Tusks Killscreen Interview

The full, unabridged text of the interview by Jess Joho for KillScreen regarding Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim, posted with permission.

Primary Sources and Inspiration

What primary sources inspired your orcs and their culture?

The way orcs are depicted in Tusks is inspired by a bunch of different things; the game is set in a semi-mythical version of Scotland, so there are a lot of cues and hints towards Scottish history and life. All of the orcish names in the game are similar to Scottish names from before the 15th century, but with a slight twist to make them feel more like orcish cognates. The way that orcs congregate is somewhat reminiscent of Scottish clans, and the fact that these clans all come together in an assembly every so often is a nod to the Viking “Thing” that took place primarily in Scandinavian countries but also in the north of Scotland. One member of the cast, Ggorom, is a selkie, which is based on Scottish mythological creatures of the same name, and which in-game are a type of orc, and hails from a place in the body of water off the north-west coast known as the Minch, which has its own legend of “blue men” that live beneath the sea.

I’ve also tied in some bits and pieces about orcs from other fantasy media that I thought might be interesting to explore in the game. One of the characters, Ror, is a priest of an orcish pantheon, and has had an eye removed in a similar fashion to orcs from various Dungeons and Dragons settings. There are mentions of orcish “fights for dominance” in some clans, which refer back to ideas like the Mak’Rogahn or Mak’Gora of World of Warcraft, or the Code of Malacath from Skyrim – but considering that “dominance” means different things for different people, what that might actually be could be very different from what you might expect.

Masculinity in Orc Lore

What do you think is the significance of masculinity to orc-lore? How are you playing around with those concepts?

Masculinity is all over orcish lore, sometimes in ways that I think are fun and interesting, but most often in ways that are really limiting or trite. Because orcs are a staple of worlds where violent conflict isn’t just the norm, but the way you interact with the game world (e.g., by hitting it with your +5 sword of bleeding), orcish lore tends to be centred around violence in a way that reads as very patriarchal. So you have typically-male warchiefs who are the dictators of the tribes they rule, who win the position by being in peak physical form and by fighting other men, are often in some way possessive of the women of the tribe (if there are any), who are often either patronised as being “just as good as the men” or relegated to being (boak) “broodmothers”. And yet, despite all the homoerotic connotations of ritualised body contact between men being built into their culture, orcs never seem to turn out gay – because they’re “manly men”, and it’s hard for many folk to consider that men with various levels of attachment to masculinity can be homosexual.

In Tusks, I’d like to play around with these ideas of masculinity by showing that they’re not the be-all and end-all; masculinity is a lot more interesting to me when it’s not also mandatory, and doesn’t demand its worst traits be held up as inherently good. So, in Tusks, you’ll be able to interact with orcs that don’t fall into the traps demanded of them by masculinity: there’s an orc who rejects the idea that big orc men must necessarily be warriors or skilled fighters; one of the orcs who has been taught that he must be strong at all times has struggles with mental illness that others might believe make him “weak”; one of the orc chiefs is non-binary, and rejects wholly the idea that he has to behave in an aggressively macho, hyper-masculine fashion – just because he’s a leader who has a dick.

I think we can embrace masculinity both in real life and in games without always re-enacting the harmful tropes that tend to accompany it, and by creating, sharing and analysing games and other media by people who are exploring things like masculinity, femininity, butch and femme, gender dynamics, relationships and sex in games, we’ll find more and more safe and interesting ways of doing that – for those interested, the work of folk like Robert Yang, the team at Dames Making Games, and Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women series are good places to start.

Identifying with the Monstrous

What specifically about orcs do you identify with? Any personal anecdotes, like a moment when you identified with the monster in a sci-fi/fantasy games or story?

One of the things that sparked the development of Tusks for me was playing Skyrim, and roleplaying as a gay orc who was a member of an orcish stronghold. The stronghold idea is such a strong romantic one, because it echoes the subcultural communities that members of marginalised groups create for themselves for mutual support.

But it very quickly became apparent that here was next to no lore or roles that even considered the possibility of there being gay orcs in a stronghold, or even having women in a role that’s not subservient to a male warchief. The Code of Malacath talks about how male and female orcs should be organised in the stronghold, but only in ways that are rooted in heteronormativity and gendered power dynamics which, for a lot of people, actually make it more difficult to enjoy and engage with. That kind of led me towards wanting to provide the things I was looking for by creating Tusks.

Shadow of Mordor

How do you feel about the recent depiction of orcs in Shadow of Mordor? At least they have some sort of autonomy/individuality!

I really like some of the stuff I’ve heard about Shadow of Mordor thus far; the Nemesis System sounds like a really cool idea – almost like an inverted form of character creation - and I think it’s a step in a really interesting direction for games that are more responsive to their players, that take notice of what players get up to and try to anticipate and adapt to them, and which try to make playthroughs more individualised and unique for that player, too.

