Road to the IGF: Coming Out Simulator 2014

Gamasutra speaks to Nicky Case about the development of Coming Out Simulator 2014 -- a deeply personal and autographical interactive story that does what it says on the tin.

Coming Out Simulator 2014 does what it says on the tin: It's the fictive autobiographical story of Nicky Case, who -- during the game -- ends up coming out as bisexual to their mother. It's an extremely relatable game for people who've been in the same situation -- and as Case says below, it turns out also for those who have not.

The game (which Case is "strangely okay with" people saying isn't a game at all) mimics the form of an SMS conversation on a mobile phone. But it's got a deceptively rich conversation engine: Think "Clementine will remember that," but without zombies.  

To find out more about the game's development and its goals, Gamasutra spoke to Case about the project. 

What's your background in making games?

When I was eight, I drew a maze with pen and paper. In this maze, there was your character's starting point, a door, and a key. On Valentine's Day, I gave this maze to my teacher-assigned mandatory playdate, (Singapore is weird) along with a red marker. I asked her to draw me the solution to this puzzle! Here's that maze, and the path my playdate was supposed to draw:

That day, I learnt the value of playtesting, because I did not playtest my maze, and the path she drew looked less like a heart and more like a cashew nut.

Anyway, that's the first game I ever remember making.

A few years later, I started making terrible Flash games. Then, I made less-terrible Flash games. I made money for a few years through annoying ads and Newgrounds sponsorships. The not-bad games I made were a not-bad portfolio, which helped me land an engineering internship at Electronic Arts! It was a studio that specialized in Flash games. Then Flash died. Then the studio died. Then I went about on my own, making and experimenting with HTML5 interactive art, and that's where I am now.

What development tools did you use to build Coming out Simulator?

Coming Out Sim is just Javascript and CSS -- not even the HTML5 canvas!

Coded in Sublime Text, illustrations done in Flash, testing done in Chrome, development done in a tiny coffeehouse, playtesting done in spite of my roommates' cries for mercy.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Two weeks -- it was made on a whim for the interactive-storytelling-focused Nar8 Jam. (which it won!)

How did you come up with the concept?

This tweet was my "design doc" for the game.

There were only two things I knew I wanted to do, going into this project. One: imitating the text-message SMS user interface. My mother reading my texts was how I got "caught," the main twist of the story, and everything hinged on that. Two: the game mechanic where everyone remembers everything. This forces the player to be careful, trying to stay consistent in their lies and half-truths, knowing they can never take back anything they say. Coz that's exactly how I felt.

Another core aspect, the meta-narrative where you talk to present-day me at the beginning and ending of the game, only emerged much later. I needed a main menu, plus some way to relay background information, but I didn't want a title screen and a big red PLAY button. So, I had you talk to "me" before you got to play as "me." Turns out this was a brilliant framing device. The best accidental decision I've ever made.

Yay for happy accidents!

What effect did you hope to have on people who played the game?

This might just be a Canadian thing, but there seems to be this idea that "coming out" is something you have to do as a teen. A rite of passage, or something, that is right for every queer person.

In COS2014, Jack held this viewpoint, and tries to pressure "me" into coming out to my parents, consequences be damned. (Is he to blame?) In a sense, Jack is the mirror of the Mother character. Jack cares about my being myself over my safety, while the Mother character cares about my safety over my being myself.

COS2014 was meant to give people an honest weighing of the pros and cons of coming out. A "practice run" at coming out. And more importantly -- that there is no shame in coming out, not coming out, waiting until you're financially independent to come out, or whatever you choose. Just as long as you make an informed choice.

And, as I could tell from the hundreds of heartwarming/heartbreaking fan letters I got, COS2014 did help queer teens make that informed choice. I'm... honored and humbled I could have such an impact on so many people.

One thing I didn't expect, in terms of the game's effect -- it also helped people weigh the choice of "coming out" about other things. A few examples from my fanmails: being atheist in a Mormon family, being an internet sex worker, hiding one's schizophrenia from friends. I think "coming out" is a universal experience -- whether it's small or big, we all have something personal that not everybody might accept. Then, we all have to make that choice -- do we maintain the fiction, or risk being hated by the ones we love?

Also, "empathy". I guess.

(I have mixed feelings about COS2014 being described as "for empathy" -- I mean, yes it does do that, but... isn't that what all stories already do? It's like describing a story as "for emotions.")

How did you choose your storytelling approach? How much did the kind of story you wanted to tell affect the game's design?

