Monday, December 12, 2022

That Lonesome Valley as cowboy coin crusher

SPOILER WARNING: This post spoils what happens in my new game That Lonesome Valley. If you care about spoilers, play it first. It'll take about 30 minutes.

CONTENT WARNING: This post contains discussion of gay sex acts and some screenshots with obscured pixel art nudity. It's mostly "safe for work" even if the actual game is not.

That Lonesome Valley is a short gay cowboy romance game about walking, sheepherding, and kissing. 

Back in 2019 I made an unfinished prototype for a Gay Western game jam to contemplate the anniversary of influential gay cowboy film Brokeback Mountain (2005). Three years later, I've finally finished it. This final release now has gay sex, smoochin', and other important new features. 

I'm still not quite happy with how it turned out, but at this point I guess I'm just gonna have to live with it. As usual, I've written about what happens in the game, and I detail some of my creative process, intent, inspirations, and what I hope to contribute to gay cowboy discourse...

First, some thoughts on the film Brokeback Mountain (2005): it's fine, not really my favorite movie.

  • not enough gay sex in it actually?... sorry I'm gay
  • cursed closet tragedies are fine, but it's a crowded genre
  • Ang Lee already made a gayer movie called The Wedding Banquet (1993) which I recommend more than Brokeback Mountain probably
  • I prefer Annie Proulx's original short story. "Jack I swear" is certainly a pithy last line for a movie, but Proulx's last line makes for a more complicated character and morality: "There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it."

Back in 2019 when I was making the original prototype, there were also two other gay cowboy things on my mind: Orville Peck's hit single "Dead of Night" and the gay indie romance film God's Own Country.

Peck's lyrics detail a fling between two hustlers in the wastelands of Sierra Nevada. Like Brokeback, it's a story about young unhappy unsuccessful queer men. But here the tragedy and regret doesn't stem from the closet. Instead I think it's more about a wistful weary worldliness and the uncaring streets of Carson City:

See the boys as they walk on by
See the boys as they walk on by
As they walk on by
As they walk on by
As they walk on by
It's enough to make a young man—

The film God's Own Country (2017) is a contemporary British take on Brokeback Mountain. A homophobic English farmboy is forced to work with a hunky Romanian farmhand, and so inevitable muddy fight sex and simmering romance ensues. Longtime readers may remember my white working class British masculinity simulator Hard Lads, so I'm certainly not unsympathetic to this premise... but to me what saves the film is more the Brexit overtones, which adds a more complex layer of xenophobia to the gay cowboy genre.

However the sudden and convenient conclusion (replete with sugary Patrick Wolf soundtrack) didn't work for me, an obvious pushback against Brokeback and other dour artsy post-Brokeback cinematic gay dramas like A Single Man (2009), Weekend (2011), and Keep The Lights On (2012). In real life, Brexit defeated love rather resoundingly and brutally, deporting countless hunky Romanian farmhands. I think a better plot would've followed through on its own politics.

Is there a place for gay cowboy romance beyond dreary cursed closets, dying on the street, or naïve bourgeois bliss?

I don't think I quite found it, but here's how I tried...

My sex games are often romantic, but they're not romances. I restrain my characters to the realm of images and symbols, and only hint at interiority and psychology. Truly knowing and understanding someone is so rare in this world. This is even more difficult when I'm not a particularly good writer. A good character is a lot of work and maybe even beyond my abilities. Despite my doubts I pushed on, and the result is a simple story with just two characters:

The player character Jose is a bookish college student from California who's visiting Wyoming to complete a summer field project for his agricultural management degree. The romantic interest Bud is a local ranchhand assigned as a guide.

Here I depart from Brokeback and take a note from God's Own Country, writing two characters with different ethnicities and upbringings: Jose is a middle class suburban Latino west coaster, and Bud is a white working class rural hill guy. These differences emerge frequently in dialogue, especially in the first act, but this is also a romance where both characters conveniently reconcile their ideas of queer identity and sex like 10 minutes later. Maybe they're more like Orville Peck's hustler poets.

As the player and Bud walk around a surprisingly large landscape, they talk about life and stuff, and the player occasionally chooses how to respond, with a 5 second timer that chooses a random response if the player waits too long.

You can place this game in a tradition of walkie-talkie games like Firewatch or Wheels of Aurelia. Here my walking mechanic borrows some sensibility from Death Stranding, where terrain can seriously slow down the player's speed, so a skilled player should micro-optimize their route a little and avoid water / hills / obstacles.

Because the dialogue happens at the same time as the walking, I felt I had to keep the other game systems relatively simple too or else it would feel overwhelming. It already feels so fraught to me. I didn't want to give players even more reasons to ignore the story. Balancing the weight of each system was difficult.

Like many game prototypes, my initial sheepherding test began as something much grander and more complicated. Early tests let you give commands to Bud, to improvise positioning and herding tactics. I even thought about implementing a sheepdog. Unfortunately it was going to be a huge project overscope to make this complexity feel readable and good.

The simple sheep AI now has two behaviors: they run away from you if you approach them, but they'll follow you indefinitely if you give them a carrot. So usually the best tactic is to trap them into a corner so you can get close enough to carrot them, and then slowly lead them back to the flock. Sometimes they get stuck because I didn't spend much time on the steering AI, but I think these bugs actually make the sheep more charming because you have to backtrack to untangle them from an obstacle.

