Thursday, June 29, 2017
The Tearoom as a record of risky business
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!...
Few video games feature peeing or pooping, but still frequently feature bathrooms for the sake of completeness. To make the bathroom "useful", level designers often stash powerups or ventilation ducts or forgotten keycards in them, but those are all secondary to the bathroom's ultimate function in a video game: to signal expense and production value. In immersive sims like Deus Ex Human Revolution or Prey (2017), the player can turn on showers and flush toilets, and each fixture sports a complex effects setup with swirling particles and refracting water shaders. This "wasteful" use of draw calls and texture memory helps assure you of the game's high budget and huge production team. (For more on the expense of video game water, see Pippin Barr's water museum "v r 3".)
In The Tearoom, I replicate the logic of the pointless expensive video game bathroom. I gratuitously cover every surface with high resolution physically-based materials, apply layers of dirt and grunge decals, lightmap the room at a high luxel density, and incorporate unique period details like vintage light switches and old faucets. I also hand-modeled the Cadillac of urinals, a luxurious drop-floor "Hinsdale", scaled to the original patent drawings... I even do one better than most AAA video games, and allow the player to freely urinate as much as they like. (However, the urine does pool rather unrealistically, to exaggerate the complexity of my flushing simulation.)
Just as video game bathrooms don't serve any crucial gameplay purpose, my urination system serves no real gameplay purpose. This pointlessness evokes the logic of cruising the tearoom for sex: you aren't there to pee, but rather you're there to pretend to pee. The bathroom and the pee are a pretext to provide plausible deniability, and "immerse" tearoom players together.
In his research, Humphreys talks about "interaction membranes" -- in game design, we have a similar concept called "the magic circle". Whatever you call it, it's some sort of loose boundary between players and non-players; players are inside the circle or membrane, while non-players are outside of it. This space of consent is crucial for play. Chasing a fellow player inside a game of tag is expected, while chasing a random bystander outside on the street could be harassment.
Inside the magic membrane of the tearoom, there were big risks to propositioning the wrong guy for sex, whether he's totally unwitting or actively hostile. It was very important to figure out who thought it was just a bathroom vs. who knew it was a tearoom. To help players see each other, tearooms evolved a complex ritual / "handshake" of certain stances and eye contact and "showing hard" over time, allowing players to wordlessly "seal the contract" (sexual consent) quickly and effectively.
In my game, I mimic this same look-based ritual for the first phase of every encounter. To establish shared sexual interest, the player and NPC must repeatedly make eye contact. If the player is slow, the NPC coughs to try to get the player's attention; if the player never reciprocates the gaze, then the NPC eventually leaves. Some NPCs are totally oblivious bystanders who will leave right after they pee, while some timid NPCs scare easily from forceful eye contact.
This segment was hard to design because decades of male heterosexual hegemony have trained gamers into thinking of "looking" as a "free" action, with few consequences or results. After several mildly disastrous playtests, I noticed players still weren't understanding that looking has power to it, so in the end I had to implement some really obvious iconography and prompting. I literally had to add flashing "eye" icons everywhere to try to get the idea of "gaze" across. Some players still don't get it, but I think I want to stop short of a big flashing text bubble "LOOK AT HIS FUCKING DICK OK??"
Then finally, when shared sexual consent is established though repeated eye contact, gestures, and pregnant pauses, the NPC will walk over and the player will automatically get down on their knees to orally service the NPC.
This is the part of the game when you suck-off a gun as quickly as possible, which, um, departs a bit from Humphreys' 1970 sociological study. My design emerged from a difficult problem: how do you give first person fellatio in a game? As an experienced real-life practitioner, it is my opinion that video games can't do this justice because a blurry appendage thrusting toward you, clipping through the camera, is not erotic, and such a literal approach would've been inscrutable and disappointing. Instead, I wanted a bit more of the fantasy, to show the excitement and pleasure and why these men would seek each other out in a public bathroom.
"What if this gun is my penis" is a pretty obvious metaphor, but it helped me ensure a variety of shapes to orally service. You could say gun culture is somewhat body-positive -- there is relatively little size-shaming around unique pistol designs (e.g. a Mauser C96) or unique concepts (e.g. the trendy "Obrez"), a gun can be "cool" for a myriad of reasons. Take that, size queens! More importantly, guns also help me escalate my resistance against Twitch's draconian game-banning policies because guns are clearly not penises. Therefore, there is no basis for Twitch to ban my game, like it banned the rest of my games -- however, if they still ban my game, then it will be the first time in history that the game industry regulates and bans a game about guns.
