IF and the issues you care most about

I was thinking about games with social meaning and impact yesterday.

I’d just discovered the upcoming puzzle platformer Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa). It’s the launch game from Upper One Games, a Cook Inlet Tribal Council project to represent Alaska Natives with cultural authenticity and share their traditions and culture with the world. (You can read more (a lot more) at the Polygon article here: polygon.com/features/2013/8/ … ican-games.)

I care about this kind of thing with an embarrassing fervor. But it can be hard to write games that go beyond entertainment, especially in the social change space. It seems like the change part overwhelms the game part. (At GameLoop one year, I attended a talk titled “Why Games for Change Suck”.)

It can be done, though. Three examples:
Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest”, which helps people understand the experience of depression
Vander Caballero’s “Papa & Yo”, which is about the designer’s relationship with his alcoholic father
Young Horses’ “Octodad: The Dadliest Catch”, which uses humor to talk about imposter syndrome and closeting

Discussion invitation: How about you? Are there issues you really want to talk about in IF? Do you have a plan for doing it?

I did started working on a game related to Psycosis and hallucinations but then got busy in other things and forgot about it. Let me find that piece of code in this spinning cosmic vortex that I call hard drive.

One of the things I keep finding myself coming back to is about how standard narratives are sort of awful about relationships, and how games make them even worse - how romance is set up as one-sided pursuit-and-reward, how established relationships only become important when they’re going wrong (looking at you, LA Noire) or work as refrigerator-fodder or whatnot.

I haven’t made any games with the intention of addressing this, but at some point I’d really like to make a game with more of a Thin Man dynamic - I mean, without the crap that stops Myrna Loy from being allowed to do any of the dangerous stuff, but insofar as it assumes that it’s interesting to put a relationship centre-stage in a story even if that relationship is already firmly established and never shows any real signs of breaking apart. That one’s kind of a character hook in search of an interaction dynamic, though.

I think it’s much, much harder to start out with ‘I want to make a game that addresses Subject A’ and make it work as both advocacy and art, than it is to make games about whatever game idea you have, but be willing to pay attention and adapt the idea to address things that come up - hunh, this idea I have here kind of seems related to Japanese-American interment, let’s do some research on that and see if we can work that into a bigger theme, maybe make the game a little richer and also not accidentally say something horrendous by mistake. (See Counterfeit Monkey and transgender, e.g.)

What is “refrigerator fodder”?

When the hero’s girlfriend only exists so that the villain can murder her and stuff her body in the fridge ten minutes into the movie. To demonstrate villainy.


I am hesitant to write about the struggles I observe friends having because I don’t want to speak over them or act as though they need a person who is more privileged (along the relevant axis, anyway) to talk for them. I’m unable to write about my own because I hate the sensation that I am seeking, or may appear to be seeking, pity or attention on those grounds.

Part of why I write fiction is so that I can talk about things I’ve experienced or observed without the audience’s feeling about the issues having to be entangled with their feelings about me as a person. Then I have to hope that if I manage to get enough truth into what I’ve written, that truth will have value to the reader, and speak to the fact that humans deserve respect.

This is probably too little to be doing, and I try also to contribute to causes I care about through various types of political action. But I have tried several times writing in a more confessional mode about issues of which I have some first-hand knowledge, and it’s really really hard to get through. I feel I’m indulging in self-pity and self-dramatization, and as I write, I feel increasing contempt for myself until I have to stop. (Even describing this phenomenon is difficult.) The main reason I’ve never published any Twine thing so far is that most of my attempts to use Twine have also been attempts to observe the genre conventions of Twine games, with undesirable results. So I conclude my gifts don’t lie in this direction, and if I can be useful, it will have to be in some other way.

That said, we just set next month’s theory club discussion to be “interactive nonfiction”, which might be another interesting place to talk about social-justice IF.

Horn-tooting about things I have actually tried:

  • Yellow Dog Running and Ugly Chapter were to a large extent about my own depression; the negative qualities of the protagonists are mostly my own. I doubt they’re useful for anybody else, or whether the points I wanted to grapple with are wholly intelligible, but they were helpful exorcisms for me.
  • Dulle Griet and the Antenorian Icebox was a conscious attempt to rehabilitate a crazy-old-woman folklore figure as a capable badass (a tension that already exists in the Bruegel, I think). Probably didn’t work all that well.
  • Moondarkling:Elfboon started out as genre pastiche and ended up using a borders-of-Faerie thing to talk about immigration, but is more of a sketch for a setting than a proper piece in its own right (Choice of the Deathless does something similar but considerably rather more developed).
  • Olivia’s Orphanorium involved a lot of thinking about… a lot of things, really, on the principle that most of the things that the Victorians were insane about are things that we’re still insane about but do a better job of covering up. I checked out Prison Architect the other day, and my summary of ‘what is this missing’ pretty much adds up to ‘all the stuff that interested me about Orphanorium.’

