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A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes

A Closed World.jpg

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.

24 Comments

AquiziTC said:

It... lacks subtlety, but the story was rather engaging (as little of it as there is) near the end.

But, it's wonderful to see a company truly try, and I hope I see more from these folks.

Mike said:

Great article and an interesting sounding game. My thoughts on the matter tend to go back and forth. Gay themes in some games do draw me in, like in the Dragon Age series. I do want more games to include those themes if reasonable, but I don't mind that not every game isn't always marketed toward us. We're a smaller part of the population, it's like watching TV, not everything is going to have something in it for everyone. And I'm fine with that. I'm pleased they're adding gay relationships to Mass Effect 3, but I still played both of the first two games twice, happily, and as straight characters each time. I'd probably say that ME2 is my favorite game ever and I couldn't really get on board with the people saying they refused to enjoy any relationships in the game unless they were gay... Why? It's just a narrative, perhaps not your exact personalized ideal, but it's fiction. And further, it wasn't homophobic or bigoted. Not everyone can be included every time, like the comment about their being no trans characters. At some point, we have to stop trying to over-PC all American culture a little bit. It's great to be fair and respectful but I worry everyone is going to end up in a society like those schools where no one can play tag because someone has to be a winner. If that makes sense. Anyway, not a rant, just my thoughts. Feel free to agree or disagree.

Todd said:

Thank you kindly for the writeup, it's appreciated.

On the subject of only two selectable genders, I wanted to agree with you there. Ultimately, the way that we wanted to get things across depended on addressing the "gender binary," and thus the forced choice of male or female.

Unfortunately that shuts us out of addressing trans issues in many ways (and bi people, too). Hopefully future projects digging in to queer content in games will include them more fully.

Also, side note: if you have time, play the game more than once. You may find the results interesting.

Sitorimon said:

I really enjoyed it. The whole concept is great and really interestingly put across. I think that if it was made into a longer game then you would have the time to be more subtle etc but I think that's a great little game. Well done to all involved.

Chris said:

I liked it a lot, thank you!

Alex said:

You know, playing through this. Some game play notes. First off, i wasn't always clear regarding what stance (passion, logic, or ethics) was being taken by any given demon, so i resorted to trial and error. Secondly, i would've liked to have heard a couple of different arguments from both demons and player. I wouldn't mind if there were just 3 and they were being cycled through. As it stands the argument seems a little less... real because it's two people shouting the same line at each other and it makes it feel like nothing's being resolved despite the bar lessening.
I liked the ending and the demon artwork was creative.

Kenneth said:

@Mike

I don't find romancing women enjoyable (unless I'm playing as a female).

That's just how I am.

I didn't refuse to pursue any romances.
I just didn't want to.

Since ME3 will be have same-sex romances, I'm glad I didn't.
-------------------------------------------

That was a pretty cool little game.
It kept me intrigued through the end.

Sach said:

I said I was male and it was really, really weird.

My dad hated me for being different, even though he was clearly some sort of transvestite/trans person. Everyone and their dog was against the relationship with my girlfriend because...

Um... Why DID no one want us together? Were we co-dependent enablers or something? Was everyone racist? I don't even know.

Anyway, I was getting more of a "everyone is crazy" vibe than an LGBT one. Then I played as a girl and it all made sense.

Spencer said:

This is a very well done game. There is a lot of symbolism as well as an understanding of how LGBTQ community goes about having to come out. The game makes you go through the stages of coming out through fighting bosses. I will give my interpretations of what the cut scenes and what the forest and the end of the forest is.

The first bosses that I encountered were the parents. They symbolize how parents can oppress the LGBTQ youth and make them feel insecure or inferior. The main character(Male) was fighting his sweetheart's(Female) parents. They were taunting him about being inferior due to him being LGBTQ(or at least that's how I saw it) You beat them with ethics and passion. When they are defeated you are treated to a cut scene of the MC and his SH. He talks about going into the forest because he has no where else to go. He then asks if she will go with him and she says she will not and the cut scene ends.

The Second boss I encountered was the Foul Brother of the MC. This boss represents how siblings can try to impose their thought process on to LGBTQ youth and make them feel like they are doing something wrong and are not fitting in. Well this boss takes the form of a wooden giant with a small head. This is a hint on how to defeat him. You need logic and ethics to beat him. The boss spouts quotes like "Why can't you just be normal". When you have defeated the monster you are treated to another cut scene. This time the cut scene is with the sweetheart and her brother. She questions him about what is on the other side of the forest. The brother then asks why she wants to know and tells her to stop hanging around her weird friend. She says no and he becomes angry and tells her to run into the forest and never come back and she says she will.

The boss I encountered was the mother of the MC. She looks like a monster with heads all over her body. She is meant to symbolize the effect of what others can say to your parents how that can effect you.

I will get to the rest in a few hours. Overall good game.