As usual, I'm interested mostly in the political implications. The game industry is a huge driver of gun culture, pushing specific gun brands and gunmetal shader aesthetics. I want to compare these gun politics of visibility to bathroom politics of visibility. There is a breathtaking disconnect between advocates of "open carry", who insist they're not intimidating the public when they brandish AR-15 type rifles in playgrounds -- and their same support for anti-trans bathroom laws like HB2, which operate by a more hypothetical line of sight, where a hypothetical woman might faint from catching a brief glimpse of a penis through the slits of a bathroom stall. If only trans people could fire a hundred bullets per second with their genitals -- then maybe they could finally enjoy the same freedoms that guns do?
But what is the LGBTQ community's relationship to violence? Historically, cops have been perhaps the #1 most dangerous enemy of gay / trans / queer people for decades, and continue to target gay people today: in 2016, the Toronto Police started "Project Marie" to target gay men who cruised parks late at night; and since at least 2004 and continuing today, the NYPD have been targeting men at the Port Authority who "seem gay", spying on them through slits in bathroom stalls and charging them with "public indecency." (Isn't going to the Port Authority already punishment enough?)
However, my game specifically cites one notorious 1962 police entrapment operation in Mansfield, Ohio: in July and August of 1962, the Mansfield police installed a two-way mirror in a public men's bathroom, and did a two month stake-out to record everyone in the bathroom. At the end of the summer, they convicted 38 men on charges of sodomy with a mandatory minimum one year prison sentence. William E. Jones' haunting "found documentary" Tearoom (2007) consists of the original 1962 police surveillance footage, minimally edited, so you can see just how fucked-up these cops were: watch two scared dudes barely manage to rub themselves out -- and as the camera repeatedly pans down to their crotches, you can practically hear the cop behind the camera salivating over how he's going to ruin their lives.
If you watch Jones' film, you may notice the men are surprisingly diverse -- poor, middle-class, white, black, young, old -- but the one thing that is the same is their behavior. They are always nervously watching the door, worried that someone might see them. The instant they hear someone else outside, they must be ready to zip-up and pretend nothing was happening.
This is also why the Mansfield Police Dept's morality crusade against tearoom trade made no sense. Supposedly these "sexual deviates" were degrading the town's fine moral fiber -- but how, who, where, and when? There were no damages and the tearoom players stopped whatever they were doing if anyone walked in; children and teenagers were specifically despised and shunned as "chicken." Humphreys argued convincingly that there was also little threat to abstaining straight men here: if you don't want sex and don't reciprocate signals, then no one will bother you. So where exactly is the crime here, other than some clandestine scratch and sniff?
Is a public bathroom a 100% totally public space? If you're being honest, then no, it's not exactly like a public plaza or a sidewalk. Bathrooms also have enclosures and stalls and an expectation of privacy, they are a sort of public-private space. But what kind of public, and whose privates?
The Mansfield police had to figure out how to jail people for having "public sex" that wasn't actually in public view. If a tree falls in the woods and no one's there to hear it, then can you prosecute the tree for sodomy? To make this invisible subtext visible, the Mansfield police secretly recorded the public bathroom for 2 months and basically made one of the first full-color gay porn films in history. The ending sequence of this game, triggered by either acquiring all 8 guns or getting arrested 8 times, reveals a similar cop surveillance setup with a two-way mirror.
Thankfully, no other US police department went to such creepy lengths to prosecute men for having consensual sex with men, but many departments did deploy undercover plain-clothes officers to actively solicit and entrap men. (Most famously, in the case of singer George Michael in 1998.)
Thus, each NPC in this game has a 23% chance of being an undercover cop. As in my previous game Stick Shift, I specifically used a relevant statistic from a 2015 study of anti-LGBT violence: of LGBT people who've survived abuse or violence from a stranger, police officers were 23% of the perpetrators. I like the gesture of imbuing politics within the game code itself, and I like how it plays out in the game balance: 23% chance sometimes feels a bit too frequent in the game... as it should.
