Back in 2016, I talked to game developer and critic Mattie Brice about making DIY video games for the young audience at Rookie Mag. Brice said: “I just want to demystify in front of a lot of people that you do not need this intense process of making video games.” While tools like Unity and Game Maker 2 have become more user-friendly over the years, the game barrier tool with the lowest barrier to entry may just remain Twine – the HTML-based text-centric developer tool often compared to a way of making electronic pick-yourself-adventure stories. The freedom presented with Twine has given many creators, especially queer game developers, the opportunity to do amazing, often shocking work – with Benji Bright among them.
Game developer and author of erotic fiction Benji Bright (right) uses Twine to create an ongoing 18+ interactive delicate story about a sorcery academy called Doors. You can find the demo, including the first part of the story, for free or with a donation via his Itch page. Follow Bright’s Twitter feature by JK Rowling, it gives me a pleasure to make this comparison: The Wizarding School in Doors could be a master’s degree at Hogwarts, but with a gothic edge and drenched in kink.
Doors makes use of a statistical system where your player character, named by you, can improve your fitness, charm or technique. Implementing such a design, akin to traditional RPGs like Dragon Quest, helps the game stand out from other interactive fiction pieces that may differ from such elements. The labyrinthine visual design brings the player further into the seductive world of this school of sorcery. I spoke to Benji Bright via email.
Where did the driving force behind the story of Doors come from?
Benji Bright: Right from the start, this is a wild time to release a game about a place where magical users come to hone their craft. Harry Potter is clearly a titan in this narrative space, and I do not think this game could have existed without it. That said, Doors is as much about what Harry Potter has left out of the cultural conversation as it is about what it’s added. Even with 7+ books and even more movies, there is a clear lack of queer representation in that world, a worrying lack of colored people, and a myriad of other misrepresentations.
I do not think it’s my job as a writer, especially not as a color writer, to correct the Harry Potter world or scribble over the author’s abominable views, but I think there’s a feeling to me that Doors is trying to reconstruct . the space that the Harry Potter series has occupied in my imagination. There are also stories like The Magicians (more the TV show) and Kieron Gillen’s cartoon DIE in the DNA of Doors. Both of these qualities are partly about the dangers of wish fulfillment, and I would steal some of that lightning.
Having said all that, I’ve long had the idea of Vesilind’s Crux – the kind of sorcery training ground where the story of Doors begins – in my mind. That’s the framework for a series I’ve been watching for years, called the Easton Harp Learns Sorcery! In Easton Harp and in Doors, one of the main themes is that magic is both seductive and dangerous. If those who use it are not careful, they might just be able to reproduce exactly the problems they were trying to solve and systemic assaults they were trying to undermine.
“It’s a little heavy for a sex game, I know, but I promise it’s not just doom and gloom.”
It’s a little heavy for a sex game, I know, but I promise it’s not just doom and gloom. The starting point for Doors involves moving between worlds, which I did on purpose so I could play with the tone in the different locations. An idea I got from Sliders and Quantum Leap, but which I have run through the fantasy filter.
Erotic fiction often occupies a flimsy space. Many assume that mere “sex sells”, but the work can often be stigmatized, especially when the creator is queer and their work confronts forms of sexual relationships that some players might like. Have you encountered setbacks about your erotic work? And if so, how do you “stay the course” so to speak – do you stay confident in what you are doing?
The very first piece of erotic fiction I have ever written was an act of protest. I was in Jamaica, where my family is originally from, and the random homophobia I witnessed really upset me. After about two weeks of non-stop commentary and violent language targeting queer people, I started writing a pornographic story just to confirm my own sexuality.
So sex writing has long been a part of my core values as a writer. I’m grateful and fortunate that I have not received a lot of direct pushback, but we are certainly in a culture where eroticism or actual production of any kind of work that directly addresses sex in an artful way is treated at best as a fascinating curiosity. And trying to be visible as a creator of sexual content often means having your work closed behind a wall for fear that someone will actually encounter it. Think of the Tumblr purge and related online sexual content oppression. And then there is the hassle of actually trying to get paid for sex writing, which is another whole rant in itself.
I know I’m drawing a gloomy picture, but it’s not bad at all! I think there will always be room to inject queerness into the game room. Until the market is flooded with sex games made by colored people, I will always have work worth doing and it motivates me even when the money is thin. (Money is always thin.)
Choosing the name of the player character and working with a statistical system brings in the kind of elements that one can find in a traditional RPG like Final Fantasy. What do you think brings this kind of more traditional “game-like” elements to the player’s journey?
My games so far have mostly been narrative-first and told from a fixed perspective: “I’ll tell you who you are and give you some choices” and that’s really it. Narrative games are good for that. But I’ve been itching for a while to write something a little more expansive and, more importantly, to create a space where players can tailor their experience a bit.
“I highly recommend Twine. I’ve been working on it for years and have not come close to exploiting the potential of the tool.”
It made a lot of sense to bring some RPG lite systems to Doors, as one of the cornerstones of the narrative is about taking responsibility for your actions and their impact on the world, on yourself, and on your relationships. I wanted to make sure the character that the player builds feels personal without creating a combinatorial explosion for myself. So there are a few statistics, and in the latest build there is an actual character building section. It’s all just a way for me to communicate a basic message to the player: “Hey, I can see the choices you make and the game intends to respond to them.”
Twine remains one of the most user-friendly game development tools. What resources can you recommend to those who want to get into game development?
I highly recommend Twine. I have been working in it for years and have not come close to exploiting the potential of the tool. However, which tools you use will depend on what you want out of the development process. If you want to focus on storytelling, Twine, Ink or Inform 7 are great places to start. If you want to get a little more graphic and move into visual novel territory, there’s Ren’Py, which I’ve only used a little bit, but have heard good things. There are also some Unity tutorials and low-barrier resources if you want to use a software that a lot of modern games are made of.
However, I would say that I do not think that the tools are necessarily as important as using them. If someone who is new to game development has time, I would recommend joining a game jam on itch.io and just doing something. Anything! Then do something else. Keep the scope of your projects small and learn as you go. My first Twine game was terribly written, poorly edited and never saw the light of day, but I could not have made the next one without it.
What do you hope players get out of this experience (besides the obvious, which is fun)?
I want players to leave Doors with a sense of connection to the world, one of the characters, or even a particular scene or sequence. I have always wanted to write erotica that has real texture about it: moments of surprising light-heartedness, influential gravity and a feeling that something is going on behind and beyond the sex. I think my ideal reaction to the game is a player leaning back in his chair after a game session and saying, “Huh. Ok. That was something.” If they’re on too, well then shit, I’ve done my job.