As you, by this point, probably know, I have created a short interactive fiction game for Ludum Dare #28. If you don’t, or you haven’t played it yet but plan to, you might want to do so first. I am going to answer some of the questions people have asked and will expand on my explanation of my motivation and design choices outlined in this post, where you’ll also find a link to the game.
Naturally, that means there’ll be major spoilers in this post and the same trigger warning applies as to the previous one.
Well then, last chance to turn back.
TRIGGER WARNING AND MAJOR SPOILERS after the jump.
The feedback I’ve been getting has been wonderful. A lot of people are telling me how much the game affected them, how it made them rethink and realize certain aspects of their mindset they weren’t comfortable with, and that even though it was a tough experience, they were glad I had made the game and shared it with them.
But of course I’m also getting some questions about the purpose and the design of the mechanics, and since Twitter isn’t the best place to have such discussions, I want to respond and explain it in greater detail here.
Player agency and choice has probably been the largest source of confusion for the people writing me. Why don’t their choices matter? Why is she always doing the opposite? Why make it interactive if you can’t influence the story?
To understand it better, let’s first have a look at her character.
Who You Play
In this game, you are playing a 14-year-old girl. You’re not playing as a 14-year-old girl, mind you; you’re playing a specific one. This is important. She’s not you, and you are not her. You are experiencing the game through her eyes, but she has a fixed personality, a set character, and is not a blank slate for the player to insert himself into.
So let’s talk about her. But before we do, we need to make one thing very clear: a character, especially a (hopefully) fully-developed one, is an incredibly complex thing. Second, I don’t map these things out while I’m writing. My approach is fully reliant on intuition, as I have learned that my subconscious is a much better writer than I could ever be, so I myself analyze this story and character after the fact. I can feel who she is more than I know it. Now, I will try to explain said person as best as I can, but since it is, as I said, an incredibly complex thing to do, it is very easy to do it badly—while I try to explain one nuance, my wording might override another. I’m trying to be as careful as I possibly can about the implication of the things I say, but I don’t think myself capable of not making at least a few mistakes in the process. I will of course keep revising this post as time passes, but please keep that in mind.
All right, now, who is she? She is a young, rather shy girl, and the strange and uncomfortable experience of going through puberty has left her self-conscious and insecure. Suddenly, the world has changed, and she doesn’t know her place in it anymore. She’s ashamed to talk to her parents about the changes she’s going through and they are gladly avoiding the topic, being uncomfortable with it themselves. She feels alone, misunderstood, and as though there’s something wrong with her. The childhood bliss is gone, and the cold reality creeping in is frightening and confusing to her. She can’t articulate these feelings. Her friend, who is a very different and much more bubbly personality, doesn’t understand her pain. She’s caring and she wants to help, but her advice and consoling, while well-meaning, is ultimately misguided and makes our protagonist feel even more alone.
When she meets this guy, however, things change. The interest of a handsome, admired, older student is naturally flattering, while the fear of it just being a joke, or of him discovering that she’s a pitiful loser after all, is making her tense and self-conscious. In a way, it makes her feel validated, but it also makes her feel entirely out of her element. She doesn’t know how to be around boys, and older ones at that. She’s never had anyone show interest in her, and while it does make her feel good, she’s now even more scared of losing it again or having the one person who seems to really like and understand her judge her.
All of this leads to a constant inner struggle. There’s many things she doesn’t know how to deal with, what behavior is expected of her, what she might do wrong. She’s not comfortable with his slight advances, even though she does like him, but she seeks fault within herself and fears his judgment, which could devastate her. To her, he is a grownup, an adult, and not wanting to go along with everything he says feels like flaw in her personality.
And this is where you come in.
Player Agency & Choice
The game’s choices are not about determining her personality. She feels about these things the way she feels. The choices are about her inner struggle and which way she’ll lean. She’s always going to be uncomfortable with holding his hand, but you can decide if her discomfort or her shame for this, as she perceives it, “childish” discomfort overweighs. And that choice I don’t ever take away from you until I literally take it away from you. She never acts against your choice. It might just be a different choice than you thought.
