This will be the first of the game profiles I’ll be writing over the next few weeks about the student projects completed in my Gaming the System class during Spring quarter. Very briefly, this class tasked groups of undergraduate students with designing digital games that tackled a social justice issue of their choice. If you missed my initial post about the class, you can catch up on the basics here. Before you read on, I would also like to advise that this blog post details abstract representations of domestic abuse.
Tethered was a project that seemed to come together remarkably quickly, and because of that the students had a lot of time during the workshop portion of the class to playtest and polish the concept. Once a group chose a social justice issue, they had to research and produce an annotated bibliography of theory, game objects, and other documents that would inform the final design of the game they produced. Each student contributed different texts, and there was a minimum of one non-game-studies article per student, so most groups had 5-6 theoretical articles to inform their ultimate design. In the initial project proposal, the Tethered team seemed particularly concerned with speaking to the varieties of abuse that occur in relationships: masculine, feminine, genderqueer; heterosexual or same-sex; emotional; physical; and others. They did not want their game to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about who gets abused in what types of relationships, nor did they want to risk imposing any kind of racial narrative on domestic abuse, the effects of which are far-reaching, as Kimberlé Crenshaw explores in her groundbreaking essay on intersectionality, “Mapping the Margins.”
Enter Merritt Kopas’ Lim, a game that utilizes a nonhuman aesthetic to tackle a very human issue: passing and social isolation. Lim puts the player in control of a colored square that must navigate a mazelike space and blend in in order to pass through crowds of other squares without being harassed. (To read more about how Lim and other games influenced the design of Tethered, please go to their Influences page). The Tethered group put Kopas’ design choice to good use, ultimately settling on a two-player maze starring two colored blocks who were tethered together by an invisible link. Their original concept was for the players to be connected remotely, with a nonverbal chirping noise as the only possible communication between them. Since this was a proof-of-concept demo, they settled on a side-by-side control scheme with each player on one end of the keyboard. Go play it for the full effect.
Tethered was a real triumph among the class projects in terms of its ability to make arguments almost purely through gameplay. The invisible tether is a great way to think about familial or romantic bonds between people, and navigating a maze is a classic metaphor for life decisions and complicated journeys. However, it is in the implementation of the “abuse” and reporting mechanics that it really shines. One of the players can temporarily disempower the other with the press of a button, forcing them to move in the direction that the dominant partner wishes. As a result, the abused partner appears to take on damage, flashing briefly and turning a shade darker. Do this enough times, and the abused partner will disappear, with a fairly simple message: “Your partner is gone…”
Did they run away? Did they die? Did they find some other way not to participate in navigating the rest of this maze with this particular partner? The ambiguity here is elegant, though potentially upsetting in its implications. This is part of the goal, however: you are not supposed to feel as if the problem actually has been resolved by successfully navigating the maze or by having a partner escape. The tense music really underscores the mood that they were trying to cultivate: this isn’t really a game that anyone wins, per se.
It is around this abuse mechanic that the game’s several endings revolve: if you make it to the end without utilizing the abuse button, you have secured a happy ending for your little squares. Use it only a few times and the ending is, well, just fine. If you make it to the end with a partner that has not left but bears the scars of repeated abuse, the game asks you to consider the cost of completing this particular maze. Any ending is followed by a cycling of domestic abuse facts and warning signs, and directs players toward resources.
Periodically through the maze, the pair will pass by other squares, with a message informing players that they may report abusive partners to this “friendly” cube.
However, this mechanic doesn’t always work. The students programmed this semi-randomly, with an increased chance of successful reporting the more the abusive partner has used their button. This failure is an important feature of the game, as it points to the fact that community ties are not always a safeguard against abuse.
As with Lim, the abstract simplicity of Tethered, in the manner of the best literature and art, allows the gamer to ask increasingly complicated questions of the topic at hand. I came to think about the tether itself as fitting into larger conversations in radical queer circles, for example, about marriage equality and whether these ties that bind in fact contribute to oppressive structures that recast interpersonal relationships in terms of ownership. This facilitator of gameplay in fact mimics the way people have a tendency to stick to partners for better or for worse, and has troubling implications in the context of a game about abuse. A partner can “disappear” in Tethered – and we can impose our own narrative meaning onto that – but they can’t do so willingly outside of the reporting mechanism, which is ultimately an appeal to the kindness of strangers. Equally absent from the current design is the partner who survives but will never leave. Enough abuse in Tethered eventually will disappear the other partner, and we can read this as either an overly optimistic or pessimistic view of the world.
The students did a great job in capturing some of the intricacies of domestic abuse through gameplay in a way that was informed by research, but of course not all stories can be captured in any one text. In the end, Tethered made me think about those who do, in fact, become tethered, and where their place might be in a game like this. It is possible that further iterations can encompass more stories and more mechanics that paint an increasingly complex picture of the topic at hand, but as I’ve mentioned throughout this review, abstraction and simplicity seems to be the game’s real strength.
Please visit the Tethered website for the students’ own account of development and design decisions, and to download and play Tethered for yourself.