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Freeware Review - A Closed World

A Closed World was created by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT game lab and was, in their own words “created to be a digital game that deals with queer issues, something that’s very uncommon in games right now.”  The developers put you in the shoes of a young queer person who leaves their village and sets out into the dark, lonely woods, and there must confront their inner demons and the bigotry of those they love.  As a goal, this is an admirable one, and as a philosophy of design, this is a good first step, but as a game it has significant failings.

The main thrust of the story is that the protagonist (I chose male at the outset, but the player character always struck me as female, so I will use those pronouns from here on) is in a budding relationship with another girl, much to the dismay (and denial) of her parents and others.  The “hero’s beloved” runs away into the forbidden forest, the forest of legendary monsters and uncertain fate, and our hero pursues.  Once there, she must fight “demons” - the fear, ignorance and hatred of her family, given shape - to either find her beloved or make it to the peaceful other side of the forest.

There are other ways to see this, of course, but my own interpretation is that the forest represents acknowledgment of one’s sexuality.  In the village, everything is safe enough while you pretend, but coming out (even to yourself) is entering a scary world that no one from home knows anything about, fraught with danger and uncertainty.  The game reinforces this idea by letting you know that on the other side of the forest is a peaceful grove - so once you make it through this initial, awkward period, you can find peace and happiness.

The actual gameplay takes the form of a JRPG with a light rock, paper, scissors battle system.  The battles are actually arguments/discussions with the “demons” that represent your brother, mother, etc.  Your health bar is represented as “composure” and your three attacks are logic, passion, and ethics.  The demons hurl insults at you, which lowers your composure, but you can use a “breathe” turn to regain some.  This is all very cute in a “I see what you did there” kinda way.  But as part of the narrative, it’s a little heavy-handed, and as a game mechanic, it fails almost completely.  There’s never any chance of you “dying” (or whatever losing all your composure would mean), and you can just use whatever attack seems to work on that specific demon until it’s defeated.

This never threatens to become engaging.  You just mash on the appropriate attack and it’s over.  The only mildly interesting thing about it is that when you choose logic, passion, or ethics, the hero says a different line for each one, some of which can be enlightening.  And sadly, the battles are all there is in terms of gameplay.  You walk around the forest, but all you can do is look for the next demon, which you can choose to engage at any time.  The visuals are nice (the forest looks a bit like A Link to the Past, and the battles employ an interesting aesthetic), but in the end the story/message is really all you have to hang your hat on.

And that’s a shame, because it mostly fell flat for me.  The game was constructed by a larger group of people, and it lacks any sense of the personal.  In her excellent game Dys4ia, author Anna Anthropy made it a point that this was not the story of people undergoing hormone therapy, it was her story of undergoing hormone therapy.  That feeling of authorship, of the personal, was essential to the success of the game, and it is entirely missing from A Closed World.  This game feels like a dozen cis, hetero people in a room trying to tell the rest of us what it’s like to be queer.  I don’t know the make up of the dev team, but the fact that the game has that “after school special” vibe is a problem.

I wanted to like this game, and at some points I maybe even did.  It’s great that a team set out to put queer issues in a game, but I feel like the “queer issues” part of that goal was troubled at best, and the “game” part of it fell apart completely.  You can play the game for free in your browser at this link.  It’s not a waste of the 20-30 minutes you would spend on it, but if you want to like it, I believe it’s best to think of it as what it is: a prototype and an experiment that has a long way to go.