At the end of October, the Soft Chaos team finished off a project for a competition called "Power and Control" run by an organization that aims to prevent violence among teens, particularly those in romantic relationships. We were named as finalists for the competition in early October and had about twenty days to finalize our entry and create support materials.
If you know the Soft Chaos team, you might remember that two of us (Allison and I) worked on a game a whole seven years ago that we toured a whole lot of festivals with (and filmed a trailer for before we had switched our controllers to PlayStation Moves with custom conductive sleeves) called In Tune! In fact, it's part of how we met D. Squinkifer, our third member, when they played our game at a local event. With In Tune, our goal was to explore negotiating the touch of bodies in different contexts. So, the Soft Chaos team has some experience, both with In Tune, as well as with different safety practices and mechanics we've used in a wide variety of games, with designing this kind of content.
Our new game is called Pulling Strings, and it's about how different aspects of identity lend people different forms of power over each other in relationships. In Pulling Strings, we literalize that power by having players physically tie themselves to each other. Players choose a hand that they move blocks with and a hand that they manipulate other players with. Depending on the relative power in the relationship, players tie strings to each other's hands, which affects their ability to manipulate blocks to meet their objectives.
Although it's designed for teens, it was important to us that we not oversimplify the issue, and we tried to make a game that helped players ask the questions that they needed in order to understand the dynamics at play. These dynamics exist in any relationship, but how they are handled and what comes of them is a different question. For some of us, designing this game meant drawing on lived experience with difficult dynamics from our past relationships.
I think that creators can't help but put a part of themselves in their work, always, and the smaller the team, the more you can see those distinct parts because they come from fewer people. But I also think that the Soft Chaos team in particular puts a lot of our most vulnerable selves into our work. In making something new of those experiences, a kind of transformation takes place -- from something lived and maybe reflected upon, to something remade and repurposed.
I'm suspicious of catharsis in general when it's just about a release of feelings that makes an audience feel better, because that can rob people of the will to act to improve the world around them. If you feel good and comfortable, then why work to improve a situation? It's been argued that this is kind of a "bread and circuses" way of keeping people complacent. (Ready Player One and the Metaverse, anyone?) This opposition to catharsis (in the Aristotelian sense) is something that Bertolt Brecht talks a lot about. Catharsis that can shore up existing structures, and it's a major reason why Brecht created epic theatre and aimed to keep the audience distanced or alienated (and therefore able to be critical).
But when that release of emotion is tied to possibilities for future action and to a transformation of the situation, I think it can make for something very powerful. Even though Pulling Strings is a small-scope little project, I hope it can help teens (and others) feel equipped to act.
We'll find out in the next few weeks how we did in the competition, so more on that to come!