The Question of Context in Indie Game Development

Ruin Jam

In her song “Fire Door,” Ani DiFranco sings: “You know, taken out of context, I must seem so strange.” And she was certainly right, as back then, my mom just couldn’t understand why I’d want to listen to music with so much “cussing and homosexuality.” There was a lack of context about my identity that made my actions confusing to her. This lack of context can affect the gaming industry, too, as a recent experience drove home for me.

In Japan, internet companies are extremely slow when it comes to setting up or moving service. So for the first month after moving apartments, I didn’t have internet. One Saturday afternoon, I went down to a net cafe, sat in a cushioned wooden cubicle, and messed around online. In advance of being on some friends’ podcast, I went to check out their game creation website, and downloaded a small title called Operation: Kiss All the Boys. It was a quirky little platformer with some neat gameplay ideas, and a ridiculously in-your-face story about a genderfluid spaceship captain needing to rescue all of their crew by going around kissing them. I had no idea what it was when I downloaded it—it was simply the first thing I clicked, and all I knew was that it was made for one of those indie jam things.

There in that little cubicle, I played the whole game, rescuing everybody and kissing every little electronic touch-plate to change the whooshy updraft thingy on and off. This is a vague description, but it relates my general confusion while playing the game. I understood the gameplay—that was easy enough to get. I’d grown up on stuff like Commander Keen on DOS, and I understood the context of the world in that sense. What I didn’t understand, however, was the story. It came in as a quick wall of text Star Warsstyle at the beginning of the game, then set me to it. There was something about being genderfluid and fighting against the anti-social justice aliens or something. I just wasn’t following it. When the game finished, there was more text, and our protagonist left to go do good things in space!

It was cute enough, and fun enough, but I walked away feeling like I’d been smacked in the face by a rubber mallet on a comedy show. It wasn’t until I was actually recording the podcast when I mentioned the game and my feelings of disorientation and dislike that I figured it out. The game was designed for Ruin Jam, which was a satirical response to a lot of anti-social justice criticism (and illegal actions, let’s not forget) in the gaming community. But in a twist of irony, I hadn’t heard of Ruin Jam for the exact same reason I sat down to play Operation: K.A.T.B.: Ruin Jam had taken place entirely during the first two months of my being in Japan when, again, I didn’t have internet.

Talking with one of the game’s creators, Polly, I was able to make sense of the game quickly, and understand exactly where it was coming from. And even though it’s still a little too blunt for my taste, I get it, and I don’t feel the need to criticize it. But the incident made me question the issue of context as a whole in the gaming industry and indie community.

GBJam

I don’t call myself a game developer because I haven’t developed the skills to deserve that title yet. The few games I’ve created in the past relied heavily on the engine to do the dirty work, with me throwing some character sprites together and writing a lot of dialogue. Similarly, I don’t currently call myself a gaming journalist/reviewer, though I’m nearing the point where I can. Fundamentally, I’m a game player, and that’s what I’m (moderately) good at. I can analyze what’s in front of me remarkably well, but I’m not sure I can really design it. So when I heard about GBJam, a Game Boy-themed game jam, I felt it was a good reason to start improving my design skills. But here I am, as a minor journalist/reviewer, applying my own analysis to my ideas, and I come to a dilemma.

The game I want to make, tentatively titled Tombs of the Sea-Kings (or TotSK for short), doesn’t feel like it has room for the kind of inclusive characters I want to give it. This is a fundamental conflict between my brain and my heart. In my heart, I want a world where I can create characters that reflect who I am, and may give hope to a kid who’s growing up feeling alone. But in my mind, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the game for that. Or rather, I’m not sure I can fit a lesbian Michelle avatar character into this game’s world and have enough room to give her a proper context.

TotSK as a concept is a classic adventure game, a loose homage to Tolkien’s Akallabêth and legends of Atlantis. I keep asking myself how I could fit a lesbian or transgender character into the high fantasy equivalent of Shadowgate on Game Boy. Would it make sense, or would it come across as random and out of place with no context? Would people praise it, or just yell about there being “a gay” in their retro adventure?

Adding to this confusion, I read a reposted Kotaku article a few days ago about Nina Freeman, the developer of several indie web games based around explorations of sex and sexuality. I have followed Nina on Twitter for a few years, so I knew who she was, but I have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about her games. It seems like half the people on my Twitter feed are game designers of some sort, so it becomes a challenge to pick and choose whose games I can fit into my busy schedule. Not lost on me is the irony that this article, too, came out while I was moving to Japan and away from the internet.

Reading the article, however, raised a few questions. At the core of the piece is the idea that sex absolutely has a place in gaming, and that death threats against Nina for this idea are ludicrous. This is a concept that I fundamentally agree with, because if we’re going to talk about games as art, we must recognize sex as a millennia old aspect of art. It’s equally important to note that so many gamers of all persuasions defend games as art in the wake of censorship discussions following every act of mass violence. If these same people begged for sex scenes to be included in games like God of War, The Witcher, or Dragon Age, why then does Nina get death threats for her games?

How Do You Do It?

Ultimately, it came down to a lack of context in my mind. The article mentions how she includes dialogue about her own sex life with her real life partner in the game Mangia, so I played it. While the premise was interesting, the fundamental flaw was that the game treated “you” as the main character, using third-person pronouns. Many people read or watch movies about other people’s sex lives and can relate to them, but I wasn’t sure how I or other gamers could relate to such specific personal interactions.

