Lieve Oma (Dutch for “Dear Grandma”) strikes me as the kind of game that would be hastily dismissed as “not a video game.” I say “hastily” because claims like these tell us more about the narrow range of experiences many enthusiast circles value than they do the nature of the medium at large. They’re convenient in that they justify our refusal to engage with these games by saying the ideas they explore and the conclusions they arrive at don’t hold any relevance to us. The irony, of course, is that Lieve Oma never strays too far from the fundamental mindset underpinning most popular video games. Play is centered on the self and its unfettered ability to sate its own desires; that self is forced to act within tightly defined boundaries it isn’t able to question; and the basic premise represents an escapist fantasy. Lieve Oma shows no interest in critiquing these points.
Again, though, I don’t see the value in dismissing the game out of hand. Its strengths lie not in critique, but in requalification; preserving the use of a specific convention, but removing the attitudes typically associated with it so that we might value that convention along a different axis. For example, as eager as the game is to present itself as a game, it’s just as eager to pose nuanced questions about what a game is. Likewise, escapism takes on an entirely different meaning: not one of denying problems through an appeal to power, but of emotional comfort that prepares one for the world on their own terms.
Most of this is achieved through the subtle interplay of narrative and ludic structures. Although both are simple on their own, they rely on each other so heavily for meaning that separating what each accomplishes on their own proves difficult. Still, for the purposes of this review, I think it would be best to start with a basic explanation of the narrative. You play as a young child out on a trip with their grandma. (Because neither of them are given names, I’ll be capitalizing their roles from here.) She thinks they’ve been going through a tough emotional period lately, so she’s decided to take them out hunting for mushrooms in a nearby forest to ease their mind. It’s the type of narrative premise that’s so broad and so nonspecific that in theory, anybody can relate to it. (Given the smart visual choices Lieve Oma makes (particularly its use of abstraction), this claim to universality has a degree of validity behind it.)
But more important for our purposes, there’s a clear ludic structure embedded in that premise. What makes this a game is that Grandma specifically asks for penny bun mushrooms, since they’re the only mushrooms they can cook and eat later when the two of them return home. The basic game flow looks something like this: collect any mushrooms you stumble upon, and then bring them back to Grandma to identify and add to the collection if it meets her standards. It’s a minimalist arrangement, but one that meets all the classic criteria for what constitutes a game: goals to pursue, rules to follow, and basic strategies for successfully balancing these two forces. It even matches more formal definitions of what a game is, like Bernard Suits’ definitions of games as “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
I see this latter approach as having more relevance to the game than the former. Minimalism is something Lieve Oma very consciously uses, de-emphasizing whatever aspects it sees as non-fundamental to what constitutes a game. Rules, goals, and strategies are the first up on the chopping block. While you’re theoretically tasked with helping the Child collect penny buns, there’s no system in place that penalizes you for failing/choosing not to do so, and your ability to participate in the game isn’t affected by either. (However, I want to clarify that disrespecting the rules (IE collecting anything but a penny bun) isn’t an option, considering the Child needs to consult Grandma to identify which mushrooms count.) But what does this leave us with? If these basic building blocks are deemed unnecessary toward creating a game, then what does Lieve Oma see as too essential to leave out?
Simply put, it’s the player who chooses (how) to participate in the game. The consequences of that shift are greater than they initially sound. In fact, they force us to revise the way we conceptualize games. Any material aspect of their nature – the things we accomplish, the objects we interact with – are no longer privileged, because games are no longer an activity one participates in. Now they’re a mindset; a state of being one adopts in regards to the world around them.
This is where Lieve Oma’s ideas about family and unconditional acceptance finally become relevant, because it’s through those ideas that this mindset manifests. If that sounds counter-intuitive, it might be because you’re approaching this with the previous criteria of rules, goals, and strategies. It may be more helpful to think to this game through Johan Huizinga’s concept of the Magic Circle. The term originally referred to a concept in sorcery where the spellcaster sealed magic energy in a confined space, but Huizinga developed the term in his 1938 study Homo Ludens so he could apply it to games specifically. No longer a space specifically made to contain magic energy, the term now referred to any space in which we shut out the real world to engage in (broadly speaking) make-believe activities. The term has since proven flexible enough to apply to a wide variety of situations.