When the game code spawns a cop, that guy's personality is set to 100% horniness. He will quickly enter sex with you with minimal eye contact or ritual. He wants to trap you. My hope is that some players notice that cops are always horny, and begin to grow suspicious of horny non-cops as well. Should you be worried if someone seems too friendly, too eager? Will they report you, are they a cop? This is how surveillance destroys trust between people.
Cops also have other "tells": they are never nervous and they will never look behind their backs. Also, outside the window, a shadowy cop car will slowly roll-up and watch you. If you manage to notice these cues early on, then you should probably ignore the cop until he leaves. But if you don't catch any of those tells, and obliviously complete the eye contact stage only to realize everything too late, then your only choice is to quit the game.
I'm fascinated by meta-mechanics like save scumming, a strategy where players reload their save-game if they get bad results. Get a bad dice roll? Reload the game and roll again! If it's allowed by the game, then isn't it part of the game? And if the game saves automatically, then maybe you can quit without saving by pressing Alt-F4 in time, or set your save file as read-only, and get a second chance anyway. (This is also similar to how we consume porn around parents or employers, desperately closing a browser tab to avoid detection... But don't kid yourself, your mom knows everything.)
I like the idea that quitting the game is part of the game. Instead of rage quit, maybe this is like a fear quit? I also try to encourage game-quitting by adding a literal exit door inside the game world. But after some playtests, it was clear that some (innocent, honorable) players still didn't realize they could quit the game to avoid getting caught, so in the end, I had to add a straightforward tutorial message: "if you see the cops, then leave the game."
However if you don't manage to escape in time, then you get arrested, either before or after you begin servicing the undercover cop. Upon arrest, sirens blare and a uniformed officer spawns to stand in the doorway to block any escape -- and the cops delete all your game progress. (For example, if you managed to fellate 5 of 8 possible guns, then you lose your gun collection, and have to start over from 0.)
Given the possibility of losing everything in an instant, I hope my players feel anxious about cops -- to evoke a shred of the same stakes that the real-life tearoom players lived with, and the stakes that many people still live with today. And in 2017, if you make a game with cops in it, then you probably have to address race somehow.
In the game, the random percentage chance of encountering a black man is based on 1960 US census data. According to page 1-44 of "General Demographic Trends for Metropolitan Areas, 1960-1970", Mansfield was about 5.82% black (6853 / 117761) and so, I have hardcoded that exact probability into the game. That relatively rarity means that some players may play through 5-10 encounters before meeting a black man, and when they do, I imagine white players may feel surprised -- and then maybe feel bad for feeling surprised -- and then wonder whether he's secretly a cop -- but then were there any black cops in Ohio in 1962? etc.
And if we're talking about historical bathroom politics, then we also have to acknowledge racial segregation. In Ohio and many other US states, racial segregation was still legal as late as 1959, and of course likely continued informally afterward. This history bleeds into Humphreys' 1970 study when he quotes a white police officer, who warns Humphreys (who is white) against cruising a certain bathroom because of "trouble with the [n*ggers]" there, implying there would be a heavier police presence and response at that bathroom.
"Not Gay - Sex Between Straight White Men" (2015), scholar Jane Ward understands Allen within a long history of straight white dudes routinely having sex with each other, and that Allen's supposed crime was not in soliciting a man for sex, but rather in soliciting a black man for sex. When Allen crossed some sort of weird imagined racial-sex line to desire a black man, it signaled that he was so deeply gay that it overwhelmed his sense of racism, breaking the ranks of "white solidarity". (Again, recall the white cop warning Humphreys to stay away from a black tearoom.)
If Allen had solicited a white guy, maybe he still could've argued he was straight, as many tearoom players did. Humphreys wrote about this surprisingly high proportion of straight men, even (controversially) following some men home from the tearoom, and interviewing them about their lives to confirm that they actually lived a "straight life". Turns out they weren't closet-case gay men in denial, they were just straight men who liked having sex with men (MSM) and tearooms were convenient for them. (Today, maybe some of these men would identify as bisexual or queer?)
In her book, Ward also wants us to consider why some straight men seem to co-opt gay sex as "experiments", "hazing rituals", "jokes", and "bromances." When the Hells Angels makeout or heterosexual soldiers anally penetrate each other for shits and giggles, they present their straightness as totally unassailable, and trivialize gay sex as non-sexual or amusingly humiliating. They argue that having sex with men is "not gay" because only straight sex is "real sex", so therefore gay sex is basically masturbation or a prank. Personally, this attitude disturbs me, because it comes off as a homophobic performance of homoeroticism, which is a tone that some asshole YouTubers regularly perform when they play and profit off my games.