Game Mechanics and Dialogue

How do the game mechanics and dialogue systems decentralize the player?

In games that explore power, relationships, and sex, the messages about these things can be undermined if the player is constantly the sole empowered, autonomous agent in the game. Characters obviously don’t have any agency of their own since the way they respond to things is programmed, so it’s hard to make a game about, say, consent, where the player is always permitted to make all the decisions without question — but there are games that explore this in very interesting ways, like merritt kopas’ Consensual Torture Simulator and Robert Yang’s Hurt Me Plenty, as well as Christine Love’s upcoming game Ladykiller in a Bind, which she discusses in an interview on Kotaku with Nathan Grayson).

With Tusks, I’m including an optional NPC Autonomy feature that folk can use to make the characters in the game appear to have a little more agency than they otherwise might. So, characters may sometimes respond differently to specific situations than they did in a previous playthrough, may reject your advances for reasons they may or may not disclose, and may notice if you’re saying things you think they want to hear. There’s even a moment at the start of the game where you get the chance to name your group, in a way not dissimilar to things like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance; although with Tusks’ NPC Autonomy enabled, your group can vote on your suggestion, and can even offer their own suggestions to be voted upon.

Body Image in Videogames

Do you think videogames have a body-image problem? How is your game helping to address that?

As a whole, I’d say aye, they do, and one which has to be examined from a number of different angles if we’re to be able to look at it fully. It’s often very difficult to find even somewhat-neutral representations of characters with, for lack of a better phrase, politicised bodies, let alone positive ones. The most obvious problems tend to be with female characters, as a result of how prevalent and systemic misogyny is, but the games industry’s issues with body diversity can also been seen in representations of people of color, disabled people, transgender people, fat people, and pretty much anyone whose bodies are marked in some way to render them “other” or to politicise them. Often, people simply aren’t aware of problems like lack of body diversity in games until they see it being questioned, and to that end, I’d recommend looking at folk who’re writing about diversity in games to find out more: Todd Harper has contributed a lot of work with regards to how games portray fat people, including a talk at GDC and an article at Paste magazine about a gay dating sim, too. Jawy Galtney has written on the representation of disabled people in games, as has Joe Parlock, both of whom examine the subject really well, Evan Narcisse brought together a number of black people involved in games to discuss how videogames have represented blackness in a piece on Kotaku, and Andrea Ritsu has written an article on trans representation in interactive media which I think is really good.

There’s obviously only so much that one game about smooching orc dudes can do to contribute to greater body diversity, and Tusks is by no means a leader in this regard, but I’ve tried to just be more inclusive where I can. I particularly empathised with Todd’s thoughts about fatness in games above, and to that end, almost all of the characters in Tusks – including the human character – are fat men. I’m not a technically skilled artist, but I’ve tried where possible to include visible characteristics, too, like stretch marks, scars, body hair and other markings, because these are all traits that real people have, and I think we deserve to be able to see these traits represented, especially on characters that are positively portrayed, well-characterised and even considered attractive in some way. I hope that the cast of Tusks can do that for people.

Plot and Narrative

What’s the basic plot in Tusks?

In Tusks, you play as an orc who’s attended a huge orcish assembly called the Uá, where orcs from all over the country congregate to share stories, settle old rivalries, celebrate together, mourn the passing of revered figures, eat, drink, shag and be merry – and, when the Uá’s over, they return to their day-to-day lives, sometimes assembling in brand new groups. Your character has joined one of these groups for some company as he travels north, to the Highlands, and, over the next fortnight, you’ll be travelling alongside them, getting to know them, and beginning relationships with various members of the group that are anything from platonic to romantic to sexual.

Women in Tusks

I know this isn’t the central focus of the game at all, but are there any female character? Did you ever consider a female orc NPC?

There will be female characters! Tusks began as something that was personal to me – i.e., a story that is unequivocally and unapologetically about gay men, as opposed to having content for gay men tacked on as a cursory afterthought, or having content that treats men who are attracted to men and women who are attracted to men as having identical and interchangeable experiences when it comes to men as romantic interests. As such, men make up the majority of the cast, simply because male romantic interests are what I’m into – but during the game, you’ll also get to meet a clan of orcish women, who have banded together for mutual support in a similar way to your own group.

I think there’s ample ground for examining orcishness through multiple different intersections of gender, race, class and so on; my hope is that anyone who might be inclined towards making a game about smooching orcs that speaks to their specific identity, tastes and likes will play Tusks and think, “Right, I’m going to make my own version of this.” I’d be so, so happy to see other people taking any of the ideas of Tusks and adapting or changing them up for their own games, even their own orc dating sims (and, if anyone does, send me a message and I’ll do what I can to promote/support it!)

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