Curtain: Queer Video Games, Identity, and Realism

Curator's Note

We are in the midst of what Samantha Allen has called a “queer games renaissance.” Since the late 2000s, a canon of queer small games produced on easy-to-use development tools have become known for their candid representations of queer experience. This ever-expanding roster of "out" game design has in turn drawn attention to existing queer gamers and game designers, as represented in the documentary Gaming in Color (dir. Philip Jones and David Gil, 2014), and at conferences like GaymerX and QGCon: the Queerness and Games Conference.

Questions of realistic self-representation have been central to this queer games community. Queer games often feature fictionalized personal narratives, and queer game designers are frequently tokenized as community spokespeople, or even targeted by online hate campaigns, as a result of this perceived self-revelation. However, as Nicky Case notes in the opening of Coming Out Simulator 2014, games about queer experience are often "half-true game[s] about half-truths." The strength of contemporary queer games is in their ability to question the demand for game designers to unproblematically and realistically represent themselves.

To open a discussion of queer identity and realism in contemporary games, I chose a preview of Curtain (llaura dreamfeel, 2014), a first-person 3D exploration game that immerses the gamer in a destructive relationship in a queer punk subculture. While Curtain does not employ visual realism, instead telling its story through pixel art and throbbing electronic music, critics including Danielle Riendeau have attributed to the game a deep emotional realism, discussing how real its portrayal of abuse feels. For the uninitiated, however, Curtain could be a blurry window into the queer world, the punk world, and the world of emotional abuse. The game’s abstract design and sometimes-imprisoning mechanics require users to bring much of their own emotional life to the game in order to produce the intimate feeling of realism, and dreamfeel has described Curtain as a game about "second-person relationships." Curtain’s aesthetic use of a mirror that never shows the player character’s face speaks to this core mechanic of self-reflection. While questions about game designers’ identities circulate in reviews, blogs, and on social media, queer games like Curtain ask users to reflect on their own identities and experiences.


Amanda Phillips's picture

realistic representations

Diana, thanks for this post, which both introduces an important and influential moment in game design and also brings up a lot of questions about identity that applies to the wider game community. Reading your great points about different types of realism in gaming, it strikes me that it would be a great experiment to eliminate the use of the word “realism” in conversations about video games (or anything, really), since it really seems to have outlived its usefulness as a concept.

Realism” can be a political necessity - when we mean that we want a broader depiction of life possibilities for people who are otherwise pigeonholed into particular roles. But as you’ve noted here, queer lives and queer possibilities rarely fall into what many would recognize as “real” identities, real experiences, and we often desire to choose things are just aren’t a part of our realities. Playing Case’s game really underscored that for me, brought me back to a replay of my own coming out experiences and what I could (not) have done differently.

Mainstream conversations about realism in gaming often refer to simulating the physical properties of people or objects, or of simulating their physical processes, and this powers a preoccupation with graphical fidelity, animation techniques, and so on. But this type of realism obscures the fact that we all bring our own investments and interpretations to reality, and things as innocuous as the way a person walks can be laden with cultural expectations of gender, race, class, and so on.

So how do we balance the need for one type of realism while acknowledging the concept works against us more often than not? Should we shift the vocabulary here or try to reclaim it? It just feels like we’re working against literally hundreds of years of realism in the service of convincing other people that one way of seeing reality is true.

Diana Pozo's picture

Realism is an aesthetic

Thanks so much for responding and for this thoughtful discussion of the concept of realism.

Realism is usually associated with modernism, so I can see how it would seem outdated in a post-postmodern theoretical context. Nevertheless, discussions of realism and the “real” have not ceased in digital environments. Rather, as we discussed during yesterday’s post, issues of personal experience and affective realism (an interactive relationship between author and reader) have become more important than ever to discussions of who has authority to speak in online environments. And I agree that “realism” and “reality” can be used strategically but that they often end up as oppressive categories— being “real” as the last piece of cultural capital for oppressed people in exclusionary environments for example.

As a film scholar by training, however, I find it difficult to imagine eliminating the concept of realism from discussions of aesthetics, even digital ones. This is in part because the aesthetics of realism have been central to film as a representational medium and to film theory, but also because realism speaks to how spectatorship works as an interactive relationship between the text and the user/spectator. Of course, the rise of digital video and digital aesthetics problematizes realism in ways unimaginable by early film theorists who thought of realism in terms of “indexicality”— the concept of the photographic image as a physical trace of the profilmic object. However, indexicality is a useful concept for thinking about the possibilities “realism” provides, because through indexicality realism can work AGAINST prescriptive authorship. Items in the background of a carefully-framed shot belie the argument a filmmaker or photographer is trying to make for their perspective as truth, for example.

Coming Out Simulator 2014 is particularly interesting because while it resists TRUTH (it challenges the binary of truth/lies), it employs REALISM (indexicality) by using quotations from family members and Nicky Case and drawing upon the events that occurred. The game shows how realism itself can be critical of prescriptive notions of identity, truth, and linear narrative.

Matt Smith's picture

The aesthetic angle and "realisms"

I’ve been dealing with the concept of realism a lot in my own work lately, particularly in how we process images generally. As such, this back and forth speaks to me in context of my love for and distaste for the term “realism.”

I see that it is problematic as a term here, and I think it’s very good to call it out. Much as I’ve found in my research, it might be time for us to break down the category of realism into what it really has been for some time now: a loose category of aesthetics which actually contains many different types of realisms, including but certainly doing a disservice to queer realities on a number of different levels and through a number of different mediums. I’m not sure where I would go with the discussion as it arises here, but I’m intrigued with the idea of breaking the concept of realism down further into the separate realities it has always been as a more democratic and inclusive category of aesthetic discussion.

Do you have any thoughts on terms which better suit the situation here Amanda? I’m reading Diana’s posts, by the way, as a discussion of what I might be tempted to call “experiential” realism. But maybe you’re on a different plane here given I’ve not played these particular games and am just going off of the language in these posts.

Amanda Phillips's picture

breaking down the real

Matt, I think you better articulate what I was trying to get at - breaking down realism into more specific descriptions so that we can be more critical of what we’re talking about here. Diana, you’re absolutely right - the vocabulary of realism is entrenched into all sorts of historical conversations about aesthetics (in literary theory as well, which is my background), but even in those contexts they always seem to make so many normative assumptions about what constitutes the index. I guess I mean it more as a thought experiment, or perhaps even, as Matt suggests here, a call for more specificity about whose experience counts as the index. I don’t really have alternative terminology ready at hand.

I do like Diana’s point about indexicality giving the lie to prescripted authorship, however - and I think there’s a good case for this happening in the digital, as well. I like to use the example of swapped animations, which I know Diana has heard before but I’ll repeat again for others: customizable avatar skins mapped on animations with other bodies in mind, such as the way FemShep operates, are a way for the indexical nature of technologies aiming for “realism” to betray themselves.

I have a coauthored piece in Digital Creativity with Alison Reed about the racialized rhetorics of realism (lol alliteration) surrounding motion capture technologies, which discusses some historical trajectories of the concept and its relation to the bodies of people of color as the index of particular types of body movements, like dancing and sports. Anyway, I just get frustrated with its use because it really does seem to prioritize the concept of a neutral observer of reality, which we all can agree is bunk.

Diana Pozo's picture

Games Realism, broken down

Wow, Amanda and Matt! I had no idea my post would be so provocative. But I am glad it has been, because I think this conversation is really productive.

The original post’s aim was not to argue that queer games are realist, but to discuss the way these games, in particular Curtain, play with and challenge their own construction as realist in the press and by fans. I believe queer small games are already doing the work that you both point out needs to be done, of breaking down Realism and the Real as objective and singular quantities. I was only trying to highlight their contributions in the 400-word comment above. However, now that you mention it, I have a lot of thoughts about realism in games, which, as you both indicate, is a huge topic!

Just to begin for anyone tuning in now, games have long been imagined in a binary of realism vs. fantasy, with the game world being set in opposition to the “real world,” or imagined as a testing ground for future “real-world” actions. While the discourse of games as escapist fantasy has been key to defending dominant gamer culture against fears of games inciting “real-world” violence, the argument that the game world is indeed “real” has served to defend MMORPG fans from dystopian fears of gamers lost in a virtual world and ignoring the “real.”

These conversations are indeed circular and the binary of real/fantasy is itself problematic. However, it is and has been a structuring binary for games culture, as the arguments about “real games” “real gamers” and “just fantasy” in discussions around sexism in games and gamergate show. Within this contemporary politics of realism, queer game designers and queer small games have been discussed as realist in opposition to how AAA games culture is imagined as the realm of escapist fantasy. As my post argues, queer small games have a complex relationship with this reputation.

Here are some realisms I see at work in games, just off the top of my head.

1. “Experiential Realism,” as Matt put it: I assume you mean what might also be called “ethnographic realism,” whereby descriptions of personal and collective experience are considered to be a form of data for interpreting the world? This is of course the type of realism that is so often critiqued in online discussions, where navel-gazing millennials supposedly value their personal experience above any other form of data. Small data sets and privileged experience can cloud perceptions of the “ethnographic real.”

I think some games do try to get at experiential realism, in that they describe personal experience, as in a journal. However, I do not think either Curtain or Coming Out Simulator 2014 is going for this; I think both games avoid it. Diary comics (popular with queer authors and queer fans) are a better example of this type of realism. However, it is important to point out that even this type of realism is aesthetic. All memories are partial, and readers of diary comics, liveblogs, etc. understand that the experience they are having is of a representation of a “real” experience. Writers of experiential realist works are not often making claims to Universal Truth. They are often documenting their highly individual experiences as a way of working through them.

2. Structural Realism: Here I am thinking of the social realism of 19th century novelists and structural simulation games (Sim City, ex.). By representing the rules of a system, game designers (and other artists) can make arguments about how that system works. Gamers in turn compare the workings of the game system with their experiences of the “real” system to judge whether the simulation is truthful, though I do not think that is the dominant way of playing these games. Since consumers of social realist works have less knowledge about systems than the authors, this type of realism is often used as a teaching tool.

Within queer games, structural simulation is a huge issue. Games like Lim (Merritt Kopas, 2012) and Mainichi (Mattie Brice, 2012) represent structures that define queer lives and have gamers play with those structures as a queer character. Other small queer games have played with the format of the structural simulation game, like Ultra Business Tycoon III (Porpentine, 2013), which juxtaposes a business simulation game set in a dystopian world with the experiences of a gamer playing that game. The person playing UBT III plays within and “outside” the game-within-a-game.

3. Indexical Realism: There could be high-tech and low-tech instances of the index, though traditionally the index has implied mechanical representation and scientific measurement. Motion capture technologies in both films and games are a really interesting instance of the index, and I look forward to reading your article with Alison, Amanda! (My off-campus access did not allow me to download the piece from Taylor & Francis, so I am hoping you will be so generous as to send it to me ;) ) You may have written about this, but motion-capture can be profoundly disturbing: one moment in L. A. Noire had me asking myself whether a white actor had been colored brown in an instance of digital blackface!

However, game designers can also use bits of personal experience in a more “remix” style to add indexical realism to otherwise realism-busting works. This is what I was trying to get at by saying that Coming Out Simulator 2014’s use of quotations from family members could be seen as indexical. The index is supposed to have value simply by being a mechanical representation of an object that once existed, a record of the past. There is definitely something problematic about assuming that “real things” have an innate appeal about them that transcends mechanical representation. However, this idea has remained popular through repeated critiques, so we will see if it ever completely dies.

4. Affective Realism: This is the type of realism I was trying to discuss by bringing up Curtain, but I am still not entirely sure what I mean by it. Since I study touch, issues of affect and embodiment in experiences with media are often on my mind. I am trying to get at a kind of Remembrance of Things Past-style nostalgic or embodied realism, the way a smell can suddenly thrust you back in your mind and body to a past situation you only half remember. Suddenly having remembered something from your past you thought you forgot allows you to re-imagine it in a new way, possibly in the interest of your own personal growth. Not all source texts can produce this kind of response, but I think a lot of texts about queer experience engage with it.

When I played Curtain for the first time, its use of structural realism (portraying the structural qualities of emotional abuse) and its visual and aural design, which I considered highly evocative of that emotional landscape, thrust me into a state of rumination on my own past experiences. Many other gamers have described the game in similar terms.

Rather than representing the author’s emotions or experience (as in “experiential realism”), Curtain provided a platform or tool for examining my experiences, as I re-experienced them in a new and very different context. The game also made me aware of myself and my experiences as an object of analysis, and I felt it gave me space to think about myself in a new way.

I guess I was trying to question above if gamers who do not identify with queer experience, or with the structure of destructive/abusive relationships, would also understand the game this way. Curtain was like a guided meditation for me, with a strong ending that provided me a lot of release. I’d love to hear what you both thought of the game, if you have had time to play it.

Jessica Aldred's picture

Playing Curtain

Diana, my apologies for a delayed response, but I wanted to take some time to play Curtain (which, along with Coming Out Simulator 2014, will be added to my Gender and Gaming syllabus for next term for the weeks on games and queer identity - so thank you for that as well as your thoughtful post!)

A few initial thoughts now that I’ve played it: I absolutely agree that the game’s (often quite lovely, but also rather disorienting) use of visual abstraction encourages a much higher degree of player self-reflection, at the same time as it’s mobilized in service of the structural realism of emotional abuse you identify. For example, our initial disorientation in surveying the game screen is interrupted by our abusive partner chiding us (“silly girl”) for not knowing how to find our own apartment, and once we finally figure out how to navigate there and attempt (unsuccessfully) to open our wobbly, pixelated door, we realize that only our partner has the authority (and key) to open it. I found this constant uncertainty of navigating barely-intelligible spaces and objects while being barraged with varying degrees of physical and emotional abuse very unsettling - because while our surroundings are often obscured, the hurtful words are always crystal clear. So while the personal “affective realism” I experienced was derived more clearly from a familiarity with abusive/destructive relationships than it was first-hand identification with queer experience, I would absolutely agree that for me, like for you, “Curtain provided a platform or tool for examining my experiences, as I re-experienced them in a new and very different context.” I’d be extremely interested to hear from other players how their experiences may have overlapped or differed.


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