Queer IF

I am beginning a slightly systematic attempt to explore queer interactive fiction, which (thanks largely to Twine authors — especially but not only Porpentine) seems to have developed more and in different directions in the last couple of years than in the previous decades. This is really for my own interest (I’m not deeply steeped in queer theory, much less professionally so).

So basically I’m looking for resources and maybe a steer or two. I’m aware of the dated and incomplete IFWiki page on “homosexuality”, and a somewhat wider selection of games thrown up by the “queer” IFDB tag about half of which seem to be Twine. (There’s also a pedantic IFWikipage on gender which complains like a 1950s classicist that gender is confused with sex, but no page on sex at all.)

I’d really be interested (a) in any games that people would especially recommend (especially parser-based games – not because I’m anti-Twine but because I’m interested in exploring the differences between parser and hypertext in this context) and (b) in any other resources/writing specifically on queer themed/informed interactive fiction. In that respect I’m especially interested in:

  • any discussion of whether the particular significance of Twine in this area is just luck (it’s a technology that happened to be taken up by some talented writers who had a queer sensibility) or there’s some particular reason that non-parser IF works in this context
  • any analysis of the themes addressed in queer interactive fiction
  • any discussion of the relationship between IF with a queer sensibility and “mainstream” IF. (For instance, I’m struck by the fact that the IfWiki page seems comfortable that leaving gender ambiguous or allowing it to be explicitly chosen is a queering device, whereas my personal experience is that it doesn’t work that way, and in some curious sense I resent it.)

Any ideas gratefully received!

I think it’s the former, although I would say “by happenstance” rather than “by luck”. The Twine movement comes directly from Anna Anthropy’s advocacy over the past few years. She subtitled her book “How freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, dropouts, queers, housewives, and people like you are taking back an art form” – explicitly linking inclusivity of social groups (queer artists producing queer art) with inclusivity of tools (non-programmers producing narrative games). So that movement collected that sort of community. If it had been somebody else who pushed Twine into the mainstream, we would have seen a different sort of community “naturally” associated with Twine.

(Similarly, early parser IF was in a very direct way an extension of Colossal Cave, which was an extension of fantasy role-playing. So there was a lot of underground treasure and trolls for a few years. And then the tastes of Infocom’s founders, nearly all SF and fantasy, dominated IF until the mid-90s.)

I’m a gay IFer but I don’t write about gender issues. I mainly write about cthulhu-issues. Does that count?

zarf: Thanks. That’s helpful. I had forgotten about Anna Anthropy’s book, and I guess that should be on my list.

MTW: Of course you count! I could give you a queer reading of Lovecraft in a heartbeat … and as for your Case of Brian Timmons. Just look at the intro: Brian moves in with Mr Baines and all hell breaks loose. I think we know what’s really happened, don’t we boys and girls? No good comes of two men living together like that … [Actually, to be serious, I’m really more interested in the work than the author, and I wasn’t trying to suggest that anyone has a duty to produce queer IF. Suppressed queerness in early twentieth century popular literature is a fascinating issue, but I’m currently barking up a different tree.]

There’s the Pacian games in the IFDB search, and Aaron Reed’s work which often allows you to choose your gender which I think is intended as a queering device – though he’s the one to ask about that. For other parser games, Porpentine’s got “Nostrils of Flesh and Clay” where

you can be seduced by the erogater if you mess up

and you might try Nuku Valente’s Flexible Survival in which, though I don’t remember one of the details, I’m pretty sure the PC will wind up having sex with NPCs of at least two genders.

Some Choice of Games offerings should be on deck here – sometimes they allow the player to pick a sex and in so doing invert the sex of other characters (or in the case of Broadsides, the entire goddamn universe), sometimes player sex-selection is done in a static context where the other characters remain the same (sometimes impacting viability as a romantic partner, sometimes not), some allow players to choose sex and preferred sex, some are just very fluid in what they offer (hello, shape-shifting alien love interest), and then some are totally staid and cis and proud to be that way.

