Tusks VentureBeat Interview

The full, unabridged text of the interview by Stephanie Carmichael for VentureBeat regarding Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim, posted with permission.

NaNoRenO

I haven’t heard of NaNoRenO before, but I’m all for more visual novels! What was the experience like, and how did the challenge of it contribute to shaping Tusks?

It was great! I’ve participated in challenges and game jams like NaNoRenO before, but I particularly enjoyed this one because you had a full 31 days within which to make a game – that’s a godsend for people who can’t afford to spend a week or a weekend working on a game as well as their regular jobs. The community aspect of it was amazing as well – I set up a thread on the LemmaSoft NaNoRenO 2015 forum, so I could share some of my progress, and I got so much positive encouragement from members of the community there who were also taking part. I’d definitely recommend to anyone interested in making games, as a beginner or a veteran, to take part.

NaNoRenO also presents an interesting challenge in the sense that while it does limit what you’re “allowed” to create – a visual novel that can be developed within 31 days – it also spurs your creativity and gets you thinking about how to use those constraints to your advantage. For example, because visual novels are typically made up of character dialogue and player decisions, it gets you thinking about ways you can make interesting character-driven games.

Why Orcs?

It’s interesting to see this game arrive after something like Shadow of Mordor, where the orcs are all very different and detailed but still … well, orcs. Bad guys. You mentioned on your blog that orcs are “outsiders,” the “Other,” and how that can hold a metaphor for issues like racism and homophobia. But out of all the monsters, what led you to orcs?

Although I do like to talk about all the thought and rationale that’s gone into making Tusks, fundamentally, it’s a dating sim, and dating sims are usually about smooching someone-or-other; and since orcs are in some respects just big greenish humans with pointy ears and pointy teeth, it’s not too outrageous to suggest a game about smooching hot monster boys could be fun. I definitely don’t want to pretend it’s somehow more “worthy” or “respectable” than other dating sims simply because I’m about to spend a lotta time harping on about what “orcishness” means to me, personally.

I’d recently got done with a playthrough of Skyrim using the Alternate Start – Live Another Life mod to roleplay a gay orc living in a stronghold, but then realised how difficult it was to roleplay as one when there was next to no material about homosexuality in-game to run with, let alone in the Code of Malacath. So, I made my own storyline in-game – an orc, leaving a stronghold to find others like him and become part of a community of his own. That’s a common gay narrative, but it feels so distant from anything most mainstream game developers would even think of touching.

As well as that, there’s the fact that orcs in particular are everywhere in generic fantasy media, and are often unthinkingly rooted in any kind of real-world bigotry you care to name, from racism (specifically anti-blackness) to misogyny, to ableism, to cissexism, to colonialism. These things are apparently justified because orcs are inherently evil, immoral, depraved, violent or predatory, which is exactly the same tactic that’s used to justify prejudice and violence against members of marginalised groups in real life. In-universe, that might be undeniably true – but that doesn’t make it any less harrowing to read a passage your D&D Monster Manual describing an innately-evil creature that you have a spiritual and moral imperative to slay, which includes terms that sound almost identical to descriptions of African people by white colonial settlers, or which talks about how they kill off their weak (i.e., disabled people).

Another interesting thing about orcs specifically is their association with “ugliness” – which obviously partly stems from the above issues, since the things members of marginalised groups tend to enjoy tend to first be associated with being ugly, tasteless, disgusting or depraved (or “camp”, or “ghetto”, or “effeminate”, or “just for girls”, or “freakish”, etc etc etc) before they’re recouped, polished up and made chic by the dominant mainstream culture shortly afterwards. Similar to how feminist writers have explored ideas like using mermaid imagery and cyborg feminism to explore how womanhood, and how the gay bear subculture uses bear-themed imagery to celebrate hairy, fat bodies in spaces dominated by the image of smooth, thin/muscular bodies, I thought it might be interesting to use “orcishness” to celebrate ugliness, imperfection and things that don’t quite fit – because that’s something a lot of people can identify with. That goes doubly for Tusks: I’m not a skilled visual artist, but I’m still using my own art for the game which some folk might consider unpolished at best, or crude at worst. But I think that’s fine – I’d much rather get the game made and have it be my ugly wee monster than it never appear because I’m spending years honing my art in secret without showing anyone anything.

