Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab’s A Closed World

A screenshot from A Closed World; a person in a white cloak stands before a bridge over a river, their back to a forest.

Over at Gamasutra is an interesting interview with Todd Harper from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab about A Closed World, a JRPG-style game that was created to address issues of sexuality and identity. The research statement reads:

The goal of this research was to present the design team with the challenge of creating a game that had this compelling queer content, and to observe the ideas and hardships they considered and encountered along the way, so that we could learn more about how to approach those challenges in other design contexts. The project left the ultimate message of the game open to the creators; what was important to discover were the challenges the team faced trying to include queer content in the game, and the strategies they used to tell the story they wanted to tell. The result is a game that asks us to carefully consider what we think of as “normal,” and what is needed to live in the world and be true to one’s self.

In the interview, Harper talks about the various inspirations for the game, which include Earthbound. He says that the goal was to design a game that gave a sense of an experience many queer people have of managing their own identity so closely in order to not be outed, without being too heavy-handed. He believes the team met those goals and hopes that the greater video game industry can learn from what they have accomplished:

“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.'”

You can play A Closed World here.

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21 Responses to Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab’s A Closed World

  1. gunthera1 says:

    I love this idea! I will have to check it out soon to see how they handled these themes within the game.

  2. Kimiko says:

    Hmm, interesting.

    Advertised as an LGTBQ-friendly game, I was expecting that I’d be able to play as a lesbian woman. Alas, even in this game I can only play as a straight woman. Well, it makes sense from the makers’ objective to aim the game at straight folks I suppose.

    The mechanics of the game are quite interesting; the MC losing composure instead of HP when hit with logic, passion or ethics. Most of the different ‘demons’ and tactics and arguments were recognizable for me.

    • kdanger13 says:

      I think it’s possibly randomized– when I played, both my player and her sweetheart were female.

    • Kathy says:

      Hmm? I chose female and the whole thing was about a special female friend.

    • Deviija says:

      Some said that it (your romantic partner/entanglement) is randomized upon character creation. Like, when I played the first time as a male main character, my significant other was a woman. And then the next time I played as a woman, my significant other was also a woman.

      I thought some of the issues and situations the game brought up, while good, were a tad too general. It could be for any minority, misfit, outcast, pariah rather than LGBTG-specific. It seems more watered down, to me, when your significant other can be the opposite sex and thus it becomes a story where the world sees heteronormativity as ‘otherness.’ Maybe in another game that would be better spent exploring, but in this one it just seemed to water down what messages the game was trying to say, IMO.

  3. Ike says:

    I appreciated the lead-up into the “Are you male or female?” question, but I was still a little disappointed that “or” wasn’t an option. Cute game, though.

  4. Brightwanderer says:

    I wanted to like it, but I have to say, it actually made me feel alienated and somewhat betrayed. I started playing hoping for a character like me, only to find that my girl’s backstory was focused on a straight relationship. And then the reveal – it was those mean ol’ gays who were the oppressing people! The straights were the persecuted ones! Wow. Yes. That’s… helpful. I wouldn’t say this contained LGBTQ-friendly content so much as ended up as a heterosexual persecution complex.

    The sad thing is I get what they wanted to do, to challenge assumptions, but it just felt like an appropriation, making it all about straight people for the benefit of straight people. It was genuinely hurtful to come to that reveal, and the ending did nothing to make me feel better. So I would call it a missed mark at best.

    • Mecha says:

      Brightwanderer: That seems like a fair reaction to me. I will admit it feels a little weird that you feel that, given the LGBT involvement in the game, it’s appropriating, but the ‘telling a straight person’s story’ could definitely rub someone the wrong way (it certainly would me, were that my reading). It’s worth noting, though, that the game has multiple modes/readings: it’s not strictly a ‘flip it: it’s gay people that are bad!’ There are several scenes that have significant gender norm breakage/androgynous things as well.

      -Mecha

  5. pinebark says:

    I haven’t tried it yet, but here’s an interesting critique I came across yesterday: http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2011/09/closed-world-and-thoughts-on-gay-video.html

  6. kdanger13 says:

    I feel like it would have been more effective if it hadn’t randomized quite so much. I didn’t realized that every character’s gender (besides the player) was randomized, but it leads for some kind of unfortunate combinations (the “straight player is left in favor of a gay relationship” in particular, we don’t really need more Mean Ol Gays portrayals, especially in a game that’s supposed to help.)

    On the other hand, maybe randomization could be kept, but impact the dialogue further? If player and sweetheart were of the opposite gender, but dialogue indicated that one of them was trans, for example, the general idea of the game would be kept (possibly even an improvement, since it only really deals with LGB and not T at the moment.)

