Category Archives: Indie Games

Maelstrom – Unscheduled, Inclusive and now with Sponsorship

There is a new gaming convention coming out soon called Maelstrom, April 4th to April 6th. I want to mention it here because as taken from the website this is something that people here would be really interested in as it’s got a focus on being unstructured and inclusive. They got a lot of attention last year with their Diana Jones Nominated play-testing convention Metatopia for being a great spot to talk about design, as well as being inclusive to their guests with lots of discussion based around queerness, mental health, and social change in games.

That said, maybe Morristown NJ is a little too far for you, and the money isn’t there? Thankfully for this new convention, the people to the IGDN are providing a sponsorship to a designer from marginalized communities whose work supports the discussion and exploration of issues that affect marginalized communities. The best thing, for those who are still worried about it, is that having published material isn’t a pre-requisite to get the sponsorship.

There are more details on the IGDN website.

 

 

An Impolite Conversation: The relationship between sex and politics in three games

I recently played a game called Agarest: Generations of War for review (Filipowich, Mark. “Review: Agarest: Generations of War.” PopMatters. Oct 28 2013.). It sucked. Many games are built from the ground up on a problematic premise; baggage is built into them. Many of the problems with Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, weren’t a surprise. But Agarest didn’t have to suck. It carefully crafted its own suckiness from a really good premise.

The game begins with the player-character, Leo—a real swell guy working for a real evil empire—attacking an impoverished country of ethnic minorities. When he sees what he’s been doing first hand, Leo refuses to participate any longer. Then a fellow officer kills him because that’s what happens to traitors. Leo is left to bleed to death in a field when an angel promises to revive him in exchange for his and his descendants’ aid against heaven’s enemies.

The Angel from Agarest, a woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

The angel from Agarest, an anime woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

From there, Leo must win the war, seduce a sexy she-human and plant a clone in her baby-sac so that his sacred duty can be passed onto the next generation. This process is repeated for all five generations of slightly differently haired Leos. All the player-characters are men, all possible relationships are heterosexual and monogamous and all the women are eerily infantile and/or battered on top of the usual erotic pandering character designs. Just as bad, all potential romance options claw over one another for the player’s love after the player has invested enough relationship points (Moss, Kim. “Y’know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” Nightmare Mode. Dec 3 2012.). Women are just baby-making apparatuses, and to acquire one the player really only needs to ask politely at regular prompts. It’s not very difficult to spot the sexism here, but Agarest props itself up to be so much more by placing the personal and the sexual right at the center of the political.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads "What?" which was more or less the author's own reaction.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads “What?” which was more or less the author’s own reaction.

See, to maintain the order of the world, Leo mustn’t just smite the dragon-king, he has to be the kind of person that others would want to be in a sexual relationship with. The player-character doesn’t just need to seek out sex to satisfy the story, he needs to be a good boyfriend and eventual husband. Furthermore, the story demands that the player find someone willing to stick with them for the entire child-rearing process. It’s not enough to beat the bad guy, the hero must raise a good child with a good person to prevent evil from overtaking the world. If the player-character isn’t a decent, trustworthy, long-term lover and parent, the world will end. At the very least the player must be responsible enough to ensure his child will have a good upbringing; the kind of upbringing that will prepare a child emotionally and ethically for protecting the world in adulthood.

Each generation could follow a child of a different gender and a different sexuality, the game could weigh the challenge of finding a partner against that of deserving a partner. It just doesn’t. Again, the real objective of each of the five player-characters is not just defeating the bad guy, but also falling in love, coping with unrequited love, actually being a romantic partner to an individual. In Agarest, the political is directly linked to sexual relationships: loving others and being worthy of love sustains the world. The player-character’s inability to love, according to the lore provided by the game, would destroy society; being untrustworthy as lover, let alone as a parent, ends the world. That’s powerful. However, Agarest’s “dating simulator” amounts picking out the best cut of meat as the next generation pops into the player’s control.

Aragest doesn’t present sex—it could, and it’d be infinitely better if it did—it presents a specific kind of pornography; where women look and behave according to an insecure, adolescent fantasy. But it does nonetheless stumble into the complex intersection of love, family, sex, relationships, power and politics, even if it never seems to appreciate its own subject matter. I bring up Agarest as a failed instance of what another game, Hate Plus, does so well.

