Have you ever been so frustrated, so fed up with where you are, that you just want to throw it all away and run off to somewhere new? In A Closed World you play as a young person who has decided to do exactly that. This console RPG-like game puts you in the shoes of a young resident of a village just outside a forest that everyone says is a place of no return.
What We Think
Once in a while, a title appears that takes the chance to address the necessary and oftentimes more challenging social issues of everyday life. These are social issues that are often overlooked not only in games, but in the broader scope of popular entertainment media. A Closed World does this concisely and with a simplicity that resounded with me long after I played it. Although technically there is nothing too revolutionary on offer, the way that it handles its subject matter with interactive media captured my attention and imagination.
A Closed World was first actualized by a small team at the Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in 2011 as a prototype, headed by Todd Harper and Abe Stein. Their research findings show that, even when there is the desire to create queer content on the developmental side, it is difficult to coincide with market-driven valuations of risk. And then there’s the question of whether or not games can even speak to queer issues in a compelling and relevant manner.
As Todd Harper discusses in his paper presented at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Seattle, A Closed World was prototyped out of a desire to engage a broad audience and not just at the gay community, as well as make sexual identity a good part of the motivation that informs the gameplay. As such, A Closed World presents its storytelling in the form of a question: “Have you ever noticed that the choices you make in life are informed by one very simple question: Are you male or female?” This question buttresses the story in a way that the game’s characters are represented in such a way as to share more similarities than differences with the player when it comes to romantic relationships.
As you start the game, you chose to play as a boy or a girl in a pixel RPG world of an undefined period of time. You find yourself wandering through a forest, wondering how you got there in the first place, when it seems like the townsfolk that you’ve spent all your life with have whispered stories to each other about the forest’s mysteries. Here, you will come across various foes who will mock at your strangeness, your orientation, and your ability to care for another person. This is a charming coming-of-age tale, and the graphics and musical choices reflect this.
The gameplay mechanics are straightforward, taking on RPG turn-based elements of basic combat strategies and healing. Instead of attack spells or melee, however, you can use skills such as logic, reasoning, and passion. What encourages engagement here isn’t whether the game is difficult or challenging (it is not), but that it is designed to tell a story. Writing (and reading on the part of the player) is integral to the enjoyment of the game. Thus, in many ways, this can be said to be the game designer’s game rather than necessarily scratching your puzzle-solving itch or love of strategy.
As such, A Closed World is strongly reliant on the use of symbolism and allegory, which unfolds well for those who are tickled by narrative design and signification (as I am). However, because it relies on externalizing the inequality from actual situatedness by evoking a magical forest of monsters, you are never asked to really confront gender and sexual discrimination within, say, actual school walls or within a community.
Your discriminatory foes are always warped into this monstrous Other (that is to say, something apart from that of the masculine-led hierarchy), which, while theoretically interesting, doesn’t feel as embedded as if you actually have to interact within a more true-to-life form, such as defend against discrimination from those who are representationally human, and in a perceptively societal setting.
In this way, emotions and reactions don’t seem so abstracted from reality, and are actually more lingering. I can assume that the developers wanted to keep the story as universal as possible, but I think that it’s gone too far in that direction so that all discrimination against queers have a general flatness to it. To me, a good example of keeping a solid balance between fantasy and having a spatial and worldly backdrop is Kan Gao’s To the Moon, which integrates questions of social perception of memory and identity into a puzzle-narrative game. The scale and length of To the Moon, however, is much larger.
A Closed World is quite short, wrapping up in thirty minutes of interactivity, and thus it doesn’t feel repetitive. There isn’t an endless number of foes that could otherwise be the same experience, repeated, because there isn’t the typical indicators of reward and punishment such as gaining new items and leveling up. I think that the short and sweet element is to the game’s advantage because it keeps us thinking on its initial question: Of how much our day to day experiences are connected to our gender expectations?
For a small game like A Closed World, ‘less is more’ appears to be its biggest strength. I appreciate the simplicity of its deep engagement, and, by appreciating it, I wonder why more games can’t offer more alternate worlds where we can actually reflect upon current social concerns without feeling like we are being lectured.
Although the game has an academic research question behind its design, it also prefaced a storied experience first and foremost. A Closed World can’t easily be bracketed into an educational title, even though ‘queer issues’ is not tacked on as an extraneous element as one would have a large variety of items in a dungeon crawler. To that extent, A Closed World not only succeeds in its initial goals to represent queer issues in an indie title, but I also have high hopes that it will inform and inspire other like-minded game designs.