I’ll point out Antifascista, which is specifically about gay-bashing (it’s parser-based, but small and quite heavily linear). There’s also the speed-IF Alex and Paul series, which, well, speedIF. (Hmm. Surely I’ve done a speedIF or something with a gay PC. Other than Stiffy Makane. Oop, yes, looks as though I have, but probably not so’s you’d notice.)

On the ludicrous sex-comedy side (which isn’t to say that there aren’t points to be derived from it), there’s the strange sexuality arc of the Stiffy Makane games.

Dunno what precisely you mean by a queering device, but yeah, I think he’s been pretty clear that accomodating gay relationships was a central reason for the gender choice in Blue Lacuna. You choose both your gender and that of your partner. (Speaking of Aaron, 18 Cadence is probably worth a look. It’s not explicitly, centrally about homosexuality, though there are homosexual characters; but it is centrally about how families are constituted, a question of which everybody knows the legal implications.)

Aaaaand, well, I think any discussion about queer IF needs to keep as a background: there aren’t a vast number of games that deal with straight relationships to any depth, to be honest, because (among other things) NPCs are difficult and building interaction around romantic themes is ten times as difficult. And because there just isn’t a vast amount of IF, full stop (a discussion we have whenever someone asks ‘why isn’t there more good IF from my favourite genre?’).

Loads of helpful suggestions, which will keep me busy for ages. Thanks.

Yes: it’s not a very clear expression. It sort of incorporates some things I sort-of feel about that sort of choice (but maybe I haven’t thought it through enough):

  • I doubt that the experience of being in a gay relationship is (for most) the same as being in a straight one, for a mass of reasons. Equally valuable: certainly. Identical: no. Gay relationships – if for no other reason than they exist in a society which doesn’t regard them universally or even generally in the same way as straight relationships – are not just straight relationships with more or less stubble, etc. (Which is not to say, of course, that there are not vast tracts of common ground.)
  • Neither gender nor sexuality is chosen, and moves which essentially insist that queer people have chosen to be queer, contra natura, are suspect, to say the least

So the message that something like Blue Lacuna sends is, I think, well-intentioned politically ("It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, gay or straight, you deserve to be allowed to play/love …’) and intended to accommodate readers (“I will not break your sense of immersion by giving your lover pronouns or body-parts that jar”). But in doing that it doesn’t explore difference, or dissonance, or the experience of being treated as choosing what is not chosen. In effect it offers a fantasy where queer becomes meaningless, where being queer will make no difference to your experience. In that sense, it’s de-queering … to use an even sloppier expression.

It’s tricky, though, because if, in your story, the protagonist is gay and you don’t wish it to be “normalized” (i.e. you want it to make a difference in the story) then your story can become confused with what is the actual plot? Sexuality issues or the initial story you’ve created?

On a side note, one movie that did a superb job (imo) integrating a gay protagonist with the plot itself would be 2008’s “Cthulhu”. It was a troubled production and got mixed reviews, but I like that the character wasn’t gay just to be gay, it played an integral part in the movie without it being a “gay movie”.

I don’t have much to offer on the questions posed by the OP, but I’ll chime in to add this little game to the list, anyway: ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=7m0wxpvzzwp2f0tb It’s slight and isn’t about much, but it’s there.

This is a good point, and I guess it’s one of the issues I’m interested in thinking about. In (say) Anchorhead the relationship between the protagonist and her husband is obviously not an issue, though it is an important part of the plot. If her spouse was a woman, my sense is the plot might “become confused” as you say, even if it was fully “normalized”. I guess for an author writing about a non-straight relationship the decision about how far to “normalize” (and how to do it) is pretty important.

I suppose it’s also a question of whether you like the confusion. In your Brian Timmons game, I didn’t get any sense that you had decided to “play to” or “play up” the potential homoerotic implications of these two men living together in the woods. Had you done so, it would have made the process of searching the bedroom, and indeed the whole plot, “confused”, and the game would have been different, but could still have been interesting. It’s all about the choices the author makes.

