Sunday, March 20, 2016

Travelling through Twine #3: "I melt instantly"

CW: Summonr itself and some other games mentioned in this post are (at least potentially) NFSW.

Spoilers follow.

Gay devils are in vogue. If queerness must be equated with evil, then why not find solace in sin? Maybe we can embrace the devil, or hell, even be the devil. Maybe we can even have sex with the devil.

But can we love the devil?

I’ve been thinking for a while, entirely motivated by the selfish desire for my particular subjectivity to be gratified, about the uneven representation between queer men and queer women in videogames. For as little as games portray queerness in general, it seems that queer women and girls are more often featured in both AAA and alternative games. As Joe Parlock writes, it appears that publishers think that a presumed audience of straight men will react more positively to romances between women than romances between men. And outside of commercial games, multiple alternative movements have been largely pioneered by queer trans women, many of their games naturally focusing on their own experiences.

I bring this up not to belittle the positive impact of well-written lesbian romances in commercial games for queer audiences in general. Nor do I wish to begrudge the real queer and trans women whose powerful games have paved the way for hundreds of artists to approach games in new, challenging ways, while those very women often remain in the margins and in relative poverty. I simply wish to establish a context of queer masculinity in games relative to other forms of queerness, while also fully aware of the abysmal under-representation of trans, non-binary, and genderqueer folks and asexual folks of all genders, particularly within commercial games.

Besides the amount of representation queers of different genders receive in games, they also frequently receive different kinds of representation. It seems that queer women more often get the earnest romances and coming of age narratives of Gone Home, Life is Strange, The Last of Us: Left Behind, and We Know the Devil, whereas queer men more often get games that focus on explicit sex and physical bodies like Robert Yang's games, Benji Bright’s Fuck That Guy and God(s), and Coming Out on Top. This is not to say that one type of representational focus is inherently more valuable than another; all genders could use more games that focus on queer physical intimacy and others that focus on emotional connection. I certainly love the complicated ideas about boundaries and pleasure in Robert Yang’s games, and Benji Bright’s interactive smut is often hilarious, hot, and occasionally poignant. But as a lonely babyqueer, I’m yearning much more for the earnest and the sentimentalgames that say my romantic feelings for boys aren’t jokes and shouldn’t be boiled down to just sexual deviance. I want games about queer boys who are fucked-up and scared, and not just thirsty and twee.

With Summonr, a wonderful recent Twine by Bryce Duzan, I get both kinds of representations: a sweet game about the joys and doubts of developing romantic feelings and an explicit game about fucking Mephistopheles.

You play as Tristan Hench, an art student with a certain “fascination” with demons, a fascination so strong he unconsciously draws an undressing demon boy while daydreaming, his overwhelming thirst and loneliness materializing in his absent-minded doodles. “You need to get laid,” Tristan’s roommate Natalie says after catching him sketch the demon in the living room. “Too bad guys like that aren’t real, right?”

The next day Tristan overhears two boys in the hallway talking about “Summonr,” a sort of “Grindr for demons,” which Tris finds and downloads from a sketchy Russian website. This app, as it turns out, includes demon versions for all the notoriously pathetic, desperate, racist, and femmephobic gay men who use Grindr. “MONST FOR MONST. NO HUMANS.” In this sea of unpleasant demons and humans, how can you find someone you’d actually want to be with who’d also want to be with you? But Tris gets a mysterious personal message from someone who appears to be the demon in his dreams, of his drawings.

Summonr is pure escapist fantasy, a game that wonders, in a world where so many available queer men seem like demons (to other queers), what if one of them was actually...nice? Tris fears for his life when he first summons the demon, who forces Tris to the wall and demands to know why he was summoned, if Tris knows what forces he is dealing with, if he knows his incredible power. But it’s all in jest, meant to “break the ice.” It turns out “Meph” is an earnestly clumsy flirt with the stiff speech of a fuddy-duddy to match. Where most demons wish to devour the souls of their human hosts, Mephistopheles just wants to love and care for them. Meph calls to mind the nicer demons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: perhaps a bit scary in appearance, idiosyncratic in behavior, but ultimately good-hearted. And in this case, totally fuckable.  

