Prism Book Alliance® would like to welcome back special guest columnist Alexis J Hall for Tea Time with Alexis J Hall & Friends. We would like to extend a special welcome to today’s roundtable guests: Ed@formerlyfrozen, Liz@bingeonbooks
Coming Out on Top, Interactive Novel, Gaming
Hello Teatimers! We’re going to be talking about something a little bit different today but I hope you’ll stay with us (even if you’re not a gamer!) because I reckon there’s a fair amount of interest-overlap between m/m readers and the target audience of a recently released game, called Coming Out On Top.
For them as familiar with gaming, it’s basically a visual-novel-cum-gay-dating-sim.
For them not so familiar, I think the best way to describe it is: a choose your own adventure story except the adventure is what hot dude you’re going to romance and/or bang. Essentially the plot unfolds, told against a background of some very nice artwork, and at various intervals decision points come up and the story branches (for better or worse) depending on your choices.
Today I’m joined by Ed (@formerlyfrozen) and Liz (from Binge on Books): Ed is, err, a committed and long-term gamer and Liz is a gaming newbie, so we hope to be able to offer you a good conversation about the game from various perspectives. We’ll try to keep it spoiler low and we hope you’ll think about checking it out sometime.
AJH: So, welcome Liz and Ed.
Ed: Hi all!
AJH: So as the official gaming guinea pig … how did you find, Liz?
Liz: Well, I had to forcibly remove myself from the computer for fear of calcifying into the couch and becoming an overgrown sort of cave-person, just hitting the spacebar continuously and humming La Cucaracha. …I enjoyed it a lot.
Ed: Hah! We’ll have you gaming full time yet.
Liz: That way lies madness.
AJH: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m perfectly sane and normal. coughs
Ed: Can I say for people who do play games a bit more that this is not the most… gamey of games. The gameplay consists of reading text, and making decisions at a few key points on how you want to approach things. In the context of the dating sim, that basically means choosing how you want to approach the various different guys you can date or um… cough less than date. So it’s really reliant on quality writing to be interesting and, I think you two agree, the writing here is really excellent? A light, funny touch without being silly.
AJH: I would definitely agree. That’s why I thought it might translate well to a game-suspicious m/m readership to be honest. It’s an interactive novel more than a game per se, and I found the writing super charming.
Liz: I definitely agree on the writing–it had me laughing quite a bit, especially some Ian stuff (nothing spoilery, just his ribbing of Mark) and it was definitely the storylines that kept me interested. I can see how it’s not a…uhm, regular game, and I’m sort of glad, because that feels quite daunting and overwhelming to me. But making various decisions was fun, especially as it affected the story and such.
AJH: Interactive fiction is actually a pretty thing, and visual novels are a big part of that, and dating sims are a big part of that … but COoT is actually pretty unique within that game genre, I think.
Ed: Yes, I agree. There are a lot of dating sims featuring guys, but almost all of them are Japanese (the genre is translated as Boys Love) and they have some of the quite rigid yaoi tropes – odd gendered top/bottom roles, willowy androgynous body types etc. The racial diversity, and jock-y body types here, with gay relationships as you might see them in reality, feels new to me.
AJH: Yes, I’ve played, err, two queer, well, not even Boylove games, but H-games (being the porny side of things) – and without meaning to be all judgemental about a genre I don’t understand, they were kinda rapey and I felt pretty squicked out about the conception and the presentation of queerness. But COoT – and obviously this is largely because it’s westernised and I’m a westerner – came across very differently to me.
Liz: See, this is how uninformed I am about gaming in general – I was just thinking, like…World of Warcraft. Not dating sims. There’s dating sims? No, keep it away from me. But yes, the diversity was interesting, because it started on a path to it, but it sort of…didn’t always quite hit it…entirely. (At least for me.)
AJH: In what way?
Liz: I think just…hmm. Maybe not the diversity but the span of possibilities. But also, when we first meet Phil (…is this a spoiler? Let me know) there’s the whole awkward “I’m not racist BUT” moment and it sort of hit the wrong note with me, because it’s never actually resolved or mentioned, there’s just a misunderstanding that they then move past. But it was good to see representation, even if it was a tad…I don’t know. Almost jokey. (I really enjoyed Jed’s whole story, though.)
AJH: I see where you’re coming from but I think what works for me about COoT is that it seems fairly comfortable with what it is and what it wants to be. I agree it’s approach to racism is pretty shallow … but it’s a fairly light game, and I’m not saying just because something is light means it can’t be deep, but I’m not sure how well I’d have taken a disquisition on social inequality in the middle of a cheerful NA story where you talk a lot to your pet goldfish and everyone is fairly self-consciously liberal anyway. The protagonist is occasionally on the surface clueless, in the way I think a lot of middle class liberal people are – I mean, there’s a bit where he has to go tutor someone and the door is opened by a non white dude and he’s all like HELLO I COME TO TUTOR YOU. And the dude is like … wtf. And actually, while I’m just a white guy and in no position to judge, I thought Phil (bias alert: Phil is my favourite) was quite a subtle rebuttal of stereotypes about race: he’s a black guy and, he’s rich, educated, interestingly privileged in some respects, and going into the military by choice, out of a deep sense of patriotism, not because he’s some poor guy from nowhere and it’s the only option he has.
