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Lily is a Game About Understanding Childhood Trauma

Caty picks at the petals of Lily, a disturbing title that explores trauma.

Analysis by Caty McCarthy, .

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I’ve never seen a flower look so… grotesque. In Lily, the player clicks away to uncover the innards of a flower. Peeling its leaves to reveal a pulsing stomach, blooming its petals to unveil a beating heart. The flower in Lily is entrancing in its beauty, yet simultaneously disturbing as its very-much-alive organs are made visible. The flower lives, but it also suffers; and that’s apparent from the insects (from mosquitoes to snails) that lodge themselves onto its many parts, and buzz around.

The game, as its Netherlands-based designer Charlotte Madelon told me at the European Game Showcase held off-site during the 2017 Game Developer’s Conference, is actually about understanding the adverse affects of childhood trauma. Trauma’s effects aren’t visible at a glance for anyone, but remain underneath the surface for those suffering from it. Trauma is an often forgotten disease that has many consequences, represented by the numerous insects that infect the lily throughout the game. And Madelon wants to bring awareness to trauma through the most interactive and accessible of ways: via a video game.

Lily is simple game with minimal interactions. You can use a lens to zoom into objects, pinch vines to stretch them away from the plant, or click on leaves and petals to unfold and bloom: revealing the flower’s hidden interior. You can also rotate the lily according to your personal whims. The game, at least currently, will only have one flower, this eerie yet beautiful lily. Though by the game’s imminent release, it’ll have dozens of insects and other objects to uncover within and around it.

Lily was inspired by Madelon’s own personal experiences, and a longing for an accessible experiment for education in understanding the hidden struggle of trauma. The game’s painterly art style spawns from a singular influence: Japanese artist Fuyuko Matsui. Matsui is known for her melding of classical Japanese painting but with an eerie, supernatural twist. Her influence shines in the flower in Lily, which somehow simultaneously straddles that same line of gorgeous yet creepy.

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I played the demo for Lily on a PC, clicking my way around the beautiful flower. Though Madelon noted that the game is actually aiming to be a mobile game: where players will ideally be able to tap their way around the plant, rotate it around with ease, and even pinch and zoom to get in close. She showed me a rough prototype of the game working on her own phone, though without some of the features currently in the PC build. Madelon is aiming for an Android and iOS release for the game sometime this summer.

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Comments 9

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  • Avatar for Lonecow #1 Lonecow A year ago
    I'm sorry but that sounds like a really pretentious excuse for what is a very simple game.

    As someone who suffered though a large amount of childhood trauma (two house fires, physical abuse from step parent, etc) I can't help but feel she is using the pain of others to sell her game.

    Nothing about this speaks to my experiences nor do I think it will help bring to light the struggles and experiences many children who suffer from abuse face.

    Honestly, that excuse is really insulting.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #2 Roto13 A year ago
    @lonecow Everyone's experience is different and it's not your place to tell her she's expressing herself wrong.
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  • Avatar for Lonecow #3 Lonecow A year ago
    @Roto13 Except she is using that to help sell her game. If she didn't tell you the game was based on that you would have no idea that is what is going on here. That's bad form, as an artist, first of all.

    You can use your experiences to inform your creativity. Everyone does it, just don't use it as marketing material. Let the work speak for itself.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #4 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    @Roto13 It's just as much lonecow's place to critique how she is expressing herself as it is your's to react to lonecow's comments.
    @lonecow to claim that an artist can't create and sell work based on their experiences is absurd. It would be nice if everyone had enough income and time to create works that express themselves without having to charge for it, but that's not how the art world works. Also, needing to understand the meaning of a work just by looking at it is not true. A large swathe of modern/contemporary artworks' meaning can only be grasped through intense study of works that came before it and an understanding of the context in which they were created. This can be true of art going back to ancient times as well, but it's generally easier to interpret art prior the changes brought about by Duchamp, Picasso, and the like.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #5 VotesForCows A year ago
    I'll just row in to say I applaud the bravery of the developer making a game to express something so personal. Its not easy for anyone to put themselves out there and open themselves to criticism, as we've seen previously with the development of That Dragon, Cancer.
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  • Avatar for Lonecow #6 Lonecow A year ago
    I'm not saying that, of course I'm not saying that. I even said everyone does that who creates anything.