I suppose partly responsible for this confusion are, on the one hand, expectations of how this kind of interactive stories usually work, namely that the character is a blank slate and you have significant influence over the story’s progression, but it might also lie in the labeling of the choices. I think to many, “Let Him” or “Dodge Him” implies a choice of wanting to kiss him or not. That, however, is not what this choice is about. She’s most definitely not comfortable nor ready to kiss him. The only question is, will she let him do it for fear of what he might think of her if she doesn’t, or will she actively pull away. This is what every single one of these choices is like. She’s uncomfortable, not ready for what he wants to do, but also very afraid of being judged by him.
The only choice where I feel I’m actively forcing you in a direction you don’t want to go, is the invitation to the party. You either give in to the pressure of him asking you or to the added pressure of your friend convincing you to go. I can understand your frustration here, but this is who these people are. Her friend wants to go. She’s excited. You kinda want to go, but are scared. You feel you have to go because he asked, but if you’re too uncomfortable to go along, your friend will say yes for you and you don’t have the strength to fight that additional pressure. It’s not who you are.
The point of this story is obviously that you have no influence over what is happening to you. Now, you might argue that, hadn’t you gone to the party, it might not have happened, but that’s exactly the kind of thinking I’m trying to get you to reconsider. Hadn’t you gone there, he would’ve found another way to get closer to you. It’s what he does repeatedly over the course of the game. Most of the decisions are out of your hand because he makes them for you. He intercepts you when you try to go home, he takes you on a walk around the lake whether you want to or not. He’s a predator, and you are his prey. Of course I could’ve constructed the story in such a way that he’ll make you go to the party, but I don’t think it’s necessary. There’s lots of reasons why you end up doing something you might not want to do, and if you’re insecure and believe you have no right to speak up, pressure can come from anywhere. That doesn’t make what happens less his fault, doesn’t make it your friend’s, and certainly doesn’t make it yours.
There’s also something about her friend trusting and liking him in there that I can’t quite put into words yet. Maybe it has to do with them thinking he’s a really good guy and that they should be together and, as a result of that, them being more likely to question her story if she decided to tell them about it. I’m not sure, all I know is that this felt and continues to feel right to me. I’d even argue that the frustration over her friend making you go when you don’t want to is a frustration the character feels as well. She doesn’t want to attend that party, but she can’t say No to him and her friend. Maybe she, too, is frustrated that she doesn’t have a choice.
At this point, I’d also like to add that I’m not too happy about people talking about how they would just have refused to go to the party and have distanced themselves from him after he makes his inappropriate advances. It bugs me because it literally doesn’t matter what you would do. That’s not who she is. Does that mean that she is therefore at fault for getting raped? That people who can’t act like you would maybe even have deserved it a little because they didn’t avoid it better?
I’m not accusing you of actively thinking those thoughts, but it’s sort of what these statements imply. “I would’ve done it differently” is just another way of saying she did it wrong—unless you’re just telling us that you personally would’ve done it differently but don’t judge her for not being you, of course. But there are people who have self-esteem issues and can’t always do what’s objectively “best” for them. Does their “weakness” then deserve to be taken advantage of? Doesn’t it make this even more vile? And in addition to that, wouldn’t a rapist be more likely to take on a target which he can sense he can manipulate, control, and ultimately shame into silence? It’s certainly what the guy in this story does. He senses her “weakness” and is starting to close in on her.
So you, in this situation, might not have gotten raped. But that doesn’t change that this person is.
Another question that I find incredibly unsettling, is why she doesn’t like to kiss him if earlier she stated that she kinda has a crush on him. I mean, that is a seriously problematic line of thought. It’s actually just a lighter version of “If she liked him, how could it have been rape?” I appreciate that you might be worried about an inconsistency in the writing, but think about why you’re asking this. She said she had a crush on him. Does that mean she must want to get physical, must want to touch, to kiss him? I’m not saying you would ask this if this was real, and I’m certainly not saying that I did this perfectly and you shouldn’t question me, but why does it seem odd to you? Because you honestly feel there’s an error in the writing or because of your expectations of how a person is supposed to act if she feels some attraction?
If you’re one of the people who had this question, I really, honestly don’t mean to attack you. I’ll probably rewrite this part once I figure out how to explain it without making it sound accusatory, but it is very important to me that it’s clear why this sort of thinking is problematic, because even though you might never dream of blaming a victim, this is already a form of it. It might seem small and insignificant, but that’s what makes it so insidious.
