Last night I gave a talk in Vienna at the Subotron arcademy series — an invited talks series aimed at the indie game dev community in the area, taking on matters of art, craft, and politics. Previous speakers have included Meg Jayanth on the narrative of 80 Days, and Marie Foulston on curating video games for the V&A, among others.
I was talking about sex, intimacy, and non-sexual but emotionally intense elements in games; about how fiction gives us enough distance to be able to handle these topics, but how interactivity makes it harder again.
I talked about some of my own games in this area, and also about some games by other people: the emotional brutality of That Dragon, Cancer; the curious partial invitation to intimacy in 36 Questions; the way 18 Cadence invites the reader to pick out themes they find resonant.
And I spent several minutes talking about TAKE, Amelia Pinnolla’s game for this year’s IF Comp, because it is dealing with all of those topics — sex, trust, intimacy, revelation, the vulnerability of the author.
As far as I can tell, even a lot of people who liked TAKE didn’t completely get it. The biggest weakness of the piece is that it doesn’t guarantee that the reader will get what’s going on, because it’s otherwise pretty amazing; and in many cases what it’s saying would be very painful reading if presented without some layers of indirection.
So I want to talk about all that. This will be spoilery: proceed at your own risk.
TAKE here means a hot take, a rapidly formulated piece offering often moralistic views on current events or popular culture. This part is comparatively accessible, though I think some non-native English speakers who played the game may not have known that meaning for the word.
The gameplay makes that idea central. You’re a gladiator (after a fashion; we’ll come back to that) who must constantly file hot takes on everything around you: the battlefield, your opponent, your audience, your manager, your own wounds. It turns out that you can sometimes TAKE the same object multiple times, getting deeper or more far-fetched results on later iterations, perhaps because your character comes up with more outlandish things to say on the same topic.
In real time, a monitor in your chest reports back whether your take was juicy enough — personal enough, dramatic enough, extreme enough — to please your watchers. There are three scenes of play: your preparation for battle; your time in an agora where you are matched with an opponent; the battle itself.
This scenario encourages the player to think they might hypothetically be able to win, by taking the right thing, or taking enough things, or taking things in the right sequence — at one point I did get my monitor to go pulsing hot, though that may have been as much by luck as for any other reason. I gather that there is an underlying logic to which things will produce the best takes, but I wasn’t really able to predict in advance which items were going to give a valuable TAKE and which weren’t.
And I soon found myself with my monitor going cold, out of ideas. The taking and retaking, the scrubbing the environment for more things to take, however silly: all that captures the protagonist’s desperation, the fickleness and unpredictability of the audience, the fact that there’s no knowing what they’re going to respond to; the fact that you’re making this life-or-death struggle on terms that are not only unfair but unknowable. The game lasts just long enough for the player to experience all of that in detail but not so long that the futility becomes boring.
Moreover, the takes themselves are interesting and funny and shed more light on the protagonist’s situation, which means that I the player am in the weird position of demanding these takes from her also, being a little bit her audience as well as herself.
This works really well as a bit of procedural rhetoric. But it also means that the player is likely to focus on extracting a different kind of information from the scene and from the descriptions of the scene: what objects are here that I haven’t taken yet? Which of those objects looks the most provocative and sensational? Can I make out whether there’s a pattern about which objects can be taken multiple times, and which seem to positively affect my monitor score?
Which is unfortunate, because there’s a whole additional point to what’s going on here. A lot of critical information is in EXAMINE actions, rather than in TAKE actions. The help text does say that the player should use EXAMINE, but everything about the gameplay itself means they may well forget that advice. Likewise, scanning the room for clues means that the player may not read the text itself as carefully as it deserves, or as it needs.
It wasn’t until after a couple of playthroughs that I did enough examining to actually get it. Here:
Your armor was designed for form, not functionality; you’re as covered as you need to be, but the material is loose and catches on itself with every move, becoming at the worst moments a train or hobble.
Pencil skirt or ballgown, most skirts aren’t designed for long strides or effective self-defense.
> x sprays
Mass-market battle aids to be sprayed inside the mouth and dispersed with every breath. Their makers claim one hundred ways to humble an adversary senseless, none of which ever manifest before the final blow. Where the brands evoke venom and the packaging evokes grenades, the scent evokes musty florals, or fainting spells. You’d do better bathing in tear gas.
In fact if you refer to these objects as PERFUME, the parser will still recognize them.
Forged too quickly and battered too often, this shield is your only reliable defense in battle. The metal coat is flaking from repeated attacks; your skin itches whenever you wear it, which is too often.
