Thursday, June 30, 2022

Zugzwang as a pole dance upward unto heaven

This post details my process and intent for making my new release Zugzwang (pronounced in German like /ts'OOK-ts'VAHng/) a tactical sex dungeon roguelike cum ritual game.

I first prototyped it back in 2019, but I didn't really know how to finish it. This marks its true public release, with finished graphics, gameplay, tuning, more sex, and finally an ending.

SPOILER ALERT: This post spoils what happens in the game. It also spoils a bit of Bioshock Infinite (2013) because why not.

CONTENT WARNING 1: I mention a suicide from a century ago.

CONTENT WARNING 2: the game is rather explicit, but I've kept the imagery in this post relatively tame, at a semi-NSFW / soft-R rating.

Originally this was prototyped as "Saugzwang" and I made it for the 7 Day Broughlike Jam back in 2019.

A broughlike is a variation on a roguelike named after designer Michael Brough, who has spoken before on his design patterns like square tiles, orthogonal movement, turn parity, glitching, limited info, simple maze designs, minimal resources. A dense randomized mini-chess puzzle where everything matters.

I wanted to try to merge these design sensibilities with my first person gay sex aesthetic, paired with the old tradition of retro grid-based first person CRPGs like Wizardry / Ultima Underworld / Legend of Grimrock where you crawl through dungeons step by step.

So this game too is set in a dungeon -- a divine sex maze dungeon. You play as a sex angel summoned to an interdimensional sex maze hidden deep in the city, using sex magic to match sexual partners and chain together their climaxes to harvest their special fluids. In the end it's also a commentary on the history of sex magic, specifically one of its less-sung pioneers Ida Craddock and her fatal encounter with American censorship and policing.

The stunning Cruising Pavilion installation at the 2018 Venice Biennale

My previous cruising game The Tearoom focused on the emotional and psychological aspects of cruising, and eventually went on tour with the fantastic group art exhibition Cruising Pavilion. Here I take direct inspiration from some of my peers featured in the Cruising Pavilion: architect John Lindell's "social structure" sculptures and artist Andreas Angelidakis's "Cruising Labyrinth" (pictured below).

In "Public Space for Public Sex", Lindell wrote:
"The notion of drift is essential to the experience of a sex club, where fluidity facilitates passing to an aimless, "let's see what happens" frame of mind. [...] In this way, the sex club is a space similar to that of the supermarket or shopping mall; one browses, in search of something vaguely determined. In architectural terminology this is called the Gruen Transfer, where a shopper converts from a destination-oriented mentality to one that allows impressions and desires to direct his/her attention. In the course of wandering, one may allow fate to present other possible desires. Moreover, in the case of sex clubs, the patron himself simultaneously becomes the advertised adventure..."

(Tangent: I enjoyed this article about architect Victor Gruen's subsequent disavowal of large indoor shopping malls.) 

"Social Structures" designed by John Lindell; Posing Horse, Pinwheel, and McAlpin Device. 
"Cruising Labyrinth,"
Andreas Angelidakis
Lindell was responding to a specific social context: the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic that utterly devastated the gay male community in New York City, especially the local sex clubs and bathhouses. Was there a way to preserve public sexuality while also encouraging safer sex practices? 

Lindell argued for an architectural intervention, to reimagine the sex club and bathhouse as an intentionally constructed social space with a civic ethos. When he compares sex clubs to supermarkets or shopping malls, it's a clever provocation -- he's applying this very straight scientific management theory to a very gay context. Above all he challenged prevailing sex maze design norms. We can do more than painting the walls black and unplugging all the lights.

I try to follow Lindell's advice in my aesthetics: I make heavy use of neon lighting and a strong blue-purple midtone. It's kind of like a sci-fi laser tag arena, but for gay sex. I pair this look with amazing music by another gay Asian-Californian man also named Robert Yang -- an excellent DJ known as B├ęzier, with a wonderful series called "deprogramming" focusing on "Detroit bathhouse techno."

in-editor screenshot of a generated level; this sex maze is maybe too big and complicated

Bathhouse aesthetics notwithstanding, how can we redesign sex mazes to feel more public and social like sex pubs, sex parks, or sex libraries? Can we build a sex dungeon that would do Jane Jacobs proud?