I decided it was OK if this shepherding gameplay was so simple, because the focus of this game was more about the sum of all these parts rather than just one thing.

Accordingly, I kept the relationship points system simple too. If you laugh at Bud's jokes and agree with him, you gain more heart points; if you don't go along with Bud's jokes or you say rude things to him, you'll lose out on the hearts. Based on your heart score, you'll get different dialogue and slightly different scenes.

Scoring the player's conversation choices implies "correct conversation choices = sex" which brings its own problems and limitations. Back in 2012, John Mix Meyer wrote "Women aren’t vending machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out" to critique proto-PUA concepts like the friendzone. Then Patricia Hernandez critiqued Bioware RPG romances with this kindness coins theory. More recently, Angela Washko's "The Game: The Game" effectively merges PUA tactics and conversation trees as a powerful critique.

Do kindness coins exist between gay men in the same way? Generally I think any straight male entitlement to sex is less about access to sex and more about punishing women for imaginary crimes. It doesn't quite make sense in a gay male context. (Don't worry, gay men have other methods of hurting each other.)

So in this game, the relationship score does NOT gate sex scenes. In this situation, the NPC knows what you're here for and he wants it too, even if you kinda hate each other. Sometimes people have sex with someone they don't like.

This dynamic runs counter to most video game romances, where we generally assume the "good end" = sex end = complete soulmates = rare and complex. That difficulty is supposed to imbue the NPC relationship with human complexity and psychological realism, as if only the gamers with a true emotional connection deserve to see the dick. But this is silly. Dicks for everyone, I say. Everybody eats!

There is one scene that I do gate behind a (pretty low) points threshold: a climactic kiss requires 30+ heart points to proceed. But this kiss happens at the end, after the sex. In society and most romance games, kissing is supposed to be "first base" -- but I wanted to reflect how, for some LGBTQ people and fictional cowboys, kissing might feel more like third base. (And for some men who have sex with men, kissing is like hitting a pop fly with 2 outs, bases loaded, down by 1, at the bottom of the 9th.) Inverting typical romance game pacing is one way this is a queer video game.

And anyway, to me, kindness coin design is a less grievous sin than a game that pretends to have any meaningful sex systems at all. Gamers applaud Cyberpunk 2077 for its 2 penis presets which you basically never see again for the rest of the game -- it's utterly enraging for me and other sex game designers who actually grapple with dick design. This is what big budget bland blockbuster media always does: parades a veneer of sex, sucks all the oxygen out of the room to suffocate alternative media, then runs away as soon as the sex is in danger of getting interesting. (see also: "Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny"

Sex is an experience; sex occupies time, space, and thought. So in this game, sex takes a while and it's expressive, playing out in different ways. It is something you do, even by not-doing. You can confess you've never done a gay sex before, or play it cool and more experienced. Either way, you negotiate what sex stuff to do. Bud will decide against foreplay and anal for various reasons. If that annoys you, tell him no deal and go to sleep. Or you can blow him, which takes a couple of minutes. That sounds quick here, but in-game it feels much longer, which doubles as a sex joke: I hope some players will find the oral sex mini-game repetitive and wish Bud would just climax already.

Afterwards, Bud doesn't reciprocate, mostly because I didn't want to pixel art yet another sex scene and I think I hate doing pixel art. So don't blame Bud, the fault is mine.

Much of the pixel art is from the gorgeous 64x64 tileset by Yar. The awkward character art is mine. I'm sure all the real pixel artists out there will also murder me over my inconsistent pixel resolutions and poor dithering and weird muscle tones.

Hopefully the overall feel is sufficient to imply the existence of an imaginary 16-bit game about sucking off guys in Wyoming. As with one of my previous retro-styled games Dream Hard, I like this aesthetic because it implies a speculative history where these games existed, an acquired nostalgia crucial for the retrospection of a gay western. The actual day-to-day of a dirty exhausting job with long commutes and bad pay is terrible when you're living through it, but years later you forget the fatigue and remember only your sexy coworker. It exists only after it's over.

Pixel art's nostalgic effect works similarly, a nonlinear queer history. Old pixel art was crafted for CRT displays, which would blur and blend pixels. When we idolize crisp clean superflat pixel art today, it's actually a new aesthetic invented by indie game devs from the late 2000s. (see: "CRT Simulation in Super Win the Game"). (Note: The downloadable version of this game features this excellent Retro CRT effect by Glaire Daggers to enhance the retro feel, but I had to disable it for the WebGL browser version.)

Is that really so bad though? If pixel art never really looked like that, or an old romance never really felt like that -- is it so bad to try to transform that story over time? Like my other relationship game No Stars Only Constellations, this is the story you tell yourself in order to live and deal with shit.

This is why I prefer the short story over the movie version of Brokeback Mountain: it is more knowing. Proulx's free indirect third person narrator gives it some distance and age, who can speak with a maturity that understands the characters even if they don't understand themselves. When you look back on your life, you're actually a bit lucky if you can make sense of what the hell happened back there. 

Because sometimes there's some open space between what we know and what we try to believe, but nothing can be done about it, and if you can’t fix it... then you gotta walk it by yourself.

That Lonesome Valley is available for free / pay-what-you-want in your web browser, or downloadable for Windows / Mac / Linux desktop.