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The Mary Sue

Beyond A Closed World: The Rise of Storytelling in Indie Games

Essay

Where do you draw the line between a story and a game?

This is the question I have been wrestling with ever since I finished playing A Closed World. Developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, this simple browser-based JRPG aims to address a theme rarely presented in the gaming world: gender and sexual identity. As the nameless, androgynous protagonist, you escape from your oppressive village into the dangerous forest that lies beyond. Your choice of gender has no effect on your appearance, and the gender of your “sweetheart” is chosen at random. The game is ultimately a research project, as is detailed on the GAMBIT website:

The goal of this research was to present the design team with the challenge of creating a game that had this compelling queer content, and to observe the ideas and hardships they considered and encountered along the way, so that we could learn more about how to approach those challenges in other design contexts. The project left the ultimate message of the game open to the creators; what was important to discover were the challenges the team faced trying to include queer content in the game, and the strategies they used to tell the story they wanted to tell.

As a gamer who bats for the other team, I naturally was intrigued. However, I came to the Closed World party a little late (it was released at the end of September). By the time I took it for a spin, plenty of folks had already put in their two cents. Overall, reviews were mixed, with praise for the intentions, criticism for the gameplay, and considerable debate about the story. Though people were quick to separate the elements of the game, I was more interested in what it meant to have this story paired with this genre. Though I was drawn to A Closed World for the theme, I wound up intrigued by what it represented as a package deal.

The game took me less than half an hour to complete, even though I was taking my time. The gameplay was so simple that I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t have much to write about. To the designers’ credit, their approach in adapting a turn-based combat system into an allegory for social pressures was admirable. As you work your way through the woods, you encounter demonic representations of the negative voices in your life – your brother, your significant other’s parents, yourself. To slay your demons (get it?), you have three weapons at your disposal: passion, logic, and ethics. The demon will counter with its own emotionally damaging attacks, which erode your composure (essentially your HP) and occasionally disarm your abilities (“They taunt me and I lose my sense of logic!”). To regain composure, you simply have to spend a turn taking a deep breath. If you lose all your composure, you are defeated. On paper, it’s rather clever. But from a gamer’s point of view, it’s not much of a main course. The text for each demon’s attacks are the same every time, making it less like a vital confrontation and more like…well, like any other turn-based, spell-spamming JRPG I’ve ever played, minus the sense of any actual threat. Though I sympathized with my character’s struggles, I never felt that she was in real danger.

As for the subject matter, the game inspires more questions than it provides answers, which I believe was rather the point. LGBT content in games is still a rarity, and I’m not familiar with any other games that have tried to explore it head-on. Even though the gameplay wasn’t gripping, I found the story to be heartening. Yes, it was brief, and yes, it only skimmed the surface of the topic at hand, but I couldn’t find fault with the underlying message. If I had to sum it up, it’d go something like this: Being yourself takes bravery, and though you can’t ignore the past, you can be hopeful about the future.

Say what you will about the story’s lack of complexity, but I think that’s a pretty commendable sentiment to pull off with only thirty minutes of 2D gameplay.

That realistic but encouraging tone is bolstered by the consequences of losing a fight (something I ended up doing on purpose). Though you are defeated, you’re not dead, and the game’s not over. You just regain your strength and try again. In the end, I found myself smiling when I finally broke through the forest. I instinctively viewed the forest as a metaphor, rather than a literal escape from a prejudiced community. Seeing that familiar journey play out on my screen left me with a surprising sense of personal affirmation.

Before the warm-fuzzies had worn off, I found myself wondering whether A Closed World could properly be called a game at all. That’s a bit counter-intuitive, I know, as it is unarguably a game, both in design and by description. Still, I found myself thinking of it as something more akin to graphical interactive fiction than an actual RPG. That’s when I started wondering where to draw that arbitrary line between stories and games. I love games for their stories, but I love books for their stories, too, and the decision of whether I pick up a book or a game depends heavily on my mood. When I game, I’m an active participant, and I expect to be challenged. When I read, I’m a passive participant, and I expect to think about new ideas. A Closed World did not challenge me, but it did make me think. See, I’m used to games without stories. I’m used to games with vague or incidental stories. I’m used to games that are improved by having great stories. But stories that use games as their chosen medium of delivery is a relatively new thing. It’s also something I find very exciting.

While big developers continue to tinker with new styles of gameplay that will keep up with technology (and keep gamers interested), indie devs are going back to their roots. It’s easy to view the onslaught of retro-style indie games as an explosion of creative reminiscence, but games like A Closed World go a bit deeper than just an homage to the good ol’ days. More and more, I find myself running across indie games that use outdated mechanics as a means of exploring stories that are more introspective and emotional. There’s Freebird Games’ upcoming To The Moon, another JRPG-style game, which was born of designer Kan Gao ruminating about death after his grandfather developed a heart condition. There’s Krystian Majewski’s TRAUMA, a point-and-click puzzle game whose only goal is to have you search for meaning within the mind of a hospitalized young woman who has just lost her parents. And as far as actual interactive fiction goes, there are gems like Jeremy Freese’s Violet, the text-based story of a doctoral student trying desperately to get some writing done under the threat of the eponymous love interest leaving forever (side note: this game gets props for its “HETERONORMATIVITY OFF” command). The examples go on and on, and the trend is clear: When you’ve got a sweeping epic to tell, go for new graphics and robust engines, but if you want to get personal, go old-school.

The obvious explanation for this is that retro games are easy to produce, and therefore appealing to indie devs with limited budgets and resources. But even if that’s the chief cause, I think it inadvertently gives these games a super effective emotional punch. JRPGs, point-and-clicks, and text adventures are what we played as kids. The minute I stepped into A Closed World, I was flush with memories of the simple games of my younger years, which made me all the more ready to think back on my own journey through the forest. I get emotionally attached to stories in big releases, too, but there’s something about a lovingly rendered 2D environment that makes me instantly want to give it a hug. I’m no psychologist, but I’d venture that getting our brains to hearken back to our childhoods makes us more open to exploring. If your goal is to get players to empathize and ponder, I can’t think of a better way to prime them for that than by first delivering a big dose of nostalgia.

On the GAMBIT website, A Closed World is described in big, bold letters as a prototype. Judging it as anything else rather misses the mark. As a stand-alone product, no, it doesn’t offer gamers much. But if we look at it for what it is – a well-intentioned experiment that combines a blossoming storytelling medium with a serious social issue – I can’t see this game as anything but a step in the right direction on all fronts.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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