Space…the Final Frontier: Using Limitations to Speak in Queer Gaming

mainichi

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 14

In Brendan Keogh’s article “Just Making Things and Being Alive About It: The Queer Games Scene,” he praises the game Lim and its creator, Merritt Kopas, saying that they “are exemplary of what is gradually emerging as a vibrant scene of queer game developers…who are making their own space to craft innovative and unique video games on the periphery of both indie communities and the mainstream industry” (Polygon).  In the article, “space” isn’t highlighted, but it was the word I hung on most, and it’s an essential word when considering queer games.  Games reflect society, and society is overwhelmingly heteronormative and always in favor of privileging males.  The space has been claimed. Attempting to include queerness on any level, especially in media, is met with resistance or incredibly poor representation, because the rulers of the space determine how all Other groups are seen.  Like oil in water, queer representation is pushed to the fringes and expelled from the homogeneous group.  However, because games still reflect all parts of society, many designers are not only creating games about their experience in a hostile, prejudice space but also carving out a genre of gaming specifically to explore and represent queer identity.

The mainstream gaming industry has marketed its products specifically to young, straight, (typically) white boys since its height in the 1980s.  The shift in the industry to reflect more of its audience and different cultures is shocking its privileged consumers and they’re reacting with about as much class as self-entitled, delusional people do. As Leigh Alexander says, “This is hard for people who’ve drank the kool aid about how their identity depends on the aging cultural signposts of a rapidly-evolving, increasingly broad and complex medium. It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share” (Gamasutra).  While in recent years, many companies and producers are (albeit slowly) expanding their games and marketing to fit realistic audiences, very few outside of the indie scene are presenting significant, positively-represented, queer characters.  The games I analyzed for this week are seeking to change that: LimMainichiFor Those We Love Alive, and Dys4ia.  Although the budgets were smaller and the graphics probably couldn’t compete with Super Nintendo Mario, these simply-designed games are representing queer identity and queer games with unique, immersive challenges and narratives.  I’ll address them all separately and point out specific instances of addressing the reclaiming or creation of space for queer identity.

Lim

Lim, at the beginning, seems like it should be an easy game. With arrow keys, you move a color-changing cube through a maze. But…there are other cubes: blue and brown cubes. When you move past them, if you don’t press “z” to turn on camouflage, the other cubes will attack you, smashing into you.  However, if you do keep the camo on, the longer you do, the camera perspective narrows in on you, your movement slows, and you begin to shake until the camo eventually breaks and the assaults begin.  I couldn’t finish the maze, and I don’t even know if you can.  I always got stuck at one point where a large area was populated by both brown and blue cubes. Even if I camouflaged, I couldn’t be both. Multiple of one cube color or the other would slam into mine and I couldn’t pass.  On top of that, the audiovisuals are incredibly irritating. When you’re slammed into, a loud “thwack” sound goes off and the camera view is jarred around wherever the cube goes; when you keep the camo on, a horrible ringing noise intensifies until the disguise breaks.  Five minutes into the game, I was irritated, nauseated, and stressed.  But I certainly understood the game.

Lim isn’t about accomplishments or narrative. I don’t need to necessarily care about my cube to find the game’s value. What matters is that I translate my feelings and my experience of this simple maze into the less-than-simple reality it represents.  The space within the maze is both the physical- and identity-space people traverse everyday.  The blue and brown cubes are the “accepted” colors, the accepted identities (specifically gender and sexual) that society and its privileged constructs endorse. Your cube, the color-changing one, doesn’t conform to the limitations given.  It’s something else–a queer identity that doesn’t fit into the two-toned binary that, according to society, constitutes what is “normal” or “good.” And this game is ALL about space.  The maze, the space you traverse, has a limited direction you can go in but is, in and of itself, easy to go through…until you meet the other cubes. Like in society and the gaming industry, there is no space inherently given to queer people or games that they haven’t had to find, create, or reclaim for themselves.  And that process comes with resistance.  And that thought segways nicely into…

Dys4ia

Dys4ia, an interactive autobiographical game by Anna Anthropy, documents the designer’s experience as a transwoman with hormonal replacement therapy.  The game has a set narrative that you use arrow keys to click through and to interact with.  The game has received high praise, especially from gamers who have been waiting for not only a game centered on a trans-person’s experience but also the honesty and relatability that such a personal narrative provides.  However, it also received intense criticism, even from within the game industry, excluding players.  In an interview with Anthropy, she responded to a question about her greatest frustration working in the game space:

