Emma Kostopolus, University of Kansas
Brynn Fitzsimmons, University of Kansas
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Ace Detective Critical Essay [Download Link]
In her book on games as zines, Anna Anthropy spoke of wanting video games that could take the risks big game companies refused to, represent the people and experiences that are never imagined on either side of the screen when a videogame is designed, and that can be accessible in the informal, personal sort of way that a YouTube channel is for videos (10-12). “What I want,” she writes, “is for video games to speak to more than just the handful of people already engaged in producing and consuming them,” (16). In many ways, Ace Detective falls right in line with Anthropy’s hopes for a decentralized, personal game system, both in terms of how the game is made and what it’s trying to do. Broadly, Ace Detective uses the various tools at its disposal—the game medium, the main character, and the story itself—to center and explore the main character’s asexual (ace), aromantic (aro) identity and the implications of that identity for the main character’s relationships. Set against a backdrop of recognizable murder mystery and dating sim style archetypes and tropes, Ace Detective subverts expectations around relationships, or, as Bo Ruberg has posited, it embraces a type of “not-fun” (175) by forcing the player away from the expected end of “heterosexual happiness” (158) and instead explore what it looks and feels like to move through a hetero- and allonormative society and to try to develop relationships and/or queer platonic partnerships within it.
Twine offers a text-style game experience, which, ironically (given the identities we explored), is often used for dating games. However, the platform offered us an important benefit for undermining the very norms it’s often used to uphold: Twine let us control the narrative. As Mia Consalvo points out, games with single point-of-view characters force the player to be invested in one character (189), something Ace Detective uses to its advantage by giving its main character what is usually an invisible orientation, and making that orientation intentionally and unavoidably visible throughout the entire game. Because there is painfully little literature around aromanticism and asexuality (a cursory search that an average, curious inquirer might run in a university library’s holdings, for example, offers two books and a handful of articles on asexuality and zero resources that are primarily about aromanticism), we can’t reasonably assume that the average player would have even encountered a discussion around asexuality and/or aromanticism in other media, even if they are familiar with queer games more broadly. In some ways, a simple, straightforward game platform like Twine was ideal for creating a game that, to return to Anthropy, in many ways functions like a zine for ace/aro identity, because it offered us three main opportunities: it gave us a clear set of rules that allowed us to explore a system (hetero- and allonormativity); it allowed us to represent and communicate relationships (specifically queer platonic partnerships, or QPPs); and it allowed us to force the audience to inhabit an identity that almost no other pieces of media even ask them to consider (ace/aro) (Anthropy 20).
The expectation that our players would be unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with our character’s resistance to heterosexuality is a common expectation for makers of queer games. However, while our game, like other queer games, is exploring a part of the system behind heterosexuality (from our character’s position outside of it), we are actually exploring a second system as well: allonormativity. Even queer gaming has often failed to explicitly consider asexuality and aromanticism (arguably, the latter even more than the former) in any meaningful way. Thus, while Ace Detective falls within the queer gaming tradition, we found the straightforward system afforded us by Twine to be an important part of exploring a complex dual system—heteronormativity and allonormativity—which are painfully underrepresented and underexplored in mainstream and queer games alike.
It’s important to note, however, that Ace Detective did not set out to be an empathy game. Rather, it is seeking to start the kind of rethinking of perspective that can prompt players to seek out spaces in which to develop empathy. This invitation to rethink is embedded into the structure of the game itself, not just through the main character, but also through decisions such as the choice not to use images (which are common to dating sim text-based games), which intentionally forces out the emphasis on allosexual/alloromantic desire that images tend to be used to reinforce. While the game is nowhere near long enough to begin to create a comprehensive picture of even one experience of asexuality and aromanticism, moves like the resistance to images aim to force the player into moments of different perspective. This perspective shift isn’t empathy, but it offers what merritt k calls “empathy tourism” (Kopas 14)—that is, a brief experience of a character’s (singular) experience. The hope, of course, is 1 that while ace/aro players will have a chance to see themselves in a medium where they are not usually represented, allo players will take this snapshot as an impetus to rethink their own assumptions about ways of being and relating outside of allonormativity (or, as might be more likely, help them realize that such perspectives even exist).
By making our main character ace/aro and female, we were able to look specifically at the expectations and stereotypes around women in American culture who refuse to perform a type of sexual or romantic availability. This assumption does not go away for women who identify as ace/aro; rather, Mitchell and Hunnicott note that the assumption then becomes that “asexual women can be ‘turned’ sexual through having sex,” thus making asexuality (and, often, aromanticism) into an issue of not being willing to “just try.” These types of responses are in keeping with a long history of the pathologizing of asexuality (see Przybylo, “Producing Facts” for a useful summary and analysis in this area). On the romantic side, however, existing, arguably patriarchal assumptions about male/female “norms” stereotype men as interested in sex and women as interested in romance (as noted even in discussions of asexuality, see Bogaert 15). These types of assumptions create an additional layer of complication when our female main character is actively disinterested in both sex and romance.
Because none of the characters with whom the Detective might develop a relationship are ace/aro (even Eleanor, who is asexual, is not aromantic), we were able to explore both general perceptions around asexuality/aromanticism as well as the specific responses that a heteronormative and patriarchal culture has toward women who refuse to play by its scripts by refusing, in fact, to play the game at all. This exploration is illustrated perhaps most clearly by one of the dialog options with Tom, the Wait Staff, who gets angry at the Detective and accuses her of “leading people on” by wanting a queer platonic partnership while not being interested in sexual or romantic relationships. In addition, there is also a dialog with Eleanor which explores another assumption: that women might not “like sex” (which is often how asexuality is conceptualized by allosexuals), but must clearly be romantically available. Because both of the authors share the positionality of the main character (ace/aro, present as female), many of these interactions stem directly from one or both of our experiences when trying to navigate and/or communicate about our identities, orientations, and relationship boundaries and needs in a heteronormative, allonormative culture.
