"Queers in Love at the End of the World" (2013) by Anna Anthropy

I wanted to start by saying that I'm late to the party, playing this well-known super-short IF game six years after its release. But then I considered how long it took me to pick up the Epic of Gilgamesh and I realised that six years is nothing. Less than it takes for a human body to decompose. So, without apologies or genuflections before the Idol of Recency, here I am, writing about Anna Anthropy's Queers in Love at the End of the World.

The central conceit of the piece is that you have exactly ten seconds to play it. Ten real-time seconds: there's a prominent timer counting down, and once it has reached zero the screen changes to the message "Everything is wiped away." (There's also a handy Restart link.) In the very brief meantime, you set out on a link-based exploration of a queer romance in those final moments before oblivion. Hold your loved one, kiss her, whisper something in her ear: there's quite a bit of content to explore, although exploring it involves very fast link clicking and restarting the game many, many times.

(In fact, you can use the back button of your browser to return to the last passage and reset the timer to ten seconds. If you have a dedicated button for this on your mouse, as I do, the playing experience becomes super relaxed instead of very frantic. Does that mean that you're failing to play the way you're expected to play? Probably. But I can't think of a more appropriate way to play a queer game.)

When I went in, I was especially interested in how the piece would handle the queerness of the characters. Writing a game called Queers in Love makes perfect sense. But does it makes sense to write about Queers at the End of the World? After all, queerness exists only in relation to a society that refuses to accept the queer as normal. But if we're at the end of the world, society loses its meaning, indeed its reality. There's no longer a question of acceptance; of consequences; of having to carve out a space in a world that wants to deny this to you. Isn't the end of the world, then, precisely the point where queerness stops being queerness? Death comes as the leveller; or, as Emily Dickinson has memorably put it:
Color — Caste — Denomination —
These — are Time's Affair —
Death's diviner Classifying
Does not know they are —
But of course Queers in Love at the End of the World does not take place in the realm of death. It takes place in the final moments before death; the moments when the characters realise that this is the end, that society will be gone, when they realise precisely that queerness has lost its meaning. But that realisation, which may seem to erase all distinctions between queer and non-queer, in fact makes all the difference. For it is only for these queers, who have struggled against a society that rejects them, that the falling away of queerness can feel like a profound liberation. For them, the destruction of society is not an apocalypse, or at least not only an apocalypse, but also the falling away of a hated oppression. It's the end of the world. But it's not the end of their world; for it was never their world to begin with.

I've read reviews saying that the piece doesn't involve any queer content. I've also read reviews that claim that the piece is "meant to be sweet". I couldn't disagree more. It's very queer indeed; and its sweetness, while present, is shot through with bitterness. It's a game that gives you this:
Let the houses burn, the cities, and all the countries, and all the governments. They never sheltered you. The only shelter you found was in these arms, in this touch. Let the end of the world come. You're home.
This is the IF equivalent of the old Marilyn Manson shirt someone I knew at high school used to wear: "This is your world in which we grow, and we will grow to hate you." (Turns out it's actually from a Patti Smith song the title of which I'm not writing down here since it contains a racial slur.) These characters do not want to die. They did not ask for the end of the world. But now that the world is ending, they can't truly regret it; there's a note, if not of triumphalism, at least of indifference to the fate of a society that was always at best indifferent towards the fate of queers.

I found this both powerful and troubling. I was expecting to have a relaxing few minutes with Queers at the End of the World before going to bed, but I ended up lying awake as I mulled over the situation it depicts. Now I'm a big sentimentalist about reconciliation, achieved understanding, universal love, and so on. If you want to make me cry, just write a story about someone who makes grave mistakes, but then ends up realising what he's done and is forgiven by those he has harmed. That hits me were I'm soft. When Leonard Cohen is trying to describe what it feels like to broken, he writes:
If the sea were sand alone
And the flowers made of stone
And no one that you hurt
Could ever heal
As far as I'm concerned, those last two lines couldn't be better chosen. That really is the worst thing imaginable. And in case you're wondering: yes, quite a bit of my IF output (though by no means all) can be read as an attempt to work out how the hope for "peace, love and understanding" interacts with an honest appraisal of our often brutal human condition.

All of which I'm merely telling you to explain why Queers in Love at the End of the World had a powerful impact on me. Because these characters definitely do not share this universalist hope. A lifetime of exclusion and trouble has taught them that love and understanding will never be theirs, and that even being left in peace is too much to ask for. They have been failed by their society, massively, perhaps to the point where they can never heal, certainly to the point where they no longer even hope for reconciliation. The moment that they finally find each other is not, as it should be, a glorious and positive moment between the two of them; rather, it is, at the same time and in the same gesture, also a moment of negativity, rejection, revenge. In these ten seconds they have to enjoy each others, the thought that crops up might be this:
So many people and institutions tried to pull you two apart.

They all failed.
Or it might be this:
You spent a lifetime sending out signals you were scared would be misinterpreted, misunderstood, garbed, absorbed, allowed to pass unregistered into the cold of space.

Now you know.

The signal was never lost.
This is positive, yes, and in a sense it is sweet. But it is sweetness tinged and more than tinged with bitterness, positivity that is predicated on the negative. I want this message, with all my heart, to be false. But it feels true. And so one lies awake at night and is troubled.

Perhaps the best passage in the game is this:
You think about alien archaeologists five million years from now finding two queer bodies pressed against each other mid-fuck, putting them on display in a museum as the only remaining specimens of humanity.

Unfamiliar with human anatomy, will they reconstruct you as some new being, joined at the thighs?
As they fuck, these few seconds before death, the fantasy that arises is that of becoming the norm, becoming the specimen that defines normality, finally being that which as queers they could never hope to be. But even as a fantasy this is possible only against the backdrop of humanity's total annihilation; even in the imagination only an alien could fail to see the ineradicable queerness of the queer. It is a haunting and beautiful moment. It is also a dagger in the soul.

And yet. Queers in love at the end of the world are one thing; Queers in Love at the End of the World is something else. Significantly, Anna Anthropy has written and published this piece, putting it out into the world for all of us to see. We play it. We think and talk about it. We understand each other perhaps a little bit better. In the very act of communicating lies hope. And in the very fact that we're not at the end of the world, that there is a future before us, lies a responsibility. While Anna has dedicated this piece to "every queer [she has] loved", it is surely no less relevant for the rest of us.

The signal was never lost.

Comments

  1. I've been enjoying your commentary; I quite recently, literally days ago have got back into IF. I played Kerkerkruip (still haven't beaten it! Although my best run was when I dawned the googles "of acuity". It made the trade off of flash grenades an easy choice!) and De Baron. Your diction is excellent although your word choice differed according to moods of both stories, I enjoyed both styles. - Anyways - I was wondering if you know of any resources on design philosophy of IF and Text Adventures. I'm currently unraveling the quirks of inform, and would like to look at the different aesthetic and game design approaches other authors have made. Of course, reading/playing more IF will help.

    Wishing you the best, look forward to reading more,
    - Justin

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