Hate Plus expands on Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and follows the first social collapse of the Mugunghwa, a lost generation space ship. Hate Plus chronicles the transformation of a flawed but functional society into one that is self-destructively conservative. But what makes the Mugunghwa’s tragedy so compelling is how it’s told through the many doomed love stories of its people.

New *Mute from Hate plus, with her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer's uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

New *Mute from Hate Plus against a gold background. She holds her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer’s uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

Though the plot is most immediately concerned with the fall of one government and the rise of another (and, ultimately, the fall of that government into extinction), the story is told by people developing crushes, exploring their own or another’s sexuality, committing adultery and betraying one another’s trust. It’s easy to understand how the Mugunghwa could destroy itself from a distance, but by seeing the effect of a new law, a changing fashion trend, a different standard of education through the eyes of the people living through them makes empathising with the Mugunghwa’s people natural.

For instance, a tax break for new mothers is instrumental in changing the Mugunghwa’s cultural view of women; it takes them out of the workplace and puts them in an increasingly domestic role, it makes them more desperate for work and it lowers their expectation of wage and prestige. Taking a detached and academic approach, one could see how a piece of legislation like that could undermine women’s rights, but Hate Plus emphasises the personal impact of these kinds of laws. More importantly, though, it emphasises how the changing zeitgeist dictates how characters are expected to satisfy their sexual needs.

Hate Plus is powerful because it shows how intimate something so sterile as tax reform can be. Kim So Yi, a brilliant engineer, is gradually marginalized by her government, her workplace and even by her well-meaning and otherwise decent husband. Her career is ruined the more her culture encroaches on her sexuality. Heterosexuality and motherhood become privileged and her career is significantly impacted by the sex she’s expected to have, enjoy and make public. The aforementioned tax break is passed by half a dozen rich people just trying to reach their lunch break, but it cages one of the ship’s greatest minds. Her culture silences her in the face of a sexually aggressive co-worker and it forces her to quit her work for children everybody but she wants to have. Depending on who gives or receives a blow job is immensely political and can mean the difference between a high five and prison sentence, Hate Plus shows how that distinction is arbitrated.

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae's is white with red trim and *Mute's is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she "will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!"

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae’s is white with red trim and *Mute’s is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she “will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!”

The beauty of Hate Plus is in how connected everything is. The game’s primary concern is how people relate and the player understand the relationships between the cast through their sex and their politics. The way people are allowed to love depends entirely on the Mugunghwa’s power structure, and sex is used to dictate the change of that structure. It’s important to note that the immortal space badass, Old *Mute, is not overthrown and killed because she is outmatched in arms—she isn’t—she is beaten by the slow erosion of her culture’s sex politics and her surrender is made absolute when she exploits her lieutenant’s love and trust.

Hate Plus is not ero—as the catchy credits song explains—but it ties the erotic to the political. It’s a story about conspiracy, intrigue and revolution told through sex stories, love poems and romantic confessions. It works because sociology and history are studies of sexual, lovesick people from a perspective too distant to see those details. Hate Plus shows how the personal and erotic, taken together, build and move a political engine. In that context, it’s interesting to look at another independent game invested in sex, Consensual Torture Simulator.

Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator is a game about two lovers consensually finding joy in one another’s bodies. It’s straightforward about the act and the objective: the player is in a sadomasochistic relationship with their girlfriend and the player’s goal is to strike their partner until they cry. Both the invisible player-character and the nameless girlfriend find joy in the interaction. There’s no twist that one of the lovers is a ghost or anything like that, it’s just two people who love each other being physically intimate with one another.

That’s where Consensual Torture Simulator, for me, becomes more interesting politically. Both the participating characters, even the title itself, are so honest. Moreover, though the player is performing the torture, not receiving it, the game monitors the player’s physical condition. Swinging a whip is tiring, and if the player doesn’t recognize their own limits they’re as likely to break as their partner. Topping is as demanding as bottoming for many of the same reasons. Performing the act successfully requires equal commitment, trust and exertion from the participants.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman's hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game's title along the right.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman’s hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game’s title along the right.

Patricia Hernandez interviewed Kopas for Kotaku about the game (“A Game Where You Torture Someone Because They Want You To.” Oct 29 2013.) and in the piece she cites some of the developer’s previous writing on violence from her personal blog (“keywords debrief: violence.” Oct 11 2012.). Kopas writes that the greatest problem with how games portray violence is in how “they conceal…structural violences.” It’s significant that Hernandez recalls that piece in a conversation about Consensual Torture Simulator because the structure of that game and the sexual act therein so honest and egalitarian. The player’s satisfaction depends on their partner’s satisfaction. If the player-character gets tired, their partner needs to have patience with them; if the partner’s threshold is reached, she trusts the player to recognize that; if either needs the stimulation to escalate than it must be on the terms of the other. Structurally speaking, neither partner holds power over the other.

