Road to the IGF: Free Lives' Genital Jousting
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Genital Jousting uses the framework of the mundane lives of anthropomorphized penises to tell a story of toxic masculinity and breaking down harmful socializations. It's a silly game of floppy dongs doing normal things in funny ways, but it also touches on the hurtful things men are taught every day.
Gamasutra spoke with Robbie Fraser and Evan Greenwood of Free Lives, developers of the Excellence in Narrative-nominated Genital Jousting, to learn about the challenges of making a penis that wasn't intimidating or horrifying, the humor to be found in putting genitals through everyday tasks, and the appeal of using such a silly setup to explore an important subject.
The private storytellers
We are Robbie Fraser and Evan Greenwood. Along with Richard Pieterse (who wasn’t around to help us fill out these questions), we take full responsibility for the design and programming of Genital Jousting. But it would be amiss not to mention the rest of the wonderful team at Free Lives who put so much work into making Genital Jousting happen. With regard to the story, a lot of credit must also go to Jon Keevy - our delightful writer (who also didn’t help us fill out these questions).
We’ve been trying to make games and art for just about as long as we can remember. Game development wasn’t really a commercially viable thing in South Africa up until quite recently, though. It was only after the advent of indie games that Free Lives could be formed in 2012. We had a breakout success with Broforce that paved the way for us to try weirder (and stupider?) things like Genital Jousting. We thought we had seen it all, but Genital Jousting turned out to be surprisingly hard to make!
Their long history of wang-based media
Believe it or not, Genital Jousting is the latest in a long lineage of penis-related games by Free Lives team members. Pieterse, in particular, made a good few penis games in an effort to explore his sexuality and masculinity. One of these, a local multiplayer game called Wang Commander, was particularly inspiring and important for the conception of Genital Jousting. Not just because of how much people found the game to be funny, but also because of how it enabled people to have conversations about penises that they wouldn’t otherwise have in everyday life.
The idea for “stacking” penises came from an old (and admittedly gross) drawing that had been on our walls since early Broforce days - controlling flaccid penises that could penetrate each other just seemed like a fun multiplayer mechanic to try out in a game jam.
After the first multiplayer versions started coming together, the thought of a story mode really started to take hold. The idea of a fully narrated fumble-core game about penises was too stupid and too surprising not to pursue. There was nothing remotely like that around, and that was very exciting to us.
Tools of the trade and key motivational dogs
[We used] mainly Unity and Google Sheets. Also, a large pedestal for our dog (Leeroy Jenkins - Italian Greyhound) to sit on in the middle of the room where we could more easily see and pet him at all times. He really kept us motivated by always maintaining the highest possible standards with regards to smoothness and soulfulness.
Using humorous dinks to explore toxic masculinity
The first draft of the story mode was going to be much more like Goat Simulator with narration and genitals. It was going to be about a depressed penis learning how to make friends. The joke was that it was something of a tutorial mode for real life. It was so that you could have enough friends to play the multiplayer modes with.
However, pretty early, on we realized that we had experiences and feelings from our own lives that we wanted to pour into the game. We wanted to make something that people could relate to - that they could find meaningful as well as funny. We realized we wanted to talk about masculinity more than anything - and a game where you are a literal penis would be the perfect vehicle to do so.
We kept the setup of a lonely penis in a rut with an unfulfilling job, but we shifted focus to make the pursuit of romance become the driving narrative force. The story of a man trying to find love and attract women in all the worst ways seemed like an obvious opportunity to talk about how men are socialized and offer a critique of toxic masculine culture.
Genital Jousting isn’t really a love story - it’s a story about learning and unlearning what it means to be a man. The whole quest for love thing serves as a plot device that allows us to subvert and avert all the harmful romantic tropes that you find in popular culture.
How silliness makes a serious message more approachable
At its core, Genital Jousting is a fumble-core game. It’s slapstick comedy. The very first multiplayer version of the game was predicated on the idea that a floppy sausage is an inherently funny object to control. Flaccid penises are funny and make perfect targets for a physics game.
As for the narrative, a large part of the Genital Jousting joke is the juxtaposition of a serious story alongside silly, wiggly penises. The fact that all the characters are fumbly and flaccid makes the story funnier and more absurd. And the fact that the story is so serious and the world is so mundane makes the moment to moment gameplay of trying to control a fumbly, flaccid penis funnier and more absurd.
Making the gameplay silly and comedic also serves another purpose. Trying to make the story have a lesson that people could take on board was one of our design goals. Making the game more ridiculous allowed us to get away with putting in some more serious messaging without the game coming across as preachy.
Breaking down harmful socializations
A lot of the story beats are based on what we called “false masculine quests”. These are things that men are often socialized to believe gives them value in the eyes of society. For example: having a 6-pack, amassing wealth, or sleeping with women. We wanted moments where our protagonist could try (and fail) to achieve these things, and hopefully at some point it becomes clear that he’s chasing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
There are also plenty of moments where we simply had an idea for a funny scene or a joke we wanted to tell. A lot of these scenes have a bit of absurdism and some cinematic storytelling to them. For example: a smash cut to tell a once-off joke.
And then, last but not least, there are plenty of scenes that are just there for storytelling and narrative design reasons. Sometimes you just need to do a bit of character development, change the tone, or build some tension.
Creating playful toys for genitals
Genital Jousting is not a mechanically deep game. There are very few player verbs, and there is little in the way of challenge or problem-solving. With this in mind, we wanted to make sure each scene was still interesting and fun to interact with. We went to great lengths to make a lot of toys and hide a lot of extra jokes in the world. This rewards player curiosity and helps the world seem that much more interactive and detailed.
We place a lot of value on having things be surprising - so we added a lot of small things that are easy to miss. Did you know there’s a fully functional photocopier in a side-room on an entirely optional path through the office?
Droopy, rumpled, and taboo
Flaccid penises are just funny to look at and think about. With their droopy shapes and rumpled foreskins - they’re very silly. This is all amplified by the fact that they’re kind of a taboo a lot of the time. There’s a lot of shame, self-worth, and uncomfortable emotions tied to them. This makes them funnier to anthropomorphize. A giant anthropomorphic penis in a cactus field is a funnier idea than a person in a cactus field.
As we mentioned earlier, the juxtaposition between the penises and the mundane world is the core joke in Genital Jousting. Everyone has boring jobs, mortgages, and anxiety. They live in small apartments, buy groceries, and work out at the gym. But they’re also big floppy cocks and they ejaculate sweat all over the floor and treadmill when they do. It’s great!
Disempowering the phallus
Getting the look and feel of the penises was something we worked very hard on right from the first prototype. Phalluses are often seen as symbols of power and dominance, and they are quite threatening to a lot of people. We wanted to dis-empower them a bit. Make them abject, silly, and more approachable. We deliberately made them imperfect and awkward to control, just like real penises are.
In terms of visual design - we spent a lot of time softening the game as much as we could. We made everything colorful, but not too saturated. We rounded edges, simplified forms and removed every detail we could get away with. We also simplified the lighting and opted not to use any textures. The goal was to try to make everything look like it belonged in a plastic dollhouse.
It must be said that the playful music and sound design really help a lot to set the mood too.