Tusks Vice Interview

The full, unabridged text of the interview by Toby McAsker for Vice Magazine regarding Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim, posted with permission.

What even is this

This is amazing. Why the hell, Mitch?

I'm still kind of asking myself that question, and every day I've got a different answer that ranges on the great-grand-worthiness-scale from "'cause orcs can be cute," to "someone else might find it really important to them," to "there's not enough stuff like it out there," but ultimately I guess it comes down to just "wouldn't it be amazing if a game like this existed? I would play the hell outta that." Which is something so many people say to themselves when they come up with amazing game ideas, but feel they're unable to make for various reasons - but I figured, "hey, this is something I could actually make."

Appeal

Why would you yourself "play the hell outta that"?

I guess the reasons I'd want to play something like Tusks are the same as most folks' - I want desperately to have fun, accessible and/or engaging stories that include the things I think are important or interesting. I'm definitely committing the developer-faux-pas of creating a game solely around things I'm interested in and engaged by - not least of which being orcs, gay relationships, ideas about forging a shared community, discussions about power dynamics and oppression, Scottishness, queerness, ugliness - but I think Tusks may also be appealing for a lot of other people who are as interested as I am in some intersection of those ideas, too.

Although I suspect most folk's interests and ideas probably haven't yet veered in the direction of "would kissing an orc be hot?" - but I'm all about answering important questions like that. (i.e., "yeah, it would probably be pretty hot").

Why Orcs?

I guess that makes this next one easy: Why orcs?
One of the most important reasons why I wanted to explore orcs specifically is because orcs are almost always the outsiders in every setting that they're in - the language that's used to describe them, their physiology, their culture, their relationships, all of these traits are constructed in such a way as to emphasise specifically how "inhuman", how "other" they are - but as it happens, a lot of those traits are ones that are most strongly connected with members of marginalised groups. Race is the most obvious one, because fantasy settings tend to be built around some kind of racial categorisation system - human, elf, orc, dwarf, etc - so often you'll find that orcs are unthinkingly given traits that are harrowingly similar to real-world ideas rooted in racism, especially anti-blackness. And you'll also find ableism, misogyny, homophobia, cissexism, classism too, presented in one big bundle that's justified because orcs are "inherently evil" - which has uncomfortable connotations for the folk that share similar traits. If you're playing a game and Lord Englishname Blondinghair-Whiteskin has sent you on a quest to Kill 10 Warriors (0/10 killed) of an itinerant hunter-gatherer society who live in a tropical climate and practice shamanism and ancestor veneration, and it's apparently totally okay because it's your manifest destiny/divine prerogative and they're inherently evil/depraved primitives, that situation is an extremely loaded one that can't just be dismissed by saying "it's just fantasy, it's meaningless".

There's also the fact that for a lot of people, it's easier to identify with the monster of a story than the hero we're supposed to root for, because the hero often brings with them a kind of entitlement (due to their ability, their independence, their legal/moral/religious prerogative, their race, their class, etc) that tends to cause trouble rather than reducing or solving it.

But I don't want to suggest that Tusks is just being made 'cause I'm aflame with a righteous and noble cause, or that that elevates it above all other dating sims or something - 'cause let's face it, I'm still making a tiny wee erotic game featuring sexy orc dudes that I still want to be fun and stupid and smart and sexy. It's just that "orcishness" and "monstrousness" stands for a lot of different things for me and for other folk, and I'd like for those ideas to be able to come through during the game.

Conversations and Scenarios

I had never thought of it that way before, though occasionally I've had similar inklings. Are you hoping to elevate the 'discussion,' as it were? Are there particular scenarios that you've written that stick out to you in this way?

I dunno about elevating the conversation so much - maybe more like just recognising that it's worthwhile for folk to have that conversation in the first place and that we should be able to have spaces in and around games where we consider these things, instead of pretending that the way we design and interact with games is apolitical. That's not to say every game ever has to be a "worthy" game with big important messages - and it's definitely not a suggestion that a game about smooching orc dudes is going to revolutionise the world - but just that games can be used for a really broad range of things, from sharing complex sociopolitical ideas, to sharing personal, intimate stories, or even both of those things combined. A lot of the scenarios in the game do touch on both the personal and the political - you find out, for example, that one of the orcs has problems with mental illness which caused him to believe he was inherently, unfixably weak, and how he deals with that - which is both me wanting to show that mental illness isn't a hyperbolic, grim thing but an actual thing that happens to people and which we should be able to talk about without fear, and also to touch on my own experiences with mental illness, too, so that maybe I'm a little less afraid of talking to people about it as well.