Consensual Torture Simulator doesn’t present sex as a capitalist exchange between a purchaser and a provider, nor does it present violence as a colonial attack from an invader upon an underarmed, weaker “threat.” Violence—if it can be called that—is based on a structure of two, equal parties seeking the same, mutually beneficial end. Both player and partner commit to the act as best they’re able. If one needs a rest, the other recognizes it. It’s appropriate that Consensual Torture Simulator comes as a reaction to Grand Theft Auto V because it—like most triple A games—romanticizes violence as a pleasurable act to perform on an unwilling, nameless creature. The structure of triple A games, GTA V just being the most recent representative to take the floor, encourages a lopsided power structure. Consensual Torture Simulator is structurally based on two people that trust one another committed to pleasuring one another in different but equal ways.

Sex and politics may not be fair subject for polite conversation but they’re connected. Politics dictate the terms of how people may interact with their own bodies and most of the people that make up society really like getting off. The two are connected. It’s interesting to see how games—like politics, systems of rules that dictate behaviour—attempt to examine the connection of politics. Sex in games can present their players with a microcosm of power, whether through the failed but promising allusion in Agarest, the mutually dependant organism shown in Hate Plus or the reaction to a current understanding of violence in Consensual Torture Simulator. Sex is a reflection of how power influences people, and games are in a strong position to comment on how one impacts the other.

Agarest: Generations of War is available on Steam for $19.99, it’s also available under the name Record of Agarest War for the same price on the Playstation Network or for $29.99 on Xbox Live Arcade. Hate Plus is available on Steam for $9.99 and Consnsual Torture Simulator can be purchased for a minimum of $2.00 on either Gumroad or itch.io.

Wrath of the Gods: Teaching Intersectionality through Bastion

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

Special thanks to Greg Kasavin, creative director of Supergiant Games for supplying my classroom with educational copies of Bastion. Thanks as well to Damien Prystay who shared his save game data and to Christopher Sawula who graciously reprised his role as my classroom aide.
 

If you’re a Border House regular, you know that last semester I taught my students about the feminist theory of intersectionality using Halo. Intersectionality is the theory that systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia interact and overlap, compounding each other’s effects in unique ways. If you think about each of these systems separately, you’ll miss forms of oppression that folks experience at particular intersections of identity.

A few examples? Imagine being a gay, lesbian or bisexual person with a disability in the United States and not being able to marry your same-sex partner in order to receive essential health benefits. Imagine being fired for coming out as transgender (which is still legal in thirty-three states) and not having the resources to survive because you are working class. Imagine being an African-American woman shopping for a sharp business suit in order to counteract hiring prejudice and getting followed by security at the department store.

If you’re just thinking about any single system of oppression, you won’t be able to understand any of the above experiences. And you can’t just add systems like racism and sexism together, either. Intersectionality isn’t additive; it’s multiplicative. If you want to practice an intersectional politics, you have to focus on the ways in which all systems of oppression interact with each other.

Video games are uniquely equipped to teach students about oppression because they are likewise composed of interacting systems, systems that can often be challenging and unforgiving. As Ian Bogost notes in a recent blog post, games might be “the best medium for expressing certain things—say, the operation and experience of systems.” But most games don’t allow you to alter the behavior of individual game systems to a truly intersectional level of detail. Continue reading

Kickstarting Gameplay Anew: Ambrov X’s Promise

A capacious chamber that appears open to the stars, with a woman levitating in its centre surrounded by elegant minimalist semicircles of machinery while a man looks on.

The Astrogation Resonance Chamber aboard the Beacon Ship, Unity One from Loreful’s Ambrov X, a new RPG they are currently crowdfunding.

Despite spirited opposition that has come to dominate the year’s headlines, there remains ample reason to be hopeful that games will evolve to tell new, more diverse stories, with pathbreaking mechanics undergirding it all. Consider Cincinnati-based game developer Loreful and their new game Ambrov X which was kickstarted just this past Tuesday. Under the direction of Lead Designer Ben Steel, and based on the classic feminist sci-fi Sime-Gen universe series, by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah, Ambrov X promises an involving story premised on an abiding, mortally dangerous relationship between two members of the eponymous Sime and Gen species. Through the lens of this fraught partnership, the larger political story of an action-adventure plot set in deep space is told. The bond between your protagonist and their companion seems to be the beating heart of this story; Jennifer Helper minces no words:

“How much more intense could your relationship be with your followers if they were more than friends, more than romances – if they were both a part of your soul and the greatest threat to it?”