    Also sad that “or” wasn’t an option. I even tried clicking it.

  7. Medicine Melancholy says:

    I must admit after reading the comments, and that review about the battle system I’m not too interested in checking this out. It feels like it’s trying too hard to be artsy and conceptual with the subject matter instead of actually exploring it. As opposed to something like Christine Love’s “Don’t take it personally Babe” which does both quite well.

    I’d like to see a game that dealth with LGBT issues in a less “preachy” manner as has been put, in a more engaging manner. I think these are issues that can be interesting to anyone even when you get into the nitty gritty.

    See Extra Credits series on “diversity”(especially sexual diversity) for why.

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/sexual-diversity

  8. Paul Scott says:

    I’ve been surprised how hard people have been on this game on the various LGBT gaming sites I frequent. For something that was a 6-8 week project done mostly by a group of interns, I think it’s at least an interesting attempt at something. Flawed, maybe, and certainly open to lots of critique and criticism. But at least it’s a locus for discussion. And I think there’s a lot to like about the attempt. (If nothing else, it’s fairly pretty.)

    I’ve been especially surprised at the level of hostility this has invoked in some players. I don’t want to delegitimize those experiences because they’re totally valid. I just worry a bit that we’re not well served by reacting too harshly to honest attempts to tell our stories that miss the mark.

    • Mimi says:

      @Paul Smith:

      I agree. While it’s simplistic, I still think it’s a pretty good achievment, given the time period and the fact that it was done by interns. I have done some game development myself and I know how some ideas don’t translate as well, especially if you don’t have the time to implement a deeper story. I feel sorry for the development team and from what I have read about them, they seemed earnest about their game. So instead of condemning them, why don’t we send them constructive feedback on how the game could be improved and how to better tell stories with LGBT themes.

    • Brightwanderer says:

      Coming back to this now, it’s obvious that I got unlucky, as it were – I got the (randomised) narrative that happened to be extremely icky to me. I think I would have felt more warmly towards the game if I’d had one of the other ones. But I think the fact that it is possible for someone to come into the game, get that narrative, and have no indication that there _are_ any other versions of the story within the game is a design flaw.

      I’m afraid that I don’t really think intentions count in this sort of thing, though. I mean, it’s nice that they tried. And you’re right, giving feedback would be a useful thing to do. But… it _is_ simplistic even if you don’t get the narrative I had. It’s a bit like a group of people suddenly went “Oh look! Gay issues! Someone should make a game about that!”

      But the thing is that we deal with “gay issues” all the time and I’m not sure I want to spend my time dealing with them in fictionalised (and simplified) form. A truly “LGBT-friendly” game to me is a game that’s about something else – an adventure, a mystery, a puzzle, a battle – where it is not assumed by default that the player is straight.

      And finally, I do think the ending is weak. It doesn’t do anything – it doesn’t fix anything – it doesn’t even suggest the possibility of a fix. And whilst that’s not unrealistic per se – all we can do is be true to ourselves and fight with dignity, etc etc – it does rather turn the message of the game into “sometimes people are bigoted, and that’s terrible”. Which is… true? But not very helpful? Or indeed very original?

      I think the primary reason you may be seeing backlash against this is that it doesn’t really feel like a game _for_ LGBT people. _We_ don’t need to be told that we are discriminated against, and That’s Terrible. It feels like a beginners intro for straight, cisgendered people – Sexuality And Gender Discrimination 101 – and I’m not really surprised that fellow LGBT players haven’t taken to it. If it works for you, that’s great – but my playthrough not only didn’t tell my story, it didn’t give me any suggestion that my story was in there, or that it could provide any meaningful insights beyond the aforementioned That’s Terrible aspect. And… I kind of knew that.

      I’m really being harsher on it than it deserves, I’m aware. My first experience soured it for me and I haven’t replayed it yet. But it’s a nice try. I’m glad there are people who think it’s worth doing. I’m definitely going to think about it some more and try to come up with constructive comments to send them, if they have open feedback options. I don’t want them to feel discouraged. But I would rather hope they don’t pat themselves on the back and declare “job done! prejudice dealt with!” either.

      • Alex says:

        Judging by both the interview and the comments on auntie pixelante’s post linked by Kasey above, it doesn’t seem like the creators of the game think they’ve solved homophobia; one of the things brought up in the interview is regret that the game completely ignores bisexual and transgender issues, and overall it seems like they understand that this is a very big issue that they weren’t able to address in any kind of comprehensive way with this game.

        That said, I don’t think you’re being unfairly harsh on the game. It alienated you, and it’s important to get that critique out there so that the creators of ACW (as well as other game designers) can know how they messed up and how they can do better.

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