Background

How has your own background informed Tusks?

Tusks takes a lot of cues from things based on my background. The most obvious is the setting - I live in Scotland, and Tusks takes place in a semi-mythical version of the country, borrowing elements of Scottish history, myths and legends like the selkie legend, clans, the Blue Men of the Minch, Goblin Ha', bothies, and all the rest. I also wanted Tusks to be a game that I and other people could play and see familiar, recognisable elements that I and other folk can identify with; so, the fact that most of the characters in Tusks are fat, because I'm fat as well, and it's hard to see positive images of fat people in any medium, let alone queer games. A lot of the characters have scars, physical and mental disabilities, markings, body hair, and stretch marks, because again, those are things that inform the life of a lot of gay men like me in very specific ways, but rarely get represented in positive ways. There are even very small and very personal elements, too - like the fact that the orcs of Tusks travel the country and assemble with others like them every so often is reflective of my own family's history as fairground travellers.

Mental Health

What mental illness do you suffer from? I apologise if this is a bit 'close', but hey: Empathy is key.

It's no problem! I have depression and social anxiety, which, as mental illnesses go, are fairly common. I have a fairly good handle on both in my day-to-day life, which I'm very thankful for, 'cause it means I can make games like Tusks without just giving up out of a sense of fatalism, and also 'cause it means I can do interviews like this one without freaking out that I've said something stupid! Brains are weird, weird things.

Selkie Mythology

I see you mention 'selkie' a lot, but this is heaps foreign to me. Can you give me a crash-course?

So, the selkie legend is something that's predominantly found in the Highlands and Islands in the northernmost parts of Scotland; a selkie is a kind of shape-shifter that lives in the sea, and appears as a seal while underwater, but sheds its seal-skin and becomes a human (usually a beautiful woman) when on land. Most selkie legends derive from one particular myth about a fisherman long ago who spots a group of selkies at the coastline one night, and steals the seal-skin belonging to one of them - according to legend, if you have a selkie's seal-skin, it can't transform back into its seal-form, and it has no choice but to do the bidding of the person who has it. The selkies spot the fisherman and flee to the ocean - except for one, who can't transform and swim away. She remains with the fisherman as his wife, even bearing him a child, until one day the fisherman is out at sea and the child brings her mother something that she's found in her father's belongings - a seal-skin. The mother grabs the skin, runs out of the house and down to the coastline. Most versions of the legend say the fisherman says a teary farewell and allows his wife to leave because it's ~time to let go~, but realistically it's more likely she tells him he's a fucking dick and jumps into the ocean, because if you're a dude who's just been dumped by a seal, you're probably going to spin it to make yourself look like the hero.

In any case, the selkie story is an interesting one, and it crosses over with a bunch of other Scottish legends; because Scotland is surrounded by water and riddled with lochs, rivers and way too much rain, many of our mythological figures, like the Blue Men of the Minch, Jenny Greenteeth, the kelpie and the each-uisge, are all associated with bodies of water.

Ferdag

Also: Speaking of representing 'imperfections,' the one character I find fascinating is the orc with one arm. That, to me, seems important. Explain him.

Ah, that's Ferdag! We so rarely see characters in games with visible disabilities, even in the ones that are all about war, violence, shooting, maiming, stabbing and slashing, let alone games where that's not the case. That's at least partially due to perceived issues with modelling characters - I suspect that a lot of games studios would find it "wasteful" or "unrealistic" to have character models with one arm, hang, leg, eye, a wheelchair, a cane, an oxygen tank, or what-have-you (never mind that a world that only has able-bodied people in it is even more unrealistic). But it's also partly due to people's reservations with showing physical disability in general, of (well meaning but self-defeating) worry about not representing disabled people perfectly, of the mistaken feeling that disabled bodies are taboo, dangerous, nonsexual and so on. So, Ferdag is partly my small way of providing at least some representation of physical disability - he's your typical mercenary warrior whose arm had to be amputated due to severe injury, and who has had to find new ways to adapt to the warrior life he lived with one less arm.