Mika said:

Good game, but when playing as a male my sweetheart was female supposedly so I found the LGBT themes muted. When I went through the bosses I just sensed a normal level of disapproval or sibling conflict which to me is on an entirely different level when compared to disapproval or opposition to having a same sex sweetheart. That's how I personally view what I played through, and while I don't believe games like this need to stick to the most obvious choice I didn't enjoy playing as a male as much because of that.

I'll play as a female and return with further thoughts since Sachs encountered the same thing I did while playing as a male but said playing as a female made it all make sense. I'd rather both sides have the same impact rather than emphasizing one over the other.

Sach said:

SPOILERS

Okay, it was like, "Lol son, you are different and I hate you and as your father I am very disappointed even though I am wearing women's clothing."

And then, "You and that kid are so weird! I hate you for being in-specifically different!"

And then, "You cannot date our daughter because of REASONS. WE LOOK DOWN ON YOU." "OMG my parents don't understand our love, even though there is literally no given reason for them to do so!"

And then, "I came to run away with you, but then you married someone else! I'd raise the very valid complaint of why you didn't marry me, but that would have made too much sense! So I'm running into the forest to kill myself. bye xoxo"

And then, "ALWAYS BE TRUE TO YOURSELF AND LOOK UP IN THE FACE OF DIVERSITY THAT MAKES NO SENSE WHATSOEVER."

VĂ­tor said:

I couldn't finish it, because I was too bored by the second boss =|

Volferam said:

It was simple, yet showed a lot of potential. True internal conflict is hard to find in characters today, at least outside of the RPG realm, it's a highly original bit of 30 minutes. I'd like to see more.

Mikey said:

Yeah, I'm sorry, but this game went totally over my head. I don't get it. As a male, was my sweetheart a girl? Why? Does he even have a male love interest?

What kind of LGBT game makes you play with a different sex love interest (who you don't even end up with)?

The battles were boring. Same lines repeated over and over, space bar space bar, change tactic, space bar space bar you win.

Also, in the scene with my male talking to his father...why is his father a woman doing laundry?

Sorry. This game's a mess. It's boring, way too metaphorical (but in a literal, annoying way), confusing, and the end made me feel like it was a waste of time.

I would have liked: More inspired battles. Characters that weren't paper thin. Less poetry. More LGBT and less "everyone thinks I'm weird for some reason".

MikeB said:

It's a very wordy and cerebral game, but it was kind of fun. Wish the boss battles were more twitchy melee and stuff.

But overall I liked the direction of the game. And the message.

Hal said:

Thanks everyone for your feedback. Keep it coming! And thanks to Mr. Harper of GAMBIT for taking notice.

Rollingjules said:

I liked the gameplay, and the take on combat was interesting and well thought-out for a game designed to be playable in under half an hour. I also appreciated that the sprite for the MC stayed the same regardless of the gender identity. Graphics were fun, I enjoyed them, as well as the detail and feel of the cutscene panels.

What I didn't like was this: I chose the female option first to see what would happen. And I was very confused to find that my "sweetheart" was a boy. And not only that, but that what I thought might have been a coding bug ended up being a "hooray, our son and his groom-to-be are getting it on now, thank god our kid is normal." It frustrated the hell out of me, even moreso after I played the male counterpart and discovered that it was then a pair of men in a secret relationship constrained by a heteronormative and heterosexual culture.

First of all, the world hasn't advanced far enough in my opinion for it to be okay to ignore another option in favor of a role reversal scenario in which heterosexuality is suddenly taboo, most especially not in a game that's supposed to be about the exploration of homosexual content in gaming when it is done at the expense of a plot-central lesbian pairing. It seems to me that the video gaming world has forgotten that gay women exist, and as a storytelling device and an exploration of different ideas this part pissed me off to be perfectly frank. As a female who prefers female partners, after both playthroughs I felt alienated and short-changed. After reading this article I was very excited and eager to play it, and I found the game to be a letdown in that respect. But it's a step in the right direction, I suppose.

Rosa said:

I liked it overall.

It was a bit unsubtle and the metaphors were a bit strained and the ending sort of came out of nowhere and resolved nothing. I also found it REALLY HARD to tell who was my character and who was the other person in the dialogue scenes, except for the parent one which was pretty obvious. This was pretty crappy because I never knew what my character was going through or which side of these arguments they were on, and everytime I thought I had it figured out something would happen and I'd realize I'd gotten it wrong. I played as a girl and the genders didn't bug out for me so that was pretty nice, but that bug is pretty game-breaking.

I found the dialogues really well written and the art style REALLY beautiful, though. Especially the grander parts of the forest, I really would have liked to have seen more of that. Absolutely breathtaking, very stylized but very gorgeous. I liked the overall point of the game and while it needed a little more length and definition and a little less heavy handed symbolism (and a better ending, still not sure wtf) I'm glad to have played it and I don't think there's anything wrong with using a game specifically to explore an issue. I mean, if we can make a game where you slice watermelons with a katana and it makes millions, what's the harm in trying to do some good?