    But again, this is a product they are selling. It would be different if it was an art installation piece at a gallery, and it was titled "Childhood Trauma". But even still, it would be torn to shred's by critics for the same reasons I originally mentioned, pretentious and amateurish.

    And would be criticized as such in any other medium, but gaming, because we are so desperate to be seen as a legitimate source of art culture.

    And I will also stand by that if the work doesn't speak for itself without having the artist say exactly what is happening in an interview it fails it's objective. It can still be beautiful, and unique but it shouldn't have to be explained.

    I'm sorry she had childhood trauma. But a lot of people had childhood trauma, and I'll make a blanket statement and say ALL creative people let their trauma inform their creative process, whether intentionally or not. Maybe it's brave of her to put that out there for people to see, maybe it's not. I don't know enough about her personally to know if she is the type of person who brings it up frequently. But again, that shouldn't have anything to do with the work of art.

    If someone has read this article and plays the game vs. someone who just picks the game up randomly their experience will be drastically different because of pre-knowledge they have going into it. In my opinion she does her own work a disservice by explaining it beforehand.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #7 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    @lonecow galleries are generally meant to sell art so your complaint "Except she is using that to help sell her game" falls flat there. Perhaps you mean a museum could provide free access to something like an art installation piece titled "Childhood Trauma," but in that case the artist would have already been compensated with grants, the work would have been donated, or some other form of payment has been rendered to the artist. The work Lily might even be featured in a gallery/museum. Why do you think it would be more valid being there instead of on the iOS store? I think the democratization of access to art is one of the great things digital distribution can address.

    As to you claiming you will "stand by that if the work doesn't speak for itself without having the artist say exactly what is happening in an interview it fails it's objective." You're welcome to do that, but you are (either through willful or actual ignorance) leaving behind a century of changes in the art world.

    As to "If someone has read this article and plays the game vs. someone who just picks the game up randomly their experience will be drastically different because of pre-knowledge they have going into it. In my opinion she does her own work a disservice by explaining it beforehand."

    I agree for the most part.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #8 Vonlenska A year ago
    This leaves a somewhat conflicting taste in my mouth, even though the aesthetic is hugely appealing and the central conceit is something I can relate to. Maybe it's that it seems like there's too much of a gap between the theme and the gameplay--trying to connect the two is really uncomfortable, and while discussions of trauma, abuse, etc. are uncomfortable by nature, it can be difficult to express these things in this sort of way without reinforcing them. There was a film I saw last year by an abuse survivor that felt somewhat autobiographical, but largely ended up accidentally condoning abuse. This doesn't strike me as nearly as bad, but there's still this disconnect between the visual style and game itself, and the theme of persisting in spite of traumatic experiences. I'm sure it's an intentional juxtaposition, too, but the end result is that either the two halves have nothing to do with one another or else there are...unfortunate implications in the interactivity.

    Articulating the survival of trauma and abuse in art is just hard. These are experiences that can warp your perception. Even if you're aware of that, the warpage can result in unfortunate implications if you aren't exceptionally precise in the expression. I've struggled with this myself, and I love these kinds of deliberate juxtapositions of the beautiful and grotesque when they're done well, so the basic idea here is good, I think, but... But. Doing this successfully is just difficult; depict traumatic experiences too bluntly or concretely and you risk merely perpetuating them. Soften the blow with abstraction and you risk trivializing your message, contributing harm to other survivors who aren't prepared to deal with the work just then and/or alienating general audiences who won't understand it. Focusing too much on either the abstraction or the reality can result in either getting lost.

    There's a delicate line to walk here. The game looks and sounds beautiful, and you could do far worse for inspiration than Fuyuko Matsui, but exploring abuse and trauma requires a certain degree of substance and I'm unsure how it translates into the game except as a juxtaposition of traditionally "beautiful," "delicate" elements with grotesque and putrid imagery. Which by itself I like when done well, but then the theme of childhood trauma adds an additional layer that feels a little...hm.

    It's presumably earlyish in and could develop into something more thoughtful still, I suppose.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #9 Vonlenska A year ago
    (On an additional and much more positive note, I really, really love the idea of depicting horror via something visually beautiful, which is an exceptionally rare thing. Lily seems like it has potential to do that, but I think it'll need a lot more substance and more intuitive context to pull it off.)
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