Late last year, A Closed World attracted attention for its queer themes. It was a summer project by a group from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, so all credit to them for creating something polished and interesting enough to talk about. Unfortunately, it's not quite what it says on the tin and it's difficult not to be disappointed about it.
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Initially, the description simply claimed to include "LGBTQ-friendly content", but they presumably got sick of people pointing out that the binary gender selection isn't exactly T-friendly, because now it just claims it "deals with queer issues". Queer issues… like suicide rates, unequal marriage rights, or discrimination in general? Apparently not.
A Closed World is a simple JRPG-style adventure using a rock-paper-scissors battle system of logic, passion and ethics. Armed only with your words, you set out into the forbidden forest (accept being gay?), where you fight off monsters (deal with the hurtful things people have said?).
A battle between a small figure and a large monster. The first battle option reads "Frustrate the demon with logic!"
A Closed World is what queer issues look like when designed by committee. It's a trite fantasy where homophobia can be defeated by taking a deep breath and presenting a clear argument. Because deep down we're all just the same.
It's an easy game, not just because the battles are a pushover but because the themes are so safe. There is no depiction of struggle here; nothing to force anyone out of a privileged comfort zone. That's not only disappointing, it's a little bit dangerous. Plenty of harm is caused by well-meaning people who think they understand the experience of minorities.
Setting out to tackle queer themes was an unfocused mission for this project, and it shows in the vague description of the finished product:
"The result is a game that asks us to carefully consider what we think of as "normal," and what is needed to live in the world and be true to one's self."
If the battle system represents a character's struggle to be true to themselves, then getting your identity straight in your own head will be enough to make the monsters disappear? You won't be hurt or rejected for who you are any more? If only.
A Closed World could be improved with a bit of reframing. Don't call it a exploration of issues, call it a power fantasy. Then vanquishing homophobia through self-actualisation might actually mean something.
In going for the "deep down we're all the same" theme there's another big issue the designers didn't think through. There are queer gamers out there hungry for the chance to play characters they can relate to. Some people played A Closed World excited to have a gay or lesbian protagonist for a change, and received an unexpected slap in the face. In actual fact sexuality in the game is random, and in some cases you play as a straight character in a world where same-sex relationships are the norm. The random elements weren't obvious and some players were left confused and disappointed (see the comments over at The Border House for a small cross section of opinions).
I don't claim to speak for queer people, and certainly not all queer people. And of course having more games with queer content is important, even if that means creating some deeply flawed games with queer content. I hope the discussion that came out of A Closed World was valuable. Some designers are put off including more character diversity for fear of "getting it wrong", and that is not what I would want anyone to take away from this.
Things are at least improving when it comes to including queer characters in games. I look forward to it being so normalised no one bothers talking about it. Then it certainly won't need to be the sole objective of an experimental game project.