Lindell focuses on two aspects: wandering and visibility. Wandering leaves you open to possibility, while visibility helps the wanderers keep each other accountable / keeps things exciting. At the start of the pandemic, even progressive public health departments were encouraging use of glory holes as for setting boundaries and eroticizing visibility.

Zugzwang attempts to encode these New Sex Urbanism / Sex As Public Health ideologies into a first person broughlike design. 

You play as a sex angel. Your job is to help mortals open their minds to possibilities and activate sexual architecture. Under your watch, these AI men wander the randomly generated sex maze and pair-up for sex based on proximity, line of sight, and sexual compatibility.

When you first play this game, their logic and movement will seem complex and arcane, and you'll have no idea what's going on. But as you continue, you'll gradually understand more of what you're seeing.

in-editor screenshot of different procedurally generated level variations on a grid

To have sex, men in adjacent grid squares compare sexual moods. These moods must be compatible.

In my simulation code, men can have one of five sexual moods: Top, Bottom, VersBottom (Versatile), TrueVers, and Voyeur. So a Top will never pair with another Top, a Bottom requires someone willing to top them, and so on. (The VersBottom / TrueVers thing is a common gay sex joke -- VersBottom men have a 69% random secret preference to bottom, while only TrueVers men are "truly versatile.")

Voyeurs work differently, they have sex by watching a couple have sex. They symbolize stopgap support for threesomes, foursomes, and beyond, vital for completing later levels. For balance purposes, I limit the number of voyeurs in the maze, otherwise it can enter a deadlock where there's only voyeurs but no one for them to watch. (With a heavy heart, I had to disable a wonderful emergent edge case where a voyeur could climax by looking at another voyeur, the long recursive chain reactions of voyeurism would break the game unless I put more work into it.)

This points to a general problem with treating sexual moods like immutable video game character classes. In real-life, nearly everyone is at least a bit of a voyeur and "multi-classes" situationally ("I'd top him, I'll bottom for her", etc). So in hindsight, a better game design analogy for sexual roles would've been "stances" or "buffs" that freely change and/or stack. Sadly, as the case with many video games, I had already programmed it this way, so now I must live with my mistakes.

adding the vers / truevers thing kinda ruined the symmetry of the diagram but oh well

Note that the labels "top", "bottom", "true vers", etc. never actually appear in-game, perhaps reflecting my ambivalence about how stable or useful these textual labels are. 

Instead I adapted a more abstract "hanky code", a color coding system most popular among gay men in the 1970s to flag which types of sex acts and roles they enjoyed. My game characters wear handkerchiefs in their back pockets, either on the left (dominant role) or right pocket (submissive role), with either light blue (oral sex), orange (anything), or white (voyeur). So a vers bottom wears an orange handkerchief on the right, etc. 

These in-game meanings don't quite match what's considered the authoritative list, but it's arguable whether there's any universal authoritative meanings anyway. Like any community, I imagine most players will improvise their own meanings as they play.

For instance, Zugzwang's hanky code also gives a vital hint for predicting AI behavior. When a man reaches a wall in the maze, men with left-hankys will turn left, while men with right-hankys will turn right.

in-game screenshot where player can't see hankys because men face the camera, or a wall is in the way

The most important design affordance of the hanky code is that these handkerchiefs sit in the back pocket, which means the player must actively look around and check out dudes' butts to understand their needs. But obviously if they're facing toward you or if the butt is otherwise concealed, then you must guess or rely on your memory. I wanted to reflect the cognitive reality of cruising: tracking and remembering people as they pass in and out of your vision.

(Some players may try to guess an NPC's sexual mood based on stereotypes like muscular tops, skinny submissive twink bottoms, etc. However, my code randomly assigns different body types, skin colors, and clothing. Appearance has no bearing on capability.)

There's also another obvious incentive to look at the men -- presumably you want to watch them have sex. Here I'm inspired by Skyrim sex mods and literally depict a plain blowjob, a glory hole blowjob, and a rare face-fucking on a leather posing horse. As in Skyrim, my animations are charmingly janky, with penises occasionally clipping through eyes and noses, or even through the back of the skull entirely. This jank envelops the player, who routinely has substandard viewing angles and often can't even see what's happening. The player will face a dilemma: move to a strategically advantageous position, or move to get a better view of the sex? Will horniness override the player's judgment? (Probably. Hopefully.)

in-game screenshot where the player can't get a good view of the action

As an extra strategic twist on the sex, partners in adjacent squares will occupy their shared grid edge. In other words, sex creates walls that block movement. Traffic within the maze will clog up unless you release this built-up sexual tension.