Liz: YES, agreed–that scene in the frat house is one of my favorites because it was the perfect way to both mock the protagonist and also show why he’s being mocked. Sort of lovingly. It was really well-handled. Phil himself was great–I did his storyline last and it really made me happy to see it through to the end. I loved that Penny had been right about him–he was slightly awkward. Also I had tried to hook Mark and Phil up in several different ways and didn’t realize which decision made it impossible. And then I had to laugh. (But I won’t spoil it.) But yes, his family and background was a great way to showcase racial diversity.
Ed: Agree with both of you guys about Phil, can I mention a couple of things I think the game does well, and one I think it does not so well, in terms of diversity? So, Liz mentioned him briefly, I love Jed. He’s the punk rocker, bad body love interest… and he’s Asian. He has tats, he’s aggressive, he’s erm… kinda spectacularly endowed, and he’s Asian. The de-sexualisation of Asian men is a constant in the gay community, and it sucks. Seeing Jed presented in this way makes me really happy. He’s also totally happy to have sex with you mid-game and still have the potential to end up in a relationship with him at the end. The thing I really like is it’s fine for Jed, and some other guys, but others you spoil the relationship if you push them into sex too early or in inappropriate situations. I really liked that! It’s like you have to pay attention to what your potential love interest wants (shocking, I know). I feel like I should mention the thing I think the game doesn’t do so well, as well. And that is simply that all the guys are muscular jock-ish body types. It kind of contributes to a very narrow view of what is attractive. It didn’t personally bother me while I was playing, but I do wish there was more diversity there.
Liz: For sure. I don’t know if this is because I don’t play many (any) games but I was a bit disappointed that Mark (or whatever name you chose) could only be…one visual type, I guess. You could sort of fiddle with his personality, which was interesting–the options of responses were diverse, considering that a lot of his internal monologue stayed the same, which made him veer a bit wildly from decision to decision–but he looked only one way. You could…make him hairier. (Which, I should add, I did.)
Ed: Hah! Yes. Which, yknow, I kind of appreciated? Male beauty preference seem to oscillate between hairless and hairy on about a 10 year cycle, so this will give the game staying power when hipster beards are no longer a thing. But it’s a very shallow kind of diversity of look. I will say that the developer continues to add content to the game – there’s already alternate endings added for the Brad (football jock) and Jed storylines – and she’s adding a romance with a bear stand-up comic (as far as I can tell that’s his profession), which I’ll be excited to play when it’s out. But I can’t help but wish that it’d been in there from the start.
Liz: Ohh, that’s exciting–I’d love to see the additions. But yes, it’s very standard-type for now, which can be fun if you don’t think about, but definitely exclusionary if you do. (I also have thoughts on the female characters here.)
Ed: Oh? Please go on Liz (a note to readers: we’ve apparently lost AJH to a power cut, so you’re stuck with Liz and me for the moment).
(AJH (much later): Oh wow you just carried on without me. Worst 3some ever.)
(Liz: scuffs toes)
(Ed: Your contribution was essential, AJH pets)
Liz: I kept going back and forth on this, because while I loved Penny, the rest of the female characters seemed…kind of stereotypically getting “in the way” of the dudes, which is a trope I cannot stand in romance or anywhere else, for that matter. Daisy and even Violet just both struck the wrong chord for me. Daisy, in particular, wasn’t fun to see because she was one giant stereotype. But, of course, that held true for some male characters, as well, like the Marines in Phil’s storyline, so maybe it was an equal-opportunity stereotype-fest. It just really turned me off.
Ed: Yes I can see that, I also disliked how the woman in one storyline who was a doctoral student was stereotypically frumpy and socially awkward.
Liz: Yes! Agreed. “She has brains, thus she has to be frumpy and socially awkward.” That’s grating, to say the least. It’s a chip off the old “beautiful women can’t be funny” or “women who don’t meet the beauty standards of society MUST overcompensate in some other way to please others” block. Sort of.
Ed: Yeah, it’s a bit upsetting that someone who spent quite a lot of time (and as we’ve said above, mostly succeeded at) getting gay men right spent so little time thinking about getting the female characters right. Like… I don’t think they’re AWFUL, just not particularly well thought through. Sadly, I don’t think this will be completely unfamiliar to m/m readers.
