One common criticism of video games -- often levied by those most passionate about them -- is that the range of experiences they represent is too narrow. These players are tired of games that all seem to tell the story of the archetypal, male "bald space marine, and are looking for more diversity on the frontiers of gender, race and sexual identity.
That last category, especially, presents a big game design challenge for designers. It can be tough to challenge players to think beyond the gender binary and to view sexuality as a unique and deeply personal experience of identity, rather than a simple pair-up selection between one's opposite gender versus one's own (or possibly an inhuman alien!).
But at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, tackling game design's less-explored challenges is often the order of day. This past summer, a group of interns from Singapore were led by project owner Todd Harper in the creation of a game that aims to tackle sexuality and identity issues.
The goal was incorporating LGBTQ content in an innovative and effective way, eschewing the often heavy-handed "afterschool special"-style approach that serious games have taken in the past.
The result is A Closed World
, a JRPG-style journey taken by an androgynous protagonist who is separated from his or her "sweetheart" because of the strict norms of the character's hometown.
Players must lead the character into an unknown wood in search of a better way of life, confronting the demons of family and friends' attitudes and expectations along the way and using the weapon triangle of Logic, Passion and Ethics to prevail.
Harper says he's had the idea for A Closed World
under his skin for some time, inspired by the tragic story of Tyler Clemente, a Rutgers student who committed suicide last year after classmates made a recording inside his dorm room without his permission and "outed" him by publishing it. Harper, who has a PhD in mass communications and a longtime interest in gender and queer theory, was deeply upset by the incident and thought that the research platform he had at GAMBIT might be a good way to explore the issues associated with it.
"That content is not making it into games at all," he says, excepting a few examples of vague execution, like in Persona 4
, or implementations strictly related to coupling up, as in some RPGs.
Harper joined up with Abe Stein, GAMBIT's audio director who, wearing many hats, would go on to act as director for what would become A Closed World
. Both were frustrated by the oft-discussed reasons that the commercial game industry remains so divorced from LGBTQ-friendly content, such as the such content is unmarketable, or that it's impossible to handle "correctly" in the context of character design.
"The saw that gets trotted out all the time is that there's institutionalized homophobia in gaming as a culture, so if we put this content in the game it's not going to get played, people aren't going to spend money on it, be interested in it or buy it," says Harper. "I think that's the most specious straw man."
Another challenge is that most people can only create from their own experiences, and every design team has a different concept of what that narrative will be. While Singapore is very multicultural itself, Harper and Stein said they found working with a group of interns from such a different place presented a unique point of view.
"One thing that happened with us is initially some of the members of our team kind of conceptualized the dilemma of queer identity as it was viewed from the outside, as: 'you are being oppressed and what is happening to you is wrong,'" says Harper. "It was difficult to say, 'okay, but it can be more complex than that.'"
"Our original idea was inspired by, 'how can we get a sense of this really awful experience for [Tyler Clemente], where you have to manage your identity so carefully, and when it was cracked open without his permission the end result was he threw himself off a bridge?'" adds Harper.
Harper and Stein prototyped together for six months before the actual design team convened in June, hoping to "leverage the affordances of games, [versus] attaching some sort of queer narrative on top of a game," in Stein's words. "If you're not dating or having sex, what does it mean procedurally, what does it mean to have a game about your sexuality?"
Finding the shape and story of A Closed World
was an enormously complex process. The development team mapped an endlessly-branching brainstorming process on what the idea of LGBTQ identity meant to them, and what issues they saw as associated with it.
It was especially challenging as the team particularly wanted to avoid heavy-handedness: "We had a continual battle with 'the hammer'," says Harper. "When you hit people with the hammer, they don't react positively."
Inspired by the unusual and distinctive battle strategies of Earthbound
, the team arrived at the JRPG format, and the exotic art direction and fantasy setting emerged naturally from a desire to create a protagonist that looked different from the caucasian norm seen so frequently.
The result was a design that aligned to place responsibility on the player to create its meaning, that acted both as statement and question. The game's ending "is not a fluffy-bunnies ending, but it has hope," says Harper. And though experience is somewhat different for each player each time, the game's values remain intact. In that respect A Closed World
meets the goals of its designers, although both feel there's much further to go.
"One of the things that gnaws at me is because the themes of the game have to do with the gender binary, trans people are kind of invisible, and also bisexual people," Harper reflects. "And maybe we want to look at issues within the community, rather than looking at the community from the outside. I'd love to see a game that deals with that internal conflict."
Harper says he'd never presume that developing a free Flash student game equates to telling the game industry he's discovered "the answer," but he hopes designers will learn from what the GAMBIT team managed to accomplish with A Closed World
"If the industry is willing to look at our process, and look at the difficulties and challenges we had and how we thought them through, it might be something they can adapt for their process, where they have a whole different set of challenges."
"Eventually, someone is going to have to say, 'look, we want to tell this story and it's a risk we're going to take if we want to tell it.'"