The only way to remove human walls is to approach the sex partners and redeem them. As a sex angel, your divine presence will cause them to joyfully disintegrate into pure semen, scoring points to progress to the next level. If you chain together multiple adjacent partners at the same time, you build up a combo multiplier -- the 1st climax is worth 1 L of semen, but the 4th consecutive climax is worth 4 L.

Building up huge group sessions is the key to completing later levels. While the first level requires only 8 L of semen (easy!!), you will need to collect 44 L of semen to complete the fourth level. This becomes more urgent as more men enter the maze -- at the end of every turn, you must pay -0.1 L of semen as upkeep for each person. This creates tension where you'll want to edge the game state to build up a big chain climax for combo multipliers, but if you wait too long then your reserves will sag... I do fear this whole semen economy overwhelms the player, so on the side of the screen I implemented an automatic cum ledger to track gains and losses.

In the second half of the game (levels 3 and 4) however, the biggest threat to your horniness is not the semen tax -- it is the police.

In my previous sex games, the police have been an arbitrary randomized penalty (Stick Shift), a surveillance apparatus that revokes sexual consent (Cobra Club), or an undercover operation that uses fear to prevent sexual consent (The Tearoom). The whole point here is that police form a system of intimidation that you dread, even when you can't see them.

However, Zugzwang is about interacting with a maze full of people, so here I simulate the police as distinct in-person agents who walk around. Cops are just like the rest of us, except they have their sexuality set to "cop." I thought I was being clever and funny by imagining "cop" as a sexuality, but this technical hack basically broke my consent simulation and caused so many programming headaches...

in-game screenshot of a cop; the excessive tactical riot gear is intentional

Normally, my virtual men can only initiate sex with a nearby consenting partner of a compatible mood. But for an AI with "cop" sexuality, their idea of sex is beating someone with a baton and removing them from the game. Their victim's mood or consent is irrelevant. Since cops ignore consent, I had to program special cop-only exceptions in my core  TestSexMood() code function. Violence is usually the first thing to prototype in an action game, but here it surprised me how much work it took to hack violence into an existing system that had no concept of it.

When cops attack NPCs in flagrante delicto, the NPCs disappear from the board and the player loses 0.5 L of semen for each one. So for example, instead of redeeming two men for a +3.0 L gain, cop attacks inflict a -1.0 L loss. If you account for the lost opportunity, this results in a total -4.0 L loss or often worse, since cops can exploit the same chain reaction mechanic as the player. 

Even after all this, the player must still pay the per-turn upkeep of -0.1 L for the cop, even while the cop ruins the player's plans. They should feel unfair, annoying, and parasitic, evoking the reasoning of the Defund The Police movements of 2020 -- policing inevitably diverts and consumes excessive non-police resources that were better allocated to other community services instead.

In my playtests, it felt like the best tactic is to try to trap the cop in the corner with your body while the AIs coordinate a big orgy that gives you a huge payout. This kinda-boring "degenerate strategy" falls way short of most broughlikes, but I decided to leave it in because I am pro-degeneracy. Level 4 originally had two cops to make it more difficult to trap them, but in my playtests that turned out to be way too punishing and forced a forever stalemate. I want players to feel anxious, but ultimately complete the game in less than 30 minutes and move on with their lives. 

screenshot of a late game moment: 6 people having sex (left) but safe from the cop (right)

Most of this gameplay came together without that much design trouble. I knew what I wanted to do, even if it took a lot of work to get it done. The conceptual core of this game was done in 2019 already.

But I had to do a few more years of thinking and revisiting for Zugzwang's ending. Good endings in games are hard. In my mind, a solid ending sequence had to somehow do all of these things:
  • resolve conflict with the police, who leads their campaign of terror and brutality?
  • what happens to all your points, what does one do with dozens of liters of semen?
  • evoke the themes of sex magic and divinity
  • reuse assets and systems, feel connected to the rest of the game
And let's not forget to factor in the common ongoing doubt in game dev -- that maybe a good ending isn't even worth making, since most people won't even play to completion and witness it.

