Sacrilege by Cara Ellison

Sacrilege

A month or two back, I was alternating between several games – the shipping version of Gone Home, a nascent version of the Novelist, and Far Cry 2, which I wanted to replay for the third time on the Infamous setting with Dylan’s Mod and SweetFX installed. Around the same time, I played the brilliant and moving Papers, Please – a game that is hard to include in lists because of the way commas fuck with my head. Papers, Please is a really good example taking a situation and exploring it deeply.

Compared to the amount of free time I have, I can barely keep up with the good games, books and movies being created.

Somewhere in that mix, I played through the IF game Sacrilege, and found that it had a fairly profound impact on me, continuing to resonate even now. It’s constructed of energetic, well-written prose, but since you’re driving it along, reacting to the ideas at your own pace, the impact goes deeper than that. More importantly, the protagonist-perspective and the mediation of the player’s options evoked a constant stream of realizations, popping off in my head as I played through four or five times.

Sacrilege filled my mind with realizations about the interplay of personality archetypes, feelings of abandonment that I still harbor, and the absolute cafe-bombing power of social failure. There were times when it turned me on, filling me with the drive to pursue. The entire thing was fascinating, seeing desire from within one particular woman’s perspective. It’s all about what people need from each other balanced against risks and the terror of social rejection; the delicate auto-manipulation required to maintain confidence and resist screaming from the anxiety inherent in seeking connection, which at times feels like trying to keep a kitten alive while its heart is out on the operating table.

The notion of youth and soul (and time) as precious, not to be squandered on sex with someone unworthy, is not a concept native to my thinking. Another way the game is a fascinating look at the world through the eyes of someone else, even if this praise risks categorizing the author-designer as too “other” from my own life.

Mild spoilers, but the notion of the friendly NPC slipping the hero a book was rad; reading it in a club made me laugh in a great way because it was something I’d do if I met such an NPC. The text makes a point about the way men are constrained, developmentally – leadership is a requirement, with all the failure and high stakes anxiety that brings about. The simple honesty of the term fuckplan is so great. Another non-native concept, but it instantly opened my eyes to another murky part of the world, of life. The evoking of the YEAH YEAH YEAHS through the game name and MAAAAPS created a kind of synergy. As someone with a lifelong kind of mild body/facial dysmorphia, I found the protagonist’s confident desirability very powerful. Sacrilege is rich, and was crafted in such a way that it produces an endless series of reactions in the player. I’m not sure if this means it’s packed with ideas, or if – even more clever – it unrolls in such a way that leverages the player’s own experience and prompts self-reflection that manifests as ideas.

Even as an atheist, I felt an embedded Biblical reaction to the names of the men. Insecurity ran through me when John was described as tall, and upon hearing a “twenty-something body” described as hot. Awe-struck, I stopped playing and sat back to absorb this moment that made me feel like I’d been in the perimeter of some kind of minefield; deadly territory that seconds ago I’d been skipping through, but now had to stand frozen, considering how to inch out and away. Playing, you’re caught in a social trap that you cannot even see, which is fucking terrifying. It’s all made worse because we’ve all lived through those social situations that make up the game’s narrative world, where you cannot stop and consider because the clock is running and to pause would be weird, so you push ahead. And as you do, you’re screaming internally at the mistakes you’re making. Sacrilege, more than anything I’ve experienced, touched upon the power we give other people over us, to define us – to define our status as winners or losers – which is completely illusory in most cases, but can be mind-destroying anyway.

There were bits I found brutally cynical, touching upon heart-breaking aspects of some romantic tangles. At one point the game drives home the protagonist’s dilemma, the choice between two of the men, in such a painful way that I wanted to stop playing, but couldn’t:
The guy you are going to hurt
The guy who is going to hurt you
The are only two options

So brutal. So much hunger, need, desperation and risk.

because you might not be offered
something like it again
they never actually
give you anything
Instead only take
When they want
place you out on the chessboard
egos think they will always have pawns

Sacrilege is worth your time, but I’d recommend playing it when you’re alone and in the right frame of mind. It’s short enough to play a number of times, which will let you see all the angles.

About the game, Ellison says, “…I really wanted to make a ‘dating sim’ for the Pulse Pounding Heart Stopping Dating Sim Jam and instead of making it about weird and wonderful sexual experiences I wanted to make it about the heart stopping drudgery of being heterosexual in a world where heterosexuals are conditioned not to talk to each other, or listen to each other, or really have any idea what they are doing. So I made this Twine game. However, I famously have somewhat manic-depressive tendencies, and therefore it takes place in a red-hot club atmosphere where your eyes are being singed and music is forcing its way into your skin and you love every second of your descent into hell. Oh, yes, and turn your volume up, there is music at a certain point.

Play Sacrilege.

 

Austin GDC ’08


It’s been a rough year for Austin game studios. Lots of upheaval. Some people have been affected adversely by project cancellations and layoffs, while others are staffing up, excited about the coming years. This seems cyclic to me, but there’s definitely been a lot of chaos, in Austin and elsewhere. I’m eternally optimistic, because I know that the desire to play (and design) games will never go; everything else, including “the industry,” is a distant second to that primal drive.

I’m excited by projects here at Arkane Studios and I’m hopeful for games underway at other independent Austin companies: Certain Affinity, Edge of Reality, King’s Isle, Blazing Lizard, Pixel Mine (who just got nominated for a couple of awards, I think), etc. There are a few interesting startups in the background too, coming soon. Larger companies like Nintendo, Disney (Warren’s group), and Bioware hold great promise, and I’ve even got high hopes for (ex-Deus Ex designer) Ricardo Bare’s project at Midway.

Because of the year we’ve had, I’m hoping that Austin GDC will be exciting and reflective this year; a bunch of smart people coming together to network, socialize, share ideas and debate the process of not just shipping games, but making games great.

I’m giving a career-track talk aimed at new people coming into games now, at a time when no one knows what the industry will look like in 5 years.

There’s a charge in the air…is it the imminent hurricane or is it something else, generated by passion… by people who love what they do, who want to pick themselves up and charge the hill again?

Interesting Write-up on Achievements

Check out Unlocking the Psychology of Achievements, via GameCyte.

I have an in/off relationship with Achievements; I love it when games use Achievements to highlight interesting gameplay native to the game, and I think they’re an interesting tool for creative teams.

But this part depresses me:

Based on personal experience, completionists need goals to achieve and do not enjoy open-ended game experiences.

In a way, it feels like Achievements cater to some inner obsessive-compulsive, rather than encouraging play in what I see as the right spirit. Is the player there to immerse himself in the experience or to carefully set up a situation where he can get three enemies in a straight line and headshot them all with one bullet?

Given the nature of our medium, I suppose both are actually valid in their own way.

Birds I’ve seen on my bike

Riding my bike this weekend, I came across a vulture eating a squirrel. Last weekend, I spotted a peacock in another part of town. Both times, the birds were standing in the middle of the road. They seemed cautious as I rode up, but not overly concerned. Both were beautiful in different ways, though it’s hard to tell from the phone photos. The vulture wasn’t hideous; shiny black feathers, gray bands running up its neck and head. The peacock was all irredescent blues and greens, though it didn’t see fit to show me much plumage. Sometimes you get one, sometimes the other.