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?)
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.
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.