If you don’t wear make-up yourself, you may be unaware that the cases are sometimes faux-metallic stuff that flakes away; or that a full face of foundation can be itchy and feel just a bit wrong all night long.
This is, in other words, a game about dating for takes, going out with people so that you can report back on the results; and about performing femininity and how that is both completely mandatory and also completely insufficient to protect the protagonist.
Per the rules of engagement, your opponents aren’t supposed to leave any wounds that could scar, maim or otherwise retire you from fighting. The bandages here – tough, fast-acting, surprisingly expensive – are an acknowledgement that this never happens.
> take bandages
You write about the time before your recruitment, which is to say your life, when you had to buy your own supplies. Even then you fought too often, and you purchased in bulk. Every shopkeeper would stare you down.
Even before her current media function, the protagonist felt judged for her sex life: for having one, and for the fact that it wasn’t as devoid of consequence as society would like to pretend.
> take pills
You write about the first time you had to take these, after contact with rust. They’re hard on the stomach, so you were doubled over and groaning for the next week, but in this telling you fetchingly writhed and dramatically fainted.
As a description of the aftermath of sex, this rather different than if it were talking about the aftermath of battle. And then there’s this:
> take gauntlets
You write about your hands, which are too small for gauntlets; the first battle you fought, your opponent thought he’d been sent a child soldier, and fought twice as hard.
He thought you were underage. But the story doesn’t come out and say that, not in those words. It lets you unpack all the horribleness for yourself.
If you have enough information to do so, that is. If the player doesn’t understand the dating aspect, then the game seems rather more oblique. It still reads as a well-written (if strange) tale about subjecting yourself to horrible and fantastical battles for the short-lived entertainment of an audience that doesn’t really give a damn about you. In fact that remains an interesting story. But most of the subtext becomes illegible.
> take monitor
You write about the supposed tradeoff: no one would break the rules of engagement, commit a war crime, certainly not land a lethal blow, knowing it would be publicized and televised seconds later. It’s an ironclad safety guarantee that has never protected you.
After your preparations, you go to the agora to meet other gladiators (itself something of a conflation of Greco-Roman tropes, but okay). It’s a meat market there.
> take food
You write about the impossible math of staying in fighting shape and allowing yourself a soldier’s repast. Neither is optional.
This speaks to a particular ridiculous ideal of a woman who can fit into a size 0 dress but eats pizza and drinks beer like one of the boys.
Or the description of the “platform” (read bed) where you do battle:
A nondescript place to be flattened.
And the ending in particular is tricky to understand properly without its second meaning. Why does the swordplay go down this way? why is there a moment of being “positioned” for a fatal wound, and a moment when televising it would disrupt that?
All told, this is a very bleak portrayal of dating and sexuality. Nothing is private. Everything occurs in public, to be commented on and reviewed later. You simultaneously have a reputation and no friends; devastating loneliness and an audience of thousands. Your “combat” scene is being reported to your opponent’s friends, so you can be mocked and criticized. There is no affection between the participants, no trust or good humor. (I don’t call them “partners” because they definitely are not.) The rules of engagement are rigged in a gendered way. By having sex at all, the woman is construed to have lost; she is the one who has to deal with any physical repercussions and any social stigma.
After you’ve lost as the protagonist, you get a chance to WIN, by playing as the man. It’s a one-turn game where the winning move is USE GIRL.
Spelling it out like this, I feel like I risk giving the wrong idea to people who haven’t played it. It could have been simply a heavy-handed diatribe about how incredibly stupid and unfair are the customs that even now govern heterosexual dating in some subcultures — indeed it could have come off as just the kind of hot take it is mocking. But the layer of indirection saves it from that (though I think it goes too far in the other direction).
Meanwhile, the individual passages are sharp and beautifully composed. TAKE observes how it feels to prepare yourself for a situation where you know you are going to be at a disadvantage, possibly a severe one; where you are walking into the possibility, or even the likelihood, of humiliation.
To me the core sadness of the piece comes through in this bit of text you can find in the final scene:
You write about your longstanding conviction that you can never win a fight, not really, that there’s a synapse somewhere in you that will always rush you into the blow.
I wish that the design were such that more people saw what TAKE is doing. It can be rather obscure. But with that understood, I have huge respect for a piece that can combine that much rawly-felt emotion with such exact observations, together with mechanics that also tell part of the story. It’s brave and devastating, with some of the best prose in this year’s competition.