A Closed World Review
Have you ever been so frustrated, so fed up with where you are, that you just want to throw it all away and run off to somewhere new? In A Closed World you play as a young person who has decided to do exactly that. This console RPG-like game puts you in the shoes of a young resident of a village just outside a forest that everyone says is a place of no return. Supposedly home to hungering demons and a beast that would destroy the village, the forest is forbidden and nobody knows what’s on the other side. However, our hero’s beloved — tired of the oppressive attitude of the villagers — decided to go there, as anywhere would be better than home. Now it’s your turn to follow after. Are you willing to risk everything to find out what’s on the other side?
– Gambit Lab
Has it ever occurred to you
Just how much our lives
Is affected by the answer
To a very simple sounding question?
The words we use
The way we interact with other people
The clothes we wear
Even the people we fall in love with
In some way,
They’re all affected by the answer
To one important
Are you male or female?
A Closed World is a JRPG-style game where you take on the role of a character facing the challenges of having a different sexual identity than those around them. During the day, you are confronted by friends and family about your “failings”. At night, you venture out into the woods to escape it all, only to find your deepest fears made manifest. As you journey deeper and deeper into the forest, you encounter demonic versions of those whom you faced during the day. To battle them you use Logic, Passion and Ethics to counter their attacks. Your health comes in the form of Composure which you can recover by taking a turn to Breathe. And there’s always the option to simply Walk Away.
A Closed World was a game project by the Singaport-MIT Gambit Game Lab in 2011 whose goal was to create an LGBTQ friendly game and document the challenges they faced when approaching the design. Since both the game industry and the gaming community have often struggled with how non-heterosexual characters are represented, the team wanted to help develop an approach that could be used in other contexts. The game was made in Flash with a team size of about 11 and an estimated budget of $20,000.
Immersion in metaphor. This is one aspect I absolutely love about the game. In this story, the forest doesn’t just represent a bunch of physical trees in the backyard. They are the embodiment of adventure, freedom, danger and the unknown. It is the space we go to escape the world we come from but also where our greatest fears come to life. The forest can offer you protection from the judgement of your peers but not from the creatures that lurk within. The metaphors aren’t restricted to the setting either. Everything from the enemies you face to the actions you can take in combat are all entrenched in this theme. It’s as much a walk through the subconscious as it is a journey through the woods.
Narrative. I won’t spoil the story of the game, but it most definitely takes you on a journey. You find out about the many different people in the protagonist’s life and how they each attempt to make you “normal”. From distant relatives, to immediate family, to a lover to your own identity, each of these are brought to bare as you progress through the story.
Binary Gender. I actually got to meet a couple of the developers and one thing they noted in their own design is that they didn’t include a transgender or queer option at the start. This may not seem like much to some but as a game championing a non-CIS perspective, part of its core audience was not included. It didn’t seem like it was left out intentionally, but was more likely noticed too late in development to make a meaningful change.
Antagonists. While it ties directly in to the strong metaphorical themes of the game, having the enemies be both representations of family members or friends and then also depicted as these grotesque monsters out to get you leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it demonstrates the perspective of the character; how they view these people who are always berating and abusing them simply because of who they are. On the other hand, it demonizes them to a point where they are no longer people themselves (almost to the extent that the roles are reversed)
Simple Mechanics. Ultimately, combat boils down to rock-paper-scissors. A tried and true formula to be sure, but one that I felt simplified the issue a little too much. I like how the “attacks” are framed as different ways to argue in a non-violent fashion, but it felt a little too easy to just click an option to win when the situation they’re modeling is often very traumatic and complicated. I can say from personal experience that replicating that kind of conflict is extremely difficult, especially when time and resources are tight. I wish this mechanic could be a little more powerful but as it is, it gets the job done.
I highly recommend playing this game. While it’s simplistic in nature, there’s a great deal of thought that went into the design. It’s an exploration of themes that can touch you down to your very core if you’ve ever met someone who has struggled with their identity. I wish a little more work could be done to really hit home how emotional and powerful these challenges are in real life, but for what we got, this is still a fantastic experience and a great demonstration of meaningful play.
You can play A Closed World at Gambit.mit.edu