Agree on the difficulty. There are issues I want to talk about, either from my own experience, or from an external but educated perspective, but it’s kind of overwhelming to sit down and say “Today, I’m going to make a game about disability rights”. I have a couple backburner projects that fall into this vein. They’re really overwhelming.

With Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, I wound up taking the “I’m making a game, I know what’s going on in my game, are there opportunities to address advocacy issues I care about too?” tactic that you describe. The events in game wouldn’t have changed significantly if Mr. Ginsberg had been either female or straight, but I wanted to take the opportunity to portray a gay schoolteacher in a positive light.

If I’d started the other way around - “It’s really hard to be employed as a teacher and to be openly gay - how can I address this somehow in an IF piece?” - I think my project would have crashed and burned.

Without knowing any more details than this - I think there may be value in looking for ways to write about those struggles anyway, if it can be done in a way that doesn’t come off like you’re co-opting someone else’s experience.

That isn’t to say it’s easy, and there are a lot of opportunities to get it wrong and do harm. I do see and empathize with your concern. It’s important to ensure that you aren’t speaking over the people with the greatest right to speak, or interposing your words in front of theirs. It’s important to talk to people who are having that experience and to make sure that you’re representing it appropriately and respectfully.

But I see how entertainment media (including games) can increase empathy and awareness, and because it can be such a positive experience to encounter a piece of media and think, “This person is like me! Somebody gets it!”

(I considered throwing in examples here, but I was worried that a weak example might damage the point. I can think of a few though.)

And I think it’s worth taking the risk sometimes because of that.

Sure. To be clear, I do try to include characters in my games who are like people I know, but not necessarily like people already found in fiction – part of the reason I wrote BEE is that I know loads of homeschooling families, almost none of which conform to the limited stereotypes about such people that one finds in popular culture (if it’s possible to find anything at all). Some of Alex’s thoughts in Counterfeit Monkey are based on things friends have told me about their experience of gender dysphoria.

But I find it easier – no, easier is the wrong word. I feel I am more likely to do a truthful and useful thing if I present my observations in the context of fiction, because not taking on the mantle of nonfictional advocacy means that I’m less likely to seem to be Speaking For All Members of Group X.

What I do care about (potentially, and during this period of my life) is my own fears, and Evil.

My own fears tend to change much during time, and I understand I’ve put it on paper (or whatever) only after I’ve finished writing something. I may wind up writing about i.e. a cat-loving woman coming back from the dead and then realizing I was writing about the fear of losing the ones I love. Sometimes this is pretty freudian. Others, it conveys so strong an emotion that I simply cannot write about certain subjects. Now that my son is 5, per example, my mind refuses to indulge into bad things perpetrated on small children. Or their death. My heart simply won’t accept the challenge.

Most of what I write is, anyway, derived from my essential Io, so it is very difficult for me to avoid talking about myself. And when I don’t talk about myself the writing is pretty poor, to be honest. The same I think goes for all of us, so I can’t possibly believe what Emily said. I bet, Emily, that you just don’t know you are writing about you.

Awakening, ultimately, is about loss. Apocalypse (more mature? who can tell) is about living with this loss (with some degree of hope infused into it: “all is lost but I’m still alive, at least”). I didn’t, though, succeed in giving Ektor a real loss. He was a loner before the quakes, he is a loner in space.

Evil is the other great character of my novels or games.
What really turns me up is the very thought of it. Does evil exist? If so, where does it live? Is evil bound to evil people or, rather, a mark we all bear?

The novel I’m writing is called “The nest of the Devil” (Il nido del diavolo). It revolves around a cold killer and some other people. One of which, especially, looks pretty and educate. The (tentative) punchline is a sentence by the narrator (who is the killer btw) who goes by the line of “Devil makes his nest in the most unpredictable places”. Guess who’s the bad guy? (No spoiler here, I doubt it will ever be published and, in the case, it being translated to English is just plain daydreaming…)

As usual, I tend to leave that kind of question with open answer. The reader may, if he will, decide on whether we are subjects of Satan or born with a flaw in our genome.

I think I will always talk about evil, and this scares me. I indulge into violence (not often graphic, but it can happen) to free myself from it? Or, otherwise, I drown in blood because I love it? Am I, the narrator, above the problem, or am I the problem itself? Do I exorcise (i.e.) rapes and maiming, by writing about them, or am I just jerking off on low budget porn?

