There's been much in the news over the past year about the inclusion of, or option to have, LGBTQ characters in big-name video games. Until recently, video gaming was functioning de facto like some kind of 1950s Hollywood movie studio: Almost all gay characters were coded, leaving players to pick up on the hints of their queerness or trans-ness, or flamboyant stereotypes (who were, nevertheless, seldom outed). Some characters, like poor old Birdo, actually had their back-stories re-written to make them seem more...I don't know a word that can be put in here without being insulting. Palatable? Normal? Bland? It's not hard to imagine that "family friendly" is often the subtext behind minimizing queer and trans content - as if queer and trans people aren't part of families. But, with companies like BioWare and games like the Sims leading the way, video gaming's closet door has been, thankfully, finally, creaking open.
Regardless, LGBTQ stories in video games still tend to be side-lines, add-ons, DLC, or...well...Cho Aniki, which consistently defies labeling. But in an effort to suss out how to respectfully integrate LGBTQ lives, stories, and themes into gaming, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT game lab has created a prototype game, A Closed World, designed not only to explore those issues, but also to explore the stumbling blocks a development team comes across when trying to integrate queerness into a game. From the project's website:
A Closed World was created to be a digital game with LGBTQ-friendly content, something that's very uncommon in games right now. Game designers and marketing professionals alike have cited a number of reasons for this, ranging from a perception of institutional homophobia in game culture to a genuine desire on the part of game designers to "get it right" and create games with compelling queer content, rather than feeling that the element is merely "tacked on" in the end. 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 game prototype, which can be completed in under 30 minutes, has players first choose their gender (which, regrettably, only includes male and female options), and then places the player in a moody, three-quarter view forest. Players have to face off against the character's demons (literally and figuratively) as they chart their own path against social prohibitions and toward their run-away sweetheart. At first blush the storytelling and gameplay seem a bit obvious - but then, that's the whole point, isn't it? The design team went to some lengths to familiarize themselves with the issues at hand, and it shows: Developer Todd Harper tells of trips to Boston Pride and viewings of Hedwig and the Angy Inch (truly one of the great LGBTQ films, if you haven't seen it yet). Playing the game, this writer found himself confronting some of his own demons, as it were - Is this too gay? Is the main character too fey? What would straight people think? - which is a rare feat for a video game to elicit. In fact, this quick prototype arguably packs more actually mature content than the vast majority of M-rated games out there.
I would give more of my own thoughts on the game, but honestly I'm more interested in yours. The game is playable free here, and if you check it out we'd be very love to have you leave your comments below.