February 20, 2017

Storytelling, What I’m Reading

Gameplay, Storytelling, and the Choices We Make

Recently I downloaded a new game to my phone: Choices, by a company called Pixelberry.

I did this in part because I skimmed an interview with one of the Pixelberry team members, and it caught my attention, but mostly I downloaded it because I am a sucker for choose-your-owns. I cannot even count how many I’ve played through. Fantasy games, mostly, because that’s obviously where the storytelling method really became popularized, so I guess another thing that drew me to Choices was that a lot of their stories WEREN’T. They had one fantasy “book” (and it’s accompanying sequel) in their app, yes, but there were also several mysteries, and a number of romances. And hey, I like seeing how storytelling methods apply to genres they aren’t usually used for, you know? And it was nice to see a normally male-centric game type being marketed toward a distinctly female audience. Overall, I was really predisposed to like this app.

I’m not even going to use this space to get into my game-level disappointments with it. Things like the micropayment system it uses and how it uses it, or the fact that these really aren’t so much choose-your-own stories as… slightly tailor a predefined narrative arc to your preference. Instead, I’m going to talk about the one “book” that I played all of the way through, all 17 game “chapters” worth, a romance called The Freshman. Because, um. Wow. Buckle up, folks, this is going to get feminist-ranty.

You play the game as a young woman, who is (duh) a freshman, newly arrived at Hartfeld University. It is, like I said, a romance, so the story presents you with three love interests out of a cast of at least… I don’t know, a dozen? Rough count from memory put me at 9, and I know there are several more people I could only vaguely remember. And okay, I get it, there are only so many possible storylines that you want to write, so fine, limit me to three. We are presented with the option of romancing these characters in a neat order of progression, so that you kind of really HAVE to either pick or reject one before being presented with the option to pick or reject the next, and then the next. Or at least, that’s how it feels when you start playing the game, although you’ll soon discover that, HAHAHAH, oh, dear player, you needn’t worry about making up your mind too soon, oh no. The Game will make sure that you have PLENTY of opportunity to backpedal on your rejections. PLENTY. More than enough. So many, in fact, that by the time you finish the first “book,” you may (like me) end up screaming at your phone, “ENOUGH WITH THE MOONY EYES ALREADY, I HAVE REJECTED YOU TWENTY TIMES, HOW DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THAT NO MEANS NO?”

Okay, so I suppose that it’s arguable that a “normal” player will toy around with her romantic options more, as opposed to making up her mind in a split second upon first meeting said character—and may, perhaps, be holding out because she’s read about the possibility of allowing your character a same-sex relationship, and totally wants to see how they handle THAT, rather than conforming to predefined heteronormative (more like heteroSNOREative, am I right? No? Wait, come back!) storylines.

The first Potential Love Interest (PLI) that we encounter is Chris. And Chris is… I am sorry, there is no other way to say this: Chris is the epitome of every boring romantic lead EVER. He is white, he is athletic, he has zero personality, and while he appears to be a BIT of a sweetheart at first, we will soon discover that he DOES NOT TAKE REJECTION. Like, at all.

The other romantic interests are as follows: James, a black man who comes from a wealthy family and whose strict parents expect him to follow The Family Business, but who would rather be a playwright; and Kaitlyn, a nice girl who likes to PARTY!, and Have Fun(tm).

I will give brief props here. James has a storyline and background that has all of the hallmarks of a Typical White Dude, but gives it instead to a black man, who is sensitive and kind and brave about his emotions in a way that you really do not normally see portrayed in the media. And Kaitlyn… I don’t know. It’s nice to be given a lesbian storyline, and nicer still that you can play the protagonist as bisexual without it being an issue EITHER WAY, though I cannot really figure out how I feel about Kaitlyn as a character/person, because although likable, I cannot really come up with a single thing to say about HER.

But my beef with the game really isn’t about either of them. Instead… oh, Chris. Where do I even BEGIN with Chris?

Like I said, you meet Chris early on. Like, IMMEDIATELY-early. Like, he is the first person that you (literally) bump into as the story opens, on your first day as a freshman at Hartfeld U. The intro is… fine, okay, could be cute, could be whatever. And right away, we are presented with a Jealous Rival for you to hate, in the form of Becca. Becca informs you of her intention to have Chris all to herself, which… okay? Have him, if you want him that badly, as far as I’m concerned, I mean, it’s not like I even know the character yet. Anyway, it quickly turns out that you are staying in a way-nicer-than-real-life apartment/dorm combo thing, coed, with five other roommates, one of whom (surprise surprise!) is Chris. The story gives you all the first day/evening to get to know each other, and you and Chris end up staying late talking at the end of the party. And here, on the rooftop, we have the first real potential for whether or not to accept his romantic advances, because of course he (and the story) feel that the two of you are having A Moment, and so he like, goes to hold your hand or something.

