He Beat Her Offers A Flawed But Interesting Take On Domestic Violence

With its lush art and lovely music, visual novel He Beat Her sounds like an easy sell. The way it handles its subject matter, however, lacks the nuance it deserves.

[Given the subject matter of the game, this article will discuss domestic violence and mental illness. This is your content warning.]

He Beat Her is a visual novel made for weekend-long game jam Ludum Dare 39 by Zephyo, an 18-year-old developer. Its core gameplay mechanic is clever. The game is about a lawyer defending a male client accused of domestic violence against their female partner. The player is told "You're practically powerless." The lawyer can only perform one action, which you type in a text box.

More often than not, what you do will lead to new information, but you will still fail. You can ask your client about their girlfriend and learn something about the relationship, but you'll still lose the game. It's kind of like how 999's good ending only makes sense once you've seen all the bad endings -- you have to use all the information you've gained by playing the game over and over to defend your client.

It's a visually evocative game. Motes of dust float around during scenes, and the dramatic lighting in the illustrations creates an oppressive tone. The music has a noir-ish tinge, and on the whole it feels the game is incredibly polished, and takes interesting risks with its gameplay. It's no wonder it's one of the most popular visual novels on Itch.io right now. But as I played it, I got a bit uncomfortable.

Your client is accused of domestic abuse, but in the end, it turns out that his girlfriend has undiagnosed bipolar and attacked him with a knife. Overlooking the odd idea that your client has a large scar on his neck that he is covering up with a turtleneck and no one has noticed, this subject matter needs more sensitivity than He Beat Her gives it. It perpetuates certain myths about domestic violence and mental illness, perhaps as a result of its mechanic, which asks the player to make a lot of assumptions very quickly.

The theme for the game jam He Beat Her was submitted for was "running out of power," and this is a creative interpretation of that theme. Men can be victims of intimate partner violence. According to the National Coalition for Against Domestic Violence, one in four men will experience intimate partner violence in a relationship, and they face many barriers to reporting on it.

The game's focus on "a few words" being taken as absolute truth in its opening moments suggests that the accuser is automatically believed in cases of domestic violence, and that this is something women do to get back at their exes.

In one ending, your client is found innocent the moment the evidence of his accuser's bipolar disorder is brought to light even though her act of violence isn't brought up as testimony, erroneously conflating mental illness with violence.

He Beat Her brings up complicated issues but fails to examine them with nuance, instead seeming to come off as condemnatory of mentally ill women and suggesting they accuse men of domestic abuse. Mechanically He Beat Her is interesting, and its presentation is phenomenal.

Players have widely responded positively to the game. I want to like it, but it treats tough issues with a shallowness that fails to do them justice.

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Comments

    Overlooking the odd idea that your client has a large scar on his neck that he is covering up with a turtleneck and no one has noticed...

    but it treats tough issues with a shallowness that fails to do them justice.

    Well, it was written by an 18-year-old developer. Good on Zephyo for having a go at doing something a bit different in the narrative space.

    So, in this game is the male presented as the victim? I'm sure that sometimes happens BUT it is hardly the message we need in the domestic violence space.

      Gender shouldn't play a role in what the correct message should be regarding domestic violence. It happens both to males and females and is an abhorrent act regardless of which is the victim. Saying that one is the wrong message keeps a gender from reporting a crime and living in fear.

        I agree with you 100% that all domestic violence is abhorrent regardless of gender and I totally accept that men can be/are the victims. And re-reading my comment I should have made that clearer. Also I accept that the game maker is only 18 and it was at a game jam etc. and therefore we should not leap to conclusions about the motive of the game maker. But domestic violence is primarily a problem of violence perpetrated by men against women. I just feel uncomfortable with the premise of a man wrongly accused in a domestic violence case and presented as the helpless victim of the judicial system... IF that is what happens in the game. That is the way I understood it from the article.

          My take from the article on this game (I will play through the game when I find time) is that the male is actually the victim of domestic violence as he was attacked with a knife. He kept quiet though.

          1/3 of domestic violence victims in Australia are male, with 94% of those victims being assaulted by a female. It is believe that due to gross under-reporting (males are 2 to 3 times less likely to report it) due to emasculation, embarrassment, fear of losing contact with their children, and such things being said as "YOU got beat up by HER?" "Stick up for yourself wuss" that it's likely that 1/2 of domestic violence victims are male.

