you toys and small (fully functional) video games to keep you from killing yourself and, in turn, humanity’s chances of survival. Later on, you start receiving even more letters from a nearby baker called Charlotte, who is the only other person in your town still alive. As the game unfolds, Salvadore decides to try to visit you, Mr. Smiley starts being a bit too nice and Charlotte is mailing you just to feel like she’s not alone amongst a city of corpses.
As the days progress and the letters come in, questions start to arise. How do you know Salvadore? How is Doctor Money still alive, despite the virus? Why is Mr. Smiley so intent on keeping you happy? How are all these letters getting to you in the first place?
Then, to your dismay, you begin to receive answers.
Generally, I consider a video game to be art only when it exploits the player’s narrative autonomy to send a message about how the player acts. “Presentable Liberty” is unlike any other game I have ever considered art because the primary source of its artistic credence stems from the fact that you can’t make decisions.
The same messages will be sent to your cell door no matter what, and you have no ability to reply or advise or warn your friends about the potentially grave mistakes they make. You realize the fates of nearly everyone well before they do but have no choice but to watch as they fall into them. You gradually become supremely frustrated with the fact that you should have power, you should have control, but all you can do is read the letters of people doomed to fates they don’t deserve. That or play Mr. Smiley’s games, and try to ignore the sound of new letters arriving.
“Presentable Liberty” lacks the control that exists in every other game, but that’s the entire point. Your lack of agency means the game could theoretically be a book or film, but nothing emphasizes your character’s lack of control more than its juxtaposition with the traditional PC gaming controls you use to pilot them. The claustrophobia and isolation of your character are only fully felt in a medium where large, traversable maps are expected and you’re supposed to be able to do more with characters than just read their letters. “Presentable Liberty” is beautiful—and in my opinion, unparalleled—in the way it conveys complete powerlessness through a medium built to give the audience power.
I’ll warn you now: “Presentable Liberty” is a mature game that does not have a happy ending. Nonetheless, it ends with a twist that nearly nobody could anticipate, after a beautiful buildup before it. The game is free, meaning that there’s no reason not to play this meditation on solitude, power and why we fight to stay alive.