Thursday, June 29, 2017
WARNING: This post spoils what happens in The Tearoom. If you care about that, you should probably play the game before reading any further.
The Tearoom is a historical public bathroom simulator about anxiety, police surveillance, and sucking off other dudes' guns. In it, you basically cruise other willing strangers for sex, and try to have some fun without getting caught by undercover police. It's heavily inspired by Laud Humphreys' epic Tearoom Trade (1970), a meticulous 180 page sociological study of men who have quick anonymous sex with men in public bathrooms ("tearooms" in US, "cottages" in UK), along with interviews, diagrams, and derived "rules" for participating in the tearoom trade.
My game is set in a small roadside public bathroom in Ohio in 1962. Much of the game sequences and gameplay are based on Humphreys' notes (in his book, Humphreys even calls it a "game" himself) and the layout of the bathroom is based partly on diagrams from his observation reports. And while I wanted the game to be about gay history, I also wanted it to speak to how video games think of sex and violence.
This is also the most complicated sex game I've ever made. It took me ~8-9 months of on-and-off work to finish it, it has several different systems going on, so it's going to take a while to unpack the history and my intent. Buckle up!...
Monday, June 26, 2017
Some recent posts on indie dev failure have been going around lately -- Introversion Software talks about how their experimental exploration game "bombed in a big way", and also Cliff Harris argues "Your Indie Game Will Flop And You Will Lose Money", while Greg Wohlwend writes in his Tumbleseed postmortem about how they will likely never recoup their development costs, and each collaborator earned maybe $10 / hour. You can also connect these threads back to Hugh Monahan's Full Indie 2016 talk "What Scuttled Brigador's Launch", as well as Daniel Cook's theory of "minimum sustainable success" right around when the Indiepocalypse talk was in full gear. I think it's fair to say that the general mood in commercial indie game dev land has been kind of dark for the past few years, and it's getting darker.
I've written in the past about how I don't expect to make a living off of my games. I give away my gay sex games for free because (a) they're short-form games in a market that demands "replay value" even though people don't even touch most of their Steam libraries, (b) I don't want to invest all my time and hope into commercializing it, just to earn like $5k a year if I'm lucky, which does not go far in NYC, (c) when an indie game has poor sales, then that often becomes the game's entire legacy forever. I don't want the conversation around my games to orbit around the awkward pity of my SteamSpy numbers! To me, there's a certain peace of mind in not trying to make the next gay sex minecraft blockbuster happen.
And yes this is totally a weird defense mechanism on my part. I understand that everyone has a different living situation, and I'm not holding myself up as a role-model to emulate. We all have different ways of working in games, but personally I feel like I can't access the same tools or methods as successful commercial devs, so why should I bother trying? If Cliff Harris and Greg Wohlwend can barely make it work, what chance do I have?... I want you to understand why I ask this question:
Why is it so important for us to make our living from selling our games? Why can't we make our living from doing something else?
Friday, June 23, 2017
A few months ago, I wrote about how I think VR "empathy machines" are basically just a form of appropriation, where VR brands associate themselves with vaguely progressive political causes in a bid to make VR seem more relevant.
Maybe a lot of people still aren't really sure what "cultural appropriation" means? It's also a bit more of a US-thing, because of how race in the US works, so if you don't live in the US then you might not be as familiar with it.
If you're in a hurry, Amandla Stenberg made a popular 5 minute video in 2015 called "Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows". Back in 2015, white performers like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus were incorporating black music, black hair, and black memes into their acts, but it seemed like that care suddenly evaporated when black people got killed by police. Are white people actually the anti-racist allies they thought they were? If this is "cultural exchange", then black people were getting a pretty bad deal -- in return, they weren't even getting their own lives!
However, the conversation on cultural appropriation has shifted since 2015. So as a sort of public service, I'd like to highlight some more recent writing on cultural appropriation, all published within the last month or so, to give a small sense of what some people are saying right now.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Let's Meat Adam is a short gay erotic-horror visual novel puzzle game about being a hunky West Hollywood white dude trapped in a gory escape room. It was released back in March 2017, but I didn't see anyone talk about it, so now I'm bringing it up, and I want to unpack both its commendable bravery and its mistakes.