All of the above-mentioned ideas are huge topics in their own right which I don’t think I’m in a position to speak on every facet of; nor do I think just one game – about cute gay orcs, no less – is capable of dismantling those ideas, so my hope is that Tusks maybe inspires and encourages other developers, players, fans, critics, writers and more to look at the topic and explore it through games, art, critical writing and so on, rather than us collectively hand-waving it away by saying “It’s just a game! It’s all fictional! Nothing you think or feel as a result of this game means anything!”

Changing Reactions

Choosing orcs allows you to put in your game characters with different body types and features, which is a diversity missing from a lot of other games, especially triple-A games. But it’s maybe hard for some players to think of orcs as “hot” or “cute” date material. Do you expect players’ first reactions to the orcs to change throughout the game? Why?

Realistically, I think most of the folk interested in Tusks will already be open to the idea of orcs being acceptable date material, so their reactions to them aren’t likely to change much. That said, it’s my hope that by interacting with Ror, Cennedig, Ferdag and the rest of the cast that players might find wee moments of going “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it in that sense before”. For example, some of Ferdag’s route focuses on the fact that he’s the group’s Warrior, and how he squares that with ideas like the role of violence and nonviolence in the face of persecution he’s faced, folk’s attitudes about weakness (especially mental illness), and how his size affects people’s perceptions of him before they get to know him.

If after finishing Tusks I see even just one discussion thread where fans delve deep into one of the character’s perspectives and what they mean to them personally, in a similar way folk do for the cast of the Dragon Age series, I know I’ll have done really well.

Underlying Story

Is there an underlying story in the visual novel? Can you tease what it’s like?

There sure is! The game opens at the end of an orcish event called the Uá, where orcs from all over the country congregate for a few days’ time, so they can share stories, assemble new families, find work, settle rivalries and all the rest, before they go back to their daily lives. It’s a kind of orcish and orcish-adjacent Pride event. The player is looking for a group with which they can travel north, to the Highlands of Alba – for what reason, the player gets to decide – and the rest of the game follows them day by day on their fortnight-long journey north with the group they find. Each day, a new event takes place that gives you a little more insight into each member of the group, how they relate to each other, why they’re heading north, and how they experience orcish culture, and during the evenings, the player can spend time with individual members of the group to get to know them better.

NPC Autonomy

I think the community / NPC autonomy aspect sounds really interesting. What influenced that design decision, and can you say more about how it works?

A lot of games place the player-character at the centre of the universe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that telling certain stories – especially ones about community, relationships, agency and power dynamics, which feature in Tusks to some extent – are made more difficult, or are even undermined by their mechanics. It’s something that Christine Love talks a lot about in her interview with Nathan Grayson in “A Better Take on Video Game Sex”, and which forms one of the core conceits of the Ren’py game Kindness Coins.

In Tusks, there’s an optional system you can enable or disable at any time called NPC Autonomy; when it’s enabled, it gives the other characters in the game the appearance of more agency and autonomy. So, at certain points in the game, you may find that there are chances that characters can react in different ways depending on a number of different factors. For example, there’s a moment early in the game where you can choose to name the group that you’re travelling with. With NPC Autonomy turned off, the decision about the group’s name is left completely up to the player – what they say, goes. With NPC Autonomy turned off, you instead get the chance to suggest a name, which is then voted on by the other characters (based on a random factor, variables that track their attitude towards the player, and, hopefully by the end of development, variables that track their like or dislike of certain words or phrases) – not only that, but characters can even suggest their own names for the group, which again goes to a vote, which you can also participate in. My hope is that it makes the group feel more like a community of individuals rather than vassals to the player’s whim, which makes it easier to tell the story of this group and how each of its members relate to one another.

It’s an optional system though – if you play with NPC Autonomy disabled, your character won’t experience the other characters making decisions except for where the script calls for it – and you won’t be penalised for quickly turning it on during a decision that you want to make which you don’t trust your companions to side with you on. Although I would definitely like to hear how that makes players feel about their decision afterwards…

Optional Protagonist Dialogue

Optional protagonist dialogue is another interesting choice. How does turning that feature on or off change the game experience?