Liz: Unfortunately, yes. For me, it’s even more disappointing that it’s coming from a female writer/developer. But Penny was fabulous–she had her own thing going that had nothing to do with romance (which is not something you often see with female characters, full stop) and was all about her career path, but it wasn’t dealt with in a “isn’t she sad” sort of way–she was just doing her thing. I enjoyed that a lot, and would 1000% play a game from Penny’s point of view.
Ed: Yes please Penny-based expansion. The Brofinder Chronicles?
AJH: I think having one really well written, well-integrated female character who was clearly an important part of the protagonist’s life put this a level above a lot of m/m I’ve read (his mum is quite cute too, although she’s only in one conversation). But, honestly, I put a lot of the lazier characterisation down the limitations of form – it’s a comedy game so everyone who isn’t important is a little bit cartoon.
Liz: For sure. I was about to say those military homophobes, in particular. Over the top and unnecessary, but…well, what can you do. They needed side characters, but that’s all they were sometimes. Which is fine, if you sort of just go with it and try not to examine it too much.
AJH: In some ways, I like the fact that homophobia wasn’t a major theme of the game, to be honest. Obviously it’s A Real Thing but I dislike the idea that everything about queer life has to contain dangerous homophobia for ‘realism’. And this is a fun, sex/romance romp.
Liz: Yes, I also enjoyed that while is nervous at first, his coming out isn’t traumatic, and it isn’t what the game is about–it’s about what happens after.
AJH: Yes, I really liked that too. And nearly everyone he encounters romantically (or sexually) is comfortable with his sexuality–the only exception being Brad the jock, whose brother may or may not come round, depending on what options you take. But that felt reasonable to me too.
Liz: Absolutely. I just really enjoyed the feel of it, and the writing, and the fact that there were just so many ways the stories could go. Some were more obvious, some subtle, and I liked that it echoed life that way–whatever you choose will have some sort of consequence. It was fun to see what that might be.
AJH: Yes, and I’d echo Ed’s point about the ‘gameification’ of sexual choices – in the sense that while you can pursue sex over romance, the game doesn’t judge you or shame you for it (you can still get a totally happy ending, just not a romance ending). And you generally get to choose, err, what sexual behaviours you want to engage in, regardless of the character you’re with. So you’re not forced to bottom to the jock or top Jed or whatever. Though naturally I, er, did.
Ed: Perhaps we could wrap up here with some final thoughts, and AJH can add to it when the frozen wilds of England (yes yes I know it’s summer, I’m being emotive) get power again. So to conclude, I really liked this game. One of the handful of games I’m come across that present gay men and their relationships as normal and emotionally and sexually satisfying (and I’ve been playing games for 25 years). Funny, empathetic, and never made me feel bad about myself (which quite a bit of m/m is guilty of on occasion). Some quibbles, as discussed above, but I’m really happy this exists.
Liz: Definitely. I really, really liked that it was emotional, and I also loved that every storyline was different enough that the endings varied, and also that every guy needed something different from Mark in order to get the full ending. It was a really fun adventure nearly every time, except for the second time I played and tried to get various outcomes, none of which worked out, which almost gave me a complex. “What do you mean this decision leads nowhere! I object! I’m terrible at life!” BTW, what did you name your goldfish? This is important.
Ed: THE GOLDFISH. Yes. The goldfish is crucial. I think I called him Nemo. Which made the secret ending slightly disturbing (yes, folks, there is a secret goldfish-related ending).
Liz: You mean, the stuff of NIGHTMARES. (Mine was Bloop Bloop. Don’t look at me like that.)
AJH: Wait, I wanna know your favourites from the smorgasbord of lovely dudes 🙂
Ed: Oh! Right. Like… ideologically probably Jed. I’m really glad he’s in the game. But the one that made me awww the most was Brad. He’s a sweet guy behind the jock exterior, and the relationship with the main character is what reveals it. And that’s what a good relationship does – help both people in it be better together.
Liz: I really loved Phil, the way their relationship evolved. Ian was my second favorite, it was a very sweet ending and he just consistently cracked me up. His facial expressions were the best.
AJH: Yeah, I’m all about Phil. I think it’s the most … romantic of them? Phil is quite old-fashioned in that he sort of needs to be wooed a bit, and there’s lots of kissing and hugging and the ending is adorably mushy. I enjoyed all of them though, and they all have a different flavour. Anyway, thank you both for joining me. Sorry for the powercut.
Ed: It was a pleasure. Always happy to chat about games. And boys. And boys in games.
Liz: Thanks for inviting me! It was a treat, both to play and to chat. Wait, Alexis, what did you name your Goldfish? Million dollar question.
AJH: I went with Slurpy because I have no imagination.
If you want to play this game you can download it from the creator’s site (for both Mac and PC) for $14.99 or check out the demo, if you want to see what it’s like before you buy. If you enjoy m/m and fancy trying something a little bit different, it’s well worth checking out.
About Alexis J Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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