As a writer in the games industry, I’ve been told — many times and in different ways — that intersectionality is alienating. That playing as someone who is brown, and a woman, and an immigrant and bisexual, is just “too much” for a player to grasp. As though our identities are personality traits: You can play the smart one, the tough one, the girl one or the brown one. In the games industry in the West, and in television, film and books, there is a pervading sense that the further away from white, male, cis, Western and able-bodied a character is, the less believable that character becomes. And even more damning, the less accessible that character becomes. But that brown, female, immigrant, bi character I described is just as realistic as the brown-haired cis male “everyman.” It describes me, at least in part, and millions like me. If you don’t find me believable, that might be your problem, not mine.
Playing as a literal alien from outer space is, to the average person who makes video games, less alienating than playing as a brown or black woman, or someone from outside the Western hemisphere.
Which is why I played Brianna Lei’s queer-American-Asian-girls-playing-baseball visual novel Butterfly Soup with a sense of encompassing joy, cut through with the pain of a reckoning come late. Butterfly Soup is the first time I’ve ever played as an Indian woman in a game (in this case, Diya, one of the protagonists, is not just Indian but South Indian, like me!), and the experience was unexpectedly overwhelming. To be present, represented, seen, portrayed — this is a satisfaction that we as game developers should strive to give our players, and a mark of respect that we as players deserve.
Representation is Butterfly Soup’s thematic foundation, but it is most certainly not the only reason to recommend the game. Here is the deep secret that Butterfly Soup knows: The more specific it is, the more particular, the more its protagonists inhabit their distinct experience and culture, the more open and approachable and universal its appeal. Specificity is, in actual fact, the furthest thing from alienating.
We have always loved stories about other people as much as, if not more than, stories about ourselves. Even I — a bisexual Indian girl who grew up in the West — play Butterfly Soup as both an act of representation and an act of speculation. I inhabit Diya’s cultural identity as a South Indian and an immigrant in the West, her love of dogs and Discovery Channel documentaries, her experience of falling for a girl and having to wrangle with her own sexuality as a teenager; but I am completely outside her natural athleticism and love of sport, or her at times paralyzing shyness. They are as strange to me as the American high-school experience, or attempting to understand baseball. (It’s some kind of parallel-reality cricket, but without the Duckworth-Lewis rule?)
The same holds true for Game Grumps’ screamingly funny “dad dating simulator,” Dream Daddy. Although you can customize your appearance, name and gender presentation, and choose different dialogue options and romantic interests, the personality of your “Daddy” is something you discover through playing — rather than something you create immaculately, free from the sin of authorship.
The entire games industry, from AAA to the smallest bedroom indie, could spend 10 years making nothing but games about gay dads in suburbia — or queer South Indian women — and still be a million miles from encompassing those experiences. The point of diversity and inclusion, in any artistic medium, is not to be comprehensive. It is not to render the mysterious mundane, or to reduce the art of transformation to simply looking into a mirror. As I play through the lives of the characters in Butterfly Soup or Dream Daddy, these highly specific experiences are at times strange, but they are not estranging.
As much as I might see myself in my Daddy, or in Diya — or any of the other characters in Butterfly Soup — they belong to themselves. While my own Diya might make one choice over another, the character of Diya encompasses all possible choices offered in the game. There is no option in Butterfly Soup that radically alters Diya’s personality, or turns her evil, or pushes her into a romance with a different character. The mechanical satisfaction of choosing doesn’t lie in definition, but in discovery. Even the options left unchosen tell us something about the character we are playing, and the world we inhabit. And the thing is, the act of discovery is satisfying. Diya’s wholeness as a character does not make it disempowering to play her, or make her character less accessible.
In both Dream Daddy and Butterfly Soup — and in the Japanese visual novels and text-based interactive fictions from which they draw influence — these constraints of character and situation are the furthest things from alienating. Each character’s particular voice, and each character’s definitiveness, is what lends the experience of playing these games their pleasures. It’s also what makes the characters sympathetic and memorable; in my opinion, much more so than by providing players with a character generator of their own, which tends to lead to representation that is superficial at best (though even superficial representation of skin colors, genders, hair types and so on can be powerful in their way),
In an industry increasingly entranced by the endlessness of procedural generation, I think it is worthwhile to remember the pleasures of limitation. Unbridled procedural generation is not the only way — or always the best way — to give players a sense of ownership or empowerment. In attempting to represent everyone, such experiences often represent no one. It is through the specificity in Butterfly Soup and Dream Daddy — those very qualities in their characters and stories that would typically be deemed too alienating — that we find our way toward the universal.
Meg Jayanth wrote 80 Days and recently contributed to Boyfriend Dungeon, Sunless Skies and Horizon Zero Dawn.