The hopes and fears of using a videogame as an online confession booth

The idea of a videogame acting as a confession booth is a distressing one. There’s a reason why the religious rite of penance is resolved in a two-person cubicle that can only be occupied by the sinner and a priest. This set-up allows for what is considered to be safe spiritual counseling. You can’t guarantee this if, say, the booth’s walls became digital and were expanded to the size of a videogame world that’s open to anyone with an internet connection. Yet, this is what Selfie: Sisters of the Amniotic Lens essentially is.

you have opened up a figurative wound 

It starts by asking one of the most personal questions a videogame has ever hoisted in my direction. “Shed your skin,” it invites, “and tell me what lies beneath. What tears do you cry that are worth bottling?” Yikes. A double-take later and I’ve fallen into myself, going over all of the dark acts I’ve committed in my lifetime. I’m thinking: What do I cry about? What do I fear? What do I regret? And then: How much of this am I willing to share with a videogame and … whoever else might see this admission?

Within a couple of minutes of opening up Selfie it has brought out a chain of pensive, insular, and highly personal thoughts in me. After submitting my entry it takes me to someplace else. It’s from here that Selfie begins to obscure its pathways, introducing a disturbing fiction involving an extremist cult that carve wounds into their bodies, believing that these act as gateways to another dimension. As you find out, this isn’t masochism but (at least in the game’s world) is a functioning form of black magic. 

You may not realize it at first, but in having shared your darkest secrets at the game’s beginning, you have opened up a figurative wound, just as a member of this supposed cult. You’re one of them now. To complete your passage into this other dimension you have to follow a set of instructions to perform a ritual. You catch flies with a witchy beam of light, and scroll through teletext pages on an ancient television set, before inverting the horrific way the y?rei appears before its cursed victims in Ringu by being absorbed into the TV screen. You’re about to embrace the monsters, if you will.

As you conduct the strange actions of this ceremony, you’re surrounded by occult paraphernalia: a religious text, some hypodermic needles, a bodice stand, a strange gadget with a lens. Most noticeably there are also flies buzzing around you in all directions, most of them alive, others dead on the sticky fly paper hanging from the ceiling. Look to your left and you’ll see the source of their interest. A woman’s naked corpse stares back at you with an expressionless face, her legs cut off, and a knife sticking out of chest. You’ll want to get out of there pretty fast.

finding help that they can’t find anywhere else. 

Luckily, what awaits you on the other side of the television’s interstice is far less grim. It’s an outer space scene occupied by floating wire-frame models. These are not important outside of granting you in-game money for shooting red beacons and the occasional wire-frame fly. What is remarkable about this vast space are the stars that shine brighter than the rest, for these are not stars at all. Fly towards them and you’ll discover that they are, in fact, bottles. You may think nothing of them at first but inside of these bottles are messages. What kind of messages? Remember, at the beginning of all this, the game asked which of your tears are worth bottling? Yep, inside each bottle is a player’s written confessions. 

Upon shooting the top off the bottle you can read someone’s answer to the game’s opening question in full. Those I’ve read include someone stuck in a relationship and fearing for their continued existence, a furry porn addict who feels like their life is a lie, and someone admitting to murdering a childhood pet. These are the lighter ones. One person writes in extreme conviction how they think about suicide nearly every day. It’s a heartbreaking and eye-opening insight into the struggles of others.

Selfie doesn’t stop there. You’re encouraged to act as if a priest in a confession booth by choosing from a binary option upon opening each bottle: to “Condemn” or “Free” this person? By condemning them you take away all the money that person had in the game. But if you choose to free them you get the chance to give them some of your in-game funds, offering a token of support, and can also respond to them directly with an anonymously written message. Any replies a player gets appear in the “Messages” section in the main menu, where they can also respond if they wish, starting a conversation about their problems and perhaps finding help that they may not find elsewhere.

As the blog Video Games and the Bible puts it, “this is unprecedented in gaming. People baring their very souls to the world, and receiving selfless love and kindness in return. It’s a virtual paradise in an environment increasingly filled with negativity and outright evil.” But as that writer also forewarns, this may not last if the game’s player base continues to grow and the less empathetic of us all discover its potential. It’s a system that’s open to abuse and torment and that is easily exploited by the uncaring.

Hopefully, that won’t be the case, as what is hidden away inside Selfie: Sisters of the Amniotic Lens, behind its oddity and ritualistic front, is something beautiful and (I dare to say) new to videogames. Complete strangers, united only by technology and their grievances, aiding each other in overcoming their darkest thoughts, towards being able to live with themselves. It’d be rotten for this to be spoiled. If there’s one thing worth cherishing out of all the videogames ever made, surely it’s that.

You can purchase Selfie: Sisters of the Amniotic Lens on Steam