The past month there has been much discussion and press about A Closed World, the summer project for which I served as game director this summer last. The response is overwhelming, by which I mean we are humbled by the attention we have received, and that it is difficult to maintain consistent correspondence with all who wish to discuss the game or have their specific questions answered. Truth be told, this latter burden has fallen harder on Todd than me, as I have been content to remain largely silent regarding my thoughts on the game. I felt that my role as game director afforded me the opportunity to have a voice on a compelling project, but the spirit and heart of the game belongs first with Todd as the caretaker of the goals, and with the talented team of developers we had working on the team during the eight week cycle.
This is in no way an attempt to minimize my involvement with the project. I'm proud of the game, and especially proud of the fingerprint traces I have left all over it. I think, especially when held up against other games I have been involved with at GAMBIT, a pattern emerges that marks my presence in the projects - specifically, the trace of a design approach that tries to emphasize and interrogate player subjectivity.
It is this design approach, and recent specific criticism of the game, that has compelled me to write this post voicing my opinion.
Much has been made of the game's opening monologue and the initial question: "are you male or female?" The most common criticism of this specific part of the game is that the question reinforces notions of a gender binary that excludes many for whom the male/female gender dichotomy excludes. Many suggest that they stopped playing the game upon being asked the question, and others couldn't or refused to see much beyond the question and the binary choice presented the player.
The language of the question is important. The game asks, quite simply "Are you male, or female?" The "you" in the question is intentionally obscure. Most players will immediately assume that the question functions as a basic character creation choice, that you are simply choosing a gender for your character. They assume that the gender choice at the start of the game will effect narrative aspects of the game, and specifically that it will shape the romantic relationships in the story of the game.
The question is more profound, and the criticism that transgendered communities are excluded by the binary mechanic speaks to the profundity of the opening statement. The question is asked in an attempt to frame the entire experience of gender in the game. It is meant to ask not only what is your classification, rather, and more importantly, how do you classify? The great challenge for me during the entirety of the project, as a person for whom questions of gender have never personally been at the fore, is how do we, as a society and as individuals, concieve of gender, and how do we present gender in games. The question is masked as a standard game mechanic of character creation, while trying to do much more. In asking the question we were trying to emphasize the players' subjectivity, and specifically, the players' personal notions of gender and identity.
The question works best when paired with the procedurally random assigment of gender to characters in the game. The frivolity with which the program assigns gender held against the boldness of the opening question creates a tension in the game that problematizes socially accepted notions of gender, gender roles, and more specifically how we conceive of and represent gender in games.
Allow me an anecdote. I often reminisce about the surprise with which everyone discovered that Samus from Metroid was a woman. There is so much complexity wrapped up in the revelation that it is hard to untangle. We discover Samus is a woman because she either A) removes her helmet and has long hair, or B) removes her armor revealing her swimsuit. This early depiction of gender raises many questions. Is Samus' long hair and/or swimsuit an adequate signifier of her gender? Why would a community be surprised to discover that the protagonist is a female? To what extent does Samus' gender have anything at all to do with the experience of Metroid? For me, the instance of Samus speaks to the culturally situated notions of gender that we were trying to problematize with A Closed World.
As I mentioned before, a pattern has emerged with games that I work on at GAMBIT. With Seer, and more obviously with Yet One Word, a goal of the project was to cave in the screen and invite players to reflect on their playerness. I am particularly fond of games that do this. Dance Central and B.U.T.T.O.N. remind players of their subjectivity by emphasizing their very corporeality. Sports and many board games do something similar. As the steep incline of technology has driven digital gaming toward an emphasis on photorealism and surround sound, designers have pushed for a specific kind of immersion pinned to the virtually real; forever chasing the Holodec. For me, I am interested more in games that are immersive not because they transport, rather because they reflect and force the players' gaze back on themselves as subjects. Indeed, it seems to me that this is a strength of interactivity, creating meaning by reminding players of how they are interacting.
For many, this has worked. Players have remarked at their surprise when they found themselves making assumptions about gender in A Closed World. The game invited these players to reflect on their own conceptions of gender, and how they were applying their notions to their experience of the game.
We have said, and it bears repeating, to the extent that we could, we wanted A Closed World to raise questions, not to provide answers. For me, the strength of the project is not in the narrative at all. Indeed, many of the accusations levied against the game's story, that it's overly reductive, simplistic, and possibly trite, have some merit. Hey, stories are very hard. For those looking for a game about gender and sexuality power dynamics, about the oppressive cultural hegemony of our heteronormative society, or about the deep personal challenges constantly faced by marginalized individuals, I fear this game may leave you wanting. Some of the expectations for what the game meant to accomplish may have been confused by our paratextual rhetoric surrounding the game, which we are continuing to iterate on and improve. Also, if you are looking for a robust and detailed procedurally profound combat system, you won't find it here.
Where A Closed World shines for me is in how it invites players to reflect on their conceptions of gender. We start the game by emphasizing gender only to deemphasize it procedurally, attempting to turn the tables on the player that they might consider what their expectations were going into the game, and how those expectations may be challenged. The turn may seem simple, but I believe it is elegant in its reflective capability. That people, through playing the game, have been asking these questions, of us and of themselves, suggests to me that we may have accomplished that goal.