And yes you did read correctly; this project is erstwhile Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler’s next act, cheerfully announced in a Loreful press release. She is consulting for the company at present and, provided they reach the first stretch goal on their Kickstarter project, Loreful intends to bring her on board full-time as their Lead Writer and Narrative Designer for Ambrov X. Her ability to tell a challenging story will hold her in good stead here, I think. Hepler has long been an advocate of probing personal relationships for narrative grist, up to and including romance irrespective of gender; I could certainly see why this project would appeal to her. “The setting allows you to play with the difference between romance and sexuality,” she said when I asked her about Ambrov X and its source material, “and [it lets you] ask questions like: Can you be in an intense and physical relationship with someone without it being sexual? Can love help someone overcome the desire for violence, even if it is a basic part of his nature? and How much of yourself can you give up to another while still remaining you?” Continue reading

Sturgeon’s Law, Taste and RPGMaker

Sturgeon’s Law states that “90% of everything is crud.” If TvTropes is to be believed, there are a number of addendums to the law, such as: “if ever less than 90% of everything is crud than one needs to adjust their standards,” and “90% of people can’t distinguish crud from noncrud.” Almost everything created is a heap of load-bearing garbage to support the glorious minority of culture-forming genius. If you look at the brilliance of high art and find flaws than you aren’t reading it properly, if you see any virtue in the drivel beneath than you don’t have a high enough standard.

The attitudes enforced by these various “Laws” now associated with science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon prop up a status quo where creativity is a quality of the rare genius destined to speak on behalf of a generation and everyone else is just everyone else. The genius is born with an innate gift and duty to observe society, he—by sheer coincidence it is almost always he—produces culture from a vacuum and is rarely understood in his own time by anyone other than the keen publisher that collects the yearly harvest his work yields. Said another way, we are “raised to believe that a select few create and the rest are just fans. Rich white people create and we suck it up.” (Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism.” Nightmare Mode. Nov 25 2012.).

90% of everything isn’t crud, it’s just average. Average is, more often than not, good enough with greatness and annoyances peppered throughout. Most work comes with some measure of both genius and crud; arguing where and how each stand out on a case-by-case basis (ie criticism) is a long and laborious process. One worth taking but not one generally valued. The practice enforced by Sturgeon’s law is one of absolutes: a thing is beyond value or it’s worthless. Sturgeon’s “laws” and the attitudes at their root are about controlling taste and credibility to keep it in privileged hands.

Games have their own struggles over who controls “taste.” We know this. Fake geek girls, nerd cred, narratology vs ludology, formalism vs new journalism, casual vs hardcore, piracy, DRM and whatever this week’s issue is are all recurring debates that attempt to reinforce a structure where 90% of games and the people that play them are crud. Only a small number of games are valuable and only a small number of people can arbitrate the difference. Not accidentally, the top ten percent of “valuable” games cost a lot of money and heap of trash games it rests is recognizable from a distance because it’s cheap or free and therefore worthless. I quoted Porpentine earlier because Twine developers and players—perhaps more than anyone—have faced adversity for the accessibility of their material, and accessibility is the natural enemy of the tastemaker.

Developers using less specialized and inexpensive tools like Twine, Game Maker or even Unity are faced with scepticism. Games made with these engines have to prove their authenticity whereas no designed-by-committee, “core” targeting gun-porn has to prove a thing because a thousand fresh grads spend four years perfecting jiggle physics before being laid off.

The benefits of tools designed to be inexpensive and easy to learn should be obvious. But there’s a well-documented culture of tastemakers trying to delegitimize the work of small developers. Indies need to be judged by triple-A standards and they need to be as available and as public as triple A studios with an army of PR staff at their disposal. It isn’t that Indies can’t produce games of the same quality as major publishers or that triple A games don’t produce anything good, it’s just that the industry is judged by the standard of moneyed producers and quality is based on a return of investment. It’s no revelation to say that keeping up with games is impossible without considerable disposable income (Beirne, Stephen. “Poor Community Spirit.” Re/Action. July 12 2013.), so it’s frustrating that there’s such a stubborn elitist culture controlling what gets to be valued and what doesn’t.

