Oscillating race and gender, wearable associations

In the interests of giving people a taste of life from other points of view (useful, I think, at any time, but especially with this administration), I’m pondering creating an IF work where the player character oscillates uncontrollably (probably slowly) between physical qualities (eg, race changes from black to white, gender changes from male to female), and may wear items which denote associations (eg, crucifix, yarmukle), and gets reactions from NPCs depending on various combinations of appearance, clothes (eg, a male wearing a dress), and conversation topic. The puzzle element could be talking to the right person at the right time about the right subject; the danger could be talking to the wrong person at the wrong time, or about the wrong subject.

I’d be interested in any feedback about how to approach, set, plot, construct, or flesh out such an IF work. I understand that some of what I would create would have to be caricature, in the interests of exploring extremes, so I’m interested in not making it come across as insulting or shallow or stupid. As a middle-aged white male, my experience being someone else (especially a minority) is very limited, so I know I’m going to have to do a lot of homework to create believable scenes (eg, I’ve read “Black Like Me”, and should probably read “Self-Made Man”, and so on in this genre).

Thanks for any comments!

This idea is inherently perilous. Recruit sensitivity readers. Consider working with a group of authors.

Excellent advice, thanks!

I agree with the cautions about the sensitivity of the subject matter.

I’m also concerned about the time aspect of “talking to the right person at the right time about the right subject.” As a player, “right time” puzzles are extremely difficult because it’s very hard to experiment in order to discover how this world works. Unless the players control time, they could end up waiting and waiting (boring) or missing their window of opportunity because they took too long getting back to the right side of the tracks (frustrating). If the players had even a little control over when these changes in their characteristics happen, even if they don’t control what those changes are, then that might help. For example, maybe they remain in their current state until they eat. If the players control when they eat, they can experiment with life in their current configurations and move on when they’re ready to experience the world in another way.

Thanks for responding! I am indeed concerned about how to balance exposing the player to each possible combination of characteristics, and giving them the ability to get to a combination they know they need. Maybe allow the player to return to any set of characteristics which they have already been? But make them wait till their characteristics (automatically) drift to discover new ones.

Many works of interactive fiction allow the player to try more than one character. Some works are tagged multiple protagonists on IFDB.

Common Ground is an example.

If each character has different attributes, the player can solve a puzzle which requires particular attributes by selecting/finding the character which has the necessary attributes. Heroes is an example.

Thanks for the examples, I’ll look into these!

That’s an ambitious project and you should be lauded just for having enough energy to undertake such a task.

You said “some of what I would create would have to be caricature” and you could consider that maybe they don’t have to be. Of course, many people are seen by others that way, which is the crux of the problem. In some ways, maybe even a story like yours would help break the caricatures, because the reader will be experiencing things from the perspective of the other people and (I hope) see their individuality through the caricature. Also, if the player character is undergoing body changes, does this change their thinking, too? Since their brains are part of their body. Also, I do wonder about putting on the accoutrements like a yarmulke just because my body changes. What would be my motivation there if I hadn’t had prior experience with the culture? Do I feel a sudden urge to wear a yarmulke? These are just a few things that came to mind. Your idea sounds interesting. In fact I thought the IF story Cis Gaze by Caelyn Sandel did a great job with this concept of changing bodies and other people’s reactions. I would read that, good luck.

This is definitely a project you’ll want to prototype and test vigorously with a broad spectrum of people. This type of experimental work isn’t something you want to whip through quickly and set free into a comp.

Something that might be important to clarify is what you want to get across with this project. Are you teaching diversity? Are you satirizing the nature of how people respond to surface indicators like clothing? Are you lecturing about your personal thoughts on how fashion choices are important? Are you fictionalizing your own experiences regarding race and personal presentation? These are just examples, but your authorial intention will likely be very important to how the game works and comes across. “Caricature” can be a powerful tool or a lazy crutch based on your intention. Tone is also very important. You can make a slapstick farce where the character morphs through genders and orientations and cultures, but the line between “laughing at” and “laughing with” can be difficult to navigate, especially coming from a white male; the challenge will to be to get past “what does he possibly know?” by showing your work and taking the comedy ‘seriously’–which seems like an oxymoron but hopefully makes sense.

You may wish to think small if the player has the option to replay with different character selection options. It will be easier for a player to get through a “jewel box” sized game experience multiple times (as your intention seems) as opposed to a standard-length narrative. This will also make your job a lot easier because you can concentrate on a dense, responsive. If you can make it work really well in short form, you could always expand the project eventually as you see fit.

It sounds very interesting, and I wish you success!