Summary: A meticulously constructed multimedia allegory

[spoiler]One of the epigraphs to Krypteia is the following, taken from someone’s tumblr:

In the final analysis, this is the dilemma that Krypteia explores: “safety” (of a sort) lies in hiding, sneaking, concealing, effacing and ultimately disappearing (“shadow”). “Feeling whole” involves self-expression, confrontation, violence (“wolf”). Your path through the game, and the way you experience it, depend on the extent to which you choose to be “shadow” or “wolf”. The particular thing to be concealed or revealed was pretty clearly signalled as (trans?) gender identity, with the wolf’s “accessories” being, at least mostly, stereotypically feminine (stilettos, a shiny necklace). But although I took this to be the focus of the allegory – with the “monsters” representing the modalities of oppression used by a self-justifying system that shuns, reviles and represses counter-normative gender expressions – gender identity is more the occasion than the focus of the piece, and the allegory can be read more broadly as an exploration of possible reactions to any area in which a social consensus (“the wise men”) confronts individuals with the dilemma set out above. For instance, in relation to sexuality, or race, or religion.

The game uses a combination of text and graphics, and one proceeds through it by clicking links. In structure it is a rather classic game of exploration, in which one moves in a gradually opening map, and progress depends on finding objects or performing actions which give access to further areas, until, in a final scene, one makes certain choices. As far as I could tell, from the three endings I reached, one’s decision about how to progress (“wolf” or “shadow”) determine the form of the final scene, while the actual ending then depends on a choice that one makes in that scene.

The hyperlinked interface to this is, to my taste, less than ideal. Whatever limited interest there ever is in finding a treasure is pretty much eliminated if one has achieved it by clicking a line which says “search for treasure”. This is not so much about the lack of interactivity, as about its form: I’d rather be offered something specific to do (“check the undergrowth”) than something abstract and generic. But beyond that, this is well done, and the graphical map makes navigation painless, pointing one easily towards unexplored areas and helping me to envisage the places I was dealing with. The pacing was well-judged.

What stood out for me was the way that the game created atmosphere. There are well-chosen images, which combine indistinct vistas of forest and urban environments to create a suitable quality of eerie loneliness. The text was well written, too. Like the photographs, it created a dream-like sense, mixing clear details with the deliberately fuzzy. The sound to added to the atmosphere. All this combined to a thoroughly professional package: one felt constantly reassured that one was seeing the result of conscious design decisions, intelligently taken, and rigorously implemented. Another reviewer has criticised some of the text for becoming incredibly difficult to read. I don’t think that’s fair: the decision, again, seems to me to be deliberate, and justified: in particular, the disappearance of the text as you become “shadow” mirrors and enacts the disappearance of the self.

Unlike other reviewers, I balked slightly at the choice of objects, colours and typeface to represent “wolf”, because they seemed to me to insist upon a certain rather stereotypical view of what the expression of female gender identity might entail. I hesitate to say that, since the particular experience that is being enacted is not mine, and I suspect that the choice represents an attempt to deploy the familiar strategy of embracing stereotypes created to oppress in order to claim them as freeing. But I was left slightly uncomfortable, and seeking the source of my own discomfort.

In the end, I think, it is twofold.

First, although the choice to live openly as oneself or to hide some fundamental part of one’s identity is momentous, it is not by any means everything, for there is also the question of how one will live as oneself. I think it is in this context that, from a queer perspective, the use (even as appropriation) of stereotypes bothers me, because I worry that these stereotypes, even when re-appropriated, can become a source of oppression in themselves, as communities set up standards which dicate how a “real ___” is supposed to think and live. It is only fair to say that Krypteia does to some extent reflect this ambiguity, in a way that Emily Short perceptively dissects. Its presentation of the “wolf” endings, and the bloodiness they involve, thereby calls into question the aggression, the violence, involved in that choice. But still, the choice presented is between complete self-effacement and violent self-expression: the game offers no middle way.

Secondly, I am not sure that the super-fictionalisation of the dilemma does not end up misrepresenting it. To seek to fight monsters in a game is, after all, rather easy: fictional danger is not dangerous, but in some sense fun. The dangers faced by those whose identities are fearfully rejected by society are real, and have no glamour. They may sometimes be monstrous (we should not forget that queer people sometimes experience real physical and emotional violence). But they are not always so dramatic–oppression may be in the “little things”, in the contemptuous pity that falls far short of violence. It may be physical, and of course that matters, but it is equally a matter of emotional (dis)connection, of relationships avoided, or rights casually withheld, of the inability to relax, or to be candid. None of these things can be explored authentically in such a heavily dramatised environment as this.

Still, it should be clear, I hope, that I think Krypteia is a serious and valuable piece of work, solidly designed and written, and perhaps it is not altogether fair to criticise it for being something that it is not trying to be. As an allegorical dramatization of a particular point, it has both the strengths and the weaknesses of allegory, but at all times driven by a profound intelligence and emotional maturity. It impressed me greatly.[/spoiler]


My own take was that this was meant not to portray simply female gender identity, but the specific signifiers that might be adopted by someone claiming a female identity in spite of social expectations. I also think that if these had been toned down it might have been a lot harder to understand what was going on, and that it might have been too much to do a deconstruction of feminine gender performance at the same time as the other things that this piece was also doing.

But I will think about this more.[/spoiler]

[spoiler]That’s certainly possible too; but it raises (for me) the issue of why these should be the significant signifiers (when I’d rather like to think of them as relatively insignificant signifiers, if that makes any sense). Or perhaps why and to whom these things carry the weight they seem to. I suppose the issue is that in claiming female identity in spite of social expectations, she claims an identity which accords all-too-precisely with social expectations, and in doing so risks conforming (again all-too-precisely) with a particular image which is, at its root, contemptuous.

Probably our interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and I wouldn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it should be, but to my eyes to represent stilettos, pink, necklaces, the language (“fierce”), the particular font used, as representative of liberated self-expression is not unproblematic, which is why I prefer to see them chosen knowingly and, at least potentially, with somewhat subversive intent. That doesn’t stop them from working, just as effectively, in the role you suggest, I think. And I may be over-reading or over-thinking it, but this sort of tactic is historically long-standing within queer communities, so it doesn’t seem such a stretch to me.[/spoiler]