Earlier this month Cara Ellison wrote about two romance games (as Cara Ellison does): Lynnea Glasser’s Creatures Such As We and Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World. I played these games after reading her words about them, and both games, though very different in what they try to accomplish, put me in unfamiliar situations that evoke familiar, old feelings brought about by social anxiety--feelings and fears that still haunt me though more irregularly and less potently.
Creatures Such As We is a piece of interactive fiction that I recommend taking the approximately two hours to play. In Creatures Such As We, the AAA game-within-the-game’s emotionally disatisfying ending hangs over your head before you go back to your job. You’re a tour guide for the moon, and today you happen to be guiding the development team of said game on a lunar retreat. Besides having a chance to ask the designers about the game in order to come to grips with its ending, you can also romance one of the several developers. Creatures Such As We has a lot of good thematic meat wrapped in well-written science fiction. Even though the characters talk about the themes so directly to a fault, the game asks questions with nuance about the nature of romance in games and the inability for non-playable characters to consent, whether the author or the audience controls meaning in art, the pros and cons of indie vs. AAA development, and death and failure. There’s a lot to delve into, and I’d like to maybe later on take a closer look at Creatures Such As We after multiple playthroughs and exploring different paths, but in the meantime Cara Ellison (linked above) and Emily Short provide good overviews of the game and analysis of its metanarrative.
As for how the game incites anxiety in me, it presents choices of interaction in a way much closer to reality than other games I’ve played. It’s not through any particularly groundbreaking system, but whereas most mainstream games with NPC interaction allow you infinite opportunity to get to know a whole cast of characters or even an entire population of a town, Creatures Such As We forces you to choose who you hang out with in the plot’s linear, unstoppable flow of time. Early in the game, once you meet everyone in the development team, they invite you to join them for lunch. But you must choose between two tables to sit at (or decide to maintain a professional distance [more on that later], which, if I was roleplaying myself, that’s what I would have done, but who wants to do remain distanced in a dating sim?). And immediately I’m whisked back to the beginnings of high school, wondering what table I should sit at. At this point in the game, much like that first day in high school, you’ve gathered some cursory details about the personalities of some people, including James’ frankness, Ren’s focus, and Diana’s curiosity. But that’s not enough to determine who you’re going to want to spend time with, and so you start to panic. What good times am I going to miss out on if I go sit with this group over that one? Can you really trust the people at this table? It’s obviously not healthy to obsess over these thoughts, but with social anxiety at its worst, they can seize you up frozen, preventing you from connecting to anybody as you continue contemplating your decision after you’ve already sat down.
Of course I didn’t reach this extreme over the fictional characters, but I did feel a twinge of these old anxieties that led to a vivid recollection of them when presented with certain choices. And the game seems to build on these symptoms of social anxiety through the tension caused by the player character’s duty to perform a role for these characters vs. fulfilling personal needs and desires. You’re supposed to be a professional tour guide and help make sure everything runs smoothly for the guests and be a good employee, but you also want to get away from the loneliness of the job, speak the truth about the whole operation, and understand more about the ending to that damn game. When I first sit at a table, I am asked uncomfortable questions about the facilities and the company’s practices and motives as well as philosophical questions about game design and art after inquiring about their game (I said they were direct). I answer vaguely about my work and my employer and say clichéd things about games and art, so I get a lukewarm reception from the characters. I feel like I fail at performing both as a good tour guide for allowing to guests to air and perhaps reinforce skepticism of their retreat and as a potential friend for being blasé and detached. It’s exactly the sort of experience people who long for friendship but are hindered by anxiety have.
