Into The Black Closet

As I send Alberta to detention and arm one of my subordinates with a baseball bat to ensure she’s maximally intimidating, a thought intrudes on the tightly focused stream of calculations and strategizing that defined my time with Black Closet [official site]: “Is this really what my ideal high school experience looks like?”

For the trans woman who plays games like this or Gone Home there’s a melancholic note of nostalgia behind every move: a longing for the childhood or the girlhood you never had, all the while recreating it in digital pantomime to weave a sense of memory for a never-happened history. I often think about what my life would have been like if I had been able to be out as a young woman in high school and been able to redirect all the energy I’d wasted battling dysphoria back into my schoolwork and planting the seeds of my career.

I might’ve been a young woman like Elsa Jackson, President of the Student Council at St. Claudine’s Academy for Girls.

As the player, your challenge in Black Closet is to maintain the reputation of the school by choosing the right team members to investigate a series of potential scandals, matching their stats against tasks such as intimidating and stalking your classmates, and covertly searching their rooms for evidence. At weekends however, you have to decide which of your team to socialise with, inviting them to tea and navigating strained conversations in order to keep them on your side. If you struggle at any part of this, your reputation among students and school staff will dip, and you risk becoming a scapegoat for the scandals you failed to prevent.

You navigate these challenges by playing as Elsa, the character whose eyes the player looks through from start to finish. Elsa is an “upstart” with the “wrong” name but profoundly smart and ambitious, who constantly battles the sneers and whispers of old money. She rose to become class President and direct her fellow councillors (or minions, as the game aptly refers to them) on various cases and investigations for the school.

Elsa reminds me a bit of my younger self, that lonely working class Puerto Rican kid who had top marks in her middle school class and had to jostle for place in an elite high school where her classmates, whose parents had wings of prestigious colleges named after them, lived on Park Avenue and Riverside Drive rather than in the South Bronx.

The difference between Elsa and I, of course, is that while I did acceptably in high school, I never stood out and pole-vaulted my way to the front. Dysphoria is like an energy-hungry forcefield that bleeds you dry of ambition. Elsa doesn’t have to deal with that; she is who I wanted to be in high school. Stylish, prim and powerful, unflappable, clearly filling the role of a professional in all but name.

Games like this have that dollop of wish-fulfillment for many trans women (the usual caveat: I cannot speak for all of us). But Black Closet was the first to drag my nagging doubts front and centre. Much about the game lives up to its claustrophobic title, after all. This is a game where the student council wields something tantamount to absolute power, with the authority to search rooms, harass and detain students, suspend and expel them, and otherwise manipulate the intricate web of social strings that guide the school’s populace. It’s an ugly business, which compels one of your freshman subordinates to remark early on that she feels the council’s actions were immoral.

There is a reason for this. Games made by Hanako, the developers of Black Closet, are games that do not take their conceits for granted. But it takes a good deal of digging to fully comprehend the situation and by the end of it all you’re complicit in making the wheels of the school turn. Honestly, I felt guilty.

How else to feel after censoring student art because it depicted nudity or challenging themes about drugs? How else to feel after expelling a goth because she wouldn’t stow her feelings after being constantly picked on? The reputation of the school comes before all else, but even the opinion of the students (represented by a separate meter) is hardly the arbiter of virtue. Each system of valuation is a sea of moral grey.

The game makes a brilliant statement about politics; no matter how powerful you are, you always serve two masters: systems and structures. You can only bend them all so much before it comes tumbling down on top of your head.

While student councils this powerful are only common in fiction, there’s some truth in the game’s conceit of high stakes girlhood. Georgina Bensley, the infinitely creative mind behind Hanako Games, says that Black Closet was inspired in part by her own experiences at a religious all-girls school. “I attended a very small school, with a graduating class of less than 40 people. Everyone knew everyone,” Bensley told me. “I’d been there since I was four, I’d never known anything else. Expulsion might as well have been execution – the me of that time couldn’t conceive of any other life. That made everything that happened feel very high-stakes.”

The stories she told me about delicate reputations and scandal, collective punishment and razor sharp battle lines drawn between girls and censorious teachers, all clearly inspired the various cases and dramas in Black Closet. In describing one incident from her youth involving a break-in, Bensley recalled that “they knew who the culprits were from the very beginning, but they dragged the investigation out for weeks trying to get people to confess for school-board-politics reasons.”

Such malevolent politicking is the basis for Elsa Jackson’s cynical world.

My own youth seemed to have presented a choice of evils: being out as a girl in high school and having to endure all this (only to, perhaps, end up like that hapless goth I had to expel), or living with dysphoria, hating myself, and underachieving as a result.

***

Just as there are many possible futures, there are an equal number of possible pasts in the nebulae of speculative yearning. Had I transitioned sooner, or had I been born cis, my options would not have solely been limited to a St. Claudine’s style experience. Bensley herself pointed out that her adolescence was uniquely hued by her academy years, in a way that any student, regardless of gender, who attended a public school of thousands would find harder to comprehend.

