i think there’s something special about art that focuses on normalcy. it comes from a lack of pretense; art of the mundane displays raw feelings simply. whether fiction or not, it comes from a place of vulnerability. with the detail the mundane provides, and without the distance something like fantasy or staged drama can give, there is no felt bluffing. other art has fluff and grandiosity that gets in the way of human connection. – max goodin
Strangers describes a person and asks for a first impression, a description of their home life, and a guess at their occupation. Black text on a white background; a defaultcore twine game. There’s no dressings for a life constant. Answers are freeform, typed in an input box under each question. After answering the first three questions, additional details are displayed, and a chance is given to reevaluate. Each question and answer pair is displayed on a results screen with the final question: what made you think this?
There’s no resolution, no actual answer revealed at the end. Strangers doesn’t bill itself as a game: “Strangers is more of an exercise than a game, exploring how we view each other and the underlying complexities of a person thought to be mundane. A stranger will be generated and briefly described, and the player will be tasked to imagine that person as thoroughly as they can.” What is the winstate for taking a person seriously, for being respectful of their autonomy? Strangers considers the many outside of my boundaries. It’s an encapsulation of empathetic thinking that takes constant vigilance, self-awareness, and a temerity to admit mistakes.
My overconfidence, my aspect of being that makes mistakes, at first felt this exercise wasn’t for me. Whether I’m kind to others is not for me to judge, but I do believe that I maintain a good conception of a person’s potential depth and complexity. Basically, I was hung up on Stranger’s stated intention. After filling out the prompts numerous times, I realized—and I do not know if it was the intent—but I came to a new and stronger realization that it’s impossible to conceptualize a stranger. There’s nothing in my judgements besides preconceptions and prejudices. No matter how many impressions I cycled through, I’d never learn who a person was. That is the constraint of the exercise. It’s a good reminder, especially in online environments, where really knowing a person is so liminal.
Who I Want You to Be is a simple twine game that involves the inverse. Strangers implores its user to prioritize empathy and respect of a myriad of lived experience; Who I Want You to Be is what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a homogeneous empathy, of person commodification. Questions are asked about the reader’s identity and I’m able to answer however I like. Giving normative answers returns with “That’s who I want you to be.” while idiosyncratic, often queer, identifiers are responded with “That’s not who I want you to be.” Despite the simplicity it’s razor sharp.
I think Who I Want You to Be is too gentle though, its language and phrasing creates a particular relationship that invokes a sympathetic authority figure. One whose sympathy is pretense, predicated on some net “best interest” that maximizes a person’s value in a capitalist society. Many individuals do not get the dignity of even this kind of mock empathy. Living while marginalized is often not a gentle buzzing or consistent neg, but real, actual violence, that impedes physically and spiritually. These arbiters can decide who can live or die. Their civility is a weapon that needs to be exposed.
Though personally, I only experience those gentle buzzings, so the presentation did carry weight. Existing contrary to taking power from others, contrary to compromises that make me complicit to violence and contempt, goes beyond due vigilance. I was taught to judge people for what they’re worth, that people reap what they sow. I was taught caring is contextual, that people need to earn their place. Being true to yourself comes second to being safe and successful. The logic is hard to deny: being authentic comes at a hard second to survival. Living idealistically, through even much privilege, is navigating compromise. Finding out slowly how much dissent you can take into yourself. A toxicity that can strangle hearts; wounds that open as soon as they close. It’s psychic warfare. I am privileged and I am a coward, compared to others. I still feel a thousand cuts.
i generally do 10-15 job applications per week. out of those, i have only received a reply on a handful of applications, and only one has lead to an interview (i didn’t get the job). most job applications follow a similar process: you have to upload your resume and possibly a cover letter, answer a bunch of questions, fill in your personal information, and so on. generally, the smartest thing to do is to edit your information to include keywords from the job description so that you stand out to their hiring managers (and so that you don’t get filtered out because you didn’t have “x” listed and they have 50 applicants), but this grows incredibly tedious when you’re rewriting your resume for the 40th time. not to mention a bit dehumanizing. at this point, i have a few different generic resumes on hand for different types of jobs.
certainly the most difficult part of this process, besides how tedious it can be, is how little feedback i get. when you send out dozens of job applications and don’t hear a peep, you have to wonder why you’re doing it at all. it feels like all the effort is down the drain, and at the end of the week i’m back to square one. i have to keep trying if i want to find a job, though, so i’m stuck in an endless loop of sending resumes off to the abyss, waiting, and then trying again. – anonymous
Jobhunter is of material commodification of lives, a game to convince an employer of personal value. Name yourself, declare your gender—male, female, or nonbinary—and trot into town. Though Jobhunter is played by “you”, you don’t have internet access (using library internet is outside the game’s scope, it’s a missed opportunity), so you must perform a cyclical and tiring act of asking any establishment if they have openings. They usually don’t. Canned dismissals bleed together, every interview involves the same questions and answers, a samey stupefaction sludges into an empty tiredness. You know, like capitalist bureaucracy.
I picked nonbinary as my gender on my first playthrough. This was my longest playthrough. I’m certain I applied for every possible opening, a surprisingly large amount. Every interview ended in rejection. I was evicted from my apartment, which is the game’s lose state after sixty in-game days. Quickly I started another file, picked nonbinary, and made it halfway into applying to every establishment again before running out of steam. There seemed to be no actual winstate, and I thought, was that the game? Dispelling the meritocracy myth; hard work guarantees nothing.
Before declaring Jobhunter an ungame, I did a third playthrough, this time as male, and secured the very first job I applied to. It was effortless to make money for rent and then some. Next I choose female and a job only took three interviews. Which, the contrast and critique is very blunt. Folks that can’t pass as cisgender would have an incredibly difficult—and yes, maybe even impossible—time finding a job. Though the discrimination of queer bodies goes beyond just IDing and presenting as nonbinary, I’m assuming Jobhunter is out to model the particular experience of being denied opportunities because of being openly nonbinary.
Jobhunter is sharp because of its innocuous nature. In place of complication, there’s two approaches to play experience. Picking assumedly cisgenders renders the expected simulation. A sterile and utterly boring experience of going through the motions and succeeding because of that. This is basically how the game would be developed by any average developer, offering a virtual stomping ground where the player inevitably succeeds, yet in their mind absolutely true to life. A person can play Jobhunter and have this be their only experience, which is structural confidence.
Take cis-privilege away from the mix and it’s now a different game. It’s not just an unwinnable scenario. I’d argue Jobhunter has no winstate at all. For the amount of effort put into the many streets and establishments, the other routes, so to speak, are self-parodic. They exist to show how easy it is to succeed with privilege, not to be a system to struggle under and succeed. If, in the end, my hard work paid off, and I successful gamed the system, succeeding despite setbacks: every capitalist and neoliberal would be right. What is oppression without injustice? Becoming intimate with the systems and structure of Jobhunter only occurs when the player is bleeding to death. A game that is deliberately unwinnable, through which, the drudgery, the dehumanization, and the broken pipelines of capitalism are revealed.
Under capitalism, marginalization easily leads to soul-death, because of normative ways to judge a person’s value by the appearance of what they can produce. In that vein, there’s no anti-capitalism without intersectionality. I appreciate Alice Indie’s work for being open-ended and assistive, rather than standard “empathy games” that are ludic-focused and mechanically lopsided by encouraging winstates. Her twine games are concentrate on being open, starting conversation, and generating solidarity through common experience. I look forward to her future works.
special thanks to the writers i had commissioned for those quotes
alice indie’s itch.io