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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.

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.

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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.

Game of the Day: How to Speak Atlantean by Porpentine

Porpentine has a new game! This one is about video games and feminism and sex. If you’re reading this, chances are you are into at least one of those things. So play it!

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.

Game of the Day: Electro Primitive Girl by Sloane

Electro Primitive Girl is an excellent Twine short story about being a mecha girl. It uses some custom macros on the text to create effective moods. Thanks 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.

Game of the Day: Dysphoria City by Spanglypants

Dysphoria City by Spanglypants is a game that seeks to give the player a small taste of what living with dysphoria is like. It asks players to choose the avatar that they feel represents them less and goes through an average day, showing how everyday necessities like getting a haircut or buying groceries are complicated by dysphoria. The first page notes that the primary purpose of the game is to educate those without dysphoria about the experience, so it may be triggering for those who do.

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. You can see our past featured games at this tag.

Game of the Day: Misogyny Island by Samantha Allen, Fred McCoy, and Kat Haché

Today’s game, written by Fred McCoy, Kat Haché, and TBH contributor Samantha Allen, is a satirical reality show (hosted by who else but Daniel Tosh) where you compete with other contestants for the title of Uber Misogynist. It’s hilarious in a sad, recognizable sort of way. Please note there are slurs aplenty, though they are censored.

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. You can see our past featured games at this tag.

A Conversation with Shawn Trautman, Creator of Cherry Creek

Note: This article contains details of Cherry Creek; the game is short, and you can play it here.

Over the past year, some game designers have created games with the focus on personal stories (dys4ia and Lim) and on ordinary experiences (Cart Life and I Get This Call Every Day). New tools are making it possible for more people to produce games that deal with issues and explore topics not covered in typical AAA fare. Taking advantage of these new tools is Shawn Trautman; he has made a game about an experience many wish they never have to deal with—being homeless. Cherry Creek, his new Twine game, places the player in the shoes of a homeless person trying to get some sleep. Continue reading