Keep on keeping on, I can't wait until games explore this sort of thing constantly and there's no reason to report on it.

Ose Hallel said:

Having played through the game three times now, I see that the pronouns/genders used seem to be randomized such that you can end up with either the expected story of a same sex couple being shunned and pressured to conform to a hetero normative society, or one in which this is turned on it's head and heterosexuality is looked down upon instead. My first playthrough was as a male with a female lover so I was a little confused given the game's premise; but when it was revealed that my sweet heart had gone to marry another woman I realized it was an inverted scenario. Playing the game this way made it feel as if it was meant to address straight players and attempt to give them insight into the issues faced by LGBTQ people, rather than being a game that is for and friendly toward LGBTQ people themselves. But the spin put on the status quo was interesting, whereas the story with the couple being same sex is a bit trite and ham-handed. Still, I appreciate the thought and effort the makers put into the game and their endeavor to forward LGBTQ inclusion within my favorite medium.

g_whiz said:

I'm really impressed here. I think its a bit frustrating when all of our narritive and character choices are paired down into two rather generic gender ideal types and this does a good job of peeling back the layers of the culture and social programming of the way we "do gender" as a society.

Its an approach that seems equal parts thoughtful and simplistic and it was a rather fun way to spend a half hour or so.

Briker Ed said:

I just felt confused afterwards. I felt that I've gone through something that could've been great but was left wandering what the hell happened with the art, the metaphors, overall tone.... It was one of those classic 'what is it, I don't even' moments for me.

I can definitely see it having a lot of potential but in the end it just boiled to a very, very simplified story of forbidden love (where the LGBT issues, I feel, didn't really play a big part at all).

Limeade said:

Let me say first that I am so very appreciative of what the game is (trying to be) about and all the time and effort the design team put into this project. I'm very happy to see the desire for LGBTQ themes to be explored and would love more of it in our games.

Gaming is most often about playing in fantasy worlds made of a writer's own mind. So it always makes me frustrated and sad to see developers never try anything really alien or unique or inclusive in writing up their themes much of the time. There is ample opportunity to have a game set in an era or world where same-sex relations are seen as social bonding, or acknowledged as 'no big deal' like in Dragon Age.

That said, I see the potential in A Closed World. But like others have written above, I became confused with the story and what it was trying to be. Playing through it multiple times with both male and female helped me understand the vibe it was going for a little better, but all in all I thought the exploration of LGBTQ themes were a little flat. Thin. Guised. Subtle and poetic and artistic -- I like those parts about it; yet it doesn't really deliver that clear punctuation mark to make it clear what issues there are and how important they are. Playing as a guy with a girlfriend in my first playthrough, it came across more as ambiguous 'people just hate us because they're haters, because I'm weird or do things that my family doesn't like.' So it seems more like instead of LGBTQ-specific, it is better suited with 'insert your own non-mainstream quirk.' People don't like you because you're too goth, too scene, too introverted, too 'different.'

Which is nice. But that's not exactly LGBTQ-specific. Anyway, just a few thoughts while I was playing. Thank you for the opportunity. :)

TangeryneBear said:

hmmm, i played though the game twice, both times as a male character. i think that the chance of you being gay is cycled. the first play through was me as a gay male, i faced my brother first mother second, the "other" parents third. when i played a male the second time i faced my father first, brother second, and the "other" parents third, the cut scenes were pretty much recycled for both play throughs (and yes the mother and father scene are the same back ground), the last two bosses were the same in both play throughs.

this is an interesting game, my only concern? why do the main character and their lover look like they are 12?

Chris said:

Ugh. This game annoys me. Rather than a game "showing the gay experience" I'd really prefer a game that has the gay experience "tacked on" as you say. That is to say, I like the gay experiences in my games to be exactly the same as straight experiences, except that they happen to be between two men (or, if you'd rather, two ladies). To me, who had a very comfortable coming out, with a family who accepted be as I am, this seems, more than anything else, to be about creating drama where there wasn't any before.

Why can't we just have a game about normal relationships, where the characters involved are gay, rather than inventing this weird psychological nonsense? Why do we have to be made a victim by the very game that claims to be about us?

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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Chris on A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes: Ugh. This game annoys me. Rather than a game "showing the gay experience" I'd really prefer a game that has...

TangeryneBear on A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes: hmmm, i played though the game twice, both times as a male character. i think that the chance of you...

Limeade on A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes: Let me say first that I am so very appreciative of what the game is (trying to be) about and...

Briker Ed on A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes: I just felt confused afterwards. I felt that I've gone through something that could've been great but was left wandering...

g_whiz on A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes: I'm really impressed here. I think its a bit frustrating when all of our narritive and character choices are paired...

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