I think my main beef is the inconsistency. First, it's as if 3 different artists worked on this game, and none of their visual styles cohere. But "inconsistent" also describes the game's politics: it admirably wants to reconcile intersectionality with the gay eroticization of white muscle dudes. This is a difficult design problem that I also struggle with in my own games! So much of the culture of gay sex, touchstones like Athletic Model Guild or Tom of Finland or Kenneth Anger or Joe Gage or the vast majority of gay porn, focus on a small subset of body types. It's surprisingly difficult to refer back to that history without perpetuating that same narrow focus.
Let's Meat Adam, bravely, tries to address this problem head-on. However, I think it doesn't quite succeed...
(⚠ SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to discuss the plot, structure, and ending of the game!... ⚠)
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Years ago, I wrote about a hypothetical 2013 Queer Feminist Agenda for games. What an innocent time that was! Back then, I argued that we needed to pursue industry-wide reform, build-up theories of queer games, and combat gay apathy about queer politics.
Obviously a lot of that didn't really pan out, and now the world feels totally different: since 2013, Gamergate, Ferguson, Pulse, and Trump all happened, to say the least. Many people have now left video games for greener pastures, or have taken on more urgent politics beyond games... and anyway, Twitter just feels so much more stressful now. It's honestly kind of hard for me to still care about video games like I did back then. (Did we really use Twitter to argue about formalism in games? That's what we used Twitter for? Wow.)
Four years ago, we were talking about #1ReasonWhy, and GDC started the Advocacy track. Did any systemic reform actually happen? Did the industry end up hiring and retaining more women and black people? Did it get better for minorities? Some good-intentioned straight white male allies probably believe that "we won" because several games at E3 have black women in them. But beyond video game characters, I still feel like we're still having the same old conversations about the same old basic shit. The "discourse" feels extremely stagnated. It's hard to feel like there's any progress when every new Milkshake Duck of the Month pulls us back to basic questions like "wait why is it bad to harass women again?" and then suddenly the gamers are torn between supporting women / minorities vs. liking games about Blade Runner. As I've argued before, games probably aren't going to get "better" through this kind of desperate moral math.
Four years ago, we were also talking about a "queer games scene" and thinking about how to direct that momentum. For a variety of reasons, that energy ended up dissipating. On the plus side, there are definitely more people doing this work now, which is good, but there's also much less appetite for concentrating it into a "scene", which hurts our visibility and solidarity. Well, at least there's now a loose body of thinking and theory about queerness in games? I contributed to a new book literally called Queer Game Studies, which came out of the first Queerness and Games conference in 2013. When people ask what "queer games" are, I can now point to that book and event, even though it doesn't really feel so urgent to me anymore.
These days, I imagine a lot of us are very tired and disappointed, and I get it, and yeah I feel it too.
But however we feel, we definitely shouldn't nostalgize that supposedly simpler time, that now-mythical era before monthly milkshake ducks and anime frog nazis. That promise of 2013 (or 2012, or 2011, or 2010, etc.) is long gone and we can never go back. Instead, we must forge new kinds of promises and new kinds of trust.
We're still alive. We can still make new energy, new movements, and new alignments. And yeah, it won't feel the same. It won't feel like what we had before, or even what we think we had before. But I promise you, at the very least, whatever it is -- it will be ours.
Friday, June 9, 2017
Murder She Wrote was a long running TV show about an elderly mystery novelist (played by Dame Angela Lansbury) who happens to solve all these murders wherever she goes. Like other long-running TV shows on CBS about older women having adventures, it was popular mostly with grandmothers and gay men -- which is why it's so surprising (or maybe unsurprising?) that it also had one of the most accurate on-point less-rosy depictions of 1990s VR on television.
If you want to know more about the episode "A Virtual Murder" (S10 E05), read Laura Hudson's full write-up for Wired.
If you're in a hurry, here's a brief synopsis, along with my short analysis... but first, please enjoy this GIF of someone (spoiler) shooting a guy in a VR headset: