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Will Love Tear Us Apart (2013)


Will Love Tear Us Apart is a game about the frustration of love that lingers beyond

Will Love Tear Us Apart is a game about the frustration of love that lingers beyond the realisation of its unsustainability. It is inspired by Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us

Apart, with each verse of the song represented by a level in the game. It encourages players to reflect on the darker side of love: mis-communication, emotional impasse and the sadness of separation. Solace may be found in the brief moment of lightness that comes over us when we come to terms with the reality of an irreconcilable
relationship with those we still have feelings for.


Will Love Tear Us Apart is divided into three levels, each corresponding to a verse in the song, with an animated cut-scene before each level and three possible endings represented by three different cut-scenes for the player to choose from. The first level is an argument between the partners which ends with one partner dominating and consuming the other.  I was careful to avoid using a recognizable language to have the argument in, focusing instead on the sensory and emotional exchange. 

The second level is a maze where the player controls both partners simultaneously through diametrically opposed controls: when you move your avatar up the partner moves down.  The level asks the player to save the partners by guiding them into the light in the centre of the heart maze (see screenshots).  Only there is no way to do this successfully, the game toying with the player's expectations of there always being a correct solution to a problem (game).  The point here being that such situations cannot be solved cognitively and, following the song's direction, one partner always bears the pain of break-up.   

The third level sees the player, exhausted from the effort of trying to solve the problems in the relationship and going into their own head.  This level has three possible endings that are activated by following a path in darkness through sound cues: if the player is on the path that forms one of the endings the relevant track playing is in tune.  If they step off the path the tune distorts.  This level represents arriving at a solution by fumbling around in the dark.  As the path is followed after- images flash on the screen, derived from the ending cut-scene associated with that path.  These represent flashes of memory of the relationship and where it will go if the player follows the path.  Even if this is not immediately obvious to the player the games to make the player feel like they have the responsibility of the choice they have made - that they have made effort to precipitate the specific ending.  

In all these levels the game has been designed to convey the sentiment of the track not only through representation and mood, but also through the game rules, interactions and subversion of player's expectations of what games are and how they operate.


The initial motivation for making the song came from pondering the difficulty games have with representing the more intangible aspects of the human condition, particularly those that deal with introspection, emotionally charged human relationships and abstract concepts such as love, disappointment, emptiness and so on. This quickly led me to think about an expressive form that is particularly good at conveying the above: poetry. Poetry is incredibly apt at using language to convey experiences that lie, as it were, beyond language.

Games, on the other hand, are very good at representing concrete spaces, characters, actions, models and events. Simulation passes an already heavily designed reality through the cognitive filter of human experience. In a sense, poetry and digital games lie on the opposite ends of a continuum of representation: the concrete and the metaphorical, the linguistic and the ephemeral.

Rather than tackle these concerns by donning a theoretical lens, as I am used to, I decided to approach the problem by taking up the challenge to actually make a game that would attempt to marry these two unlikely partners.

The initial trust was therefore to adapt a poem into a game. I must admit that I was particularly interested in a text that dealt with the thorny issues highlighted above, particularly love and relationships. Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart immediately presented itself as an ideal candidate, since aside from addressing the above concerns with great richness of expression, it occupies a powerful place in music history, heralding, as it did, the suicide of its creator.

The game’s design had to convey, in as honest a manner possible, the essence of the song, or at least my interpretation thereof.

The biggest challenge in designing the game was to reconcile what is generally understood to be good game design with the thematic concerns of the song. My aim was to not simply convey the song through the representational layer of the game, but to translate it’s themes into game mechanics. Or at least to use game mechanics to push the player into experiencing what the song conveys so powerfully: the frustration of being in a troubled relationship without knowing how to improve or solve it and the bleak loneliness the latter situation results in.

In the first level, for example, the combination of the player’s mode of communication and that of the avatar can result in the game not progressing. If the player responds to anger with anger, the game state does not advance. This makes perfect sense for the theme of the song, but is obviously something one wants to avoid when designing an engaging game. After a lot of testing and tweaking, it became obvious that the exigencies of the song adaptation and the wisdom of good game design could not coexist. Upon further reflection it became quite obvious why this was the case. Good game design aims for a fun and enjoyable experience while the song communicates bleakness, isolation and frustration. If the principles of good (fun) game design would have been upheld the game would have been a failure – at least from my perspective.

Once I accepted this tension between game design principles and song theme as an integral part of the work, I deployed it consciously in the second and third levels. In the second level players are directed to save both partners from the pain of break- up by leading them to the centre of a maze that represents the relationship and its problems. As outlined earlier, the players cannot achieve this. They can only save themselves or their partners, but they only find this out after they have typically failed several times. It is only when they are just about to complete the goal stipulated by the game that they are denied that goal, and must suffer a slow and frustrating death when the heart in which the maze is set in tears apart.

In the third level the players need to uncover one of three paths by listening to sound cues that indicate when they are on and off the path. Each of the paths represents a different ending to the game and a different interpretation of the song.

Two of the paths result in grim outcomes for the player and they are warned about this through flashes of frames derived from the relevant ending cut-scene that increase in frequency as they progress further down the path. The intended effect here is not to give players clear feedback as to the nature of the path they are following, but to make them feel like they put in effort to achieve the relevant outcome – and if that outcome is negative they are to blame since they were warned about where their current efforts were leading them, albeit obliquely.


The game was a far greater success than expected. We did not contact any game media before it’s release, tweet about it or promote the game much at all. We simply uploaded it to a website and mailed five game review sites to notify them of it’s existence. Out of these one site, Indiestatik wrote a favourable analysis of it.

Two days later Paste Magazine wrote a short article about it’s bleakness. Within days the game was featured on major sites and magazines such as Spin, Fact, Rolling Stone, Kotaku, Polygon and others. In two weeks the game had been played by 65,000 people and was featured in over 300 sites, magazines, radio shows and podcasts around the globe.

Whoever takes care of the Joy Division Facebook page featured it there and a raging debate started amongst fans. In one camp were angry die-hards that felt the very existence of a game adaptation of such a hallowed anthem was sacrilege. While most of these angry fans did not see the actual game, they felt that games are such a base medium that their association with the song was enough to sully it’s artistic standing.


Will Love Tear Us Apart was nominated for several awards including: an Innovation Award at the Festival Du Cinema Nouveau in Montreal, an Interactive Award at the Webby Awards in New York, and an Innovation Award at SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin.

The game was exhibited as part of the Ars Electronica festival in Linz and as part of the Interactive exhibition of the Festival Du Cinema Nouveau in Montreal. Finally, Will Love Tear Us Apart was also translated into a four-gallery exhibition at the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in Valletta, Malta.