One could very easily apply the Magic Circle to family, at least as it manifests in Lieve Oma. On the one hand, we enter a context removed from the rest of the world. There’s the obvious physical sense of removal – the Grandma takes her Child out to a secluded forest – but there’s also a subtler, more emotional sense of removal to the game’s action. At least in the beginning, what we see isn’t a relationship between the two principal characters, but the absence of one; not two individuals interacting, each with particular histories and personality traits that might cause one party to reject the other, but two roles designed in such a way that they’re inevitably bound to accept one another.
On the other hand, the space we enter is one that emphasizes safety above all else. Grandma’s acceptance is unconditional, meaning there are no actions the Child can take that will ever risk their relationship with her. Failing to collect penny buns will only garner a comforting reassurance from Grandma. Failing to play the game at all will go uncommented. Even running away from Grandma isn’t an option, since not only is that treated as just another part of the game, but invisible walls and small environments keep the Child from wandering too far away from her. As a result, potential issues like the Child asserting their own identity outside Grandma, jeopardizing their relationship in doing so, and putting themselves in danger never find their opportunity to become issues in the first place.
In that regard Lieve Oma is an anti-power fantasy. That may not be immediately obvious, given how many layers there are to that fantasy: we begin with a broad appeal to nostalgia, which is itself rooted in childhood innocence. In the end, though, Lieve Oma interprets that innocence as an inability to/apathy toward affecting the world in any significant way. It’s an interpretation that suits the game’s purposes well. Going in the other direction and imbuing the player’s character with power would imply a set of responsibilities that player must fulfill, which would risk breeding anxiety should they fail. That’s why the tripartite definition of games doesn’t work for Lieve Oma: because the semi-objective nature of those criteria demands that players fit themselves in between the game’s cracks if they want to play.
Conversely, this is why the game removes power from the player: doing so shifts the focus from achieving goals to simply pursuing them. That’s why Lieve Oma feels as liberating as it does. Safe in the knowledge that your very being will be accepted without condition, you feel free to experiment and do with the world as you please. This is despite the general sense of apathy the world has to your activities in it. It may be happy to facilitate warmth and intimacy, but because it exists for its own sake, it remains neutral on the topic itself. Yet this proves to be enough: through play it’s made a part of the magic circle, and what was once mere facilitation becomes something more potent. (The subtle use of camera angles and warm pinks to communicate affection doesn’t hurt, either.)
I should clarify that Lieve Oma doesn’t pursue play or escape from the outside world as ends in themselves. Instead, escapism takes on a sort of therapeutic quality, as the main narrative conflict shows us. It’s not a conflict between characters as much as it’s a conflict within one: the Child’s parents have divorced recently and they’re forced to move somewhere else with their mother. This introduces a host of complex problems that are beyond their ability to control, whether that’s the irreconcilability of individual personalities, as their parents’ divorce alludes to; or time’s inexorable march separating us from those we hold closest to our hearts, like not being able to play with their friends anymore.
The Child’s response is a simple denial of the problem, but their Grandma introduces a more nuanced approach. That approach preserves the idea of getting away from one’s problems, but with the goal of eventually returning to the world that created them. By bringing her grandchild out to the forest, she allows them to separate themselves from the world long enough to gather their composure before going back. What the Grandma says only further accentuates this. Every line of dialogue from her is telling her grandchild not to worry about the future, to appreciate what they have in the present, and to handle the world only when they’re ready to do so.
