In preparation for our “Gay games, out of the closet” feature, we were lucky enough to be joined by Obscura of Obscurasoft for a lengthy chat. In it, she was happy to discuss the ups and downs of her upcoming game, Coming Out On Top, alongside gay games and gamers in general. The interview went so well, we thought we’d share it in its entirety with readers.
Steve Wright, Stevivor: We know quite a bit about Coming Out On Top, but not about Obscurasoft Games. Who makes up the development house, and from what walks of life are they from?
Obscura: Obscurasoft is a woman. Specifically, a dirty old woman who likes to write, draw and game in her spare time. I grew up in California, have an utterly useless liberal arts degree, and work in the service sector. I don’t want to give out too much additional info because (1) my neighbors would flip out and (2) in my experience, knowing too much about the person who writes your erotica is a boner killer.
As for what I do in development: I do most of the character art, all of the writing, and some of the programming. I have a team of very talented contractors doing additional art and programming: Doubleleaf, scene art; Badriel, backgrounds; Saguaro, programming. I don’t know why they’re all using these crazy aliases, as if they were trying to hide the fact they’re making something X-rated, but that’s purely coincidental, I swear! They use aliases for their other projects as well.
Stevivor: We might as well get to the questions you’re probably asked the most. You’re making a male-orientated gay adult dating sim, and you’re a heterosexual woman. Are you facing criticism from the gay community regarding your decision to create this game? How have reactions been to both the game, and to its creator?
Obscura: One would think the initial response would be tons of criticism, but here’s what actually happened. I released a very short, PG version of this game last year, unsure whether anybody would play it, and hoped I could find a small audience among women who enjoy yaoi or slash fiction. I got positive feedback from several of them, but the most fervent and enthusiastic responses were comments and emails from gay men themselves, thanking me for making something like this. It was the last thing I expected. They appreciated that I was making something different from existing yaoi games, that it was Western, that it was fairly realistic in terms of dialogue and characterization, and so forth.
As for negative criticism: there are two types of I’ve received. The first is in the form of scepticism, which I fully expect and understand. In fact, I remember the first time I went on Reddit’s gaymers community with my idea for the game, I got this guy challenging me right away, asking how a straight woman could possibly know anything about the gay experience–I mean–did I even know what Grindr was, for god’s sakes? In reply, I sent him a screenshot of the “Brofinder” parody app that’s in my game. Admittedly, I might have flunked his harder “are you fit to write about gay people” exam-type questions, but alas, I never heard from him again.
The second kind of criticism has to do with not catering to enough body types, which is totally valid. One of the reasons I’m making this game is because the existing yaoi and bara games and comics tend to be extremes of lithe, long-haired boys and rounder, muscular bears. Weirdly, there’s not a whole lot in between. So yes, there’s a glaring over-representation of a certain body type I find attractive here, which is sure to displease some people.
It’s an interesting topic actually, one probably worth many more paragraphs, because I think this ties into one of the challenges with making a game associated with a minority group–the expectation to represent all the diversity within that minority. For the main game, I was more concerned with having an Asian and African American have their own storylines at the time I conceived of the characters, than I was with body types, obviously annoying some people, and pleasing others.
All said and done, the response has been incredibly and overwhelmingly positive. Sceptics have written me saying they’re much less critical once they played the demo, recognizing the game for what it was: a character-focused comedy about a couple of college-aged kids. The bottom line is that it’s neither a hardcore sex game nor a game with any overt social or political agenda. It’s a story-based relationship game that’s supposed to be fun and entertaining.
Stevivor: In a similar vein, why a gay dating simulator? What’s appealing about this kind of title to you.
Obscura: I like dating sims because I like the idea of creating characters who are fun to be around, whose buttons you can literally push. The thing I’ve loved most about Black Isle, Bioware, and Rockstar games have always been the colorful characters and their interactions; a dating sim is a very distilled form of just the relationship aspect.
As for the gay aspect of it? I admit it’s purely superficial. I like the male physique, I like watching men in porn. The idea of men having sex is something that I find appealing. I like some hetero porn too, and occasionally some lesbian, but men getting physical with other men is just intrinsically attractive to me, by and large.
Stevivor: Those questions aside, I loved the idea of the game, grabbed the demo and played through voraciously, and never would have suspected a woman was writing the game’s plotlines and dialogue; in short, you’re making a realistic title with the right tone and flow. Has it been challenging to find the right voices in-game? How are you ensuring you’re on the right track with all of that?
Obscura: Thank you for playing and the kind words! It’s actually an interesting challenge to keep everything very light-hearted. You can easily go to very, very dark place with an erotic game just to make things more dramatic, and I’ve had to rewrite a good deal of the plot several times before achieving the tone I wanted.
So yes, it’s a challenge. The writing and rewriting never ends. I’ll have beta testers looking at everything in the fall. Right now, it’s me sweating it out and giving the skeletal version to a few readers to ensure it’s fun and flows well.
