This is unexpected.

My wife called me this afternoon to let me know that there was a game out based on the song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by the Band That Changed My Life Forever, Joy Division.  Everything I’ve ever written, sang or wore has been colored to some extent by the two albums released by Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner (nee Albrecht), Peter Hook and Stephen Morris.  Only two because Curtis, their lead singer, put a rope around his neck and cut short the career of a band who’d go on to inspire everyone from U2 to Nirvana.

Maybe you haven’t heard of them. I’m not going to push them on you here.  They only take hold if you discover them for yourself.

You’ve probably seen the t-shirt, though.

That image, purportedly of the first sound wave ever photographed, wasn’t just an album cover.  It was a map.  A map to where everything I didn’t know I loved was buried.  Joy Division inspired every single one of my favorite bands, was used on the soundtrack to my favorite film of all time, and took my nascent love of minimalism and showed me that it could be applied not just to visual art, but to everything.

I literally met my wife through a guy who I used to talk to incessantly about Joy Division.  No Ian Curtis, and my kids don’t exist.

I digress.

Will Love Tear Us Apart is a game developed by Gordon Calleja for Mighty Box Games, an independent game studio based in Malta.  It was developed partially as experiment to see if something as ephemeral as a poem or a song could be reworked into an interactive experience without losing everything that gave the source material its power.  At first glance, Will Love Tear Us Apart would seem to fail that goal, but that first glance is deceiving.

The game begins by taking the familiar Unknown Pleasures album cover and reworking it into an inhospitable topography where two lovers are fighting.  The woodcut imagery is stark and beautiful, but it feels more inspired by the band Tool than it does Joy Division.  The two lovers are portrayed as puppet-like specters, their faces masks of emotions that they can’t express with any real nuance.

You are given three cards to choose from: “I need to stay calm,” “I’m getting angry,” and “Let me try to understand.”  You try to guess by the “emotion” on your partner’s face which card they’re going to play, and you try to pick the one that will counter it.

You can’t win.

Actually, you can keep picking the card that will counter your partner, until their body withers and their heart explodes, and move on to the next section of the game.  Or you can let them win by either picking the wrong card (or no card at all) until they calmly walk all over you.  Or you can just go back and forth, forever.

But you can’t “win.”

The next section of the game features a maze with a bright light in its center.  You’re trying to guide two figures into the center light so they can be together, but every direction you move one figure in, moves the other figure in the opposite direction.  Once you get one of your figures “home,” the obstacles in the maze overcome the other.  “One always gets left behind,” says the narration, and you move on to the final stage.

In this stage you can choose one of three paths: “Snare,” “Heal,” or “Tear Us Apart.”  I’d been trying to mirror my own relationship in my play thus far, so I chose “Heal.”  I was dropped into a Skyrim-esque landscape with a compass but no real destination, and when I was moving in the right direction the music was calm and the path I had walked would light up.  When I stepped in the wrong direction, the music became unsettling and the path would start to fade.  Walking in the right direction was nearly impossible…unless you walked while looking backwards, using your past to guide your future.

I’ve seen developers try to apply game mechanics to relationship difficulties before, but almost always as a simple dialogue choice (or even something as binary as “Save your one true love / Let her die.”  Real relationships are much more subtle than that, and when they’re not going well, there is no clear path out of the darkness.  Sometimes there is no path.  Sometimes you can’t win.

But you still do your best to play.

Will Love Tear Us Apart can be played here, absolutely free.