And that is also why the dicks in this game can be guns: many of these men don't think tearoom sex qualifies as real sex. These penises might as well be guns for all they care, they're just appreciating each others' equipment and masculinity, and helping each other out with their "not gay" urges -- and sometimes even while hating gay people?
The imagined end point of this theory is a catastrophic gay sex apocalypse, a fateful day when straight men will have completely co-opted gay sex acts to enrich their own heteromasculinity. Meanwhile, gay men will be stuck with boring straight male stuff like government-sanctioned marriage and cargo shorts. Cargo shorts!!!
If the police are going to raid and shutdown all our gay bathhouses or gay bars or gay theaters, fine, then maybe gay people should just do gay shit everywhere, all the time! Because without gay places and a gay geography, there can be no gay community. So maybe one answer is to project our gayness everywhere, and remap the entire city to our needs. Why stop at just one gay bar, when the entire city could be like a gay bar? (If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend reading Samuel Delany's "Times Square Red, Times Square Blue")
The tearoom represents an exciting and radical reclamation of public space, for members of the public who usually aren't allowed any space of their own. Humphreys used the phrase "patterns of collective action" to refer to these dudes bonking each other, but to me that phrase also has a political tinge that reminds us how the tearoom is / was also a collective of white and black men, working class and middle class men, and straight and gay men... uh, bonking each other.
But if there's any simple moral to be gleaned from this game, I just hope you never look at a bathroom, or park, or office, or shopping mall, etc. the same way ever again. Above all, the tearoom is about transforming the world around you by seeing (creative, erotic) potential in every corner and crevice. Even if you're not a sex-with-men-haver, how can you remap your world to strengthen your community? All you need is some willing players.
Maybe the tearoom is just the beginning.
This post is already way too long, so I'm just going to stick some loose ends down here:
BLADDERS / URINE: because of all the different combinations and modularity (4 different NPC types, with 8 different guns, and 1 player) the urine system has a strange structure -- every urinal is in charge of peeing into itself. A urinal does not care who is telling it to pee into itself, it could be the player or an NPC, using any kind of gun. I know some of my fans will no doubt be disappointed that this isn't a piss / water sports game, but I feel like the only place I could never set such a game is precisely in a bathroom.
MUSIC: four tracks by The Lonesome Billies. In general, I had trouble finding a country band that wanted to be associated with my weird gay sex games (which felt annoying and borderline homophobic to me, but whatever) so I'm thankful that this band was OK with my use of their music. I feel that country music is pretty underrepresented in video games, and I thought they were a good fit because they evoke a sort of Merle Haggard / Johnny Cash "outlaw country" 1970s honky tonk sound that has some rural working class roots (unlike 2015-era "bro country") while also feeling a little pop and punk. I guess it gives this a vaguely "Brokeback" vibe or something.
STALLS: I originally had a mechanic where you could run into a stall and hide whenever you wanted, or dudes would walk in while you were still sitting in the stall. It generated really cool moments where you could look though the gaps in the stall partitions and see a guy walking in. Unfortunately, it confused a lot of playtesters, who either didn't understand that the stall was a sort of "trophy room" where you see your gun collection, or they expected too much and hoped the guy would come into the stall with them. Because I'm only one developer and this project was already taking way too long, I had to limit my gameplay to just fellatio in front of the urinal, but I prefer that focus and vulnerability.
ANACHRONISM: while I like stressing how historical this game is, there's also some places where I really just didn't care about historical consistency... the 2000s-era modern police car, the eclectic choice of guns (I didn't even know they made AK-12s!), the modern surveillance camera revealed at the end. If I had to discern some meaning from it, I'd say I wanted to emphasize how a lot of the forces of control and violence from 1962 are still at work, and now they're maybe even stronger in 2017.
VIRTUAL REALITY: I didn't have time to design, implement, and test VR functionality in this first release. Motion controls and the lack of camera control mean I will have to re-design many of my interfaces and gameplay cues. I definitely want to do it, but maybe I'll just have to do it later, hopefully in a Radiator 3 release at the end of this year.
Thanks for reading. Again, you can download and play the game over here. It's an Itch.io timed exclusive!