My character rejected him. Just, flat-out. Pulled back, said that she wasn’t interested, and to my surprise, Chris actually was okay with this! In fact, he agreed that, since he was recently out of his long-term high-school romance, another romance really wasn’t the best idea for him right now anyway. Which, yay!, for respecting boundaries, and yay!, for accepting a rejection as just a normal decision and not some personal slight of you and everything that you stand for.

Sigh. If only it had stayed that way. If only…

The story progresses. The next morning, you get a phone call from your parents saying that your dad has lost his job, and therefore they will not be able to pay for your college tuition. Um, yikes? But, this being a College Story, you as the player know that this is not the end it appears to be. And so it is not! Your protagonist seeks out financial aid, and ends up being assigned as an assistant to this obnoxious literature professor, and I guess somehow that’s like a scholarship? It’s never made entirely clear—or maybe I just don’t know how collage works, IDK, but it’s weird. The point is: in order to keep your enrollment at your ~dream school~ which you love, you need to make sure that you do not get fired by this notoriously obnoxious jackass professor who has already fired so many assistants that it’s just not even funny. I’ll get back to the problems with THIS arrangement in a bit, but for now, let’s move back to the main focus of the story: relationship drama. Because Oy.

Okay, here’s the thing. By this point, I have already met (and rejected) Chris as a PLI. I’ve met (and rejected) James as a PLI. I’ve met, but have not yet been presented with the option of Kaitlyn as a PLI, just as a Gal Pal. With the quick succession of Chris and James as romance options, you might be thinking that Kaitlyn’s romance options are due soon, right?

Oh, you poor, naive soul. Sit in and get comfy, darlin’, because if you’re here for some lady love, it’s going to be awhiiiiile. Because first, we need to get through thirteen more rounds of Are You Sure You Don’t Want Either of These Really Hot Guys That Are Obviously Into You? Are you SURE? Are you SO SURE? Are you SUUUUUUUUURE that you’re sure? Really? How about now? No? Still no? Reeeaallllly? No? Hmm. Okay, well… I GUESS you can have a girl?

And yes, fine: there is something to be said for a narrative that allows players to change their minds, especially as you get to know the characters better, and especially to allow them to change their minds from a “no” (which closes down narrative/gameplay doors) to a “yes” (which opens them back up). I get it! I really, really do!

But for those of us that ARE certain, can we PLEASE, for the love of Ada, NOT have these men constantly getting in our face, trying to put the moves on us, only to be rejected AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN, and yet the game STILL insists that there’s “something there” between us, and that our protagonist “just isn’t sure!” about what she feels, and that everything is “so complicated!”? Like maybe, I don’t know, allow for a game path wherein the PROTAGONIST is the one with the agency and ability to set out to pursue the romantic option, instead of constantly having them circle back around like vultures, pecking and pecking at the dead corpse of their chances with the protagonist on the off chance that MAYBE she’s changed her mind? Maybe?

This is not even getting INTO the fact that these rejections are ALWAYS framed like this is somehow the protagonist’s FAULT. Like she needs to APOLOGIZE for not wanting to be with Chris and James, despite her NEVER giving them any reason to feel that she might WANT to in the first place, despite REPEATED (very kind! very polite!) rejections wherein she has ALREADY APOLOGIZED for hurting their ~feelings~. Despite the fact that she has never been rude to them, never cussed them out, never told them to go fuck themselves for trying to lean in to kiss her AGAIN, when she has rejected them FLAT-OUT, every time.

It was somewhere around the fourth or fifth rejection that I started to really get pissed, and around this same that I began to wonder exactly what kind of message is this SENDING to the younger players who pick up this game. I mean, okay, I KNOW what kind of message it’s sending, but do the developers? Did they never even BETA TEST this scenario? Did NO ONE, at any stage of the development, stop and go, wait a second guys. This is getting even beyond pushy, and into vaguely-threatening, bordering-on-stalker behavior. At one point, I shit you not, it looked as if Chris had finally moved on and gotten together with Becca, only to show up in front of you late one night, saying that he’s realized what he REALLY wants, and what he REALLY wants is another chance with you—for real, this time!

PEOPLE. THIS IS NOT ROMANTIC. I repeat: THIS IS NOT ROMANTIC. This is a man that your character has rejected AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY, and after rejecting him YET AGAIN that night, he insists that he is going to STICK AROUND in the hopes that you CHANGE YOUR MIND. If this scenario doesn’t make you want to run screaming into the night, or at the very least put a restraining order on his ass, then… I’m sorry, I don’t even know how to talk to you.

AND YET. Does the game acknowledge this state of affairs AT ALL? Does it take this as the opportunity to examine how horribly toxic it is, that men so often feel ENTITLED to the romantic attentions of a young, attractive woman? Does it let your protagonist stand up for herself AT ALL?

If you’ve been paying attention, you can likely guess that the answer is no. No, it does not.

