Warning: the story contains story spoilers for Curtain.
When I was 17 years old, I was in an abusive relationship. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that Curtain, a game that explores controlling and abusive relationships directly, got under my skin. Way, way under my skin.
The narrative plays on tropes that are more common in the world of LGBT cinema than we usually see in games. Girl meets girl. Girl falls in love with girl. The girls form a punk band together and move in. Things get complicated after that. Curtain is the story of those two women: Ally, an artist and songwriter who falls for the unstable but charismatic Kaci.
You play Curtain by walking around their neon-hued apartment, interacting with objects. The story is told in realtime, as you examine the details of Ally and Kaci's world — the notes you read, the phone conversations you "have" when you click on the phone, the guitar by the couple's bedside. Kaci speaks to you as you interact with elements in the room, and sometimes Ally will share her observations with the player.
Kaci first welcomes Ally into the apartment with exuberance, telling her how cute she looks, but she doesn't trust her with a key. "You're so hot, Ally," she says as you enter the front door. "Especially when you pout. Hey! Hey! Let me kiss, you know you like it."
Not long after, Kaci starts with disparaging remarks, insulting Ally's art, calling her a "lazy lump" and cutting Ally off from friends and family.
After a friend, "Rebecca," expresses concern about Kaci's behavior, Kaci tells Ally "I really don't want you hanging out with Rebecca anymore. I think she wants to break us apart, I don't like her."
From there, it gets so, so much worse.
"It is fictionalized but using that to get at something more real," creator llaura dreamfeel told me by email, regarding her own real-life experience that inspired her to make the game. "Initially it was some people close to me who I had seen come through similar relationships."
"Making Curtain helped me process a lot of that."
"Then as I wrote the story more my own experience started to seep in through the cracks. It wasn't a romantic relationship but I went through a really intense, personal experience not too long ago that consumed my entire life and from which I couldn't recognize myself or see anything beyond it. It surprised me how raw a lot of it still was. Making Curtain helped me process a lot of that."
Its aesthetic is pink and purple, gleaming and glitchy, complementing the storyline. It's loud and in-your face, the way Kaci and Ally's band presumably is, and dreamfeel told me that achieving that look and feel was intentional. "I wanted Curtain to be something ugly and rough and garish, initially it might even be hard to discern, but also that has beauty, that it becomes clearer as you play," she said.
"I'm drawn to strong colors, I think they can be really emotive. I also wanted to explore a visual style that felt alive, even when you're not doing anything. That its skin is slowly crawling."
"And lastly, I wanted the player feel cramped, like in the way the text box takes up a third of the screen literally imposing on your view."
Getting to the core
Curtain hit me so hard because of just how real it felt. Kaci herself is exactly the kind of woman my teenage self would've swooned after — creative, exciting, dangerous and deeply troubled.
Making a game about domestic abuse — especially a depiction of an LGBT couple — is fraught. If it didn't feel authentic to the experience, or completely honest in its intentions, Curtain could've ended up an insulting, painful failure. But dreamfeel's observations are so dead-on that they broke my heart.
"you can have moved on in every sense, but even if they've faded, the scars are still there at some level"
"It's incredibly difficult to recognize it in the moment," dreamfeel said, of the complications of loving someone that doesn't treat you well. "That's maybe one of the biggest issues, and unfortunately it only becomes clearer in retrospect. What I really wanted to get across in the final part was the lasting imprint [abuse] can have. That you can have moved on in every sense, but even if they've faded, the scars are still there at some level, or more to the point [there is the] potential for habits, thoughts or feelings to resurface."
"It was also important that Kaci wasn't an unredeemable figure for me, or at least that she was human," said dreamfeel, of the most complex aspect of Curtain — Kaci. Kaci is certainly an abuser. She's controlling, she's angry, she uses violence and she uses sex in ways that no loving partner should. But dreamfeel has sympathy for the character she wrote, and what she can symbolize. And Kaci herself is obviously troubled and suffering.
After a violent outburst on Kaci's part, the band gets kicked off of their label, and Kaci spirals into depression. She takes it out on Ally, but her own sense of worthlessness and misery is choking.
"[She's human] in the sense that maybe a lot of us can imagine relating to her in some ways," said dreamfeel.
"Honestly, making this game made me reexamine and question myself and the little, subtle things we can do unconsciously. Kaci is the extreme manifestation of this, most people simply don't realize the damage their actions and words can have."
Curtain is less a cautionary tale and more a cathartic exploration of a terrible, complex situation. It's real-life horror, with a "monster" that's infinitely more complicated and human than anything in fiction.