Looking at this through a purely technical lens, there’s a lot to admire. All the parallels between Grandma’s advice and the game’s structure allow her message to resonate that much more strongly. And on a much broader level I can why that message might be necessary. Escapism through a fantasy world (the arts, fiction, etc.) has had a bad reputation since the beginning of civilization, but video games especially have felt the brunt of these criticisms. I’m not going to touch on the validity of said criticisms. I will, however, voice my appreciation for Lieve Oma’s interpretation on the matter. Its escapism isn’t the kind that conquers reality through a denial of it, but one that both exists alongside the real world and is necessary to our functioning within it.
However, it’s at this point that I feel the need to push back against Lieve Oma. Much of what the game says it says through family, a social structure I’m skeptical of for various reasons. I won’t go into those reason, but I will start by exploring the idea that the Grandma’s love is unconditional. The truth is we see a very specific condition for that love: the social (perhaps biological) relation between grandparent and child. As I’ve mentioned before, these are roles that exist outside the participant’s’ individual circumstances. This left me worried that the Grandma’s actions were meant to reintegrate the Child back into the dominant social order, regardless of whether or not that order was in their best interests.
Although these beliefs largely lack grounding in the game, there’s still enough specific evidence that I could never quite dispel them from my mind. Consider the position the game was made from. It’s highly unlikely that Lieve Oma is a direct representation of childhood made from within it. Few games are, and those that are still require intervention from a non-child party. Given that Lieve Oma doesn’t meet this criteria, it’s better described as someone’s idea of what childhood was like; an idea that can only be formed from a position outside it.
That would explain the idealistic tone, but also its failure to appreciate just how limiting a lack of freedom can be. Despite being controlled by the player, the Child’s largely treated as a passive object for the Grandma to act on. She’s the one to initiate all the game’s dialogue; the Child is there to receive it. In addition, the world becomes a little more hostile when you look at the game through this specific lens. Emotional honesty only becomes an option because Grandma has placed her grandchild in a situation where they’re completely reliant on her: alone in a forest, far from where either of them live; no means of reaching the outside world, and no means of escaping back into it.
More broadly speaking, Lieve Oma’s form of escapism is incomplete. It has to be; the medium by which we achieve that escape inevitably follows into the world we escape into, placing strict limits on what that escape can accomplish. We see a minor example of this during the aforementioned conflict. Grandma’s advice that the Child should open up to a family that loves them feels insufficient. Reminding them that a family’s love is constant may address the problem of life changing too fast for the Child to deal with, but because family lies outside one’s control, it can’t do anything to address their insecurities about their lack of control over life. At best, it can only distract from those worries.
However, we can see a much better example of these limits by leaving the Child altogether. At certain points in Lieve Oma’s narrative, we leap ahead in time. The Child is no longer a child, but a full grown adult (or possibly a teenager; it’s never made clear). They’ve driven out to the forest by themselves in the middle of winter for much the same reason they were brought there all those years ago.
The scene does its best to communicate a sense of calm, but the game simply won’t allow it. Where once the camera flowed alongside Grandma, it now jerks and jitters about in a desperate search for her presence. It’s almost like the camera (the protagonist?) resists any forward progress, or like they’re waiting for something that will never come. Tension mounts; you start wondering what’s gone wrong, what potentially horrible event you’ve missed in this sudden leap forward in time. Then the Child’s cell-phone rings. They answer; we find out that Grandma is on the other end. The tension is relieved as both Child and player find themselves back in a familiar, safe world.
If I had to guess, the game is arguing that the Grandma’s support is what allows her grandchild to become a functioning and independent adult. Yet this leaves at least one important question unanswered: what happens when Grandma finally dies? The procession of time hints at this inevitability, but because we’re never presented a situation fully deprived of her presence, it’s an inevitability nobody – not the Child, not the player – has to deal with. It would be cynical (or at least incredibly hasty) of me to read the Child’s actions as denial or a retreat into the past. The fact that they’ve entered the forest of their own accord implies progress and incremental improvement. Still, I’m left a bit uncertain about where their life will go from here. Maybe the memories of better times will be enough.