            'Half of domestic violence victims are male' - i don't believe that for a second. Any victim of domestic violence, minority or majority, deserves understanding/support. I just think this can quickly become an process of minimising a really huge problem in society - violence against women.

              The Australian Bureau of Statistics has recorded that 1/3 of victims are male, with it being 2 to 3 times more likely that they have never told anyone.
              Please don't walk around with blinkers on thinking that it's unbelievable that males can be victims. It isn't just possible that it happens, it bloody well does.

              It's not just violence against women that is a problem in society, it's domestic violence against all. Both genders are able to be victims, and both genders are able to be perpetrators end of.

                Of course, no domestic violence is acceptable. I totally agree that it's not limited to any gender or minority. I certainly never said/thought it was unbelievable that males can be victims of domestic violence - of course they can, and are. But that is not the same as saying it is an equal problem.
                Ok, I need to do more research, but the stats I am looking at do not seem to match what you are suggesting. I'm not sure if I am allowed to link in this forum so google 'ABC Fact File Domestic Violence' - that seems to mention and link to a lot of seemingly reliable sources.
                It seems pretty clear to me that women are considerably more often the victims of domestic violence. That in NO WAY suggests it does not happen to males or that it is acceptable when it does. It is just a way to help target where information/resources are most needed/effective.

              It's not a zero sum game. We can draw attention to and acknowledge issues like domestic violence against men and the harm that false accusations cause without diminishing the issue of violence against women.

        Regardless of gender, the fact that the "correct ending" is that the mentally unstable partner was making it up all along doesn't seem like the greatest message to be putting out there. A message saying that if it's found out that you are bi-polar, the justice system is going to rule against you regardless of actual proof will be keeping people reporting a crime and living in fear.

          Agreed. A game focussing on female perpetrated domestic violence is fine – it is an issue that exists so, if someone wants to make a game highlighting this, great. What isn't great is that this game furthers two damaging and far too commonly held beliefs.

          If this game did away with the gross "women lie about domestic abuse" and "people living with mental illness are lying, violent sociopaths" concepts, it might have had something interesting and important to say. It's my opinion that in taking this angle, it's only hurting its own message.

            Faulty generalisation is a fallacy. You're taking the elements of a single story about two individuals and inferring generalisations that aren't present in the source. The game isn't making any implication that all women lie about domestic violence, nor that all mentally ill people are lying violent sociopaths.

              Intellectually posturing comment is trite and unnecessary. The generalised concepts of women lying about domestic violence and the demonising of the mentally ill are strongly embedded in our society and are a major factor in increasing the harm and suffering of domestic violence. Whether or not the generalisations are directly present in the source, they are referring to the actual generalisations in our society. If these were presented in a negatory fashion then that is understandable but in this case it clearly appears that they are not, and therefore simply act as reinforcement to commonly held beliefs. Which is exactly how these social myths came to exist in the first place.

                I don't disagree that women and mentally ill people suffer from the unfair assumptions of society. I disagree that it conveys those generalisations, because it's telling the story of another situation where someone suffers from the unfair assumptions of society.

                The story touches on something I hold particularly close to my heart - how hard it is for an innocent man falsely accused of a misdeed against a woman to defend himself in a society that is content to hastily assume his guilt because of his gender, before evidence is even considered. I'm hesitant to mention this to you because of how callously you seem to take things but I've been in that place myself, falsely accused by a woman of something I didn't do. The sheer speed at which people assume guilt is shattering, and it makes for a very difficult uphill battle to prove innocence in a system that is supposed to assume innocence until guilt is proven. It's a genuinely traumatic experience that I hope you never have to go through.

                I fully understand that the weight of society's hasty assumptions affects women and the mentally ill too. But regardless of gender or mental health the burden of proof must be on the accuser. This game tells a story of how that burden is often shifted from the accuser to the accused not because of evidence but because of gender. The story demonstrates the "running out of power", the support structures of assumed innocence stripped away from an innocent person because of something that should have no bearing whatsoever on that innocence.

                There's no denying that similar stories exist for others. Rape victims are accused of provoking their rapist as though it was a mitigating factor. Black people are assumed to be guilty because of their skin colour. They're all abhorrent stories, grossly unfair to the person who isn't being given a fair chance.

                This game tells one such story, the difference is the victim here isn't part of a group traditionally disbelieved. For many, the meer idea that a privileged white man can be disadvantaged because of his gender is obscene. And it's that kind of mindset the game is trying to challenge.