Oh, The Blind House, derp. That got tagged as “homosexual” rather than “queer”; clicking on that tag I see that Muggle Studies is tagged “homosexual protagonist” but I haven’t played it.

“Muggle Studies” has a homosexual protagonist? I always thought that Harry was a little too close to Ron.

Whatever you do, close your eyes at the end of Stiffy McKane: The Undiscovered Country. Mine are still burning and that was 12 years ago. Fucking Adam Thornton.

I jest of course. I was a tester and the game is funny. But disturbing. Very disturbing.

David C.

Did you look at the earlier (computer) hypertext fictions at all, like Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson? I know it was discussed and written about back in the days in “serious” circles. An also it’s quite queer.

The protagonist’s sexuality (and intersectionality) is pretty essential to What The Story’s About, yes, although most of the game is a big treasure-hunt with no NPCs in sight. (Neither the PC nor her love interest are established Potterverse characters.) The fact that same-sex marriage wasn’t allowed in the UK at the time is a somewhat important plot point.

It was disturbing when I was eighteen and sort of prudish about porn. When I went back to look at it a year or so back, it seemed pretty tame if not for goatse.

Oh, duh, Counterfeit Monkey has a lot to do with transsexuality, albeit fantasticated.

Mmm, yeah, I get your point. I’m not wild, in general, about cosmetic choices in games. And to a pretty significant extent the player’s ability to customise a character is in strong opposition to the author’s ability to deeply characterise them.

But there are plenty of games where deep PC characterisation is not really an objective. The gender/sexuality choice issue is going to slant differently depending on what the game’s more general approach to the player-PC relationship is.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, all the time. (It’s a bad thing if it’s the only thing that exists.) The newsgroup discussion in 1997, bear in mind, started because someone argued that gay people in fiction were beyond normalisation - that you literally couldn’t put a gay character in a game without making homosexuality a central theme of the story. It wasn’t a hugely convincing argument in 1997, but it wasn’t demonstrably false; that it’s demonstrably false now is, I think, a step forward not to be dismissed.

In my tabletop RPG group, which meets in the queer mecca of Capitol Hill, Seattle, we tend to play by default in worlds where sexism and homophobia don’t exist, even in highly queer-oriented games like Monsterhearts. This isn’t because we think these aren’t things worth exploring. Partly it’s because these are difficult and potentially damaging themes to tackle in off-the-cuff fiction creation. Partly it’s because we have female and LGBT members who deal with that crap in the rest of their lives, and would rather not deal with it in their games as well - even if they want to play a pretty serious issue-tackling kind of game. And partly it’s because there’s only so much room in a story, and we’d like Gender, Sexuality And The Patriarchy to not automatically take up a slot, without erasing LGBT characters.

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And by way of inspiration, you may want to consider the Bioware RPGs (basically social / conversational hyperfiction between long bouts of RPG grinding) that inspired them.

No question. I agree. What I think I find difficult about the “choice” method is that it doesn’t seem either to normalise or to explore. I find that something like Gun Mute where you get handed your gender and sexuality at the door is far more satisfyingly normalising (and, maybe, for some straight people, satisfyingly disconcerting?) than something where you arrive get to tailor some bespoke love interest, just as you would like it. The intention there is wholeheartedly good, but it doesn’t produce an effect I’m very interested in.

Incidentally, thanks for the Antifascista tip. That was very interesting. And thanks everyone else for some interesting and constructive ideas. I would never have thought about Muggle Studies, since Harry Potter Fanfiction is in principle about as enticing to me as a bleach martini, but I’ll give it a go.

That describes several of my groups, as well (except we’re around Capitol Hill, Denver, instead of Seattle, but still something of a queer mecca for our metro area). At any given time, from 20% to 100% of my gaming table is queer in some sense of the word (whether sexuality, gender ID or otherwise) and usually from 40-80% women … and honestly, when it comes time to run from Cthulhu, we know he doesn’t care and don’t feel obliged to be all in-his-tentacles about it. Not that we don’t often end up in his tentacles, anyway.