“Good design can change the world.”
Paula Ruiz hadn’t come out of the closet when she started working as a music composer for Deconstructeam. By January 2018, when The Red Strings Club was released, she had decided to let people know she’s transgender. The Red Strings Club sought to make a statement about diversity and tolerance within its narrative and characters, and in doing so nurtured a supportive community of LGBTQ+ gamers.
“It feels pretty good knowing that you get to connect with lots of people that don’t usually get to feel that way,” Ruiz AKA “The Fingerspit” explains, describing the collective response to The Red Strings Club since its release last year. “It was something that we indeed wanted, that we worked hard on, but mostly because we ourselves found it was kind of missing in the games we played. We wanted that representation and we don’t have enough so we have to create it ourselves.”
Interactive stories, especially indies, are able to vocalise valuable arguments within worldwide social and cultural debates. One of the most productive and effective results to come from these interactive experiences exist in the form of supportive communities coming together to reinforce such arguments.
After decades of hiding her true identity behind a wall of fears, helped her come to terms with her true identity and contributed towards a healing process by empathy. Why? “Composing for this game was rough but also kind of healing. When I started working on this game I was deep in the closet, but by the time we released the game, I was proudly being myself out of the closet and surrounded by the most amazing and supportive people. Dealing with the stress and anxiety of coming out of the closet and starting transitioning made working on the game a lot harder but I guess all these feelings ended up showing in the game”, she said. Vocalising these arguments, and ensuring that these voices were heard, gave Ruiz the confidence to express who she really was.
Such acceptance isn’t just felt by the creators of a game after months of work; members of the LGBTQ+ community quickly embraced The Red String Club’s normalisation of this experience. Featuring an incredible cast of characters, diverse in their personalities, beliefs and identities, The Red Strings Club takes sexuality as a given, a matter-of-fact element of each character as standard as hair or eye colour. Within this normalisation, there is therefore truly diverse representation. A male couple feature as protagonists, and supporting characters with major story roles include an androgynous android and a transgender character. Gender and sexuality are the main themes of this story, but never tokenised, something that resounded with the wider community identifying with the messaging of the game.
“Seeing characters be so open about their sexualities and gender identities and normalizing them in games especially – since this is kind of an uncharted territory still – is something I really loved. I actually bought this game because of it,” says Cătălina Bugeag, gamer and member of the LGBTQ+ community in Romania. It’s obvious from mass review sites and forums that The Red Strings Club struck a particularly harmonic chord in its community – a chord that allowed its community to grow into a supportive and nurturing network.
Indie games have this amazing capability of forging tight communities built around the intrinsic closeness that developers share with their players. Receiving feedback day in day out to make their games better, suddenly developers can find themselves featuring in the stories of people around the world to whom their games have made an impact. This is exactly what happened with The Red Strings Club, and what happens with a number of indie games. Layers of Fear, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, What Remains of Edit Finch, and STAY all enjoyed a rich and invested community, due in part to their compelling, personal stories told through autoreferential means that allow organic identification and empathy. That’s what makes these stories so real.
And in the LGBTQ+ community particularly, finding someone who can relate to and understand your own experiences is huge. The incredible emotional and fulfilling effects of indie games that promote empathy and personal expression of experience are down to this idea of relation and understanding within narrative and characters. “At least for me, I know that when I came out as trans to many of my friends I was the first trans person they ever met and that influences a lot because they don’t really understand it,” explains Ruiz. “Having LGBTQ characters helps normalize us.” The effect of a representational exploration of such issues was even more powerful for Ruiz, as people even told her that the game gave them a better understanding of her and her choices.
An often overlooked aspect of creating a game from within the community it seeks to represent is the difficulty with which sensitive topics are handled. Especially in the case of the LGBTQ+ community, for whom offensive language and behaviours are all too prevalent in surrounding attitudes, it can be difficult to portray a representation while also seeking to highlight the difficulties faced by the characters. This is particularly illuminated by an article that appeared on Vice’s Waypoint site, in which writer Danielle Riendeau exclaims: “I was enjoying this until it deployed Larissa’s deadname as both a solution to a problem and as a completely tone-deaf late game ‘reveal.’ I really don’t know what the devs were thinking here. At best, it reads like a botched attempt to make a plea for good trans healthcare, but it is clumsy as hell and frankly, offensive.”
Nevertheless, community members convened on the issue and were surprised at the writer’s distaste for the in-game act. “It brought awareness to deadnaming, which affects the trans community,” counters Cătălina, expressing the player base’s appreciation of the representation of such offensive behaviours. After all, if games only included the sunny side of a situation, we’d rapidly lose the rallying cry so many interactive narratives have perfected.
Media representation is something minorities wish and fight for, so for many members of the LGBTQ+ community, The Red Strings Club was both a victory and a start point. “I’m a lesbian,” comments Ivanna Von Rodt, a player in Argentina, “so the game itself doesn’t contain any rep about me, being that there’s a male-male couple and a trans character, but I think we must celebrate any kind of representation, especially about those two, which are the ones that have fewer media visibility.” For Ivanna, this was all about representation, visibility and normalization. This is how big an impact an interactive story can have in a tight community.
“A good design can change the world,” says Jordi De Paco, Deconstructeam’s lead game designer, narrative designer and writer. He believes The Red Strings Club, and other indie games that provide representation to the LGBTQ+ community, can help reinforce and forge stronger identities and spread awareness and understanding of such.
“Indie games, specifically,” he continues, “as opposed to big budget developments, have the freedom to attempt it and fail as many times as possible until getting it right. Games are a powerful weapon to spread any kind of message. In matters such as gender equality, I believe our medium can be especially relevant because playing can be a great shortcut to empathy. Instead of telling someone about an issue, a well-designed interactive work can make them experience the issue. I don’t think there are many great works yet regarding this, but I trust there can be.”
The creative freedom, lack of pressures surrounding significant financial risk, and the often personal nature of development itself allows indie devs to create games targeted toward smaller audiences. While The Red Strings Club is not solely tailored to LGBTQ+ players and benefits greatly from players of all walks of life, a game seeking to represent, and encourage understanding and conversation around, an underrepresented community can only exist in the independent world today. Empathy is the prime motivator of games like this, and the crux of player identification and agency throughout all video games – perfectly designed to portray such a sensitive message.
And that’s what empathy is all about. Literally placing yourself in another character’s shoes, video games offer us the opportunity to experience how it feels to exist as someone potentially completely different from ourselves. No other communication and entertainment medium can do that quite so organically or with so much power. The video game industry is built upon representation. A small light represents a player’s ship in SpaceWar!, a collection of pixels allows a player to explore a mushroom world as a fat Italian plumber. No other medium has dedicated so much time to both ideas of representation and the ability to encourage a user to both identify and empathise with that representation.
It all comes down to this, arguably one of humanity’s greatest values: empathy. Being able to create something that lives on as a shared experience, trauma or belief is something to be proud of. When a community finds that empathy in the shared experience of an interactive narrative and is embraced by its creators, it’s a victory for the developers. When a community that has been ignored in so many ways when asking for equality finds a story with which they can interact and feel represented, that’s a victory for video games.
Our boy from Buenos Aires, Juan has been a gamer for as long as he can remember (and possibly even longer than that). He loves a good story, and believes every indie game has a compelling one to tell.