Thus, my playthrough of Black Closet constituted a possible history, but not the only one. Throughout the game I found myself relating to the girls who felt variously trapped, chafing against the dull repetition of their gilded cages. Mallory, the outsider who abandoned her nickname of M.K. to fit in with the upper class “belles” of the academy; Althea, the flaming fey who wanted to explore a world that couldn’t contain her; Vonne, who secretly longed to be an astronaut, not the doctor she was being raised to be; Rowan, who faded into the onyx background as surely as I often did in high school.

I realised that we weren’t so different, these “belles” and I; in spite of our vastly divergent gender histories, there was a sickness in the entire experience of being churned through a school system that left scars and painful longings regardless of gender. I already knew this intellectually, I could hold forth on the subject as a sociologist, but Black Closet enabled me to stare it in the face and feel it in my bones.

I mourned the girlhood I did not have, yes, but also the inhumanity that grinds us all down because of how we’ve industrialised our childhoods, rendering school an institution that binds us and leaves us with only strategic games played against one another as a possible escape. Whether cis or trans, boy or girl, we have to take it.

***

Black Closet excels in demonstrating the nature of that evil and providing a tableau of moral compromises. There are ways in which Elsa and her underlings can keep their virtue, to be sure, but not without policing the virtue of other young women in aggressive ways. Was this what I really wanted in high school? Was the game an exercise in revenge for me? Having all that power over my erstwhile wealthy and spoiled tormentors, and using it to show them up, punish them, and make them love me in the end? That’s definitely a fantasy the game can satisfy with its sometimes cynical take on student government.

But the game’s complicated web of relationships between profoundly human characters also punctures the various misogynist stereotypes that clutter around most teen dramas. Bensley is adept at writing characters who at first blush appear to be tropes before the branches of her visual novels reveal them to be much, much more interesting than that. Vonne, your diligent lieutenant, can take very different emotional paths based on your relationship with her: falling in love, remaining friends, expelled as a traitor to the school, or locked in a toxic possessive relationship, each spooling out from how you interact with her amid the manilla-enveloped official theatrics of the school year.

That, too (for good and for ill) was something I did not quite get to experience in high school, where my relationships were conducted through a gauze that obviated meaningful connection.

But there are happy endings, both in Black Closet and in real life. Vonne, the dutiful sci-fi and roleplaying geek who wants to explore the stars, also reminds me just a bit too much of my own partner (and I suspect she’d say Vonne reminds her of me). We may not have been bound together by the uniformed trials of high school government, but we found a way; each of us comes from a past littered with teenage wreckage that was never made for an ivy league college application. But we still endured.

You find a way to become the Elsa you need in your own life as a trans woman, I think. Black Closet reminded me, in its enchanting way, that I should be content to leave the past in the past and just sit back and enjoy the simulated darkness. A history that never was.

31 Comments

  1. quiggy says:

    From one trans woman to another: thanks for sharing this <3 I'll have to give this game a spin.

  2. mattevansc3 says:

    I’m a bit confused as to how I feel about this article. As an introspective into you, the author, its fantastic. Its open, candid and you use the game as a mirror to your personal trials in an evocative way.

    The flip side is I know more about you than I do the game. There’s elements that make it seem like a review yet there’s not enough to separate it from you. Is the game good because its good or was it lucky in that it connected with you on such a personal level but may not connect with others in the same way.

    I like the article, I like your writing and you’ve piqued my interest in this game but I’d like it if you did a follow up article focusing more on the game.

    • Fiatil says:

      I was thinking the same thing. I’m interested in both subject matters being covered, and it’s clear that they intertwine and the game had a powerful impact on the author. This did seem to be much more focused on the author than the game though; RPS has always been about the personal touch, but this article seems to be trying to lean towards a “RPS style review” and then suddenly shifts focus far away from that and stays for a bit, before taking a hard left turn back again.

      • Fiatil says:

        If there were an edit button, I would change that to “RPS style not-review” I suppose. But then I looked up and saw the URL for the article being, “black-closet-review”, and the “reviews” button at the top of the page, and realized maybe the website gave up the long fight of “This is a Wot I Think, not a review”, and I missed that transition.

    • GWOP says:

      I’m willing to give it a bit of leeway since it’s not a Wot I Think, and more in the vein of something like Gaming Made Me or S.EXE. It’s not out of place on RPS.

      • mattevansc3 says:

        Not saying it doesn’t belong here, its these type of articles that make RPS one of my core gaming sites. I was just trying to offer some constructive criticism in that the going back and fore between a review and an article style was jarring. Editing out the review buts and making a separate Wot I Think would have been a better choice in my opinion.

        • warkwark says:

          FWIW, I think you are spot-on. This is an article that feels like it would properly appear after a WIT was already up on the site. Without any such background, it seems like a kinda-sorta half-review, and the shame is that most people probably could stand to know more about the game itself. (As in, a WIT.)

      • Kala says:

        I thought it was more along the lines of Alec Meer’s (excellent and insightful) A Tale of Two Dads piece on Gone Home, myself.

