How To Make A Game That Hurts

 

It’s Sacrilege’s one year anniversary, I realised. And I started this postmortem months ago, when you requested it. I thought I’d finish these thoughts today.

I admit, I made the game Sacrilege when I wasn’t in a particularly good place. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had just put out this song called Sacrilege. Pretty much everything I produce, write, make, begins with a song. The song connects to a feeling. The feeling runs through everything. I couldn’t stop listening to this one song. It is dark. It is the sound of a coffin being lowered deeper and deeper and deeper into the earth. It’s Karen O praying she might recover. It’s self-forgiveness struggling to leave the black ditch of my heart and get to the places it needs to go. To be honest, I have never quite forgiven myself for any of the things that made me write this stupid game, and I probably never will. The feathers in the bed still lie there, and I will never get rid of them. You asked for a postmortem of this text game.

This is more like a postmortem of that Cara, by this Cara. I am sure the designer of Will Love Tear Us Apart? knew what I was thinking then. This game meant everything to me when I was making it and as soon as I hurled it hot towards a crowd of people, like a lit bomb, I didn’t even care where it landed, I just didn’t want it to land anywhere near me. It ended up making a great deal of people upset, and a lot of young men ended up sending floods of emails and messages to me about their profound feelings of regret, empathy, surprise, warmth, and oddly, slight shock that they’d identified with a woman protagonist quite like they did. Some of them said it made them reassess their relationships. Women merely told me they cried (thankfully out of empathy), which is the thing I was most surprised about. If I played this game for the first time I think I would be so unsurprised at the protagonist’s troubles I’d probably feel sort of numb about it, but then, I guess I made it. But women were overwhelmingly saddened by the contents of it because apparently it articulates a problem that looks like it can’t be solved, which is unusual for the traditional videogame, which I am certain Sacrilege will never be classified as. Frankly, I made a game that hurts people in just the right way, which is something I did partly by accident, and partly as an attempt at emotional terrorism.

IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THIS GAME, THERE ARE MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. NOW IS A REALLY GOOD TIME TO SPEND ABOUT FIVE MINUTES OF YOUR LIFE INITIATING ABOUT FOUR FUCKPLANS. YOU CAN PLAY SACRILEGE HERE. IT IS FREE AND MAKES ME NO MONEY SO WHY WOULDN’T YOU.

[CONTINUE TO SPOILERS]

When I look at the source code of this silly, frivolous thing now it’s sort of like mapping the anatomy of a gnarled lich that got stuck in my chest. I see it spread before me in little prisons of text and script in the editor. I think I wanted to tell people that I was hurt. I think I wanted to tell people that this was how you could get yourself into this situation, and offer very little advice in how to get out of it. I wanted other people to understand how hurt just some words constructed and designed in a certain way could make you feel. I was also frustrated that no one was writing the woman that could be funny and charming and almost happy but really fucking broken and upset and enraged and horny at the same time. There are few women in media like that, and I wanted to identify with one of them. So to paraphrase Toni Morrison, I had to make it myself.

So I began a dating sim for Madam Luna’s dating sim jam, a game I’d promised Stu at Unwinnable he could have at the end. Initially I was really hesitant and sort of scared about going back to Twine – something I’d used before in text games for Rock Paper Shotgun – because it had become a tool of empowerment for the marginalised in games development since, and I feel like relatively speaking I am very privileged in that 1) I am heard often now because I have a platform in media and 2) I am a white hetero woman who gets a bigger slice of the attention pie in the mainstream than my often more talented friends. But my friends encouraged me to tell a personal story, because providing an autobiographical point of view doesn’t have to be exclusionary – it can just add without taking away. So I did it in the name of adding without taking away.

It began with the song, and when I’d cried at this game of Porpentine’s. Only this game wasn’t going to be transformative like that; her game was uplifting, a fucking hymn to starting over. This game was going to be a meditation on my darkest feelings of hopelessness about my attraction to the opposite sex. At the time, I had not been treated very well for a number of years by quite a few men. And those who did want to treat me well found me in an unfit state to recognise that I deserved to be treated well. I knew in my head when I began that there would be one definitive moment: the moment the song would play, and that I would crush the player’s feelings in my fist and crumple them into a fucking ball. This, in my head, would be done by using the lines:

1. A guy who you are going to hurt is better
2. A guy who is going to hurt you would be better

(These are the only two choices
These are the only two choices
These are the only two choices)

I knew this would be the centre of whatever I was going to write, because this is the core of how I felt at the time.