My creative strategy here is to devise something so fitting yet weird that I'll feel spiritually compelled to finish making the ending, despite any doubts about scope. What kind of ending can do all this? 

That's when I saw this comic on Twitter by Zach Stafford (@extrafabulous):

web comic of a squirrel who says "and here is where i keep my nut. please excuse me while I deposit some", and opens a door to reveal a room covered in semen; the squirrel then says "PPFFTPP" as they spit semen into the room, as another squirrel looks on in horror... the joke is that the squirrel's "nut" was not a plant seed with inedible outer shell, but in fact a humorous unexpected reference to semen

Various religions and schools of magic have long been fascinated with semen as a magical sacred substance. Taoist sex magic was the perhaps the earliest no-fap subreddit; some dynastic Taoists argued that retaining semen was crucial for personal and spiritual health, and took it even further, promoting retrograde ejaculation in the belief that you can cum into your own brain. Vajroli mudra was a now-discontinued spiritual yoga practice about "preserving semen". And of course Catholic and Orthodox churches generally view masturbation as sinful for a variety of reasons, which include the idea that non-reproductive "spilling of semen" outside of a wedlocked vagina is "monstrous." The influential 1500s theologian John Calvin argued that pulling out was "double monstrous"!

So in my ending, the police trap you and bring you into court on obscenity charges as well as a religious crime of wanton semen hoarding. They force you into a cage as you await your show trial. A crowd of cops surrounds the cage and mocks you. Is all hope lost?

That's when you repeat a magical incantation from the beginning of the game, burst out of your cage, and begin fire-hose-vomiting 69.0 liters of semen onto every visible floor, wall, and officer.

I briefly considered implementing Splatoon-style game rules about maximizing surface area coverage to cleanse the entire courtroom, but the incentive to maximize fluids and prevent waste felt oddly sex negative to me. Like a cartoon squirrel, the player should not hold back!

But making fun of patriarchal belief systems about magic semen isn't enough. We also need to articulate a queer account of magic semen. Which brings us to a woman named Ida Craddock.

Ida Craddock (1857-1902) was one of the first feminist sex educators and sex magicians in America. Raised as a Quaker but inspired by her study of the Kama Sutra and belly dancing, she published sex manuals that argued women deserved sexual pleasure and that this pleasure led to a closer relationship with God.

Specifically she claimed to have (frequent, amazing, loud) sex with an angel whom she had married, and believed that woman-centered sex was so inherently good and powerful that it was the spiritual equivalent of a threesome with God. (For more on Craddock's life and work, listen to this 2011 NPR segment about her, or this post recapping about the early history of US "sex wars")

Honestly, Craddock's thinking is an imperfect fit for contemporary queer politics today. Her orientalist embrace of yoga is kind of cringe, she centers sex around heterosexual Christian marriage, and like many of her time she was critical of masturbation, queerness, and sex work.

But LGBTQ historians argue her public-minded activism was as radical as she could've been, given her limited resources and tools. At the root of her writing, Craddock believed strongly in bodily autonomy and public education, and it just so happened that Christian yoga angel sex magic was the only imaginable force that could defeat the misogynist forces arrayed against her -- Anthony Comstock and the US government.

If anyone under the age of 100 knows of Anthony Comstock at all, it's maybe as the racist preacher supervillain of the 2013 FPS game Bioshock Infinite. The fictionalized "Zachary Comstock" is a sympathetic portrait of a dad who massacred so many Native Americans at Wounded Knee that he became a racist preacher supervillain targeted by the US government, and so the game imagines an alternate fantasy universe where America rejected Comstock's bigoted beliefs.

But the real-life Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) enjoyed the full support and power of the US government. As a specially appointed United States Postal Inspector with broad police privileges under his Comstock Laws, Comstock freely wielded his eponymous power against anything he viewed as "obscene" -- seeking to imprison anyone who dared to write about reproductive rights, birth control, and sexuality.

In Craddock's case, her encounters with Comstock and the US government were unfortunately fatal. Facing years in prison for mailing supposedly "obscene" marriage manuals (she was advocating for sex within heterosexual Christian marriage!) Craddock died by suicide in 1902 at the age of 45. In her last words, Craddock specifically named Comstock as her harasser and cause of her death.