Right now, it’s “Is this really a game? Isn’t it just an interactive movie?” Conventional gamers are threatened by the lack of challenge in a game, like dys4ia, in which scenes progress regardless of whether or not the player fails, as though the game has failed to validate their masculinity in some essential way. All my game has failed to do is waste the player’s time. Games are defined by the player’s interaction with rules, not by her struggle with challenge – in fact, I feel challenge often gets in the way of the experience a game is trying to create, rather than aiding it. (Anthropy gamesforchange.org)

Even within the game industry, rules are placed on using unconventional design methods.  To tell an atypical story in games, Anthropy chose an atypical method.  But the gaming space is primarily catered by and to cisgender, heterosexual males who dislike games that they cannot conquer.  You finish Dys4ia by experiencing it.  You move from slide to slide by holding one of the arrow keys long enough, and sometimes you don’t even have to do anything at all.  Anthropy wanted the story–her story–to be absorbed and not muddled or distracted from with self-interested challenges.  The narrative was her space, and all players had to progress through it.  And in a rather ironic turn of events, many players couldn’t handle being pushed through a space or a story that wasn’t about them or didn’t specifically cater to their identities.

Mainichi

Mainichi‘s unique play on space deals with how many times and how many ways you manipulate the same space with specific limitations.  The story always begins the same: you are Mattie, a transwoman, and you are going to meet your friend for coffee.  After you do meet your friend for coffee, the day starts over again, as many times as you’d like.  You have limited time before you go, so you can only complete three tasks in your house before it’s time to leave.  The house is your space to manipulate; you decide which three tasks are most important to you.  You can get dressed, eat, play a video game (and there’s a nice little Dragon Age II easter egg there), or clean up (which includes bathing and make-up. You can only put on make-up if you bathe, so that takes up 2 tasks).  While there are options within your own home/space, there are really only two general outcomes once you leave.

Option 1: If you choose to focus on appearance and you go all out and bathe, dress up, and put on make-up, the crowds you pass as you go to the shop will all be passive, the barista you flirt with will respond positively and recognize you as a woman, but your friend (at the end of the conversation) will end up deflating your emotional high by reminding you that the barista will probably reject you once he finds out you’re trans.

Option 2: If you neglect one of those three tasks from option 1, you will always end up with option 2.  No matter how creative your action combo at the beginning in your own home, unless you complete the three actions that would perfectly (to use Lim‘s terms) “camoflague” you to society’s gender perception of women, the game will end with frustration.  If you neglect one of those three “required” options for “passing” as a “real” woman outside your own home (notice the quotes…notice the quotes…), someone in the game–the crowds’ people, the barista, the cashier, or even your friend passive-aggressively–will call you out, be disgusted by you, or claim you’re faking your gender.  You as the player/Mattie are given options on what you can do outside of your home, but unless you complete the “check-list” from option 1, someone before the end of the game will respond cruelly and the game will end with a thought bubble above Mattie’s head, filled with scribbles representing frustration.

For example, you can either walk through the crowd (and endure the crude insults) or walk around them.  In either case, you are either explicitly and verbally reminded that you are Other and unaccepted, or you must separate yourself physically, in which you are living that Other-ed identity no matter what.  You can pay with cash or card for the coffee, but if you pay with card, the cashier will awkwardly attempt to call you “miss” or “mister” before passing you along to the barista.  If you don’t complete all of option 1’s checklist, then the meeting/flirting with the barista will prompt him to call you “dude” and awkwardly ignore your flirting.  And if you do completely option 1’s checklist, your excitement from being acknowledged by the barista as “miss” and being invited on a date later is quickly deflated by your friend, who believes that the barista only likes you because “he thinks you’re a girl,” as though it’s a falsehood or a deception you’ve pulled off.

In either case, your space–both physically and as an identity–is only truly in your control and free of insult if you are either separate or complying to society’s rules for their cisgender space.  If you are separate, in your home or avoiding the crowds, you can do as you please without aggravated intervention, but then again, you are alone, separate, and excluded.  If you want to enter the space that is only accepting of clearly cisgender people, you must complete the checklist, limiting yourself to how you can express your body/identity-space, if you want to avoid insult and attack.  But no matter what you do, at the end of every playthrough, you will have the knowledge that someone does not accept you, will not accept your expression of your identity-space as real.

I don’t believe Brice intended this game to feel defeatist.  Like all of the games I played and examined this week, this game is a simulation.  You gain the experience, not bonus points or trophies, which forces the focus to be on the represented story–and in these games’ cases, the personhood–instead of self-interested accomplishment.  Like LimMainichi is meant to provide a place of sympathy for those who live as trans-men/women and empathy for those who are learning about what that life looks/feels like.