INSTEAD, what it does is continue to tease the idea that your protagonist is caught up in some sort of love… square? That, as the university’s ultra-important Formal Dance approaches, your character LITERALLY has to sit on the roof and discuss with her friends her MIXED FEELINGS about who she should ask to accompany her, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NEVER PLAYED THE GAME THAT WAY AT ALL. Even if you have ONLY engaged in romantic action with Kaitlyn, YOU STILL HAVE TO MUSE ABOUT THE MERITS OF THESE TWO MEN WHO THINK THAT YOU’RE HOT, as if you actually consider either of them as a choice at this point. At one point (oh, don’t even get me started about this), you are playacting as a fake-fiance for James as you meet his parents, and when Kaitlyn calls you outside the restaurant (Kaitlyn, who you have already begun romancing by this point, FINALLY), you do not tell her about the weird-ass situation that you are FORCED into participating in by your Obnoxious Professor (yeah, I’m still getting to him), but instead just kind of act vague about being “out for dinner.” I mean, you don’t get CAUGHT by her with him, thankfully, which was my fear. But neither do you treat her as if you’re actually involved, either, thus laying a foundation of… not exactly the greatest honesty between you, you know?

Which brings me, at long last, to the Obnoxious Professor.

Like I said earlier, the game presents your character with the no-choice “choice” of: work for the Professor, or quit school. This, it should be noted, isn’t even presented as a choice in game, I don’t think. It is merely the way that the plot unfolds, and you, dear player, have to go along with it. So allow me, at last, to present Professor Vasquez.

Professor Vasquez is a novelist who is now teaching at your university, and like I said, he is a known jackass. Your character does not get along with him, pretty much right from the get-go. He is demeaning, insulting, demanding, and dismissive. He does not consider you or anyone else that he encounters in the game to have any worth. And yet, hearing about your petty romantic melodramas playing out, he decides that lo and behold, you DO have some value: as a monkey, to dance for his amusement. Because, you see, your life is full of the kind of dramatic study that he needs in order to make his next book SING with realism! Which means that, every few chapters of the game, he presents you with a new assignment, each one putting you into an uncomfortable and overly-dramatic situation, one that you would never have chosen for yourself, which you then have to live out like some kind of reality-TV star, and then write a detailed report for him to deem whether or not your life is still sufficiently entertaining that you are worthy of keeping on.

Do I really need to explain the deeply, DEEPLY problematic aspect of this? How your character—a young woman, fresh out of her parents’ house, navigating the world on her own for the first time—is now FORCED to either give up on the education/future that she’s planned for herself, or allow her entire life to be manipulated and shaped and molded by a MUCH OLDER MAN, all for his own edification/amusement? I really hope that I don’t, because… wow. Just—just WOW.

It’s enough to make me wonder if there were ANY women involved in the production of this game at all, because I honestly cannot see how anyone who self-identifies as female could have been OKAY with these obviously toxic situations.

The fact that the character does not seem at all bothered by the circumstances of her life just makes it all worse. She DOESN’T resent the Professor, she DOESN’T feel degraded and used by his demands, she DOESN’T object to or even question the idea that these men will keep trying to pursue her again and again and AGAIN, she DOESN’T consider that maybe she has NOTHING TO APOLOGIZE FOR as she rejects them, she DOESN’T worry about the idea of now being shackled for life with a crippling student loan debt that she apparently wasn’t planning to HAVE because of her parents. Indeed, instead: she agrees that there is romantic chemistry between herself and all of her PLIs; she throws herself into each of her assignments with a cheery, “well, it may not be my first choice, but it’s what I have to do!” attitude; she continues to feel bad each time she shoots down either Chris or James (who, I should also note, always and forever act SURPRISED at each new rejection, like UGH, ENOUGH ALREADY); and she somehow, somewhere, I guess, continues her college education without the slightest further thought as to how she’s going to pay for it, short of keeping Professor Vasquez happy.

Look, there’s the degree of unrealism that all stories kind of HAVE to have in order to make a compelling narrative without needing to worry about fiddly details like how they deal with their periods on their 900-mile journey through scorching deserts and toxic swamps, but COME ON. What we have here is just… it’s beyond wish fulfillment. It’s an active display of thoroughly problematic situations presented as PERFECTLY FINE and normal and even in some cases DESIRABLE, to a target audience that has probably not yet gone THROUGH these types of situations, and thus, might not have the necessary life skills to realize how terrifying these warning signs actually ARE. Which, yeah, is not exactly new or limited to this game and its sequels by any means (I’m looking at you, Nearly Every Love Song Ever), but… it’s disappointing, to find it again. Especially in a place where I really didn’t expect it, because I’ve read a little bit about the company behind these games, and they SEEMED like they were more socially aware and responsible than that.

I can only hope that the rest of their books aren’t as fraught with toxic archetypes and abusive masculinity as this one, but to be honest, I don’t know if I am going to bother playing them to find out. I had started their ONE fantasy book before I got into The Freshman, and… while there’s nothing as overtly objectionable as THAT, a few of the bits at the beginning do give me pause about continuing. Because unlike my Freshman protagonist, Hailey, I have a wide plethora of choices in my life.

So, no, Pixelberry. This is where we break up. I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s—actually, never mind. It totally is you.