Zugzwang (Wikipedia) is German for "compulsion to move", a situation in chess when a player is forced to make a bad move, and I believe that's sort of what happened to Craddock. I also believe we must honor her by continuing her struggle against Comstock and his political descendants, who continue to attack bodily autonomy and inclusive education across America.

Craddock's belief system is still radical because it inverts the morality of our culture wars today. Yes, there is certainly much value in artists like Lil Nas X pole dancing into hell, freely embracing satanic sexuality as queer empowerment. But Craddock wondered, what if God wants everyone to enjoy sex, and that pleasure can bring us closer to God? In fact, what if we pole danced upward into heaven, to enjoy endless orgies with angels? Lindell's sex supermarket neighbors Craddock's sex cathedral.

In Craddock's cosmology, it is the fundamentalist hypocritical morality police like Comstock who align themselves with the Devil. 

So that's why in my game ending, after you dispatch all the armored police with magic semen blasts, the truly monstrous final boss appears: a giant horned animal skull powered by the cursed image of evil demonic Anthony Comstock.

I designed this final boss as a riff on the final boss of the 1993 FPS game Doom, a giant horned animal skull with the severed head of level designer John Romero who famously chants "To win the game, you must defeat me John Romero" in reversed demonic speech. 

My version of the Icon of Sin bears the head of Anthony Comstock and also chants, "To win the game, you must defeat me Anthony Comstock" in reversed demonic speech.

All of this is meant to reflect Craddock's belief system, even if my overcomplicated tactical gay sex magic chess puzzle game wouldn't have been quite to her tastes. So what did she want then? In the public letter written before her death, Craddock clearly states her last wishes to her "fellow-citizens of America":
"... I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, 'Right Marital Living.'"
In accordance with Craddock's wishes, I have uploaded an unedited PDF scan of an early 1899 edition of her marriage manual Right Marital Living to be freely downloaded, distributed, and preserved. I have also prepared a new 2022 edition of Right Marital Living, which I believe has since fallen into the public domain since its original 1899 publishing date. My modern PDF edition features modern typography, her last letters, and some historical context and footnotes.

Inspired by Craddock's marriage manual, I also commissioned an in-universe game manual from fellow queer game developer Mitch Alexander, who makes fantastic gay sex games too! (I recommend Tusks, though I've been an Alexander fan since The Loch). Mitch wrote "Hierosgamos" as a series of textual fragments that allude to cruising, the hanky code, and various game mechanics. Compared to most game manuals, it's purposely a bit cryptic and elusive, but I enjoyed the circular metatextual aspect of a sex manual inspiring a game that inspires a sex manual.

(left) title page of Right Marital Living by Ida Craddock, 1899; (center) title page of Hierosgamos by Mitch Alexander, ed. Robert Yang, 2022; (right) poem "Long years apart..." handwritten by Emily Dickinson on an envelope, photo from “The Gorgeous Nothings” by Christine Burgin, 2013 via Michael Johnson
These historical text fragments are incantations that span across time. And at the beginning and ending of Zugzwang, I repeat one such incantation: "The absence of the Witch does not Invalidate the spell."

Long-time fans of my games can probably guess this is an Emily Dickinson quote, in particular from "Long years apart...", poem no. 1383. I originally saw these words at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2019 (I blogged about the IMMA's main Lucian Freud exhibition here), where there was a display of her handwritten poems on random scraps of paper. There I read the incantation, runes scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope:
Long Years apart – can make no
Breach a second cannot fill –
The absence of the Witch does not
Invalidate the spell –

The embers of a Thousand Years
Uncovered by the Hand
That fondled them when they were Fire
Will stir and understand –
I believe Craddock's absence does not Invalidate the Spell. Her activism and struggle against Comstock is a magic that can last for a Thousand Years, an architecture that future generations can live in and build upon.

Although I'm not the exact audience she had in mind back in 1899, I can still draw power from her sense of justice today in 2022.

Because we sure need any power we can get today, in this month of June 2022, when Comstock's ideological descendants on the US Supreme Court have attacked all of our collective sexual and reproductive freedoms. We're going to need every tool imaginable to reverse this damage, and maybe even something as seemingly fanciful as sex magic can be useful here. Because in the end, I think here's what sex magic is really all about: embodying desire -- what we desire for ourselves, each other, and our future.