Continue reading

On The Border: An interview with Emily Short

 

Interactive fiction author Emily Short.

Interactive fiction author Emily Short.

For this installment of On the Border, we have an interview with prolific and renowned interactive fiction author Emily Short. Known for her signature pieces like Galatea and Alabaster that blazed the trail for interactive fiction as a serious modern form of literature, Short has had an interesting trip on her road to becoming an IF legend.

As a child, Short was always interested in the possibility space of interactive narratives, noting her early forays into parser technologies and text adventures. As she grew up, she learned of the amateur IF scene and such technologies as Inform 5 and 6, along with other tools that made crafting IF easier, she jumped at the chance to make her own things, though not necessarily for a career. She went on to study Classics in graduate school- all the while creating interactive fiction on the side- and when her IF and critical writing began to gain traction and her teaching aspirations began to contract, she decided to make the choice so switch careers and pursue IF, freelancing on multiple projects until ending up on the Versu project with Richard Evans and Linden.

 

The Border House: How and when did you get started in writing?

Emily Short: I was trying to write IF at an early age, even though I wasn’t really succeeding at it. I was an early reader, my parents taught me to read before I went to kindergarten, so that kind of naturally flowed into me wanting to write my own initially very little-kid sorts of stories; I always saw myself as partly a writer as a kid, and I did a lot of that kind of thing. A lot of fantasy and science fiction when I was a teenager; I don’t read as much anymore, but that was where my mind was at the time.

Continue reading

Expeditions Conquistador and Post-Imperial Arrogance

It’s no secret there’s a not-so-subtle undertone of colonialism in a lot of games, particularly in strategy games. Eador: Masters of the Broken World has the player reorganize the universe into its “proper” state by conquering every available territory in the game (Filipowich, Mark. “Eador: Masters of the Broken World review.” PopMatters. May 15 2013); Civilization privileges western history, where “the United States is made the ultimate inheritor of all…human advancement and elevated to the position of the most perfect and most ‘civilized’ state of all.” (Poblocki, Kacper. “Becoming-State: The bio-cultural imperialism of Sid Meier’s Civilization.” Focaal – European Journal of Anthropology. 39. 2002: 163-177.); Age of Empires celebrates the age of—er, well—empire building. These games are founded on the assumption that history is composed of distinct, easily distinguishable peoples that emerge at the same time and under the same circumstances. The objective is to represent a group in its ascension of Eurocentric progress.

What follows is a player’s attempt to enact the imperial mythology: map every acre, subjugate every rival by the most convenient means available and acquire every resource in the name of progress. Most games, however, do this beneath a layer of fantasy, or at least with the innocent veneer of a history lesson. Expeditions Conquistador on the other hand, is not accidentally colonialist; it is a colonialist fantasy. It is a game that puts the player, with their modern, post-colonial attitudes and understandings, in the role of the first military foray into Mexico. The game argues that there is no form of colonisation that does not cause harm. All the post-colonial wisdom the player may have cannot prevent the damage of imperial expansion: it preys on the player arrogant enough to think they can “fix” history.

The cover art for Expeditions Conquistador portraying a Spanish man with a black beard and curled moustache gazing at something out of frame. He's wearing steel armour and a white-short sleeved shirt. The game's title sandwiches a simple longsword

The cover art for Expeditions Conquistador portraying a Spanish man with a black beard and curled moustache gazing at something out of frame. Beneath, the game’s title sandwiches a simple longsword

The game begins with the promise that you, the player, can rewrite the colonisation of South America. As the opening text explains, “The year is 1518—a year before Hernán Cortés would be elected captain of the third expedition to the South American mainland, where he would overthrow the Aztec empire.” Cortés, however, never makes it to South America in this alternate history because the player-character is sent instead. The central question the game asks is what you would do, knowing what you do, if you were in Cortés’ place?

Continue reading

Game of the Day: 3x3x3 by Kayla Overkill

Today’s GOTD is a lovely piece about living your life when your choices are limited. As a mermaid! Kayla Overkill can be reached at her Tumblr. Thank you to Kimiko for submitting this one.

If you have made or played an IF or indie game you would like to see featured on The Border House, send it to us at editors (at) borderhouseblog (dot) com (or @ me on Twitter). You can see our past featured games at this tag.

Edited to add link to the author’s Tumblr.