We set the narrative of asexuality against a mystery narrative, which itself provides something of a juxtaposition, because, as Elizabeth Hanson points out, the relationship subplot could be viewed as distinctly not a mystery: “What asexuals hide is the fact that they have nothing to hide; their sexual secret is that they have no sexual secret,” (350). The choice to do a mystery game offered the benefit of giving us standard, easily recognizable stereotypes to work with. Our Clue-style cast, then, could provide the player with a sense of familiarity and ease; even a new gamer can easily recognize the stereotypes employed in the game, and, although the solving of the mystery is not necessarily stereotypical, the characters and the steps of the plot are incredibly so. This choice allowed us to focus more on inter-character communication, in which the single unfamiliar component was the very identity we were seeking to explore.
In some ways, the way in which we control the story throughout the game is itself an act of resistance to hetero- and allonormativity. Ace/aro gamers, especially in dating sim or text-based games, often don’t even get the option of inserting themselves and their sexual and romantic orientations into the storyline; even the spaces that may initially seem available to self-insert are often crowded out by aggressively heteronormative and/or allonormative (present even in queer games) structures. Our game, then, is an inverse of this: asexuality and aromanticism, which are often the orientations that are not given space in games (or media narratives more broadly) are, in our game, the primary identities afforded space and the only identities that get to set the guidelines for the relational space, as demonstrated by the fact that queer platonic partnerships are the only possibility for ongoing relationship between the main character and any of the other characters.
Our exploration of queer platonic partnerships in this game, while certainly not extensive enough to claim that it could truly let the player step into the experience of pursuing such relationships in a hetero- and allonormative culture, did offer a key tool to ace/aro and allo players alike: a model for communication. Because of the text-based game model, our main character’s only game option is to communicate—and she does. The conversational plot progression consistently forced the main character into a situation where she had to find a way to communicate about her identity, and the other players had to find ways to respond. While some character interactions show negative communication patterns (e.g., anger toward the main character for being ace/aro), many characters respond neutrally or even positively, and, because questions are a key part of the mystery plot style of progression, both sides tend to ask questions, which keeps communication open. What and how questions are asked is the only determiner of consequence or reward in this game, so the player must learn quickly (as the characters also do within the story) to think about how they communicate, even as the Detective is constantly flashing back to her own failures at communication. Should the player choose to try to further communicate about (if they are ace/aro) or understand (if they are allo) ace/aro experiences after playing the game, of course, what questions they ask and how they ask them—and how they respond to their answers—will be key to successful communication in what can often be unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
By ending (rather than beginning) the game with a flashback to the Detective’s realization of their own orientation, we hoped to both direct the players (especially those that may, as the main character is, questioning their own identity) to other resources as well as resist what Ruberg calls “the problematic, reductionistic appropriation of LGBTQ folks’ personal narratives by straight, cisgender players,” (160) by refusing to give the player a clearcut cue that the Detective is Other until late in the game–after they have been forced, repeatedly, into a space of “no-fun” that “run(s) counter to the dominant narratives of the games themselves” (Ruberg 166) or, as in our game, to the genre itself. The game ends, then, in the spirit of “no-fun.” As Ruberg explains, “The spirit of no-fun is the spirit of alternatives, of disruptions, of difference,” (175), and it is alternatives in particular that ends our narrative.
While Ace Detective is a short, mechanically simplistic game, it uses the resources afforded by its medium and platform as well as its archetypal story structure to make a sort of down payment into an unexplored area of games in general (and queer games more specifically). By playing with familiarity and unfamiliarity and by giving the player choices within a system that would not let them choose hetero- or allonormativity, we aimed to challenge both mainstream ideas of relationships within games (heterosexual, heteroromantic) and queer identities as typically represented in queer games (allosexual, alloromantic). Obviously, our choice to use a video game to bring awareness to ace/aro identity indicates that we believe in video games as part of public discourse, but we also recognize that discourse works best with a multiplicity of narratives, not a single one. Thus, while our game seeks to address the fact that asexuality and aromanticism has been notably absent from video games to date, our hope is that this game will eventually be one of many that explore and make space for ace/aro identity.
(1) While we understand that merritt k is a controversial figure, we felt their term “empathy tourism” is a productive one for describing our project.
Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. Seven Stories Press, 2012.
Bogaert, Anthony F. Understanding Asexuality. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. kuprimo.com, http://www2.lib.ku.edu/loginURL=http://site.ebrary.com/lib/kansas/docDetail.action?docID=10593839.
Consalvo, Mia. “Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games.” The Video Game Theory Reader, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf et al., Psychology Press, 2003.
Hanson, Elizabeth. “Toward an Asexual Narrative Structure.” Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, edited by Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks, Routledge, ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ku/detail.action?docID=1683255.
Mitchell, Heather, and Gwen Hunnicutt. “Challenging Accepted Scripts of Sexual ‘Normality’: Asexual Narratives of Non-Normative Identity and Experience.” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 23, no. 2, June 2019, pp. 507–24. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/s12119-018-9567-6.
Kopas, Merritt. Videogames for Humans: Twine Authors in Conversation. Instar Books, 2015.
Przybylo, Ela. “Producing Facts: Empirical Asexuality and the Scientific Study of Sex.” Feminism & Psychology, vol. 23, no. 2, 2013, pp. 224–242. kuprimo.com, doi:10.1177/0959353512443668.
Ruberg, Bonnie. Video Games Have Always Been Queer. NYU Press, 2019.