S.EXE: Come Together

This is what my shopping list looks like too

In the middle of the sort of teen love you only seem to get in ‘edgy’ Channel Four dramas I heard the Primal Scream track Come Together for the first time. It played at the end of the British rave culture movie Human Traffic. Strange to me to hear such a slow, elated thing in an era where fast pop beats were ruling my life, where Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Beyonce’s Crazy In Love were the things I danced to. It was a time at which euphemisms did not occur to me. Now to the ear Come Together seems so nineties, so optimistic, like it is actually putting up utopian buildings in the mind like they would appear as you scrolled over the world in Populous. It made that one relationship I was in seem like it was constructing a glittering wall around us. “We are together”. “We are unified”. “We are together”, Jesse Jackson says over and over in the track. Here are two games, What We Did, and reProgram, that are about being together. Unified. Together.

(Warning, above track only profound if stoned or teen love.)

Perennial RPS indie favourite Pippin Barr and his wife Rilla Khaled have released a free new Flash vignette game gratuitously tricked out for S.EXE dissection: ‘What We Did‘. It’s designed for two players on one keyboard, and from the title you can tell it’s a game that has a narrative to wind around two players and bond them together. If you don’t want to be spoiled for this 5 min game, start it up now with a partner, or you can play it yourself (if you love yourself very much).

Very few games experiment with the two player one keyboard input because it does somewhat limit its convenience, but physically sitting next to someone and sharing a screen can be a meaningful way to bond with another person. This game means that you will probably be in touching distance of your co-op partner, if not touching arms and butts. Because this game was developed by two people who are romantically involved, you can see why they might have chosen a control method designed to promote intimacy, closeness, proximity to another. Two people’s actions are conflated into one single expression on a screen.

“1. They Know What We Did.” It’s a Jay Z and Beyonce situation. You’re on the run.

The first screen presented is a tiny black and white map with dots marked; some experimentation with WASD and the arrow keys reveals that only one person can steer and one person can accelerate, although both can technically perform one of these functions. It takes cooperation to decide who will do what or you jerk about on the map like… Well, like a couple arguing on the motorway. Bump into a dot, and you are both taken to a screen with a piece of notepaper and a pencil. Are you going to Fuck, Regret, Pray or Drive? Both of you have control. Both of you have the power to choose one.

Choose ‘Fuck’ and you are taken to this window.

If either of you press any of your keys, a sound like a breath taken in is made, press another key it sounds like a breath out. One player sounds masculine, one sounds feminine. Do it at the same time in any kind of rhythm, and there’s a little breathy chorus you can both make by the little window.

The sex stops when you both get tired. As in, the scene does not fade out until you are both satisfied. What a great way to interpret sex through a game: as soon as you both stop enjoying it, it’s over. It even leaves room for one person to finish solo if… you know. The other person can’t be bothered. (Is this what being married is like?)

CLASSIC FM IS BORING WHY CAN'T WE LISTEN TO BRITNEY

Some of the ‘minigames’ or little scenes you stop at over the course of the map are very evocative of the jetsam of a relationship: select ‘WAIT’ from the notepaper screen at a stop and you are in a car outside a house, but the only action you can do is twiddle the tuner on a radio to change the music. Of course, you both fight over which station you want. You both have control. ‘REGRET’ is a shadow in a phone box, calling someone’s answering machine, and the only thing you can do is choose when to hang up. ‘PRAY’ is a church scene, where you can play the organ together, and like sex, choose when praying is enough. (Is sex like praying? Thoughts happen. 80s pop icon Madonna thoughts.)

At some point, you will ‘GIVE UP’. It will be sudden, shocking. But you will do it together.

‘What We Did’ is a really lovely meditation on togetherness: it’s romantic, shades of grey and black cut-out like a noir film where you are the doomed couple. It’s Bonnie and Clyde the game. Of particular note are how the very slow fade ins and outs of this game give it a celluloid pace and glamour, a languid sexy feeling that whilst it is fading out and in gives you time to feel the other person’s skin against yours at the keyboard. The ‘FUCK’ option? Well the ‘FUCK’ option lets the mind wander to fucking. Of course it does. Pippin and Rilla let all the fucking happen in the mind, and that’s dangerous when you are sitting next to someone.

Ideas are very dangerous. And very sexy.

The second game on ‘coming together’, aha, is Soha Kareem‘s reProgram, a ‘story about personal kinks and meditation’.

reProgram is very uplifting in so many ways. It’s a text game that begins with a woman in conversation with a therapist or doctor about her post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety from traumatic periods of sexual assault and abuse, but over the course of the game you can see how the main character has actually managed to mentally restructure a fragmented part of herself into something she can use to love herself and others. It’s a complex, moving piece about the journey to finding someone who will help you and love you, as well as about finding a sexual partner who respects your self-esteem, your kinks, your sexual preferences whatever they may be. It’s about how BDSM can rescue you, safely, from hating yourself. It’s a story of acceptance through sex.

