Created by indie game developer Nicky Case, the dialogue-based, decision-making game Coming Out Simulator isn't a game that is beat so much as it is understood. Playing through the title will only take you about a half-hour or 45 minutes, and it's easily accessible via your web browser. But the themes Case manages to tackle in such a short amount of time center on the difficult problems associated with public sexuality, and transcend to other social taboos like religion and mental illness.
Playing as a young Nicky, you're thrust into Case's young adult life during the time when he was forced to come out about his sexuality to his mother. The game is semi-autobiographical, but the palpable tension which arrives with the game's pivotal conversation feels all too real. Case succeeds in replicating the awkward, and sometimes painful, difficulties that too often accompany the truth.
Here, Case discusses privacy, the LGBTQ community's relationship with gaming, and his influences for creating Coming Out Simulator.
How long had you been working on Coming Out Simulator before it was released?
I'd been working on Coming Out Simulator for two weeks. The game jam ran for three weeks.
What can you tell me about this game jam?
The Narr8 game jam was a three-week-long game jam for game developers to get experimental and interesting with game narratives. It ran from June 8 until the end of June.
What's been the response you've received so far? You mentioned to me in an email that you've had some fanmail.
Yeah, a lot of really touching responses. And not just from queer people, but a lot of people could really relate to my story; people with strained relationships with their parents, people who are coming out about something else that is not specifically their sexuality. In one of the most touching emails, one of my fans had to come out to her very Christian parents about her dating a Muslim boy. Things did not go very well for her.
What do you hope comes as a result of this game then? Did you have any larger ambitions for it when you made it or were you more interested in just getting your story out there?
It wasn't really a large-scale ambition thing, because I made it for a small game jam. I really wasn't expecting it to get such a wide reception as it did.
So, why this story then? Had the idea for this game been brewing in you for awhile?
It definitely has been on my mind for quite awhile. It's been only four years since the events of the game, but I guess I finally felt emotionally secure enough to tell it, and I think my storytelling skills have improved enough from that point. It's a hard story to tell. Before the game jam, my storytelling skills were pretty crap.
Do you think gaming is a particularly useful medium for tackling more taboo issues like this?
No medium is particularly better than any other medium for tackling pressing social issues. But, yeah, it really depends on what options I can do. Games happen to be the medium I'm most familiar with. One thing I do think games are particularly better at is getting across the sense of decision. Like, a heavy decision, a choice. Games are probably the best-suited medium for that. Like, the way text is best-suited for getting across abstract ideas; images and music can get across raw emotions. You can get players to actually feel the weight of their decision-making. A lot of people who emailed me or tweeted me said, "Wow! I was really, really stressed while making these decisions." They would spend seven minutes just sitting there, stressing over which choice to make.
It was at the end of Coming Out Simulator that I realized that the story was really about that tension between lying so that you can get by day-to-day and wanting to share the truth so that you can be who you are in public.
I noticed that tension a lot when I was playing through the game. Even though it wasn't my story, I felt nervous about making outright admissions to the parental figures in the game. It had that same meandering, "beating around the bush" cadence of a real conversation. Is that then why you chose the form of a dialogue-based adventure?
Yeah, actually that captures exactly why I made the decision.
And what was your influence for making three stories out of the ending when you provided the "Truth," the "Half-Truth," and the "Lie"?
As I mentioned earlier, it reached a lot of my fans who weren't queer who really had something they believed in, or had something that was a part of their identity that their parents or their friends would not accept. So, it's really about that tension. Coming out about anything, not just coming out about being queer.
It was at the end of Coming Out Simulator that I realized that the story was really about that tension between lying so that you can get by day-to-day and wanting to share the truth so that you can be who you are in public. And how to navigate these lies, truths, and half-truths. I thought that a great way to end the story would be with three different versions of what happened between the events of the game and today.
And a combination of these ideas is what often makes up the truth anyway.
How do you think the game fits into the current gaming landscape? You once interned for EA, correct?
Yes, and I am repenting for that by making indie, artsy-fartsy games! [Laughs.]
Having worked for a major gaming studio like that, do you think that they have any sort of pulse on the LGBTQ audience?
For all the flack that EA gets and sort of deserves, they are very, very good to the LGBTQ community, both internally and externally. Bioware is the most obvious example. Bioware is a part of Electronic Arts now and their games have very prominently let their players choose LGBT romances. They stuck up for the LGBT community, despite all the angry gamer vitriol in response to having lesbian romances in their games.
Have you incorporated themes relating to your sexuality in any previous games you've made?
No, I actually have not. Actually, no, that's a lie. My main project, Nothing to Hide, is an anti-stealth game. In a stealth game, you hide from the cameras. In this anti-stealth game, you're legally required to be in sight of a camera at all times. It's a satire of surveillance and social media.
Given the response you've received for Coming Out Simulator, do you see yourself doing more projects like this in the future?
Yes, actually, I do. I'm not going to make it the focus, but I really want to get across the human part of privacy and the psychological aspect of what a lack of privacy does. Privacy is really, really fundamental to the experience of being LGBTQ, but privacy also matters for people with mental illness, or for political dissonance. I really wanted to get across a lot of different stories in Nothing to Hide where privacy matters.
Are there any other indie developers you would highlight who are dealing with the same issues as you in their games, whether pertaining to privacy or sexuality?
Yeah, the indie game developer scene is really, really good for this. I guess one of my main inspirations for this was dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy. It's a short, five-minute Flash game online, but it's also an autobiographical game about her transitioning from a man to woman. There are four levels of her game: "Gender Bullshit," "Medical Bullshit," "Hormonal Bullshit," and "It Gets Better?". That was one of my biggest inspirations.
I'd also like to bring up the Walking Dead games by Telltale. It's a very big inspiration for the whole dialogue and narrative system that I have in Coming Out Simulator. The Walking Dead games are also really good with bringing about that sense of dread and weight to decisions. Also, the Walking Dead games are great about dealing with social issues. The main character is a black person, which is unheard of in video games. The games also feature a Middle-Eastern couple, which is virtually unheard of in any form of entertainment, be it games or film or anything. The new season also has a protagonist with a mental disability, and I think one of the characters from the first season is queer.
And Gone Home. I love that. It's a game that prominently features a queer protagonist.
Do you have any more projects coming up?
No other game projects, but one of my core philosophies is to do just do side projects, because you never know when a side project like Coming Out Simulator will get more press than a main project like Nothing to Hide. I'm jealous of myself, as weird as that is to say!
Gus Turner is a Complex news editor. He tweets here.