Don’t Look Back: You Can’t Save Love

Games Features
Don’t Look Back: You Can’t Save Love

In the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, love is a death sentence.

After the couple are happily married, Eurydice is killed when she spurns the affections of Aristaeus. Preoccupied by trying to get away from this hero of bee-keeping, she stumbles onto a viper which (naturally) bites her out of fear. She dies on the spot. His grief acknowledged by muses and gods alike, devastated Orpheus descends into the Greek underworld—hopeful he can outsmart Hades and bring back his beloved.

Don’t Look Back is a 2009 Flash game interpretation of this myth. Developed by Terry Cavanagh and initially released through Kongregate (now available on the Internet Archive), the game is a 2D platformer that wouldn’t look out of place on an Atari 2600. The game utilizes these minimalist aesthetics to obfuscate the Greek mythology trappings, which allows the players to graft their own interpretation onto the game more easily. This could be any two lovers, in any place, at any time.

Open interpretation is one of early gaming’s biggest strengths. Titles like Haunted House or Pitfall are mystifying precisely because of how we interpret the visual information on the screen. Every solid colored void or oblique shape can be as benign or as terrifying as we make it out to be. Evil Otto is either a little smiling guy or a spectral menace, depending on who you ask. By borrowing this aesthetic, Don’t Look Back achieves an eerie resonance which feels personal to the player.

I played Don’t Look Back in 2009, in the computer lab of my tiny high school full of fellow maladjusted rich kids on the Emory campus. Back then, I spent a lot of time playing flash games and reading doujinshi. Most school days were me, alone, huddled in a corner and half-doing work. Being an oblique, misanthropic weirdo with niche interests was a cornerstone of my constructed identity, you see. Only having a few friends I barely talked to was very cool, actually, and I definitely wasn’t using anime, videogames, and J-Idol groups to cope with how lonely I was.

That’d be pretty sad, right?

A descent into the underworld for love is aspirational for depressed teens. My loneliness was a hell I couldn’t help but walk deeper into, hopeful something was at the bottom. At the outset of Don’t Look Back, the player gets a gun (?) to help fend off spiders and bats, and to fell eventual bosses. It’s the least memorable part of the game—in fact, I didn’t remember it even had combat—but it resonates upon revisit today. In retrospect, my hobbies were an arsenal I used to shoot down potential friendships and self-growth. I craved and cried for affection, but wasn’t willing to change myself for it. Why couldn’t somebody just love me like I was—obsessed with my PSP and anime porn?

Bang. Bats. Bang. Intimacy.

Orpheus eventually reaches Eurydice after a long journey through the underworld. Lyre in hand, he pleads his case in front of the underworld’s de facto rulers—Hades and Persephone—and begs for the return of his wife. Hades agrees, on one condition: Eurydice must follow at Orpheus’ back, and Orpheus may not look back at her once on the ascent. Otherwise, she’ll be sent back and trapped with Hades forever. Orpheus agrees without hesitation—without taking stock of just how strong his love for Eurydice is, and how little faith he actually has in Hades.

Don’t Look Back replicates this journey back home in a clever and devious way. Upon “saving” their love, players must go through their hell again—backwards—unable to take even one step back. One careless tap spells eternal doom for your lover. Just as you’ve become familiar with the mechanics, you’re forced to contend with an entire range of movement being stripped from you. This helps Don’t Look Back achieve a diegetic reflection of its narrative through its mechanics. It clenches an inexorable link between your on-screen actions and the restraints of the narrative. That choice helps elevate the title from an abstract twitch platformer to a cogent and meditative reflection on love, loss, and the agonizing liminal space between both.

2010 was a kinder year. I started theater—found myself through acting—and got invited to a posh acting camp in New York. There I met Cat, the first girl I had a crush on who returned the feeling. We were both in relationships, but for two weeks, it didn’t matter. We got close in the irresponsible and messy way only teenagers have mastered. Most of my memories of New York are in stores, parks, restaurants with her. Laying in her lap. Confiding in each other. Wishing we could kiss, but neither of us ready to betray our partners. We left in tears, looking back at each other as I pulled off.

Being with her was the last time I felt safe for years. From a distance, we tried and failed to keep the connection. I fixated on the safety and comfort I felt around her—the acceptance of self absent elsewhere in my life—and she told me we were “kindred spirits.” Destined for each other, maybe. For a decade, I wallowed in physically and sexually abusive relationships because part of me hoped it was true. Even after the way my ex made me cut her off when Cat’s life fell apart in the first few weeks of college.

Her becoming a born-again Christian, rejecting her bisexuality, getting groomed and marrying a church singer by 22 … all reversible. It had to be. She had to save me.

It was six months into my transition I realized nobody was. I stopped looking back. Guided only by the memory of how Cat made me feel, how she was my one solace when my parents were falling apart for a few years, I pushed forward. Three years later, I’m almost three years deep into my first long-term, rape-free relationship. Cat taught me how to feel safe and loved. Because of her, I know the way I feel right now is worth protecting and working on myself to preserve.

Orpheus fails. He looks back at Eurydice and dooms her soul to eternal captivity. In his grief, he plays a mournful song and is torn apart by beasts—damning himself to the underworld. Don’t Look Back, meanwhile, reveals the player’s quest is a fantasy. There is no saving your love. There is only the acceptance of your own isolation and loss.

A few weeks ago, I checked in on Cat for the first time in a few years. Within a few minutes, I noticed the left-leaning bi girl I fell in love with followed Christian YouTubers, conservative politicians, and agreed with tweets comparing mask mandates to Nazi Germany. Her main personality now seems to be loving her husband and talking about her job at the Apple Store. She seems happy. I bet she doesn’t respect my existence, given the circles she runs in. But I really hope she’s happy and full of love.

I am now.

I tapped away Twitter and went to hold my partner. I’ll probably never look back.

Madeline Blondeau (formerly known as Bella) is a Georgia-born, PNW-based editor, writer & podcaster. Her words can be found on Anime Feminist, Anime News Network, Screen Queens, and Lost In Cult. She’s also the creator of Cinema Cauldron—a long-form audio essay series on film. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @VHSVVitch.

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