I guess the trip is part of me, and I am the trip. The only point of it all is… well, going.

I believe that using fiction is the only possible way to be true to oneself. Honestly, who would talk publicly about his or her life? To the full extent? It’s the same old story as in “a friend of mine has this problem…”

Well, I don’t know about you: I hardly would.

As a side note: my eventual next game is about violence on women. Not sexual violence, but just the everyday kind of. I mean the fact that women tend to be used because, you know, they represent the weak gender. My terror is, in the specific case, of having taken too steep a climb. Maybe the subject is well beyond me. We will see. The story is filled to death with Evil (its nature, where it has birth, where it goes living). And a sort of mystery. My main character is going to be, as per compensation - we need it for the story to unfold -, a very strong woman.

I’m scared to death that she will sound like an archetypical angered bitch, while all I want is a real person. Wish me good luck.


I can say as a homosexual, it would thrill me to see more authors willing to take the risk and write homosexual PCs and NPCs, even if they get some things wrong. But I also understand how it is a very daunting risk that is hard to get right. I would love to write about non-white characters, for example, but Emily articulates my fears perfectly.

Is it only appropriate for people who face certain issues to write about these issues? An interesting topic of discussion.

Oh, I do know. But I find it more doable in the context of fiction. Confessional stuff, where I write “oh, this thing happened to me and then I felt this way” about actual events in my life, feels less truthful because it is so hard to write without some kind of warping effect, some consciousness that people are going to read it and then think differently about me in some fashion. I don’t want someone to read about, say, some sexist incident that happened to me and then feel sorry for me, I don’t want them to feel like I’m asking them to comfort me or treat me differently afterward or be outraged on my behalf; for that matter I don’t even think that my own experiences are such a big deal compared to the crap that’s happened to other people, as I’ve really been pretty lucky. So I want to be able to communicate those things in a veiled form without making them part of my public persona or my relationship with players.

On this topic, I really like this quote from a Porpentine interview about Ultra Business Tycoon:


I want to talk about a strong woman because 1) I’m fed up of the Anonymous Adventurer and 2) because I want to try challenging myself with something else.

But: will people understand? Will they realize I’m not a “strong woman” and so my depiction of it can be honestly wrong without making an asshole out of me?

Well, probably not. But I’m going to try anyway. I can only get better at it by trying.

Any writer should tackle anything they feel that they can/should.

Oh, sorry, that was exactly what I was meaning. I always write about myself, but never about myself.
Whatever our attitude, no one of us is able - I guess - to be really true in front of other people. We fail at it even at the psychologist, who we pay to hear us saying lies.

ETA: I guess this is pretty much achieved as known by everyone. So how come we don’t understand it when reading? When I read a text by someone, how come, I don’t realize “oh my god, that’s him!”. Are we so easily deceived or are writers all sooooo good?

The best way to avoid this: recruit female betatesters, and tell them you especially need to know whether your protagonist is believable. You might get it wrong the first time out, but then you’ll get feedback and you’ll have time to fix it.

You know, I was going to write it in the post, but eventually deleted it because I feared I was going to be tagged as sexist. True story.

Given you opened that door: I need female testers, anyone interested?

I find role-playing games - particularly one-shots - particularly helpful for this kind of thing. Or, at least, useful for translating stuff you have learned about into stuff you feel more comfortable trying to speak about. You get practice at speaking creatively on behalf of someone who is not you, and deal with worlds from that perspective, and viewing issues internally; but you’re not assuming a stance of authority as strongly as the author of a finished work inevitably must. You’re not writing anything down in stone that you’ll have to defend later. You’re trying on masks.

It’s not a panacea, and it doesn’t help if you’re clueless in the first place. But it’s definitely an exercise worth considering, if you can find the right context.

The other thing: read a lot of things by authors who are not you, fiction and nonfiction. If you think ‘who are my favourite female viewpoint characters?’ and it turns out they’re all authored by men, it is very unlikely that you’re ready to write female viewpoint characters.

Two of the games that seem to have been relatively successful making narratives out of or including somewhat serious subjects:

Gone Home - if there ever was an interactive fiction captured in a 3D medium. You explore a house, snooping through personal effects and learn family secrets, expectations are subverted, and the plot is both more extraordinary and more mundane (perhaps “epically personal”) than expected.
Papers, Please - A surprisingly addictive game about iron curtain border crossing that gamifies the struggle of a paperwork heavy desk job and twangs the line between following the rules and doing what you feel is right.

These are both Indie and not IF but share some crossover elements.