The thing is, what she has is a little girl crush. She’s not ready for the things he wants to do. Imagine a 6-year-old who has a crush on her favorite actor or pop star or whatever. If she met him, do you see them making out, holding hands or any of that? I’m pretty sure that that seems incredibly wrong to you. Why? Because she’s too young and she’s not ready. Well, age doesn’t determine when you’re ready. You do. And she’s not.
Maybe, given time, she would’ve gotten there. Maybe not. Maybe she would’ve, but not with him. Maybe it would’ve turned out that she liked him as a friend but not as a potential partner—after all, the idea of someone can sometimes be more intriguing than the reality—or maybe she started out liking him but changed her mind. She’s allowed to do that, and none of this obligates her to be okay with his advances.
The Moment the Choices Stopped
When I take away your choices and force you to have her hold still, for many of you, that was a harrowing experience. I’ve gotten reports of real-life panic, shaking, and some have clicked over 1400 times before accepting that the button wouldn’t work. It seems that this simple mechanic was incredibly powerful to most (and definitely more powerful than I could ever have expected).
But to some, this was a source of great confusion, both about whether it was intentional and what I wanted to say with it. I’m sure it’s clear by now that it was. She freezes. She’s in shock. She wants to fight, but her body won’t move. Would it have made a difference? I don’t think so. He’s much stronger than she is, and by this point, they’re too far gone. This will happen, no matter what. But for you it’s a much harsher experience if I don’t let you fight and have him overpower her anyway, but if I don’t give you a choice and make you hold still yourself. It’s the only way I can take power away from you as he does from her. The outcome is the same, but the fighting is your clicking. I’m not having the story overpower you, I’m having the game do it. And it seems to work.
So what am I saying? That women can’t defend themselves? That everybody freezes up when in terror? No. I’m not telling a story about everybody. I’m telling a story about this person, and this person alone. Of course it might apply to others as well, in part or even in full, but it’s not meant to be a one-size-fits-all statement about what every rape is like. And I don’t agree that she’s weak or doesn’t have any agency. He just takes it away from her. That’s the point. The rapist takes away any power the victim had. That’s why blaming the victim is so absurd: she had no say in it to begin with.
So why IF again?
So why give you choices if they all do the same? Why not just write a short story? Because even this little bit of agency involves you more than any short story ever could. Even when you figure out that nothing you choose makes a difference, there’ll always be some doubt, always some hope that you might be able to avoid the inevitable after all. And when you can’t, do you know for sure it couldn’t have ended any other way? It absolutely couldn’t have, but that doesn’t keep victims from asking themselves this very same question. (Incidentally, this is why it doesn’t matter that you can tell right from the start what’s going to happen—which isn’t subtle. If anything, you’ll be even more mindful to do “the right thing,” which, of course, doesn’t help at all.)
Also, you are making the story happen. It’s not there until you make a choice and click a button. In a way, you’re letting it happen to her by not quitting the game, and you know that on some level. That’s why people are scared of clicking the buttons, making a choice, even when they know it won’t change anything. It affects you because I’m asking you to push the story forward. A short story is written out and there’s not even the possibility of you choosing “wrong” or being able to stop what’s coming. It’s already there and done whether you look at it or not. You have no part in it at all.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying you’re making the rape happen or that you’re at fault for anything that’s happening in the story. The whole point is obviously that you have zero control over that because it’s the guy making it happen. But even this tiny bit of interactivity makes you part of this story, and that makes a huge difference.
I’d also argue that the anger and frustration you feel about not having any choice is not because I didn’t give you any and made a “bad” game, but because I made a promise and broke it. I told you you would be able to choose your path, that you had agency, and then I took it away. I made you feel powerless and out of control, which is what I needed to do to give you a glimpse into what it’s like to be a victim. So don’t be angry at me as the game designer, be angry at me as the person who did this to you and the people who would now ask why you didn’t try harder to change the outcome, who’d ask why you didn’t hit the Stop button more often, who’d say you wanted this to happen because you didn’t arrive at a different ending. You tell me, was any of this your fault? No. I didn’t give you a choice.
Neither do rapists.