Twine is perfect for this kind of story, because despite what most people think of text games, Twine games are very structured and sharp in the right hands, giving the feeling as if the player is being toyed with or teased. BDSM is about control, and reProgram’s confines assert themselves over you from the first. When you begin, you are in conversation with the protagonist’s doctor, though it is not really a conversation: probing questions appear to a timer, disobeying the ‘interaction’ rule and going too fast. Soha’s ability to wrangle pace is superior. You feel overwhelmed as the questions pile up; ‘CAN FEEL TRAPPED’ flashes up, making you feel dread and a twinge of terror.

Soha also makes quite evocative glitch art which features in reProgram, and this aesthetic adds to a fragmented feel of the self that is portrayed from the beginning of the game. The protagonist’s journey to reassimilate a broken part of herself is almost like a horror story backwards; where usually the calm, well-adjusted and loving relationship ends up becoming ugly, terrifying, torturous in horror movies, in Soha’s game the ugly, terrifying moments with haunting shadows figure more in the beginning of the piece and fade out as the protagonist finds herself a partner. Where most horror narratives portray the vulnerability of the body as being the source of mental torture, Soha neatly flips that on the head. What is terrifying in this story is the idea that the physical and mental are somehow disconnected as the doctor medicates the symptoms and does not address the problem.

At the heart of reProgram is the idea of a mental ‘elevator’, where one floor is not available until other methods have been tried. At floor two, the protagonist meditates, but her inner self mocks her and creates anxiety. On another floor, watching BDSM pornography is good, but not quite enough. ‘She wishes she had a lover who would slap her face hard.’ Self-exploration becomes important to the protagonist.

I’m acquainted with the idea of sex as therapy, but most important to this game seems the idea of acceptance, trust and safety. Where meditation or masturbation didn’t quite make the grade, being with another person who is able to help has become the protagonist’s salvation. I am also acquainted with the idea that asking another person you trust and love for help is a good thing. Perhaps it is this that I liked the most about reProgram: it is about asking. You don’t get if you don’t ask. Come together. Amen.

The previous S.EXE columns are here.

16 Comments

  1. GameCat says:

    This two player control scheme makes me think about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
    I want to play it someday as co-op game, sharing one controller with another person.

  2. Roxton says:

    “(Is this what being married is like?)”

    For such a mature column, this joke seems rather out-of-place. A bit like hearing Germaine Greer/insert-feminist-commentator-you-admire here making throwaway mother-in-law jokes. If we’ve reached the level where we can talk seriously about sex, acceptance, trust etc., as this piece does rather well, can’t we do without the bar-room snide? (Snideness? Snidery?)

    • aldo_14 says:

      I’d have to echo that; it’s just perpetuating a stupid shitty stereotype and making a bad joke.

      We’ve come so far as a society in accepting that marriage isn’t a requirement to have a relationship, and then suddenly it’s acceptable to flip round and start insulting the people who do get married? It’s just juvenile.

      • April March says:

        I don’t know if it is because I follow Cara on twitter, but I get the impression that it isn’t a joke; she’s genuinely asking.

        Apparently it’s not, Cara, and people get mad when you assume it is!

      • Geebs says:

        It’s just a throwaway joke. Anyway, all of that hoary old crap about how married people/the Victorians/your parents/old people/Mormons/whatever are/were too uptight to “do the sex” right is just a product of somebody being insecure about their own sexual prowess.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      I didn’t see it as slamming anyone? People joke about it, but that may be to defuse tension. It is a problem many couples face, married or not. One or both start losing interest in sex after a while, at least with the partner, but the rest of the relationship feels fine…what do you do about it? Couples therapy, try to spice things up and see if the spark comes back, cheating, open relationship, ending the relationship…?

      • aldo_14 says:

        Then why explicitly refer to it as an intrinsic property of marriage?

        • mr.black says:

          Because she isn’t in a marriage. Way I see it, getting married is still a great leap, a great and fairly tying change. I’m at the moment of life (32 y. o.) when society starts to become really loud and annoying in it’s expectancy of me making a proper family. And I feel far away from ready to settle. I do those jokes as well precisely to ease the tensions and I truly do have anxious episodes imagining the marriage/ long-lasting relationship is precisely like that.

          • aldo_14 says:

            Because she isn’t in a marriage. Way I see it, getting married is still a great leap, a great and fairly tying change. I’m at the moment of life (32 y. o.) when society starts to become really loud and annoying in it’s expectancy of me making a proper family. And I feel far away from ready to settle. I do those jokes as well precisely to ease the tensions and I truly do have anxious episodes imagining the marriage/ long-lasting relationship is precisely like that.

            That’s the thing, you see. Marriage isn’t any different to being in a long term relationship, really; just a different title for the same thing (because it’s not like we stay in relationships because we expect them to break up later – or is that just me?). It’s a nice symbol of commitment and all that, but no more than any other thing you’d do in a relationship like move in together or whatever.

            But anyways, there lies the rub. Jokes like this, they basically say ‘once you’re married, you’re only together because you’re married’.