While I was working on Tusks during NaNoRenO, I asked folk who were into similar games that I was if they preferred playing a character whose lines of dialogue appear on screen/are spoken aloud after being selected from a set of possible options, or if they preferred their characters dialogue never appearing except as options on-screen so they can roleplay/headcanon their character’s own lines. As it turns out, there’s no easy answer – some people felt their characters only came alive when they spoke or added their own twist to dialogue, some people preferred reading their own interpretation into dialogue options for their specific character and that dialogue that seemed out-of-character felt jarring, and so on.

So, with Tusks, I’m including a simple option where you can choose to have your character’s line of dialogue appear on-screen after it’s been chosen or not. It doesn’t solve the problem completely, but it does nudge the game a little bit closer to allowing players to inhabit their character as they see fit.

For Us, By Us, About Us

In your blog post about Tusks, you wrote, “where most visual novel games featuring male pairings tend to be written by and for women who are attracted to men, Tusks is by, for and about men who are attracted to men.” To you, why is that perspective important to share in games and life?

Todd Harper wrote an amazing piece for Paste magazine discussing his experiences and thoughts regarding the recent gay-interest dating sim Coming Out On Top which I’d strongly recommend folk to read, because I’ll be largely echoing him here.

Even though the history, lived experiences, culture and relationships of women who are attracted to men and men who are attracted to men are often vastly different, we’re still often treated as interchangeable palette-swaps of one another simply because we’re both attracted to men (never mind that despite that attraction, we form relationships with different men altogether – respectively, men who have sex with women, and men who have sex with men). While I think there definitely are instances where our differences may not be so pronounced as to be important, there are some things unique to the perspective of a woman engaging in a relationship with a man that are never encountered in a man engaging in a relationship with a man, and vice versa, and I think we deserve games and other media written by people who really understand those dynamics and can do them justice.

For me, Tusks was an opportunity to make a game that was unequivocally, unapologetically gay, without any caveats, and without falling into that trap of games that “allow” the main character to be gay, but treats their experience through the game as identical to that of a straight/male protagonist (regardless of their gender and sexual orientation) rather than something with its own codes and signifiers.

Reactions

What have the reactions to Tusk been like? With a game this inclusive, I can imagine some people viewing it negatively (which is a shame). Why is it important for developers to step up bravely and make these kinds of games?

So far, the reaction has actually been really positive! The folk sharing, reblogging and retweeting stuff about Tusks helped the game find its way into queer internet spaces, spaces for indie games and broader games criticism and also things like Tumblr fandom-blogger networks and the furry fandom, all of whom seem to really appreciate it. A lot of people have even gotten in touch to say that some of the things I aim to do with Tusks is really important to them, which is really encouraging!

On the other hand, I do hope that folk keep in mind that Tusks is just one tiny wee game, in a vast swimming sea of queer-interest games. I really hope – and believe – that there’ll be tonnes of folk that enjoy it, but I also hope that folk recognise that Tusks began as a small, personal project about big ideas that were important to me, but which in no way can represent the full gamut of gay games or, more broadly, queer games.

Cause ultimately that’s something that I think is super important about making small, personal games – it means you can have all these big, important ideas transmitted in a more sincere way than you’re likely to get than with a massive company that’s looking for inordinate amounts of profit, and it can help bring together and foster a community where previously there might have just been individual folk thinking they’re the only ones out there. To that end, I hope the folk interested in Tusks go on to look for more queer, personal, alternative and small-i independent games, such as the games featured on merritt kopas’ Forest Ambassador project, some of the games made during NaNoRenO, those featured in Philip Jones & Matt Conn’s documentary Gaming in Color, and those showcased in Soha Kareem’s @SupportAltGames Twitter account and engaged with through the Dames Making Games project. Even better, I hope Tusks may inspire people to go on to make their own games in order to share their ideas and perspectives – maybe even by taking part in next year’s NaNoRenO challenge!

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