One of the pleasures of art is the ability to experience the life of a character very different from your own. In video games, this vicarious experience can be richer still, with our play time resembling something akin to role playing. The strength of that experience depends on the material, especially the writing, to help draw you into the world of a character.
COMING OUT ON TOP is part of an emerging genre of independently created ‘gaymes’; video games that deal with gay characters and themes as central to the game itself. In this game, you play as Mark Matthews a final year college student who comes out to his friends at the beginning of the game.
The “coming out experience” is one of the most misunderstood rites of adolescence in our culture. We’ve seen gay characters come out in sensitive and sweet ways, like Justin in UGLY BETTY, but these examples sit next to real world stories of homophobia and physical assault. COMING OUT ON TOP gives gamers a way to engage with the different thoughts and emotions that Mark has about coming out to his friends. With the sharp writing and careful observation, you witness first hand how you hope it is for all young gay people on the verge of coming out. You want their moment of truth to be reciprocated by the warmth and love of family and friends. As Alex says to Mark after he shares his coming out story to him, “To an authentic life then”.
The demo (and the finished product) run on the open source Ren’Py visual novel engine which has some limitations in what this game can do. Currently the game is sparse in its presentation, with backgrounds that will eventually be replaced by illustrated settings (similar to the character art) in the final version of the game.
In terms of gameplay, you influence the story through dialogue choices which have either a positive or negative effect on the character you’re interacting with, it’s not very complicated or sophisticated, nor is that a terrible thing. There is a point system in the demo, which gives you an idea of how well your response carries with a character. However, there is no indication of whether this will become a fully fledged Mass Effect style Paragon/Renegade morality system or just something that telegraphs how a player is doing.
Despite the lack of assurance in how this will affect the final version of the game, there is a certain amount of cause and effect that play into your choices. There are consequences for choosing poorly, for example, I chose an aggressive and smug dialogue choice which completely turned off the guy I was interested in, closing off a potential development in our relationship. Whether well see something deeper than this is not something the game is really concerned with. You make choices, you live with them, the story goes on. The core of this game is about strong characters and an experience which feels authentic to the life of a young and recently out college student.
COMING OUT ON TOP manages to overcome some of the limitations of the Ren’Py game engine to deliver a warm and affable story with characters you’ll come to care about. In fact, by framing this game in terms of it being a “choose-your-own-adventure book” and revelling in its simple mechanics, Obscura (an alias for the game designer) manages to create real drama and emotion that ultra detailed AAA titles can only claim to have.
By putting us into Mark’s shoes at that pivotal coming out moment, you develop a real bond and empathy with a young man struggling to understand himself. Obscura has taken great care and sensitivity with such a difficult topic. There is a through line of keeping things light hearted and using humour to lift serious topics from impeding the flow of the narrative. When the game turns into romance and dating territory, I was surprised at how invested I was in Mark’s love life. I just watched the kid come out and all I really wanted was for him to be happy, to be loved.
It was as if I had become one of his (nosy) friends, guffawing and cheering whenever we made headway with his object of desire. Helping Mark navigate the dating world is hilarious, horrific, gut-wrenching and utterly thrilling. It’s an experience that lends readily to my gossipy tendencies (and my fondness for phrases like “OH NO HE DIDN’T!”), it’s part of what makes COMING OUT ON TOP engaging.
One of the other amusing things this game does well, is how it balances depictions of sex with the rest of the game. Obscura’s illustrations of male figures and bodies straddle the line between Ralf Konig’s “taking the piss” construction worker masculinity, the svelte assurance of Adam Reed’s ARCHER and the erotic beauty of Frank Cho’s Women. You know, if he had illustrated men for the gay male gaze. Which is to say when these characters disrobe both figuratively and literally, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY readers would be blushing. Obscura excels in this particular area and it’s best left discovered on your own. It’s a lot of raucous, adult fun and we’re promised uncensored erotica in the final version.
COMING OUT ON TOP is a great example of a lack in our gaming culture being addressed by developers with a keen sense of game design and story telling. Unperturbed by the challenge of their tools, they use them to their advantage to create authentic characters and engaging stories we rarely see outside of bigger budgeted mainstream offerings. ObscuraSoft has delivered a very promising demo, one that certainly deserves a second date when the full version is released.
Hopefully this game speaks to the gay players among us. By embracing this independent title we can ensure ‘gaymes’ receive the kind of attention and support due to them. If this game has shown me anything, it’s a hope that all young gay and lesbian people find people that love and accept them for who they are. People like Mark’s friends.
We tested the COMING OUT ON TOP demo that was used to help promote the successful Kickstarter campaign. You can find a copy of the game here, it is for adult audiences and is recommended for people 18+. Recommended reading: Steve Wright’s interview with Obscura which tipped us off to the game in the first place.