Friday, September 2, 2011

"A Closed World" and thoughts on gay video games.

This is part of a series that will review the MIT-Gambit Summer 2011 game prototypes, whether I thought they worked and why, etc.

SPOILER ALERT! First, take all of 10 minutes to play "A Closed World," if you wish. Review and analysis is after the jump...

So, it's a 2D JRPG-style piece about growing up as an LGBTQ person and conflicts against family / people close to you. It's very impressive for having been made in 8 weeks. The art, character designs and choice of color palette are all beautiful, evoking kind of a Sword and Sworcery feel, crossed with Earthbound... but the visual subtlety doesn't seem to mesh with the heavy-handed moralizing presented in its procedural rhetoric.

You fight demons (your bigoted sibling, mother, etc.) with a rock-paper-scissors style battle system; Passion beats Logic, Logic beats Ethics, etc. The main dynamic of the game is that you have to read the enemy dialogue and decide whether they insulted you out of logic, passion, ethics, etc. and respond appropriately with the correct type of retort to inflict critical damage. In doing so, you have to reflect on what motivates bullying behavior, and what's a productive response to it... well, in theory, that's how it was supposed to work.

As with many "social awareness" games made for more casual audiences, I think they paid too much attention to the skinning and less to the actual dynamics of play. The ideas that passion beats logic, logic beats ethics, etc. seem to be carefully considered and are well-done... it probably sounded great when they paper prototyped it, but in this digital version, none of it matters.

Specifically, you can just keep mashing one type of attack and "Breathe" to heal. You rarely need to read or reflect upon anything if you play A Closed World as a game qua game. Just keep shouting without thought or hesitation at your parents, then Breathe a lot, and you'll be fine. No rational contemplation for the player here.

But if we're not supposed to play A Closed World as a game qua game, then why use a hardcore JRPG trope, a genre notorious for complex pattern recognition and constant character optimization? Maybe the real message is that oppressors of LGBTQ people are powered by random integers and simple state machines? Maybe they're trying to say that arguing of any sort is ultimately contentless? Those ideas are probably more interesting and unpredictable than the game's intentions...

At the end, you find out that you're actually an oppressed heterosexual, and that homosexuality is the norm in this fictional game world. Take a walk in someone else's shoes and you'll realize that gay people are just like everyone else, you see? (EDIT: There are actually multiple endings, see comments below.)

Pro tip: the vast majority of gay-themed films are preachy and awful, even if they got hot dudes.
Now as one of the few people who has made gay-ish video games, I guess I might have some sort of authority because I was here first damnit, and I think this game has good intentions but ultimately indulges in the worst tendencies of gay cinema, i.e. the argument that "if only straight people were more sensible, we wouldn't be victims." For in A Closed World, we, the victimized players, are the only ones capable of the "Breathe" healing ability in battle because rational people need to do that when frustrated by the supposed simpletons of prejudice!... It's the typical power fantasy narrative, of being able to withstand bullies with power that you never knew you had in the first place.

In terms of narrative, the idea of power fantasy is a good match with the JRPG genre conventions, but then why spend so many man hours to make the video game equivalent of a "So you're gay" pamphlet, an after school special that teaches a Very Important Life Lesson?

A bit of me also thinks this game's message is dangerous, almost to the point of lying: Forces aligned against LGBTQ people are not so apparent, simple, stupid nor weak. It's the same reason I find Glee to be so offensive (plus, it's boring and it's awful television... but this isn't a TV blog.) I wish I could speak with more artistic authority on this, but lately I've realized that people have been interpreting Radiator as speaking along similar lines ("Gay people really are just like everyone else!") which really wasn't my intention, but if so many players agree then that's clearly what I ended up making.

Okay, so if this game didn't pull it off, and if my own games don't pull it off, then what is a productive dialogue to have with LGBTQ players? I'd argue something like X-Men.

It models the civil war inside a minority movement; do we go for assimilation and cooperation that might go unreciprocated, or are we simply so different and exceptional from others that we shouldn't even try to blend in? Note that X-Men, whatever narrative cachet it has among its fans, exists only because Magneto's (dark, destructive) argument for mutant exceptionalism is always incredibly compelling.

If straight people flood into a gay bar, does the gay bar cease to perform its functions within gay culture? Should we even have gay bars? In assimilating, are we just sanitizing / erasing ourselves? What the hell is gay culture anyway? Those, I think, are more pressing and interesting questions than what these types of "gay games" pose to players. So instead, we're stuck in this rut where we're trying to argue our legitimacy to ourselves, which is really boring and requires a facile black & white perspective that totally misrepresents the world at our own peril.

FINAL WORDS: A Closed World has great production values, but makes the strange choice of giving JRPG players a weak battle system riddled with obvious exploits, which oversimplifies its LGBTQ-themed message into something unconvincing and trite. But mucho points for trying.

DESIGN LESSONS: Remember that procedural rhetoric is a two-sided sword; if you promise a robust strategic system in your presentation but deliver something obvious and boring, you're confusing the player, which is really bad if you're trying to deliver some sort of moral decree. As Chris Hecker says, don't write checks you can't cash.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT: Incorporate an XP system, even if it's just a fake scripted one that acts as a content and narrative gate, to drive home the JRPG power metaphors. Add some penalty to "breathing" repeatedly because right now a player can spam it. Let the player choose a difficulty (casual vs. hardcore) and re-write the AI to be increasingly more difficult and robust. Playtest more and anticipate player strategies. Allow the ending boss (the shadow player) to heal as well, to mirror how difficult it can be to shake-off self-loathing. Modify level design so the player can't run into the 4th boss "too early," or allow that as a valid choice. Bonus points for adding a branching ending, to allow the player to go left / backwards into the forest instead of right / forward to the dragon statue.