Stevivor: Similarly, the actual coming out aspects of the title seem like they’re written from experience. How have you been ensuring they’re true-to-life?
Obscura: Thank you! It’s just a matter of plain, boring research, a lot of it done on the internet. I do a ton of research and then rely on my testers to make sure it sounds plausible.
Stevivor: In playing through the opening of the demo, it struck me that the non-erotic sequences involving the actual coming out process would make a very inspirational game for those who are struggling with coming out of the closet themselves. Would Obscurasoft consider a G- or PG-version of the game to reach a wider audience for those reasons?
Obscura: I am indeed planning on a PG version after the initial release. There are a handful of straight men and ladies who’ve requested this, since they prefer a game, shockingly, without wall-to-wall penis.
I never thought that a PG version might help someone with the actual coming out process, but it’d make me very happy if it did.
Stevivor: That last question has an obvious follow up: how did you get to the decision to add-in the more erotic content in-game? Is it expected in a gay game, or is there another reason altogether?
Obscura: I actually liked the idea of doing something explicit, but I made the early version entirely PG because the developer boards for Renpy — the game engine — seemed to indicate very few people wanted to play an adult visual novel, of any kind.
Not knowing any better I made a PG rated version for one of the story lines last year. Afterwards I put a poll on my website asking if I should make this into a hardcore sex version. 95% of the respondents said yes. Obviously I started off on the wrong foot!
And is sex expected in a gay game? I’m not sure. I do know there is a whole category of games and comics called “boy-love” that has no sex whatsoever.
Stevivor: In the same vein, you’ve said that there are sequences in the various dates that deal with homophobia and other serious themes. Is it difficult to achieve a balance of social commentary and erotic content? How are you meeting that balance?
Obscura: Each storyline is a combination of sex, relationship issues, and the personal struggle each guy faces. It’s really not a “meet guy A, try to sleep with him” game, so much as a game where you’re thrown into the lives of different guys who have a larger life goal but are facing a particular obstacle. I feel like the sex and social issues arise pretty naturally from that starting point.
Though I admit some of the sex is, well, exaggerated, shall we say.
Stevivor: There are not a lot of gay-themed games in this industry as yet. Are you feeling a bit of pressure to get this game developed and be a success? Are you feeling like you’ve got the “gay game” genre resting on your efforts, or have games of these types been established yet by other trailblazers?
Obscura: I don’t feel any external pressure whatsoever–just the pressure I’ve placed on myself, which is that Coming Out On Top has to rock. It wouldn’t matter what kind of game this was–my goal is that players and readers have a terrific experience.
At the moment, there are quite a handful of commercial gay games that have come out or are in the process, so I’ll just be another. It’s important to note, however, that each of them is trailblazing for the fact there are so very few gay games in existence, none of them are like the other, and that none of them will be replicated any time soon. If a “gay game” genre exists, it’s so tiny that it should be very encouraging and exciting right now for any developer making a gay-themed game. The kind of game you make is going to be the only one of its kind, at least for a year or two, which I figure is akin to a decade in video game industry years.
Stevivor: The game was successfully Kickstarted, which is a great accomplishment on its own. Can you speak about the development process when you’ve essentially got 1,831 stakeholders — of a sort — who’ll all want to provide a bit of a hand with the decision-making process, I’d suspect?
Obscura: Yes, and several of them are in my development forum. They give me feedback on everything. Sometimes art, sometimes on things having to do with sex. One interesting issue that’s come up is barebacking vs. condom use, for example, and how it should be handled in a somewhat realistic game about a college guy.
Getting feedback for a game is important for any developer, but given that I neither have the equipment nor the first-hand experience of my main character, it is absolutely crucial for me to hear from players, many of whom are backers.
Stevivor: What are journalists missing when speaking to you about this game? This is your time to highlight the angle we’ve overlooked.
Obscura: Gosh, you’ve given me a lot of food for thought, but there is one thing I’d like to add.
Compared to its previous system where a couple of admins selected indie games into the system, Steam Greenlight has effectively made it MUCH HARDER for games not directly catering to straight male gamers.
I did put up an earlier unfinished PG version up of my game up a year ago. There were valid criticisms directed at the unpolished, early build, but the only place I’ve heard more homophobic epithets have been on 4chan, where they actually use those words with far less hostility!
At the moment I’m looking at the Greenlight page for [Luke Miller’s] “My Ex-Boyfriend The Space Tyrant”, a very witty gay-themed game, and absolutely cringing at the mentality of many of Greenlight voters. I understand Steam’s rationale for putting new games in the hands of its users, but it seems like it’s a way to ensure more of the same for a long time to come.
Well Steve, thank you for the interview! I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you and your readers!
Thanks again to Obscura for the lovely chat.