With Those We Love Alive

Of the four games I played this week, With Those We Love Alive had the most complex narrative, but it wasn’t necessarily harder mechanically. I still just had to click my way through the game, but I had (arguably) more options of what I chose, in the few instances I could choose my own expression in the game.

The game takes place in a vague, Lovecraftian-horror style fantasy world. You work for the Skull Queen, making her whatever she tells you to make, and you can only explore a few limited locations (which usually remain the same throughout the game). When you’re told, you have to make her certain objects, however, how you make them is up to you.  The narrative only progresses if you sleep, and anything significant that happens prompts a screen that will tell you to mark the feeling of the event on your skin with a sigil.  Literally. In real life, with a real pen.  By the end of the game, my arm looked like this:

ftwlaSIGILS

The game doesn’t tell you how or in what style to draw these emotions. You could paint a Da Vinci-style masterpiece for all it cares.  But the point is…YOU can design and create YOUR identity-space on YOUR body-space however YOU want, even though your narrative-space severely limits where you can go or what you can physically do (for now).

The world and narrative are both incredibly detailed and unique yet also vague.  The narrative you click through is entirely text-based.  Music and the occasional color-change of the text’s background accompany the story, but everything is told through text.  I thought this design choice was brilliant.  While the story represents queer/transgender experience, there are no visual standards as to what anyone has to look like.  This freedom to interpret the story based on everything and anything the text invokes in your mental landscape both allows the story to speak to nearly any Other-ed group and also does not distract from the story itself.

Eventually, after repeating a few processes, including making a few objects for the queen, you meet up with an old friend, a witch, who essentially inspires you to design an object which will lead to your escape.  I don’t think it’s any odd coincidence that the friend is designated as a witch.  In both literary and historical contexts, witches are the rebels, and society always condemns them.  By joining your friend and becoming a witch, however, you also become human. The game states that the Queen and her followers hunt humans.  Also, the dream distillery harvests them.  To be human is to be free of the Queen’s reign and to dream and create. Also though, to be human is to be hated for existing in the same space owned by the Queen and her people.  To be human is to be “a criminal” and “wasted potential,” even though your difference and expression of self is the greatest potential of all (With Those We Love Alive).

Conclusion

Space doesn’t have to be physical, but often, even physical spaces are dictated by the socially-accepted and -promoted identity that “owns” them.  The space of gender and its expressions in (particularly a Western-American) society is “claimed” to belong only to the cisgender, and even amongst that distinction, only those that to-a-T follow the rules of gender expression are accepted. Anyone outside the binary of clearly-expressed male-female is Other. Any Others, while freely exercising their identities through their body-space, exist in a social space that is hostile to anyone breaking the rules.

These four games accomplish two very significant missions.  First, they offer simulations and experiences that can either offer relatability to queer players or provide a new way to empathize with the struggles of identifying as queer.  Second, in the gaming space specifically, queer games are creating their own genre, their own space.  They are providing a place for players to easily access and find queer narratives and characters (that are hopefully portrayed well), so they don’t have to hunt through the typically cisgender/heteronormative-dominant game genres for an instance of identifying with a character/situation.  Brendan Keogh captures the progression of this movement in his Polygon article:

Despite being beautiful works, their games are often dismissed as being too short, too simple, too straightforward or simply not even games at all. But something is starting to change. Although they lack the access to funding channels and technological knowhow that have long been presumed to be prerequisites for game design, these queer developers — as different from each other as they are similar — are becoming impossible to ignore as they create video games that are unlike anything players have ever seen before, video games that are capturing the attention of an ever broadening audience. (“Just making things…”)

Big-budget games and big-name companies are no longer the only contenders for the gaming community’s attention.  Indie games, their popularity, and their unique perspectives are spreading and beginning to occupy a once, very limited and elitist gaming industry.  Granted, as Leigh Alexander points out, “it’s a vocal minority that’s not representative of most people. Most people, from indies to industry leaders, are mortified, furious, disheartened at the direction industry conversation has taken…[by] a few bad apples” (“Gamers don’t have to be your audience…”).  The elitist, crude gamer boys still exist, but they no longer own the majority of the gaming world’s attention anymore, and their domination-crazy, white, hetereosexual male heroes are no longer god.  The gaming space is, slowly, being changed so that the individual spaces people occupy–body and identity–can blend in without camouflage.

Works Cited: