Pride, queer haunting, and Geralt of Rivia’s itchy doublet

I’ve realised recently that a surprisingly large number of things are both gay and homophobic at the same time. There are things that only make sense to me in the context of queer life, but that are also compelled to disavow their participation in queerness. The result is that they feel haunted by the lives that they refuse to animate. A lot of these uncomfortable politics can be encapsulated by an item of clothing worn by Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, usually at the behest of one of his girlfriends.

Content warning: discussion of homophobia, queerphobia, and ableism; portrayal of transmisogynistic images and tropes.

Doublets came to prominence in Europe in the 15th to 17th centuries, and incorporated a number of different technologies at different times to shape the male body and signal one’s belonging to a collective identity. Some doublets used whale bone to flatten the torso and straighten the posture, and they were often worn with heeled boots to further modify the gait. Other trends represented in the doublets available in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt include the ornamental use of metal buttons and leather to subtly signal elite status without standing out by wearing anything too garish (Hayeur-Smith et al. 2018), and the “skimpy doublet”, which was intentionally worn short to reveal the undershirt layer, a subject of some scandal from moralists at the time.

The specifics of how doublets signalled both group belonging and elevated status in different contexts at different times are not important to The Witcher 3, but the cultural politics of dress, masculinity, and austerity are noticeable. There are certain events in the game where clothing is associated with social feelings, such as shame and pride, and this association stands out in particular in those moments where Geralt is asked to wear a doublet.

We recognise shame as the opposite of pride. But the goal or outcome of Pride as a public event is not the same as the personal feeling of pride; the collective outcome is more like visibility, truth, and having space in society. Similarly, the public, collective result of a society that treats our identities with shame is not reducible only to the subjective feeling of shame; it is invisibility, speculation, and having to haunt the spaces that we would have otherwise had.

In Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher writes “What should haunt us is not the no-longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not-yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised.” In Time Binds, Elizabeth Freeman writes about “queer hauntology” in relation to artworks that project the present into the past, or Derrida’s hauntology as the sense that the present is haunted by the past’s unfulfilled promise. I understand this hauntology as a grief for the worlds we didn’t get to create, and the selves that we didn’t get to be. On top of that meaning of the term, works like The Witcher 3 make me feel personally alien or ghost-like, as though it were me and my actually-existing community that was haunting the worlds that dare not imagine us into being.

When I think about how The Witcher 3 makes me feel, as though I were a ghost lurking in the background of other people’s stories, I think about Sarah the Godling, one of the many beings in the Witcher universe who is misunderstood as a monster until Geralt pays closer attention to them. Sarah has been intentionally giving people the impression that a house is haunted, in part because she enjoys the mischief, and in part because it is one of the few strategies available that allow her to ensure a place to live. Haunting is how she is able to have space in a world that disavows her kind.

Lurking in the background of The Witcher 3 is the fact that Geralt, as a witcher, does not fit in or belong to mainstream society. People yell insults at him, including “freak” and even “gray boy”??? The not-very-hidden subtext is that Geralt too is misread as a monster, and his kind are now almost gone from this hostile world. Witchers were produced out of the attempt to rid the world of things that people considered “other”, and then they themselves became part of the “other” that people fear and do not understand. Sometimes what I want to say about this game is that it refuses to understand what it’s really like to live on the margins, but sometimes I think that it actually shows a disturbing level of insight into that marginalisation by turning diversities of gender and sexuality into little more than half-remembered daydreams.

To move between the highest levels of society and its haunted corners, Geralt needs to mask, and doublets are a key tool in doing this. Mages also mask, but the affective imaginaries attached to masking differ along gendered lines. Changing your appearance to fit in with beauty norms is seen as a desirable perk of being a mage, one for which they are willing to suffer terribly. Geralt, however, could hardly be less enthusiastic about wearing a single slightly-uncomfortable garment in order to look appropriate in a formal setting. He is usually cajoled into it by his mage girlfriends. Both boundary-crossing identities use personal presentation in order to create a way of conditionally fitting in, just for a little while, despite the widespread threats against them from normative society. Geralt complains that doublets make him uncomfortable, which seems in slightly poor taste when talking to someone literally wearing a corset and heels, but as mentioned above, doublets were a similar technology for straightening the body. On the surface, this begrudging attitude looks like an expression of a certain kind of rugged masculinity, even though by making him more attractive to the women in his life the doublet might be expected to enhance his performance of desirable manliness.

The reading of these moments through disability studies takes this into a different direction. Disability consultant for tabletop games Sara Thompson has argued that Geralt is disabled, because the novels repeatedly state that he is living with a chronic pain condition. This should make us read his expressions of physical discomfort differently. In addition to this, Geralt is repeatedly called out for being affectively different to humans, who perceive him as not experiencing emotion at all. It is clear that this is not true – he clearly responds emotionally to events around him, and extends empathy to creatures that do not receive it from human society. In our own world, this “double empathy problem” (others cannot empathise with him, and thus he is read as lacking empathy) is closely connected to neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is also connected to diversity in sensory processing, which is easy to read onto witchers given that they are literally able to sense things that others cannot.

As one counts the various taxes that the body-mind pays for admission into these spaces, the act of masking seems to bind queerness and disability together. In Authoring Autism, Neuroqueer scholar Remi Yergeau makes a strong case for such a connection.

What [the clinical construction of] autism provides is a backdoor pathologization of queerness, one in which clinicians and lay publics alike seek out deviant behaviors and affectations and attempt to straighten them […] in its past and present clinical formations, autism is contextually situated within societal responses to and of gay panic.

Remi Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 2017

Queerness haunts The Witcher 3 because it is not able to rise above the conditions of its production. It is a conservative product made to generate capital for bosses in a country with escalating restrictions on expressions of LGBTQ+ identity. At the same time, every sufficiently large AAA studio has queer developers, often finding ways to allow queerness to hide out in the shadows of its narrative. AAA games overwhelmingly keep it subtextual, while piling on enough normativity to allow them to pass as nonthreatening – there is a lot of masking happening on all levels. The fact that, according to a teleological view of “progress”, LGBTQ+ representation in one of the largest media franchises of recent years probably should not be such a difficult act of threading the needle, makes it all the more haunting. Queerness is not fully absent, but present to those who can sense it, as the ghost of the future that did not happen.

Like every ghost story, divergence is explained away with a more palatable narrative. Geralt’s discomfort in doublets is easily explained away as a masculine displeasure at being pushed into unmasculine activities such as dressing up and being diplomatic. Dandelion’s queerness is disavowed in a way that reads as particularly homophobic, as his queer-coded dress sense seems primarily used to signal ineptitude and weakness. When shopping for a doublet, Geralt ends up in an unnecessarily uncomfortable situation, in which even the most polite dialogue options involve clarifying that Dandelion had not had sex with a gender-non-conforming person who Geralt seems to consider as a man, and tersely rejecting the opportunity to share in the joy this person gets from wearing a dress. It is difficult to read the tone here as anything other than a homophobic concern that Dandelion might have deviated from heterosexuality, and a transmisogynistic discomfort around someone who presents themself in a genderfluid way.

The awkward effort put into this disavowal is a serious weakness of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling. This is a game that constantly shows you alternative families made up of ragtag groups of outsiders, and yet it always has to reaffirm that these alternative families are not queer. Geralt is a father-by-destiny with his nonreproductive non-exclusive partner, and his child has two other parents, plus a number of close family-like relationships with Geralt’s extended chosen family. And yet, we must be reminded before the game wraps up that Geralt’s family is still heterosexual and monogamous. Non-monogamy is not considered possible except by deception. So, despite the gameplay actively encouraging you to have Geralt get emotionally and physically entangled with multiple partners, with no indication that there might be friction or misgivings from Geralt’s side about having a polyfocal romantic life, he will still be punished if you have him pursue multiple relationships. Megan Blythe-Adams and Nathan Rambukkhana have argued that “in The Witcher series, the player cannot make this fruitful transgression into queer discovery […] the game’s array of sexual partners acts as a kind of buffer against queer possibility,” going on to point out that such narratives “force players to be either monogamous, cheaters, or creeps because they deny them alternative choices.”

As I write this, I imagine that my very blurry framing of queerness as neurodivergent and non-monogamous might meet objections from people whose queerness is not non-monogamous, or whose neurodivergence is not queer. But what I hope is that by following events connected to Geralt’s discomfort with doublets, it’s possible to see that despite the myriad specifities of our own individual experiences, The Witcher 3‘s discomfort with queerness cannot be separated from its discomfort with disability or non-monogamy. And of course, I haven’t even touched on the bizarre whiteness of this game’s imagined society. Given that these axes of oppression are bound together in the cultural production of difference, we have every reason to treat the issues themselves as intrinsically connected to one another.

The Witcher 3 feels to me like a conservative game haunted by disavowed queer possibility, because it cannot imagine difference and vulnerability as something that connects people. Instead, it is invested in always mitigating one axis of difference with several other axes of aggressive normativity. Homonormativity does this too of course. Corporate Pride often fails to recognise the axes of difference that all bind together in common the acts of haunting and masking. The easy-mode version of Pride is making visible that which can mask up effectively – not the nonmonogamous families, or the neuroqueer resistance to capitalist production, or the kinky or the otherwise strange and estranged. It is too easy for Pride to only recognise the pragmatic version of queerness that shows up to a polite occasion in order to do necessary work with people in power. The rest of queerness and its intersections haunts Pride as the ghost of futures deferred.

I think it is a mistake to reduce affect to a single rhetorical meaning, as though our discomforts only had one cause. It is a mistake to think that emotions such as pride or shame are the big thing at stake in the politics of representation and visiblity. Metaphors of masking and haunting reveal the strategies that we use to navigate a hostile world, and provide an alternative to either rejecting something like The Witcher 3 entirely for its obvious homophobia and misogyny, or inadvertently showering it with false praise in the course of reclaiming it as “feminist and queer, actually”. The masking and haunting that surround Geralt are at work in the production of this kind of high-budget media commodity, and in the day-to-day strategies of queer visibility.

References

Other writing about The Witcher:

Megan Blythe-Adams, Nathan Rambukkana (2018) “’Why do I have to make a choice? Maybe the three of us could, uh…’: Non-Monogamy in Videogame Narratives” http://gamestudies.org/1802/articles/adams_rambukkana

Elizabeth Ballou (2018) “Where The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt Goes Wrong in Depicting Women (and Why it Matters)” http://www.nymgamer.com/?p=17486

Khee Hoon Chan (2018) “Geralt of Rivia, Anthropologist” https://unwinnable.com/2018/05/08/geralt-of-rivia-anthropologist/

Tauriq Moosa (2015) “Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and gaming’s race problem” https://www.polygon.com/2015/6/3/8719389/colorblind-on-witcher-3-rust-and-gamings-race-problem

Megan Patterson (2016) “How Inconsistent, Sexist Fashion Hurts Worldbuilding in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunthttps://www.themarysue.com/pixelthreads-worldbuilding-witcher-3-wild-hunt/

Sara Thompson (2020), “Geralt of Rivia: A Disabled Protagonist” https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2020-11-24-geralt-of-rivia-a-disabled-protagonist

Theory

Ben Berman Ghan (2020) “Queer Time Machines: Hauntologies of Literature” Terse Journal https://tersejournal.com/2020/01/01/queer-time-machines-hauntologies-of-literature-by-ben-berman-ghan/

Mark Fisher (2013) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures Zero Books

Elizabeth Freeman (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories Duke University Press

Hayeur-Smith, M., Lucas, G., & Mould, Q. (2019). Men in Black: Performing masculinity in 17th- and 18th-century Iceland. Journal of Social Archaeology, 19(2), 229–254. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469605318793798

Sam MacBean (2016) “The Gal Pal Epidemic” Celebrity Studies 7(2) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19392397.2016.1165005?journalCode=rcel20&

Mitchell et al. (2021) Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health Developmental Psychology 39:1 https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjdp.12350

Eve Ng (2017), “Between text, paratext, and context: Queerbaiting and the contemporary media landscape” Transformative Works 24 https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/917

Remi Yergeau (2017) Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness Duke University Press

PISSF****T: about a jacket in Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium‘s Harry DuBois does not know who he is. I assumed at first that his amnesia was a simple narrative conceit by developers ZA/UM, a way of making him a blank slate for the player to turn into whoever they would like to roleplay. This isn’t quite true: the protagonist is far from silent, and although the player shapes him to a significant extent, we also, through the ways we learn about his past and through the ensemble cast of voices in his head that speak on behalf of his various skills, get to know a man who has already been shaped by his circumstances, and yet has lost himself to them.

By the time we start trying to mould him, it is to some extent too late. But player choices do have an effect on Harry’s character, accounted for by the game’s system of allocating points to different “cop-o-types” and political philosophies, as well as a structure called the “thought cabinet” that gradually builds an inventory of ideas that influence Harry’s skills and dialogue. In addition to the multiple fragments of Harry’s internal world, there are multiple possible external Harries that can be enacted; their seeds can be found scattered through the game’s quests, and it is up to the player to allow them to flourish or wither. This motif of multiplicity is underscored by the moments when the player can choose from multiple names that Harry might go by.

While you’re at it, you can dress Harry up in some rather nice jackets. This was going to be a simple essay about one of those jackets, but then things got very complicated. What follows is messy, and contains spoilers as well as discussions of racism and homophobia.

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Part one: F****t

F****t is the only curse word that is censored in Disco Elysium, a fact made glaringly obvious in the existence of a jacket with “PISSF****T” written on the back, which sits alongside another jacket bearing the message “FUCK THE WORLD” – piss and fuck are spoken freely, but f****t is different. Some players have whinged about this censorship on forums, asking how they can turn it off, even wondering if there is some side-quest they can do that will prove their entitlement to hear this word. I think it would be a mistake to assume that this word is censored solely because of a desire to avoid oppressive language. Oppressive language is indeed handled in a way that signals a degree of respect for the consequences of hate speech, but f****t has been singled out for unique treatment, a special kind of distortion and a loud kind of silence. The word is never displayed visually without censoring, and the audio is replaced with noise that hisses in your ears, as though Harry’s senses cannot take it in.

Racial slurs are handled very differently, with ZA/UM choosing for the most part to come up with fictional slurs that get across the hateful intent without the game itself directly becoming a vehicle for hate speech. I don’t feel equipped or qualified to unpack this fully, but Disco Elysium‘s portrayal of fictional racism is pretty messy, in a way that is well-intentioned but still centres whiteness. There is a lot of scope here for in-depth writing by people of colour about how the game handles racist language, the consequences of racist behaviour, and Harry’s white privilege. The game gestures at the possibility that racist police violence is rooted in weakness, by making it almost always happen as a result of failed authority checks, and always makes racism an unpleasant thing to participate in; Steven Scaife has written favourably that Kim’s displeasure in response to racist speech is an effective deterrent, giving the players meaningful negative consequences to their actions. However, I think this overreliance on dialogue with Kim can give the game’s treatment of racism a detached, didactic tone. I’ve seen Harry die of a heart attack because he sat on an uncomfortable chair, and experienced “game over” screens due to catastrophic loss of “morale” (another health meter alongside physical health), yet when I as the player was left reeling after seeing a failed authority check result in him yelling racist insults at Kim, Harry’s own morale loss was perfectly survivable.

I think it is unfortunate that, in my playthroughs at least, racism ended up having less material consequences for Harry than bad office decor, but one could certainly argue that this is a realistic portrayal of white privilege. The point I want to make here is that racism is portrayed in a relatively detached way, as a fictional feature of the worldbuilding that Harry and the players can learn about, and even participate in, without being directly affected by it.

In contrast, homophobia seems to be handled with a strong sense of interiority – it seems to matter directly to Harry himself, though he isn’t sure why. This is consistently brought home in mechanics, dialogue, visuals, and even haptic effects such as the noise sound that blocks out “F****t”. This visual and auditory layer makes the effect of the word seem to resonate in the body of the protagonist. Homophobia is linked to the composure skill. Insulinde is a world with patriarchy, feminism, and a “homosexual underground”. In the context of a society haunted by sexual shame, f****t points to a figure that may or may not be lurking in the shadows, hiding underground. Unlocking the “homosexual underground” thought requires passing a composure check with an arrestingly attractive man – Kim quietly mocks Harry for being unable to make sense of his own attraction to this suave smoker on the balcony. This connection between sexual shame and composure plays out again after acquiring the PISSF****T jacket, when it is the voice of composure that celebrates, “did you just graduate from the École normale supérieure de badassery?” Composure could be intepreted as similar to pride, but it carries with it an extra valence connected with emotional regulation. Composure is what is needed in a space where pride never goes unchallenged. Kim’s composure seems to be endless – it must be, for him to keep coming back to work with Harry each day.

The word f****t is thrown at people in Revachol, and whether the word sticks seems to be down the person’s composure. A person can make you into a f****t just by calling you a f****t. It is a word that has the power to shape the world. This power is on spectacular display in the PISSF****T jacket, which is shown in a pair with another jacket that has “fuck the world” written on the back. It is a classic use of slur reclamation – mark yourself before anyone else can, to take the power back. Harry tries to persuade Kim to wear the two matching jackets together – the immaculately well-dressed Kim refuses, of course.

My original idea for this blog post would have had me go into a bit more depth about the “homosexual underground” thought cabinet, which deliberately denies the player’s desire to figure out whether the protagonist could be queer while also underscoring the fact that, yes, people are gay in this world – resolving this quest leads Harry to declare that he will no longer “obsess about sexual identity”, and also leads to some dialogue that reveals that Kim is gay. Actually, I thought writing this post would just be a thinly-veiled excuse for me to gush about Kim Kitsuragi, and swoon about how much I would like to see him make breakfast. But then I did a bit of digging around the PISSF****T jacket, and learned something astonishing. The jacket is referred to in the game’s code as “jacket_pissflaubert”.

According to the asset’s file name, if not the visual appearance of the jacket itself, f****t isn’t the real-world homophobic slur that I recognise – it stands for “Flaubert”.

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From the gamepedia wiki

Part two: Flaubert

I think it’s reasonable to guess that “Flaubert” refers to Gustave Flaubert, a 19th century French writer who is considered by some to be the inventor of the modern novel and of literary realism. I’m very far from being a literary scholar, so my account of this will be pretty flawed, but I think Flaubert fits very well into Revachol’s vibe, despite the anachronism – he would be right at home in a post-revolutionary society that has failed to live up to its ideals.

Harry DuBois shares with Gustave Flaubert a tension between the ideal of an ascetic art life, and the lived reality of debauched misadventures. Flaubert’s belief in the artistic denial of bodily passions led him to a period of abstinence starting in 1843, and still his colonialist pleasure tourism led him to contract syphilis in 1850, passing the disease on to multiple sex workers in Egypt and the Middle East. His writing is praised for a deep narrative empathy with marginalised others, while his biography suggests a tendency toward profoundly selfish behaviour, compounded by a context of racism and sexism that empowered him to do lifelong harm to women whose voices cannot now be heard. In Disco Elysium, Harry is haunted by the memory of a woman whom he has hurt in ways even he cannot remember; all he can remember is that he longs for her. A thought cabinet quest that appears early on means that he can quit alcohol and drugs in order to become a feminist, giving him a boost to his empathy – or, he can continue to indulge, hurting his connection with others in exchange for temporary boosts to other skill checks.

When people write about Flaubert, they generally seem to go all one way or all another, either sanitising his horrific behaviour or focusing on it completely. Roland Barthes sanitises by treating Flaubert’s writing from a universalising, formal perspective, and focusing on how the crafting of words and signs and sentences points to a common human experience. “Style, for Flaubert, is absolute suffering, infinite suffering, useless suffering,” wrote Barthes in “Flaubert and the Sentence”. “The Flaubertian sentence… is like the gratuitous arrest of an infinite freedom, in it is inscribed a kind of metaphysical contradiction: because the sentence is free, the writer is condemned not to search for the best sentence, but to assume every sentence.” Barthes’s notion of the Flaubertian sentence translates into a kind of Flaubertian narrative design in Disco Elysium‘s dizzying number of possible sentences, of which the player only experiences a handful. Harry’s inner dialogues also demonstrate this narrative multiplicity, a constant tug-of-war between “infinite freedom” and a sense that the split self is “condemned” by the need to “assume every” possibility.

Barthes, of course, is the person one points to when keen to enjoy a work of art without thinking about the shitty person who created it. In “Death of the Author”, he says not only that the author is irrelevant, but that by creating something, the author has effectively erased themself: “[W]riting is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” So whether he destroys himself through drink and drugs, or abstains in order to pursue empathy and art, Harry inevitably enters this negative where all identity is lost. He does not know who he is; his subjectivity has fragmented into voices that speak for skills, needs, desires, perspectives, so that there is no body doing or thinking, there is only a cacophony of voices speaking for things – things to be done to the world or perceived in it. In doing, in making a choice, in speaking or writing or painting, the player and Harry destroy every voice, every point of origin, all identity; the moment passes, and there is only action.

Disco Elysium has a depth of fascination with mundane objects, something that Roland Barthes associated with “the effect of reality” in Flaubert’s work – videogame types might say that an incredible level of detail in description of a large number of mundane things is one of the main techniques that makes this game feel “immersive”. Still, what we encounter in the game is not just realist, but surrealist and/or absurdist – it is a world with cryptids, intelligible talking objects, unintelligible ravers, and intense dream sequences. Even this departure seems to return us to a reading of Harry as Flaubert himself, who was prone to hallucinations, which is thought to be a possible symptom of his epilepsy. Among reports of his hallucations are a vision of the Virgin Mary as a child, which connects with Harry’s comforting images of the fictional holy mother figure Dolores Dei: ‘‘I thought I could hear Maria walking by my side…I knew very well that it was a hallucination which I was producing for myself, but I could not help smiling over it and I felt happy’’.

Happiness is not simple for Flaubert or ZA/UM. Madame Bovary is a novel whose starting point is the fact that happiness does not happen as portrayed in romance novels. In Disco Elysium, there is frequent mention of the fact that being a cop isn’t like it is portrayed in crime novels. Romantic disappointment is a key theme in both, but the deeper heartbreak in Disco Elysium is not about missing the person who Harry has lost, but about him grieving the versions of himself that have been lost – his fall from grace separating from him the promise of happiness represented by the hybrid figure of his ex-wife and the holy mother. Rather than reloading or respawning after a failure, Disco Elysium narrates failed skill checks in close detail, to underscore a theme of falling short, not measuring up to the literary ideal, failing to experience joy in the right way.

Part three: Fuck the World

Synthesising the Harry that I see through “f****t” and the Harry I see through “Flaubert” leads to a contradiction. “F****t” has an embodied effect on Harry, and a thematic connection to how the position of homosexuality in Revachol demands that one develop a high degree of composure in order to survive, and this pulls me toward identifying in Harry a special connection to queerness – but any attempt to form a specific sexual identity is troubled by the “homosexual underground” thought cabinet quests, which states that obsessing about sexual identity is not a helpful activity. “Flaubert” forces me to confront not only the deep emotional significance of Harry’s problematic relationships with women, but also the ways that the game formally and narratively portrays the obliteration of identity itself. Whatever “F****t” might point to, it cannot be reliably found in the subject himself, but only enacted through the performative speech act of using a slur.

The PISSF****T jacket turns that performative act from a denigration of the person in the eyes of society, to a reclamation of autonomy through the willful denial of identity. This jacket, and its partner garment “Fuck the world”, are encountered through two young men who want to join an organised crime gang that seems to also be an art collective. Talking with them about the jackets produces some very funny dialogue that generally reads like a parody of overly earnest theory nerds like myself – this is one of a few brilliant moments where the game makes fun of art speak, but somehow it manages to do this without suggesting that art is intrinsically bourgeois or inaccessible to working-class people, or that there is something false about working-class people’s engagement in artistic critique. This is also something Bong Joon-Ho achieves in Parasite, which mocks bourgeois people for being susceptible to fake art speak while also demonstrating that the working class protagonists have an authentic understanding, skill, and connection to both contemporary and traditional fine art.

“Fucking *philosophy* man,” says the wannabe gang member, “You can do aggressive shit with philosophy. Justify shit.” Asked why his jacket has PISSF****T written on the back, he gives a philosophical justification:

“Well, first off, it’s a statement and not *necessarily* something that characterizes me as a person, even though the statement has character. And I *do* like piss…

“The word PISSF****T epitomizes the struggle taking place in the world, things being defined as they seem, not as they are. And — I guess — it’s also about communal spirit, the future, and *truly* appreciating our differences.

“Also, you’ve got to admit, it catches the eye. And since the grand piper is slowly but steadily moving towards basing the economy on it — attention — it is imperative that the medium itself convey the message.

“What I mean by this is — we are *all* Pissf****ts. And that the world is inherently meaningless.”

There are a lot of ways to read this, some of which would risk missing the humour in this situation. Here I’d like to focus on how this explanation emphasizes that f****t is not something that the wearer of the jacket necessarily *is*, but something that they are seen as, and a role that they are adopting willfully in the specific context of a space in which one is aware of how one is seen by others. F****t is explicitly identified here within an attention economy, with the definition of a person based on the perceptions of others, and with the lack of any intrinsic meaning to a thing or person other than the meaning that is constructed discursively – any shame attached to being a PISSF****T arises from “how things seem, not how they are”.

This hyperawareness of how one is perceived is a key source of humour in the overall interaction with these two young men – they trip over themselves constantly because they want to be seen as badasses without getting in trouble with the police, and they want to be seen as potential members of a criminal gang without looking like they are trying to impersonate anyone. The exchange is mocking pretentiousness, but in a way that undermines the possibility of being authentic in the first place, and shows the power dynamics behind why someone might engage in pretentious behaviour.

While PISSF****T is about self-consciously using the perception of oneself as an object of shame to reveal the intersubjectivity of shame and the social construction of identity, FUCK THE WORLD is described by its wearer as mocking the subject-object relationship oriented around desire:

“Many men keep searching for *the one*. For so-called true love, which is actually just obsession masquerading as a kinship. The thrill of the chase, the hollowness that fills your chest cavity after catching it.

“To catch a fish you need to hurl the lure many times, and even then it isn’t certain that you’ll get anything. If you blow up the lake, though…

“…you get more fish in a shorter time. And, for time is of the essence and fleeting ever so quickly, one must think of a way to fuck the whole world — and not get caught up in fucking some *one*.

“Because when one fucks everything, he fucks nothing. And that, to me, feels glorious — sticking your dick into the void.”

As Kim points out later, this is a weaker statement than “PISSF****T”, but it is still interesting in relation to Harry’s personal separation from objects of happiness. By switching the orientation of desire from a specific object, to everything and nothing at the same time, it underscores the point made by PISSF****T – “the world is inherently meaningless,” and to blow it all up is to “stick your dick into the void”. It reads humorously as shallow teenage nihilism, and thematically as a sincere artist statement that it is directly relevant to Harry’s own nihilistic demise, which is closely related to his obsession with a woman who does not reciprocate his sense of kinship.

The interaction around these leather jackets all revolves around the idea that both the subject and the object of emotion (desire or revulsion) are empty of inherent meaning and ultimately unsatisfactory – and points instead to communal spirit, multiplicity, and a union with the everything-and-nothing of a world that is truly fucked.


There is no stable hero identity or guaranteed object of happiness to be found in Disco Elysium; instead, the game’s “effect of reality” provides an opportunity to experience a deeply interconnected world filled with a large number of things that provoke multiple, conflicting responses from the protagonist. It narrates failure in great detail because the point is not to be the best Harry DuBois, but to pay attention to whatever comes up through the lenses of his skills. As you put more skill points into various areas, Harry develops the sensitivity to be able to notice more of what is happening around him.

It could be that this is why, in the “homosexual underground” thought cabinet quest, the desire to make sense of Harry’s orientation is dismissed with the admonishment that it is unhelpful to obsess about sexual identity – the philosophy of this game is geared towards eventually letting go of being a particular sort of person with a specific object of desire, and instead just being with the whole of what is there. That’s in some ways a problematic statement to make, particularly at a time when gender and sexual minorities still have to fight for our civil rights, which requires that we reclaim autonomy over how our identities are defined, rather than giving them up entirely. But it’s a remarkable statement to make through a role-playing game, a genre which is so strongly reliant on character building, hero’s journeys and MacGuffin-chasing. Harry DuBois doesn’t know who he is, and ultimately, that’s because such a thing cannot be known.

Cis Penance first preview

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I’ve put out the first little bit of work on Cis Penance, which will eventually be a massive collection of interactive portraits of trans people in the UK. I’ aim to release new portraits on a regular basis for a while until the full thing is complete.

The first portrait I’m sharing is of Rainbow, a non-binary person in Northern Ireland who talks about living a non-normative life with joy, creativity, and self-expression after experiencing homelessness, human trafficking, and systemic racism.

Play Cis Penance on itch.io

If you would like to support the project, there’s space on there for you to buy a downloadable copy – if you do that, you’ll also be subscribed to updates as the project grows!

 

Cis Penance work-in-progress update

A quick update on Cis Penance, my project that involves interviewing lots of trans people in the UK about our experiences of waiting…

Things are coming along really nicely. Here’s a video of the work-in-progress:

There is also an itch.io page for it! I haven’t published anything playable on there yet, but small demos of specific conversations are coming soon. It’ll be playable in-browser for free, but if you like, you can use the “pre-order” button to donate to the project.

I’m still doing interviews, by the way, mainly with BAME trans folks. So please check out the call for participants if you’d like to contribute that way.

Indie Games Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality

Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan is in itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality.

This is a remarkable initiative involving over 740 projects. Over $3,400 of paid works are available Pay-what-you-want with a minimum donation amount of $5. All proceeds will donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund split 50/50. They’ve already raised $380,000 at the time that I’m writing this, and the bundle includes some games that have been really important to me, such as Oxenfree, Night in the Woods, and Strawberry Cubes. I struggle to think of a good reason not to get in on this – go buy this bundle, and please donate as generously as you can!

Neo cab and the materiality of emotion

Spoilers for the ending of Neo cab start immediately!

Early on in Neo Cab, the protagonist Lina is given a “Feelgrid”, a wearable device that changes colour based on her mood, as a gift from her new roommate and childhood best friend Savy. This speculative technology seems simple at first, but the more closely I looked at how emotion is represented and simulated in Neo Cab, the more deliciously ambiguous it appeared. The selling point, Savy tells you, is authenticity – having a wearable device that makes visible your true feelings, based on material readings such as your hormone levels, should reduce insincere or false communication. Ironically, Savy is a serial liar and emotional manipulator, and is giving you the device for multiple hidden reasons, most of them not good.

A question that the game skilfully leaves unanswered is whether the kind of emotional authenticity that Savy talks about is really possible. Yes, a device might be able to read physical indicators such as hormones, but this brings to mind an oft-quoted passage from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Fisher is talking about mental illness, so I’ll be a little cheeky and paraphrase to refer to emotion in general: it stands to reason that emotions are biochemically instantiated, but observing that still doesn’t explain how those biochemical changes occur. What still needs to be examined is how emotions are themselves shaped by things like systemic injustices, cultural patterns, and performative embodiment.

Broadly, for something in a videogame to be considered materially significant, I think it should impact the affordances available to the player. In real life, we know something is made of solid material if we can touch it and feel that it resists our movement. Neo Cab makes emotions material not just through this fiction of the Feelgrid, but by directly connecting emotions to which actions are possible. You cannot perform an emotion too far from what Lina is experiencing – she cannot pretend to be happy if she is devastated, but she can choose to perform an emotion slightly on the happier side of her current mood. This builds on the system in Depression Quest, which accounts for healthy or preferable actions that the player cannot take, because the protagonist’s mood is too low to allow it. Similarly, Lina cannot speak up for herself if she is feeling too deflated. She cannot be congenial if she feels too angry. Emotions are consequential, more material to the game world than the concrete on which she drives.

On my first playthrough I tried to keep Lina happy and resilient, which led eventually to an “emotional victory” ending. This meant acting as counsellor to a lot of pax, trying to empathise with their problems while also reframing those problems in a more empowering way – this keeps the general vibe positive and avoids conflict. I was, in Sara Ahmed’s terms “going along with happiness scripts”.

I wasn’t aware in this playthrough that my choices were affecting Lina’s mood as well. So much of her work involves trying as far as possible, within the options made possible by her current mood, to be the person that others need her to be. Lina is so well-practised at this, the work is often invisible. When “playing along” with the needs and wants of other characters, I felt separated from Lina’s internal reality. It seemed on the surface as though Lina’s emotions were just happening to her in response to the world. This is not the case. In Neo Cab, emotions seem to be part of a reciprocal loop of cause and effect, or action and affect.

Neo Cab is an emotional labour simulator – you enact the emotions needed for the moment, and in so doing, you produce them. This is not just an insincere performance, as the opening dialogue might have you believe – Lina’s mood as detected by the Feelgrid actually changes based on the vibe you choose to build. This ambiguous position of emotion in Neocab reflects key feminist writing on emotional labour. In The Managed Heart, Hochschild argues for a view of emotion that combines the embodied nature of feeling with the cultural structures that shape it.

If we conceive of feeling not as a periodic abdication to biology but as something we do by attending to inner sensation in a given way, by defining situations in a given way, by managing in given ways, then it becomes plainer just how plastic and susceptible to reshaping techniques a feeling can be. The very act of managing emotion can be seen as part of what the emotion becomes.

So, being true to one’s feelings is not as simple as just reacting to whatever biochemical state is present at a given moment – behaviour is not separate to feeling, but part of the shape and path of an emotional experience. Savy’s demand for transparency seems to reflect Hochschild’s “abdication to biology”, but within minutes she demands that Lina put aside inconvenient emotions, in order to cheerfully go along with what she wants to do. Her gift is presented as a self-help tool, but it is an instrument of surveillance and manipulation. “In the course ofgetting in touch with our feelings,'” observes Hochschild,we make feelings more subject to command“.

If Lina feels good as a side effect of her own compliance, is that feeling authentic, just because the Feelgrid confirms that it has a biochemical basis? According to Hochschild, this is a question about our own identification with our feelings, rather than their qualities. “The actual content of feelings—or wishes, or fantasies, or actions—is not what distinguishes the false self from the true self; the difference lies in whether we claim them asour own.’” This “false self” is the self that we create in order to perform emotions authentically, without claiming them as our peresonal truth. Hochschild identifies two particular false selves that became an iconic dyad under the conditions of late capitalism: the narcissist and the altruist. Savy and Lina fit these archetypes very closely – the “emotional victory” is the one where the altruist finds the autonomy to resist narcissistic manipulation.

“For some, the earth is unyielding, unable to provide the soil in which life can flourish … To see racism, you have to un‑see the world as you learned to see it, the world that covers unhappiness, by covering over its cause. [… covering over what resists …] You have to be willing to venture into secret places of pain.” (Sara Ahmed, Feminist Killjoys)

The fascinating edges of Neo Cab’s emotion system became more visible when I tried an apocalypse run. A pax called Agonon is in an emotional deathcult – he believes that a chthonic creature living deep below the earth will rise up and destroy the city if he and his fellow adherents can nourish enough sadness. This “pain worm” is known by the name Metawopian. Another pax who is a multidimensional planeswalker type mentions that there is a parallel universe where such an event occurs. So I set out to bring about this result – I tried to feed Metawopian by drawing Lina towards the most misery possible.

On the one hand, this was the playthrough where I saw clearly the amount of agency you have over Lina’s moods – bringing down the vibe with customers will pull Lina towards anger and sadness, making an “emotional victory” against Savy impossible. On the other hand, it was impossible to completely resist the pull of positive affective states. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to be miserable. Happiness, as Sara Ahmed writes, is normatively constructed as a goal, positioned as an object that one obtains by performing correctly. To fail at happiness is a shameful deviance – this is why it can feel liberating and exciting to be a feminist killjoy, as Ahmed states: “There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness, even if we do not inhabit the same place (as we do not). There can even be joy in killing joy. And kill joy we must.”

I felt drawn to Metawopian because the idea of destroying a whole world by refusing happiness was very appealing. Sara Ahmed writes that “Happiness shapes what coheres as a world.” In a normative view of emotion, misery would be the fail state, the default that you fall into if you simply do not play the game well, a downward force pulling you into depression like gravity in a platform game. But in Neo Cab, any valuing of some emotions over others will result in disappointment. This is a problem that Agonon talks about in his scenes with Lina – how does a worshipper of Metawopian tolerate the inevitability of moments of joy, which rob the great one of sustenance? Whoever you serve, whether they are a tech executive or a giant worm that feeds on pain, you cannot give all of yourself to that service.

I didn’t manage to awaken Metawopian. I think it might not actually be possible, but I’m not certain – I still enjoy the idea that there is a Lina in a parallel universe that gets deep enough into her sadness that it swallows the whole city. In my experience though, I couldn’t simply choose not to allow Lina to feel happy. Not only were other clients different, bringing her into different states, but her inner monologues were also changing her moods. It was as though my agency as a player only concerned Lina’s false self, an emotional performance that she internalises enough to experience it physically, but not enough to give herself to it fully and eliminate any other influences on her emotions. I get to control Lina’s actions, but not her identity. There was a true Lina outside of my control, and that Lina remained a joyful infidel. As a result, this Lina would not sustain a performance of devout darkness for long.

Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan, release for International Transgender Day of Visibility

It’s International Transgender Day of Visibility, and you’re socially isolated. I just published a game that allows you to have interactive dialogues with 12 characters, based on real interviews with transgender people in Japan. Hang out, explore, get to know some folks!

Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan by Zoyander Street

 

International Transgender Day of Visibility March 31st launch of Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan

(Update: launched! Check it out at https://zoy.itch.io/iportraits.)

This Tuesday March 31st will be International Transgender Day of Visibility. I’ve been planning to launch a downloadable version of the Interactive Portraits from Japan for this year’s IDOV, and though it feels a little out of step with what’s on everybody’s minds right now, I’m still going ahead with it.

If you’ve played this before, either at an event or because you got access to the link where the works in progress were available to try out, then you know there’s a lot of wisdom shared by the trans people I interviewed – thoughts about how to build resilience, how to take care of your community, and how to deal with the massive scale of human suffering.

The joy of making work based on interviews, particuilarly the open-ended and reflective interviews that I have found myself doing, is that you quickly find this bedrock of compassion and insight that underpins the human experience. I hope the full release of this project will bring some much-needed solace to someone, somewhere.

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I’m going to spend the weekend making some final changes, and then I’ll post here on Tuesday with an itch.io link where you can download Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan.

(Update: launched! Check it out at https://zoy.itch.io/iportraits.)

During this time of webinars, Zoom rooms, and Discord discourses, I’d love to get together with any folks and chat about this project, and about my work-in-progress that applies a similar idea to trans people in the UK, so please get in touch! My email address is zoyander at gmail.

Arts Council Project Grant for “Empty Carriage: An Interactive Self-Portrait”

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Coach-built pram in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

I’ve been awarded an Arts Council Project Grant to turn a vintage coach-built pram into a games console. I’m making a game for it that uses my interactive portraits approach to portray myself. Whereas my other interactive portraits are based on interviews, this one is based instead on a guided inquiry to see through the illusion of self.

Using multiple-choice dialogue options, players will ask the mini-me a series of questions that prompt an examination of every aspect of consciousness, turning over every phenomenological stone to try and find any sign that there is really a “me”. If I can make it work, the interface is probably going to use some interactive textiles, so that the player chooses questions by stroking a blanket. I’m also going to try to build it using a mini-projector, so that the whole thing feels soft and tactile.

I’ll be displaying this at the Platform exhibition at Site Gallery in August, and I’m hoping to take the pram out for a couple of walks this summer as well. This week I’m going on a bit of an adventure to a remote village in North Yorkshire to buy a pram from the 1930s that actually looks a lot like the one from Rosemary’s Baby.

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Video: Curating artist-made games at SF MoMA

This is a short documentary that I made a while ago but never published, about a pop-up exhibition of games that showed at SF MoMA back in 2017 at the same time as GDC. Giving this video a quick editing pass today before uploading it, I was struck by how much of an impact this interview must have had on me. Two years later, I’m still chewing on the ideas brought up here. I’m so glad that I’ve finally made the time to share this material!

This was one of my stops on a train journey down the West Coast of North America, during which I recorded a load of footage for a series of short documentaries about people who curate and archive games. I have a page for the whole series here. In the past few weeks I’ve been uploading them to Vimeo, and with this video uploaded I’ve finally finished the series!