This past week, I was lucky enough to play through two excellent pieces of interactive fiction: Bee by Emily Short, and Consensual Torture Simulator by Merritt Kopas. Bee is about a young home-schooled girl studying to become the next national spelling bee champion. Through a series of hypertext choices, the reader guides how she spends her time, as well as her reactions to the world. Consensual Torture Simulator tells the story of a loving relationship in which the submissive partner wants to be beaten until she cries. The reader takes on the role of the dominant partner, who can slap, scratch, spank, take a break, soothe their lover, and end the session at any time.
These two pieces have a lot in common. They both present a world the reader is likely unfamiliar with, and may even consider scary or strange. They both ask the reader to make decisions that help the protagonist achieve their goals. You may find yourself making decisions you haven’t in your own life: laying a flogger across someone’s bare chest, or studying a list of Greek root forms. Most importantly, both pieces expose the reader to the emotional consequences of those decisions. You cannot avoid your father’s disappointment when you insist you’re too busy for a game of scrabble. You get to experience your lover’s labored breath when you give her exactly what she asked for.
Either piece could be translated into a conventional simulation game or RPG. Mash the STUDY or FLOG button until ENERGY is almost drained, replenish it with REST, repeat. But neither Bee nor CTS is a system built on quantitative data. The submissive partner is not an object built to receive pain, nor the mother a predictable dispenser of love. People have boundaries. People can be angry, or grateful, or helpless.
In Bee, and in Consensual Torture Simulator, people are people. Why does that seem so incredible to me?
Games are almost always systems that can be optimized. In an optimizable system, all actions are instrumental; you do X to get Y. Explore the cave to find gems, kill some monsters to gain experience points, and so on. Even so-called moral choices are presented as means to an end: make the right choice to get these rewards, or the wrong choice to get those rewards instead. Decisions are not based on moral reasoning, but on what game content the player would rather experience. Even interpersonal relationships are instrumentalized. A player might give a villager a fish just to get his honeycomb, or talk to a guard just to get useful information, without giving it a second thought. But as relationships become more intimate, utility borders on psychopathy. Think of the romance options in games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age. The player must carefully select dialogue options that result in characters becoming closer, more friendly, and eventually romantically involved. Sex is a reward, handed to player who makes the correct series of choices. This is not new. Players have been offered affection as a reward long before Mario’s first pixelated peck on the cheek.
Game design that treats human beings as exploitable resources is the standard.
We must look, then, to games that are non-standard. CTS’s tongue-in-cheek title is a nod to the soulless, impersonal sim games to which it bears no resemblance; Bee’s author doesn’t use the word “game” at all.
In any medium, innovation rarely comes from the mainstream. Established, successful formulae are generally not disturbed on their own. If you want alternatives to goal-oriented, reductionist approaches to interpersonal relationships, explore the fringes of game design. Find works that aren’t necessarily games, by creators that aren’t necessarily game developers.
I played through CTS multiple times while preparing to write about it. At one point I thought, “I should be testing the limits. I should see how many times you can hit your partner before she asks you to stop.” I didn’t get far. I couldn’t take out the cane again, while she was a sobbing mess on the floor. I picked her up, and tucked her into bed, and brought her some tea.