As for the narrative arc. It is very natural for me to think that this story begins in a club: I associate music with joy and bodies with sex, and clubs have both, and I needed my character to want to be happy, and to want to have sex in this situation. So I imagined a woman who wants to traverse said landscape enthusiastically, perhaps slightly tipsily. The people in the club that she is attracted to are people that she knows already, and she knows that she will be able to take any of these men home if she is charming. In dramas you often see men be the charming ones; women are just bodies to look at. In my experience what makes men want to take you home is not as much to do with how sexy you have dressed or very much to do with looking like a Hollywood starlet at all – in fact, this often makes you look completely terrifying. In my experience, if you want to take a guy home, you’re confident, charming, funny, and direct. Of course they have to be attracted to you – they either are or they aren’t, and there isn’t much you can do about that binary state in a club – but if you lay on charm the attraction is acted upon and you have a deal. I suspect this is true of most people’s sexual negotiations, and so why women’s verbal charm isn’t portrayed this way on screen as often as men’s is anyfuckingone’s guess.

So the first text box is the club. I put a picture of lights in from creative commons, because who doesn’t love flashing lights. Then I decided, because of the religious imagery present in the song Sacrilege, that I was going to have the boys of the Gospel sing to me. So I lined them up in hypertext.

Then I was certain that I had to embroider each of the men’s narratives with a very specific kind of torture instrument. For Matthew, I knew I wanted the player to feel like they had won the game, that they had chosen the perfect outcome, and then feel utterly betrayed. Again, this was how one of my personal relationships had gone down. I have never actually slept with a married man, but in my mind, that’s the perfect shorthand for a betrayal: someone who uses you, and then makes you an accessory to their crime, and then makes you feel like shit about yourself when all you did was want to be in love. Matthew’s strand was also carefully machinated to represent the rhythm of sex: I knew once I’d played some of Porpentine’s games that I wanted to mess around with the <<replace>> function as the core of the game. I’ve since learned that designers often try to choose a mechanic that best interprets how they want the player to feel; this is definitely something I thought a lot about. In Brothers, for example, the mechanical action of having two little boys help each other and coordinate movement becomes a very important thing emotionally for many reasons, and Twine is a fantastic way to show how the bare moving parts of that sort of design works to provoke emotion. The function in twine delays and stilts hyperlinks, necessitating more action from the player, and therefore more investment. The more investment you have in a game, even a primitive Twine game, the more you expect a reward. This is tipped on its head in Matthew’s strand. Instead, you are essentially told, at the climax of the tale, or orgasm if you will, that all this has been a feint. In Resident Evil terms, You Are Dead. You got the bad outcome. So you reload.

The John strand is my least favourite one: there’s a sense of possession about him. The idea that women might have been ‘spoiled’ by another man’s attention is pretty much the worst thing I can think of.  The strand ends fairly quickly, letting you know that another man in the room has already fucked you over, you terrible, terrible slut. You didn’t catch that Pokemon, sorry.

The last two men both have strands that eventually combine. Mark is the archetypal dude who was always the Worst, but there’s so much material written about him – I mean this is the guy people write literature about. People can see him coming for miles and they still can’t help hanging around to see what he makes happen. It’s always a car crash. But then, these men always end up with people you know you wouldn’t want to be. And no one wants to have to spend the rest of their life dealing with someone who has the ability to treat people badly. So there’s a particular bittersweet thing about these people in life: there’s a momentary sweetness that in retrospect is just enough. Anyway, the idea that you would drop everything to become possessed by him is an idea I wanted to convey, which is why Mark rudely interrupts another strand to demand that you pay him attention, something that men have done a lot to me. It’s part of the weird societal arrogance some men are coached into.

Luke’s probably the tragic centre of everything. I have lost count of the times that I have been Luke. I bet I look good on paper and then when you date me there’s just nothing there for you. I have also, over the past six years, met a really good number of this archetype: the men I’ve wanted to fall in love with very badly but for one reason or another my body just wasn’t into it. The chemicals were just absent. There’s nothing sadder than realising what this means for you and for them. Luke’s the culmination and composite of every one of those people. I remember in particular this very young guy who knew when he looked at me one day that he needed to break up with me.

The music is supposed to kick in when you know you are doomed. I wanted it to make you cry there. It’s okay if you don’t. I read a lot of Milton and Bret Easton Ellis and couldn’t have felt sorrier for myself by that point in the game.

Most of the game is concerned with telling you, mechanically speaking, that none of these choices is avoidable, and the ‘book’ itself at the end is triggered by your learning about all four men. I wanted it to contextualise what was going on in a helpful, optimistic way, since I’d been so very pessimistic throughout the game. But like with The Handmaid’s Tale (where I borrowed the idea from) you can get something from the game without reading the ‘book’.

As an experiment I think I enjoyed making Sacrilege a bit even though I was miserable making it most of the time, but it’s grown so much more hot leg than I thought. People keep tweeting me about it and sending emails and questions, and it’s been a year since it went up. A Swedish political website asked me if they can translate a version of it into Swedish. Maybe it says something that isn’t said often in another way? Perhaps that’s what Twine is for. Perhaps that’s what games are for?

I haven’t played it myself since it came out. I can’t bear to feel that way again.