Pansy Division’s “Luv Luv Luv” is the first thing you hear upon starting up Obscurasoft’s limited beta of Coming Out On Top. Recently offered up to the game’s Kickstarter supporters as an apology for delaying the game’s final release, the beta offers a glimpse into the first (as far as I can tell) American gay dating sim. Opening up with a queercore classic that flirts playfully with the tension between the love we’re told to want and the sex we want to have, it brings to the surface a theme that’s present throughout the beta. It also sets up the playfulness that Coming Out On Top brings promises to bring to its material.
Hit the jump for more. (And bear in mind that I’m one of Coming Out On Top‘s Kickstarter supporters so, you know, I’m invested in this thing not sucking. Take that as you will.)
The game itself starts out with a curious choice…one in which you really don’t have any choice: Will you come out to your roommates or not? Only you can’t get past the scene without coming out to them. So why the pretense of choice? It does help make Mark’s story quickly compelling, a young man struggling with his sexuality, but it also breaks the fourth wall right off the bat if you hesitate in coming out – it does so playfully, but it does so nonetheless.
But playful seems to be the name of the game in Coming Out On Top, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the very title puns not once, but twice in just four short words. The beta introduces the player to most, if not all, of the major characters – should you make the right decisions – and repeatedly offers choices that harken back to the themes of Luv Luv Luv. Do what you’re supposed to do or try to get off? Masturbate (love the fapping noises…it’s the little touches that make a game) or study? Chase the chaste professor or go for the weekly bukkake orgy upstairs?
And while gay people orgies and is-he-or-isn’t-he quasi-gay roommates teeter toward trope-dom, the game tends to play with them rather than play them up, and it certainly finds ways to subvert and redirect narratives from paths we might expect them to play out (the upstairs neighbour Jed, for example…).
And what about this dude-on-dude dating sim being helmed by a woman? It’s one of the more fascinating parts of the Coming Out On Top‘s history but barely noticeable in the game, except perhaps in the very welcome addition of more than one female character. It may be that the playfulness that Coming Out On Top brings to stereotypical gay guy stories (such as coming outs, straight-acting jocks, orgies, and more) comes from both the availability of those stories to a not gay-male mind, and also the freedom to mess around with those stories that someone who has not been as steeped in them may bring? (In the end, I don’t give a shit who’s making these games, as long as they’re being made and being made well.)
The game’s American-ness also comes across loud and clear, despite Coming Out On Top flowing from a mostly Japanese genre: The colourful art straddles both anime and comic book aesthetics, but is absolutely distinct from the world of yaoi/BL – games which are made for a heterosexual female gaze, and are overwhelmingly more visual novels than dating sims. The men of Coming Out On Top are also more Abercrombie than yaoi, and there are even toggles for how hairy each character is (now really, how gay is that?). The narrative and visual references also plant Coming Out On Top‘s feet firmly in the contemporary US of A – frat houses, “college,” and Navy SEALs – another distinction from the BL genre, which often features historical or SF settings.
As for the graphics, the soundtrack, and so on, what’s there is great – but I would caution readers that this is an indie game being made with a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars. Next-gen it ain’t, but it didn’t bother me. (And really, I’d take Ian or Jed over some dumb high-polygon-count space marine any day.)
The Coming Out On Top beta promises, from the opening notes of Luv Luv Luv, to the cheerful art, to the gently neurotic roommates, a playfulness that is like a glass of water in the desert of queer-themed games out there. But the beta ends rather quickly, so I can only say it remains just promise at this point – a bit of a mirage, with hope for something substantial.
I had fun, and every time I hit the “end of build 2.1” screen I grumbled. Those are good signs.