It seems like a mixed message, as the game is trying to tell me I’m the main character, while forcing me to interact with her real-life sex partner. There’s no build up, no relationship growth, no context. I was uncomfortable, not because of shame about sex, nor the idea of sex being in a game, but just the sense that I didn’t belong there. I got a feeling like walking into a friend’s house at the wrong time and seeing them going at it with someone, only to be asked to close the door and come watch. And maybe that’s her goal, but if I feel out of place, how would a heterosexual, cisgender man who perhaps has never heard of Nina feel?

The game How Do You Do It? (pictured above) made even less sense to me. The concept of the game is that, when your mom goes away, you rub Barbie dolls together to simulate sex. This isn’t an offensive concept to me, as I fully recognize it’s an important part of childhood experimentation. Nor was I offended  by it being in a game. I was, however, confused as to why it was in a game. The actual gameplay made no sense to me. I didn’t get the point of awkwardly moving a couple animated dolls up and down for a few seconds. It seems beyond moronic to me that Nina would receive death threats for making this, but I was still struck by how absolutely mind-boggling it must have been to those people. It doesn’t justify their actions, but it certainly gives a reason behind it.

These issues of context are at the core of what’s bugging me as I think about how to approach my own little game. If I create my dungeon adventure in the lost tombs of the Sea-Kings, how can I balance my desire to be inclusive with a story where inclusiveness is unimportant? If I go out of my way to add an inclusive character, will the normative majority out there playing games be annoyed? Is it possible to even do this in a game so small without it coming off as a token character trope? I keep trying to come up with a plot point that would put such a character into context, but I can’t. My character might not even be seen at all, leaving the player as a first-person avatar. At that point, does it even need to be inclusive? I fear that if I shoehorn inconclusiveness into a plot where it doesn’t make sense, I will alienate that normative majority. Maybe the vocal minority will support me, but is it worth it to stir up so much trouble? Is anybody going to understand me?

This isn’t an attack on the validity of the aforementioned games or their creators, nor do I think we should just stop creating. It is, however, an attempt to understand other people’s reactions to us. It should serve as a reminder that, outside our social bubbles, our new games and ideas often don’t have the context needed to make sense to the masses. It’s easy to look at the other side of our social window and write every criticism off as bigotry, but it doesn’t answer the underlying question of “why do they care?” The reality is that if we push instant change and a lot of ideas that are hard to understand or accept, the majority mass will see it as a threat to their way of life. And in a way, it is. We’re asking people who have lived their entire lives under a normative majority mindset to suddenly change everything they know and love, when they have no contextual understanding for why. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and yet our response too often isn’t to help them understand, but to force them to give in regardless.

Gone Home

When I was a kid, I didn’t understand it, either. The me in 1995 thought people like the me in 2015 were degenerates who were destroying society, and it took a few near-suicide attempts and finding out what “LGBT” really meant to learn otherwise. I’m not sure I can expect those who haven’t experienced that to remotely understand. If I wanted to make a game based on my experiences as a religious youth who turned out to be a transgender lesbian, there would be two approaches to it. I could go the modern indie route—making it an amorphous mixture of styles with a lot of personal dialogue and emotional experiences. I would likely be praised by the LGBTQIA+ community for sharing such personal experiences, and people who relate would be ecstatic.

The other gaming communities, however, wouldn’t understand any of it, and would likely criticize me for making something that doesn’t stick with a core concept, isn’t a “game,” and seems like over-the-top gay gibberish. And while I would wholeheartedly disagree, I’m not sure I could blame them, because I didn’t give them the necessary context to understand where I was coming from. I didn’t frame it in a way they could understand, even though my own community would get it perfectly. Maybe that framing comes in the story, but it could have just as easily come from the gaming style. If my core gameplay doesn’t make sense, or seems like a simplistic vehicle for my message, then they have a right to criticize that.

The second approach would be the much harder one to take—the one that the indie development scene is still learning how to do. This approach would be to build the gameplay first, picking a specific style and theme, then layering my message into the process in more subtle, cohesive ways. I think this is why games like Gone Home and Analogue: A Hate Story are so much more successful in their inclusiveness efforts. They have a compelling story, a strong sense of time and place, and they build up slowly. Gone Home starts out with no context or rules, but an immediately ominous atmosphere. As the game unfolds, emotional connections are built and the rules are established within the context of the story. Analogue works hard to create a similar effect, being about as complex as a visual novel can get. The story and game world expand as you explore the computer logs of the Mugunghwa, a mysteriously derelict spaceship, and interact with its computer avatar. We get the story in disjointed pieces, but it comes together over time, all while pulling you into the world and its long-dead characters’ lives.

In the end, I guess it’s a question of knowing who you’re creating for, and evolving as a designer to a point where you can reach out beyond that. Yes, it’s somewhat easier to make short gaming experiences with blunt moralities—even necessary for new game designers. But working extra hard to craft a game with strong gameplay and a message that really tries to make sense to our detractors is, I believe, a stronger approach.  Not because bigger indie development studios have money, and not because the games are inherently better or more valid, but because they give people a context with which they can adjust to our world and see us as humans. In the end, isn’t that what we all really long for?

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