          Are you sure that's the message the game is putting out there, that if you're bipolar you're instantly and automatically ruled against? Justice needs to be accessible to everyone, whether they're mentally ill or otherwise, but that justice also needs to be accessible to someone falsely accused of a crime.

          It's an uncomfortable fact but a fact nonetheless that bipolar disorder correlates with both lying and manic episodes; in a case where evidence is circumstantial at best (as would seem to be the case here, given she ended up being the aggressor) the trustworthiness of testimony is important and mental illness can influence that trustworthiness. It's not fair to her for the court to assume she's lying because she's bipolar, but it's also not fair to him for the court to assume she's telling the truth. That's where the evidence matters, and if there's weak evidence and weak testimony, it's perfectly reasonable for the court to rule innocence in a justice system where people are innocent until proven guilty.

            I don't think that Zephyo had an agenda with the story they wrote, nor am I trying to deny their right to make such a game. I just think that they have resorted to lazy tropes and are not well enough learned about the subjects to create a compelling or accurate game.

            Also, it’s not an “uncomfortable fact” that bipolar is linked with lying. There is no clinical evidence that links bipolar with lying. Lying isn’t even a symptom of bipolar according to the DSM-IV. You may be confusing bipolar and borderline personality disorder.

            I also don’t think that people living with bipolar should be given any more benefit of the doubt than neurotypical people, but this game (from the paths that I have played/completed in it) leads the player by the nose to conclude that bipolar = violent liar = guilty, as if that alone is enough evidence to turn the case around 180 degrees and up acquitting the defendant and bringing charges against the plaintiff.

            Evidently there was not enough development time, creativity or knowledge of the subjects to provide subtlety, sensitivity and nuance. The result was a predictable game that fell into tired plot traps, which left me feeling very uncomfortable (and not the good kind of uncomfortable that comes from having your assumptions challenged effectively).

              Lying implies conscious choice so you're right that that's not the right sentiment. Belief in false reality is perhaps more accurate. Clinically this is covered by persecutory delusion, which is associated with both types of bipolar disorder (but primarily with type 1) and may objectively undermine credibility.

              Can you lay out the sequence you used to get "bipolar = violent liar = guilty" please? I'd like to get a feel for the narrative on that path myself.

                The game is so short that it doesn’t allow for a proper exploration of character history and motive, so it does away with any of that by proposing a singular cause for the events that unfold. The goal is to find the 'truth', and the game's truth is that she is lying about the allegations and has violent tendencies because she is bipolar. There are no other factors at play, there are no other explanations afforded the character. Every path you take funnels you into needing to investigate the partner’s history of bipolar as the cause of her violence. My path was something like this:

                Ask “abuse” – client denies abuse
                Think “client” – hint about turtleneck
                Ask “turtleneck” – reveal information about knife attack

                At this point I got stuck and didn’t know how to progress, so consulted the guide for more command options. Also, the game confusingly calls the plaintiff the prosecutor… That didn’t help my understanding. After consulting the guide, I learned the only way to progress was to get more information by stealing the phone or going through her bag, both of which are extremely questionable actions. The result of these ill-obtained intrusions is the revelation that she has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and this one piece of new information is meant to completely explain the violence and false allegations.

                That is my biggest problem: the only outcome was to blame her mental illness as the cause of her behaviour and the only way to do this was to pry into her personal information. Furthermore, the only insight into her condition is through an illustration that looks like something out of a horror/slasher film. This is not an accurate representation of bipolar disorder – far more often, the person is at higher risk of self harm. It also forces the player to obtain information about the partner’s private life through illegal and nefarious means (distraction, theft, invasion of privacy) while also framing these invasions of privacy as justified in order to reveal the true nature of her violence and it’s supposed cause.

                Last edited 08/08/17 3:27 pm

      *facepalm* You, you are the strawman that MRAs bring out of their dank closets whenever you try to have a constructive discourse with them: "But feminists actually hate men! They want you to believe that men's rights are irrelevant and dismiss the possibility that they can be victims too and that the fact that the system is biased in favour of females means that it can be abused by them!"

      Yes, domestic abuse is overwhelmingly done by the man. However, if you try to dismiss genuine but rare cases where they are the ones abused because "focusing on abused females is more important" due to their number or whatever, you are not better than any MRA. You are sending the message that in order to prioritize the rights of the people you care more for, you are happy to ignore the rights of other peoples and in doing so, you are giving them a justification to ignore yours. You are perpetuating their noxious belief that in order to give rights to a group you have to take them away from another group.

