Friday, November 23, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Bi Lines by Naomi Z

Bi Lines ended up taking 34th place out of 77 games. It average grade was a 5.81, but with an enormous standard deviation. I rated it much higher than the average and think it is a game absolutely worth playing.

The following review is very spoilery.

The author explicitly tells us that Bi Lines has to be understood in the context of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the discussions about sexual assault that were sparked by this all-too-political and yet all-too-personal spectacle. What is it, then, that the game is trying to add to these already copious discussions? The answer is formulated by the editor character, Jacobson. After reading the story that the male protagonist has written about his own experience of sexual assault by a ghost, and after the player character has claimed that it was just a fiction, Jacobson says that it's a great story -- it really "captures the female perspective." That, I think, is the challenge that Bi Lines sets itself. To take a male character and nevertheless capture the female perspective; which is, necessarily and in the same movement, revealed to be 'female' only in a superficial way. The game wants us to understand what it is like to be a victim of sexual assault, even if -- indeed especially if -- our own identity makes it hard to come to this understanding.

Two facts stand out about the protagonist. First, he is bisexual. Being open about this has led to conflict with his mother; and whether you are open about it at the start of the game also makes the difference between being able to have a relationship or not. (Samantha, the romantic interest, is portrayed with little sympathy and we wonder why the protagonist would even want to hook up with her. Since this relationship isn't really what the game is about, this is only a minor point of criticism.) So although he may be living in a man's world, our protagonist still doesn't really fit in. He feels that he can't show himself, that he has to keep a part of himself hidden. This is one of the things that make him unable to open up about the sexual assault by the ghost, because, at least in his own mind, his feelings during the assault cannot be separated from his sexual orientation.

The second fact that stands out is that the protagonist can talk to ghosts. In fact, they need him to take care of them, and he has been taught by his mother to spend all his energy and time helping the ghosts. While ghosts may seem a fanciful element to bring into a game about what is very much a real-life issue, I think it is actually the author's master stroke. Although he is male, the protagonist's special relationship with the ghosts has forced him into a typically female role: that of the caregiver and supporter who lives her life in the service of others and asks nothing in return. And of course, he gets nothing in return -- the ghosts have nothing to give him, and his work necessarily takes place hidden from other humans, in much the way that the housewife's work never comes into the public view and is at its best when it is invisible. What's more, when the abusive ghost assaults the protagonist and then disappears, he is obviously beyond revenge. Like a woman abused by a powerful man, the protagonist can have no real hope for justice.

These aspect of the ghosts are surely drawn quite directly from the Kavanaugh hearings. Many commentators have commented on the different receptions given to Anita Hill in 1991 and Christine Blasey Ford in 2018, explaining it not only in terms of changing times and racism, but also in terms of the demeanour of the two women. Where Hill was combative and angry, Ford was quiet and eager to help anyone questioning her. She gave, the commentators tell us, a better performance of the traditional idea of womanhood -- and that is what made her sympathetic and believable to viewers. But believable or not, the powers that be don't seem to be swayed, and mister Kavanaugh turned out to be just as untouchable to her powers of retribution as any ghost would be.

I found the game to be very effective. You are first drawn into the story and the character; then the assault happens, and is over almost before you know it; but then come the emotions, the guilt trips, the insensitive reactions, the decisions to keep quiet, the judging of the victim. None of it is too heavy-handed and all of it adds up to a chilling experience. Chilling, but not negative, since the very fact that I can occupy the "female perspective" is a good thing and a beacon of hope.

Perhaps the game could have been slightly stronger if its theme had been streamlined a little more. It is, after all, about sexual assault, and the theme of bisexuality feels a bit tagged on. I wonder if the game was originally supposed to explore bisexuality, and only turned into a game about sexual assault during those days of furious coding? Something like that might well have happened, given that the deadline for intents to enter was weeks before the allegations against Kavanaugh even surfaced. But streamlined or not, I consider this a strong and very interesting game.

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