Creatures Such As We evokes a sense of anxiety because it doesn’t cater to the player like games such as Mass Effect, a series the game heavily invokes with its game-within-a-game that makes players feel entitled to a satisfying experience only to have them let down by a “bad” ending. In a playthrough of Mass Effect 3, you can go through pretty much your whole crew’s dialogue. Having a conversation with Mordin on the Normandy doesn’t exclude you from a conversation with EDI that should be happening at the same time. According to Bioware, the player should be able to see everything if she wants to. Despite the urgency of your mission to save Earth from the Reapers, you’re free to run the Citadel dry of inconsequential side quests and have idle conversation with all of your crew members in between missions. Time in the Mass Effect universe is controlled by you, the player, as time only passes when you want it to--when you decide to trigger the main plot events. This freedom to essentially stop the clock allows you to experience all the content (that word) the creators put in the game. Therefore, the anxious question of “who am I going to hang out with today?” doesn’t hang over your head because you’ll be able to talk to everyone. In Creatures Such As We, you have a limited time with the designers, and every interaction you have with the game progresses that time. This approach to narrative design is conducive to the anxieties of “missing out,” the fear common to real life that your actions might not be leading to the best outcomes for either yourself or others.
I realize that Creatures Such As We might not be special in this case because I haven’t played many dating sims before. Would Hatoful Boyfriend evoke anxiety in me through similar means? If I ever take a closer look at Creatures Such As We I’ll do more research on dating sims to find out.
I’d also just like to say that Creatures Such As We may also contribute to anxious feelings with its use of ChoiceScript, which uses fill-in bubbles for your options in the game, which makes playing the game feel vaguely like taking an online standardized test or filling out an application of some sort. Heh.
While Creatures Such As We simulates anxiety about who you interact with, Queers in Love at the End of the World focuses on how you interact. Unlike Creatures, Queers has already decided who you’ll spend time with, but you have to choose how you’re going to spend the last ten seconds of existence with your lover. Once you begin the game, a timer ticks down as you click the text to choose what to do with or say to your lover. When time runs out, the screen of text you’re reading is cleared and “Everything is wiped away.” You’re able to restart the sequence again and again indefinitely [insert Groundhog Day reference].
Your various options for physical intimacy, proclaiming your love, and revelling in seeing the end of oppressive systems are bittersweet because the happy moment is far too short before the world ends. It’s impossible to savor the overtly emotional, breathless writing in the game because it’s gone in an instant, most likely before you get to the end of a particular narrative branch. The utopic scenes in Queers are such fleeting teases that playing the game feels like a nightmare. The timer tells you that you need to act NOW to make this moment good and special for you and your partner, but there are so many options and so little time that you don’t know if you can do one thing meaningfully with your lover let alone everything. So much for taking twenty minutes to decide the future of the Geth in Mass Effect without anyone batting an eyelid.
The game is like the anxious indulgence that nearly everyone takes part in of replaying a real or imaginary scene in your head, wondering how different actions you could take might affect the situation. It’s an activity you can easily get wrapped up in despite its glaring vanity. In Queers, like these agonizing moments of angst in the shower or in bed, you start to worry about the minutiae of your possible actions. Should I kiss her softly or fiercely? On the lips or the forehead? You don’t really have the time to consider, to over-analyze these things. The end of the world doesn’t give a shit about your anxiety. Time passes. You play the game again. Was simply holding hands enough? You tend not to think so. You play the game again and again and again, but nothing seems to really be enough. You want to do everything with your lover, and you want the moment to last forever, or at least long enough.
Cara Ellison writes in her verse about the game:
I want to destroy the gameI want to get inside Twine nodes and fuck with the script and dismantle the timerI want to kick the shit out of it
Time is the anxious person’s mortal enemy (or at least one of them). Not only is there not enough time in the day to do everything you want to do, there’s not enough time to be anxious about everything you want to be anxious about. While games like Mass Effect remove the element of anxiety caused by the progression of time in order for players to enjoy their constructed worlds, Creatures Such As We and Queers in Love at the End of the World embrace time as a successful narrative device. Creatures uses the progression of time to posit that games that don’t cater to the player may make her uncomfortable, but such stories that don’t center on the player are worth telling. Queers uses the limitation of time to emphasize the need to take action to communicate and express with your lover (and to destroy your heart). Anxiety is the aftermath that makes you obsessively question if what you did was “right” or “the best” of if you ever could have done what was right or best.
In Queers you kiss your partner hungrily, thinking that this intimacy is healing both your wounds and hers. But--
“Is this healing?
The world ends.