Fuck branching.

I wrote a bunch about this in my Featured Gamasutra Post, but "branching story" is a model of interactive storytelling that needs to pack its bags, get in a car, and drive away until it hits the sea... then keep driving.

In Coming Out Simulator 2014, instead of only a few decisions branching to entirely different plotlines, every single decision you make is remembered by the game, and subtly changes the later story. Over time, your choices can still add up to massively different outcomes, but it's more continuous. It follows naturally.

Another thing I've been thinking about (and writing another Gamasutra post for) is how to convert real-world systems into game systems. We're pretty good with this when it comes to physics, but what about psychology, sociology, and interpersonal relationships? How do we convert those into game mechanics?

I didn't know it at the time, but I think I was onto this with COS2014. Again, yay for happy accidents.

COS2014 shows the "mechanics" of coming out -- the mental burden of lying, versus the relationship strain of honesty. And it shows this mechanic by having the game remember everything you say, no matter how small or big. There's no taking things back. You make a choice, and see its short-term and long-term consequences through.

The game is both personal and highly abstracted, in terms of its presentation and visuals. How do you balance those elements for the right effect? Is less more? 

Look how geometric this scene is!


One big triangle, all the way down to the placement of the power outlet and the sideways cup. A tip to all artists in visual media -- illustrators, filmmakers, game creators -- you gotta compose your scenes, your environments, your level designs. When in doubt... you can never have too many triangles.


Anyway, the minimalist design was intentional. Even if I didn't have the time constraints of the game jam I made this for, I'd still have made the visuals like this, to fit in with modern mobile UI design trends. Flat colours, smooth curves, minimalist.

I'll admit, I didn't really think about how the minimalist aesthetic, especially the lack of faces, would help/hurt the emotional impact of the story. I'd like to think it helped. Not sure where I heard this piece of storytelling advice -- "someone trying not to cry is sadder than someone crying." The lack of faces takes that further -- you can't even see them cry.

Talking through text messages, the unreliable narrator, the lack of faces...

Guess I tried to tell a personal story, in the most impersonal way.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Every year, when the IGF finalists are announced, my artsy-indie-games-to-play backlog list grows three sizes.

I'm in awe of the wildly unconventional play of augmented reality Ice-Bound, audiovisual instrument Become a Great Artist, sound-hacking Phonopath, and story-generating This War of Mine. I also deeply appreciated the many "personal" games on the IGF list, such as How Do You Do It?Curtain, and Coming Out Simulator 2014. (disclaimer: I may be biased towards that last entry.)

Also, I'm currently on Hole #2583 in Desert Golfing. 2583 holes, 6021 strokes, no regrets.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Our art has outgrown our audience.

After writing and re-writing by answer to this question for over an hour, that's the bluntest way I can put it. I think as creators, we're getting better at creating a variety of interactive experiences! Games as storytelling, mixing digital with analog play, I've even seen a couple cases of procedural rhetoric this year.

And yet... most of our press, our market, and our audience want Fun Mastery-Based Challenges Around Spatial Systems and Mechanics, As Opposed to Social or Interpersonal or Narrative Systems and Mechanics. Mind you, I'm talking about both "hardcore" and "casual" players. And while FMBCASSMAOTSOTONSM can be very expressive, it's such a small, small section of the vast possibilities we can do -- and already do -- with interactive art.

When I released COS2014, I expected people to dismiss it by saying "it's not a game." What I didn't expect was for people to praise it by saying it's not a game. To a lot of non-game mainstream press, to call COS2014 a game was an insult. So, they went out of their way to compliment it by saying it's not a game. And... I'm strangely okay with that.

Most peeps outside games think they can only be trivial timewasters.

Most peeps inside games want them to only be trivial timewasters.

As Chris Crawford said in 1992, charging out a GDC lecture room with a foam sword, “What I want, is breadth, what the customers want, is depth. I am at cross-purposes to my audience.” This talk was given before I was born, and it's saddening to see that not much has changed on that front.

I am avoiding mentioning That Thing That Happened Last Year.

I guess what I'm trying to say, after an hour of writing and re-writing this response, is that we as interactive artists have to mindful about our audience going forward. Maybe, like how some comic book artists rebranded themselves as making "graphic novels", we call what we do "interactive art" instead of "games." I mean, they keep accusing our stuff of being "not a game", might as well give them that.

That's a terrible idea, but at least it's a start.

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