Summonr gives you the option to skip the sex scenes if you wish. I’m grateful for this decision because many of the very few games featuring queer men that I’ve played seem built around the goal of getting laid. Watching or reading about your character getting fucked often seems the sole or main impetus for playing a lot of these games. Which is fine in and of itself, except when these games dominate the scant representation of queer male sexuality in games, highlighting the sexual deviance of queer men while neglecting the possibilities of developed relationships between them.

Again, this is where my selfish need for personal gratification comes into playit’s important to represent non-standard relationships in addition to non-standard sex. But because I’m not currently cruising or looking to start, I don’t value games that resemble/centralize commitment-free cruising as much. Those games are likely to resonate more with players whose experiences fall in line with those games’ content. Of course, developing empathy for other people’s experiences is essential; one should learn to resist reading oneself in a protagonist who explores someone else’s perspective. That’s why we need not only diverse stories, but also challenging storiesstories that upset or alter our perspective, stories that show us something entirely new. Summonr is not a challenging story to me but one that reaffirms my own sense of identity and desires therein. Maybe I needed Tris’ and Meph’s vulnerability, their reciprocating touch, but I know that’s not all I need.

While other gay erotica games usually ask the player’s consent to view explicit content at the start, Summonr asks for consent at particular moments. Because Tris and Meph fuck regardless of whether you read the details or not, sex remains essential to the narrative. But this decision implies that the explicit depiction of sex isn’t essential to the player’s enjoyment of said narrative. I did not, uh, skip the sex scenes, but the game respected that I might not have been there for them and is confident that its own story is compelling enough to carry me through to the end.

And even though they are optional, the sex scenes aren’t just steamy; they further characterize Tris and Meph’s relationship. Tris is incredibly nervous and awkward the first time for obvious reasons, and Meph does his best to make Tris feel comfortable by smiling at his faux pas and accommodating his hesitant wish for him to wear a condom. Burning bright red text fixes the player’s and Tris’ gazes on Meph’s demon features, such as a “single pointed claw” that tears Tris’ shirt open. Tris wonders if running his hands through Meph’s horns turns him onwonders if the phenomenology of sex for Meph is at all comparable to his ownbefore his own experience overwhelms these thoughts.

But Tris hesitates to let the dream sweep him off his feet so completely. Throughout his time with Meph, which includes several dates, he sometimes wonders if he’s actually real and searches for a logic to the events that have led to his appearance. He also questions Meph about his own vastly different experiences of the world, including Hell. Tris learns that Meph had another relationship with a human in the 1950s that ended because the man wished to die, refusing to let Meph take him to Hell (which apparently isn’t that bad). Meph’s story raises a bunch of questions about mortality, love, and satisfaction: is “eternal” love an ideal anyone should strive for when our deaths can only disappoint our surviving partnerswhen our short lives might be good enough? Though Meph is the desired object of this dream, he has his own trauma and desires too, breaking down in front of Tris before putting his past behind him.

Tris almost ruins his burgeoning relationship with Meph at the end of the game. He starts worrying about the future. Bringing a boy home to the parents might not be a big deal for Tris and his family, but a demon? What if Meph gets bored of him? This dream has been wonderful, but maybe it’s too scary, maybe it’ll go so wrong. As Tris cries at Meph, upset that he won’t let himself be happy, Meph tells him to focus on the present, that they’ll “take it one day at a time.” The game ends with the two in each other’s arms, content yet uncertain whether their relationship will last the weekend or a lifetime. The game doesn’t deny that something could go wrong, that Tristan wasn’t meant to summon Mephistopheles into his bed, but it doesn’t necessitate these tragic possibilities either.  

It is with a loud, Romantic, babyqueer boy’s self-indulgence that I say Summonr is one of my favorite Twine games, a game about summoning the boy of your dreams into your life. It’s a game that dreams of more queer possibilities than many stories (TW), and dreams of satisfying more than just queer men’s needs for physical titillation. But dreams are just thatdreams.

But maybe…

Just maybe.

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