    • RogerioFM says:

      Yeah, I wonder that too.

    • sfoumatou says:

      Personally, what I take away from this review is that the game is good enough to resonate deeply with someone’s personal experience. The game isn’t even -about- her experience per say; the fact that it’s engrossing and well-written enough to plunge someone into this kind of reflexion says a lot about its quality.

      That being said, I understand your criticism :) Just wanted to weigh in and say that to me, this sort of slightly-off-topic think piece says a lot about the quality of the material, without spoiling any of the particulars. I am definitely gonna play this game now, not expecting anything specific, but with the same kind of anticipation as if a good friend recommended their favorite book.

      • pepperfez says:

        “It made me actually have a thought” is just about the strongest recommendation a game can receive.

    • King_Rocket says:

      Graham covered Black Closet in episode 99 of Crate and Crowbar if you want a more in depth look at the game.

      It sounds quite good.

  3. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    I haven’t tried Black Closet yet, but I really enjoyed Long Live the Queen. There is this tantalizing playground of mathematical systems and character-driven intrigue that I find really compelling in Hanako’s games. I’m also picking up some Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble vibes.

    • rusty5pork says:

      Have you tried Magical Diary yet? ’cause you should. It’s still my favorite Hanako game.

  4. GWOP says:

    As someone who can neither relate to the author nor to the setting of the game, all I have to say is that this was a fantastic read.

  5. mgardner says:

    Thanks for this article, very interesting side to this genre that I had not considered. I have long been puzzled about why I find high school academy simulators so engrossing. My favorites are on the PS Vita: Danganronpa series, Persona series. I mean, I am a middle-aged man, it feels almost voyeuristic playing the role of a teen / among the teens (not to mention, lots of these are rated M-Mature). Looking at these games through the perspective of replaying lost opportunities of youth (or just experiences you never had or “missed” for some reason) makes a lot of sense, regardless of personal background.

    • sfoumatou says:

      A quick thought : maybe these games that focus on high school/teenagers connect with older people because it’s such a universal element of life? Childhood is defined by your family; the same goes with adulthood, with other things like career, hobbies, etc. These factors are unique to everyone and not two people will have the same experience.

      But almost everywhere all over the (developed) world, people go through high school. Add to that the fact that high school happens at a time when we are emotionally fertile, malleable and passionate and you have a recipe for universal storytelling. It’s not voyeuristic to play games (or read books, watch movies, etc) about teenagers; you’re just tapping into a universal aspect of society.

      There’s probably also something here about developmental psychology and how teenage issues most likely reflect on the rest of our adult life. But this post is long enough already.

      • Kitsunin says:

        It’s ridiculous how popular high-school is as a theme in Japanese media. I can count the number of good anime which don’t involve high school in some way on my fingers. And those exceptions involve high school age kids in a world where high school doesn’t seem to exist.

        Personally, I was pulled out of school at the beginning of 6th grade. I still enjoy high-school as a setting. Persona 3/4 and Katawa Shoujou are a couple of my favorite things.

  6. benkc says:

    Aye, thanks for this fantastic article.

  7. Melody says:

    Katherine Cross on RPS <3
    Totally makes up for that "Photorealism" post from yesterday.

  8. Giftmacher says:

    No joke, Katherine, I think that “nostalgia” comment involving Gone Home just snapped a very important life thing into perspective for me. Thank you.

    • Melody says:

      If you’re interested, I’m pretty sure Katherine was more or less consciously referencing this piece by Merritt Kopas on Gone Home when she made that comment. (In fact, the entire review has a very similar tone)
      link to mkopas.net

  9. felix004 says:

    I think this might just depress me from not having those experiences during high school.

  10. April March says:

    *standing ovation*

  11. Mr Coot says:

    Thoughtful interesting piece, ty.

  12. Moth Bones says:

    Excellent piece and intriguing sounding game. Thank you.

  13. Innocent Dave says:

    This is genuinely the most amazing game review I’ve ever read. Not only am I going to get the Black Closet, which otherwise would have passed me by, I’m going to sign up as a supporter as well, because this is exactly the sort of journalism the internet needs.

    Thank you.

  14. nordic says:

    I have zero interest in this game, but enjoyed this article very much. Very well written.

  15. LogicalDash says:

    I mourned the girlhood I did not have, yes, but also the inhumanity that grinds us all down because of how we’ve industrialised our childhoods, rendering school an institution that binds us and leaves us with only strategic games played against one another as a possible escape. Whether cis or trans, boy or girl, we have to take it.

    Myself, I played the outcast in high school. It was the nearest option to opting-out, I guess, but it just meant that my strategic game was one of stealth, disguise: never letting anyone get enough of a read on my problems or my personality to really connect with anyone. To form memories of school, I thought, was itself a form of submission to it, regardless of how nice they might be.

    Does that mean I didn’t have a boyhood, in the way you didn’t have a girlhood?

    I can’t honestly say I regret going through high school this way, but I really wish I’d had a better understanding of what I was doing to myself, if only so I could have cut it out when I wanted to.