      Domestic abuse should be condemned by every decent person, regardless of gender. If you want (and /need/) men to get on board with you to combat abuse against females, why cannot you get on board with them the few times when they need you to?

    This is an all round tough subject, I think they did really well for an 18 year old and I reckon it is sad that they will catch flak for making it.

      To be fair, you can catch flak for literally anything these days. There was a bloke who got attacked for saying he thought his 'curvy' wife was hot... SMH

        I think it is likely the developer chose a mental disorder so it wouldn't be construed to be woman hating material.

        It is just sad that it will be taken instead as an attack on the mentally ill.

          I reckon it will be taken by some as an MRA hand-waving exercise to excuse or dissimulate domestic violence perpetrated by men. But if it gets this game more publicity, that might be worth it :-)

        Thats not quite the truth. What actually happened was BuzzFeed wrote an article saying the guy was some kind of hero for thinking his curvy girlfriend is hot. Basically the article was a joke as well as his opinion of himself.

        The lack of awareness in this post is quite frankly weapons-grade.

      Probably the creator's sole mistake was trying to rationalize the woman's attack with a mental illness, for whatever reason, unnecessarily opening a can of worms he was not really intending to deal with. People do not need a mental illness to employ violence on other human beings.

        Yeah, but for them it is was likely the easiest thought chain, need to give a bit of slack due to developers age.

        I personally could have done without the handholding, but the dev was likely afraid of being called a woman hater. The internet loves to fly into hysteria at the drop of a hat.

          Edit: I edited this post into moderation limbo, see below...

          Last edited 08/08/17 3:40 pm

          Worth pointing out the developer, as far as I can tell, is actually female. Not that that really changes anything. The content was still poorly handled, in my opinion.

          Also, it would have been possible (and in my opinion, more effective) to explore the themes of female perpetrated domestic violence without a) blaming mental illness and b) framing it around a false allegation from a woman. The player could have been the prosecutor trying to get justice for domestic abuse suffered by his client, yet they keep having to contend with judge/jury/defence attorney preconceptions that the female defendant couldn't have been responsible for the violence.

          Edit: Which is exactly what @wokejeff said below, if I had actually read to the bottom of the comments section!

    I think some of the prongs at it being too shallow is a bit unfair. Not only because, as some commentor's mentioned, the creator was 18. It was made at a game jam. This was programmed, drawn and written all in one weekend. I doubt we're going to get true depth in something written in that time.

      Yeah. My first thought was:

      Game Made Over Weekend DevJam by 18yr Old Tackles Difficult Subject Matter but Lacks Nuance.
      Colour me surprised.

      I have a feeling that 'flawed but interesting' and 'lacks nuance' are the author's kind way of not-saying, "gets it completely fucking wrong and offends me," Which they probably felt wouldn't be fair to say exactly because of the incredibly obvious mitigating factors.

        (Note: I feel like the author's not exactly wrong, though. Reinforcing negative stereotypes can be damaging, especially with sensitive material like this.)

    Why not frame the narrative from the prosecution's point of view? Have it that the defendant has hired a whole team of the best lawyers & is now actively working to discredit the character of the victim?

    That would still meet the "You're practically powerless" theme (probably better I think) while being more sensitive to the current issue as a whole.

    Heck, have it as a male victim & a female offender, it wouldn't matter. Both would work within that sorta story.

    Just because it doesn't look like its been touched on and its an important thing to remember when considering domestic violence, people need to remember its not just physical violence that is considered DV. Any sort of controlling behavior like monitoring who you can call or talk to or who you are friends with, mental or emotional abuse like destroying property that is important to you or other actions that are done to frighten to scare you or in the case of separated partners using contact with the children to control your behavior, financial or economic abuse which can include controlling what you can spend money on above and beyond any sort of budgeting. Its also important to remember its not just intimate partners that are victims of domestic violence, family members can be victims in these situations.

    All these things are considered domestic violence and if you or anyone you know is being subjected to these things or anything you are even unsure about there are a number of support agencies around that can give you advice on options available to you and offer counselling for you and your partner. I know in Queensland there are DVConnect support centers in a number of city centers and they have a 24/7 support line 1800 811 811 for women and 1800 600 636 for men that you can call if you need any support. And always remember that you can call 000 for anyone who is in immediate danger.

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