I also like to try to tell a wee story with the way that my characters are designed, to encourage questions and curiousity, and to make the way they look feel more significant once you know more about them, and Ferdag's no different - for example, considering that a person with one arm would have trouble fastening belts in those particular body locations, why does Ferdag wear them, and who does he get to help them with them? What does that suggest about Ferdag, considering, as a mercenary, he is often in situations where it may be difficult to trust someone to do something so intimate? etc etc etc. These kind of appearance-stories may not always come through in any obvious way, but its something I personally like to play with.

Positive Response

Are you surprised by the positive response to Tusks so far? What've they been like? I must say: I am. Comments sections the world over often give me the impression the internet hivemind has a looong way to go.

Very very very surprised - not so surprised that folk are into orcs, since there's a lot of weird and wonderful stuff out there and by comparison, orcs can easily be described as being just Big Green Dudes. But I'm very surprised by how positive the reaction has been considering Tusks is a small, basic game with fairly rudimentary art. I'd defend the worth of so-called naive/folk/crap/amateur art to the death, but it's one thing defending it and another thing entirely finding that you don't have to defend it because other people love it too, you know? And I've also been surprised by the degree to which people have already found something of value for themselves too - I've had a few messages from people saying they're so happy to have found out about it and that they're really looking forward to playing it, and honestly, that's one of the best feelings in the world.

Negative Response

On that note: Have there been haters?

As for haters - not yet! I wouldn't be surprised if I started getting abusive messages about being a Social Justice Warrior out to ruin orcs for everyone by getting The Gay all over them, or that the art is ugly, or that it's not a real game, or any of the other bollocks you see on comments sections and insular gamer networks. I really hope I don't, because that kind of stuff takes a serious mental and physical toll - but considering the massive swell of positive encouragement and strong support thus far, I think I'll can find reasons to withstand it.

LGBTIQ games

Are LGBTIQ games a growing market, and one where the focus isn't primarily on sex?

They definitely are a growing market- there's a surge of interest in exploring games by, for and about members of marginalised groups of all kinds, including those who're members of marginalised gender and sexual orientations. In fact, there're probably more games like that which aren't specifically about sex than those that are - but it's important to recognise that sex is still an important thing a lot of LGBTIQ individuals want to explore, since it's something they're often stigmatised for. Some of the more prominent and more recent ones include games like Nicky Case's Coming Out Simulator 2014, merritt kopas' Conversations with my Mother, Luke Miller's My Ex-Boyfriend The Gay Space Tyrant, Christine Love's Don't Take It Personally Babe...,and The Fullbright Company's Gone Home.

Uniqueness

What do you feel Tusks is providing that other games in its 'space' aren't (other than NSFW content)?

Tusks provides a story and a mythology that's usually centered around straight folk but in this case is unequivocally gay, without any kind of caveat attached to it - like, "It's gay, if you kinda read it this way," or "it's gay, but it's a tragic love story that ends horribly", or "one of these characters is gay and it's not like, A Thing, and also you never see them kiss anyone so it's not all in your face about it." I hope it doesn't remain unique in that respect for very long, though, if it ever was in the first place.

Mainstream Gaming

What do you feel is lacking in mainstream gaming?

Mainstream gaming is so dominated by the corporate and financial interests of big name/AAA publishers, developers, publications and service providers that corporate-speak and technical-jargon have become the only languages we can talk about games in, and as such, players are tricked into thinking it's important to have brand loyalty to one of the three major consoles in existence at any one time; that games must be protected from any kind of analysis that isn't grounded in technical measurements such as processor power or frame rates; that it's normal for artistic and creative works - "digital software solutions" - to be utterly abandoned after five years and for it to be illegal to preserve or support them for future research despite it not affecting the owner's profits, until the company decides to charge you for the right to engage with it again on their newest proprietary hardware and treating any former iteration of it as redundant waste; and that it's far better to channel millions of dollars to a suite of developers to give a half-arsed examination of a hot topic issue rather than three dollars to a person actually affected by that issue in their daily lives. The thing that's lacking, then, is empathy: recognising that the world and time that we live in is a fucked-up one and that it won't get any better by focusing on product over people.

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