            So you’ll get pressure to get married now, sure (and it’s unfair), but if or when you do get married, you’ll get the opposite thing of people making shitty snide ‘jokes’ about how your life is over, that it doesn’t matter whether you love your partner because you’re stuck together, and you’ll never have sex again.

            The more I think about it, the more it pisses me off.

      • cthulhie says:

        I’d have to echo this, as someone who’s dealt with that very thing in my decade+ (unmarried) relationship. It was a little cheeky, but mostly came across as a wondering question that resonated with me and had me mentally answering, “Sure, sometimes.” That is, I focused on the experience rather than the term.

        I think the problem here–as is evident from this thread–is using marriage as shorthand for long-term relationship. Not being married, I’m not really sensitive to the stereotype. I can understand finding it offensive, but what bothers me here is the implicit assumption that anything but regular sex is a lesser way to live, or to experience a relationship.

    • theanorak says:

      Funnily enough, it’s my first wedding anniversary today. And so when I spotted Cara’s throwaway “is this what marriage is like” in the article, I thought I’d respond with a “no — unless you did the marriage thing wrong, or possibly if the marriage thing has been for the past bazillion years”

      Roxton: I think you might be overreacting a little bit. The “now you’re married, no more sex/everything changes/life ends once there’s a ring on your finger” jokes are so old and silly that no-one takes them seriously. All of the marrieds I know as friends (who are, for the most part, in the first 5 years of marriage) actually rather enjoy those stupid old “ball-and-chain”-type joke that were so typical of the 70s comedians, precisely because their life is *generally* nothing like that. It’s a fun little stereotype to play with when you and your spouse — and your friends — are poking fun.

      Provided you don’t take the gender roles as gospel (and nothing I’ve read from Cara suggests she does),then a bit of gender role comedy works, assuming that everyone understands the POV of the writer. unless I’m missing something, Cara’s viewpoint is not that of some tiresome anti-marriage blowhard, nor is marriage an institution under threat (my marriage took a scant handful of weeks to organise and was greeted with joy by our friends and family).

      Clearly you don’t need any permission to find her joke distasteful, or out of place. I’d just say that from my point of view, there was nothing vicious about the joke. Perhaps I’m just excessively cheerful on the subject given the date :)

    • Contrafibularity says:

      What on earth are you about? Marriage is an utterly ridiculous institution, shamefully manufactured and refined at various times throughout history as a means, by various religions and states, to control people. If there is one thing that deserves jokes it is marriage. I think it speaks volumes about our cultures that there are people who actually value enshrining monogamous or polygamous love and/or lust in the form of a business contract (in which, usually, in large parts of the world, one, both, or several ‘partners’ do not even have a choice in the matter – something apparently everyone seems to be okay with – because of our cultures sickening tolerance for “religious freedom” which here is to say the freedom of religions to ruthlessly control and exploit humanity and the “human right” to be a victim of religious oppression). Marriage causes endless grief and has contributed enormously to inequality, poverty and the generally lopsided nature of human development over the last few thousand years, something which we’ve only fairly recently begun to recover from.

      As a thought experiment, try thinking how you would feel if marriage would be invented today, as a proposal by Pope 266 or Dillwad Cameron. Because that’s how marriage was invented. By deluded power-mad megalomaniacs who wanted to rule the world. Do you honestly think an institution which was conceived to turn women into property for the gain of religious dominance can ever seriously be redeemed? Or turning it into a contract of mutual property ownership? Do you realise how mad this sounds?

      To each their own, feel free to vehemently disagree and continue questioning nothing simply by virtue of being the ultimate creature of habit (us humans). Obey your masters if you think that’s what will make you happy.

      One thing I do know, If I meet someone who I’d want to reciprocally spend the rest of my life with, or some other indeterminately long period of time, I would rather spend eternity languishing in the vacuum of the most boring and opaque section of deep space than ask her to sign a contract stipulating our dutiesobedience to each otherthe state. Call me a romantic and a nihilist if you must, but if I read this contract correctly, and considered the context, both historical and that of the present day, marriage seems to me the very antithesis to love. Therefore it deserves contempt and at the very least ridicule, and at the very very least innocuous jokes to remind everyone of the sheer mind-boggling absurdity that is marriage. The more the better.

      PS. If you or someone you know recently got married, I’m very sorry, but I wish them all the luck in the world.

  3. Geebs says:

    I don’t think that games trying to depict sex interactively are ever going to be able to do better than “press ‘x’ to do it” because the nitty gritty is, let’s face it, great fun but not actually interesting.

    • mr.black says:

      Sex: rewarding gameplay, but has problems with its ludo-narrative dissonance… Also the trailers promised so much more than actually delivered.

  4. kissingtoast says:

    Hi Cara,
    I continue to enjoy your writing,
    also I like the game recommendations.

    I was playing ‘What We Did’ solo, so guessing it might be better
    co-op. Still thought it had interesting aspects to it.
    I especially liked the pray option, and the regret option.

    ‘reProgram’ was way more impactful.