Games that deal with asexuality and aromantic situations are few and far between. It’s rarely seen in movies or on TV, and even rarer do we get to see Ace or Aro charcters in games or be given the option to play as an Ace or Aro character.
Today though we’re going to be looking at Acetylene, a visual novel about magic, sexuality & romance and helping others to find themselves, even if that means making a few mistakes along the way.
So let’s talk to the creator of Acetylene, and find out more about this wonderful story.
Kaiju: Welcome to Digital Diversity, a home to spotlight game developers from the LGBTQIA+ community. Joining me today is writer, artist and game developer Alison Huang, creator of Acetylene. A visual novel about asexuality and finding helping others find themselves.
Heya Alison, welcome to the project, it’s great to have you here. Let’s start off by having you tell us a bit about yourself and of course tell us what Acetylene is.
Alison: Hello! I’m Alison, though some people might know me better as Draz. I’m a demi-pansexual/romantic cis woman with a reputation for doing a lot of game jams. I tend to make visual novels and twines.
Acetylene was a visual novel I made for Ace Jam 2019. It is the standalone sequel to Acetone, a kinetic visual novel I made for Ace Jam 2018. They’re set in a world where, because interpersonal bonds fuel magic, romantic bonds are seen as stronger than other bonds, disadvantaging aromantic people. Because of the way allonormativity tends to lump romantic and sexual attraction together, this meant that asexual people were disadvantaged as well.
The protagonist for both games is, Zoya, an asexual aromantic Mage. In Acetone she’s dealing with a lot of her own internalised ace and arophobia. In Acetylene she’s much more confident with her orientation. However, her new visibility means that other people are now reconsidering their orientations.
Kaiju: Before we move on I’ve a couple of short but highly important questions: First, how do you pronounce Acetylene? Because I don’t think I’ve ever pronounced it right. Secondly how many is “a lot” of game jams? How many would you take part in in a year?
Alison: Well there’s two ways you can pronounce it. One is the actual way you pronounce the chemical (A-set-a-lean), and the way I usually pronounce it (Ass-e-tie-lean). I pronounce it differently for consistency with Acetone (Ass-e-tone).
Since August 2017, I’ve participated in 13 game jams. I tend to do about five a year. They’re usually ones that happen annually like Ace Jam and Yuri Jam.
Kaiju: That’s so many jams! I don’t know how you’d find the time to be involved with them all. Big points for taking part though, that’s a big commitment.
Acetylene handles discussions on sexuality differently from pretty much all games I’ve seen; essentially helping someone else through their journey of self-discovery rather than a personal journey. Is this what you initially planned out when working on the game? Did it feel like the natural next step after creating Acetone or did things just work out that way?
Alison: I went into Ace Jam 2019 knowing that I was going to be making a story about someone else’s self-discovery, but coming to that conclusion was a much longer process.
When I was initially concepting Acetone, I knew I wanted the story to be a non-violent one. I didn’t want Zoya to overcome her inner demons by defeating some evil person. That wouldn’t be satisfying or nuanced. And, I wanted that non-violence to continue with Acetylene.
Secondly, I knew I wanted choices within Acetylene. But with the majority of visual novels, choices tend to be about romance, or figuring out murder mysteries. With Zoya’s orientation, and my desire to have a non-violent narrative, those two angles couldn’t exist in Acetylene. So, having options dictate Zoya’s closeness with friends is what I went with.
However, Zoya’s closest friendships are already established in Acetone. Her best friend is Kyo, and by the end of that game she was becoming friends with Kay. There’s no new ground to cover there. In other words, Zoya needed new people to bond with, and a reason for those friends to matter.
Of course, as Ace Jam is about asexuality, I also wanted to introduce new ace and aro spectrum characters to the story. Being demisexual and demiromantic, I wanted to explore the parts of the spectrum that match my identity more. I also wanted to explore ace and aro spectrum characters in relationships. And I knew if I was telling a story like that, Zoya would naturally fit into more of a mentor role.
Kaiju: The mentor role is something we really don’t get to see enough in games, especially when it’s dealing with difficult questions on things like gender and sexuality. So I was super glad to see it as one of the most important elements of Acetylene.
With characters that have such well developed personalities and stories are we likely to see a return of Zoya and the rest of the crew? Personally I’d love to see more of how things develop in the mage world, maybe even a post schooling environment out in the world?
Alison: Hard to say. I love all of these characters, and there are actually some characters in this world that haven’t been introduced yet. However, the more characters there are, the more sprites have to be made, and the more excuses there need to be for why certain characters aren’t around.
My worldbuilding for this was also pretty simple, which has worked well because it’s mostly been within the Mage’s Association, but it also unfortunately means its harder to expand outside the Association without exposing glaring flaws.
Kaiju: All fair enough reasons. Maybe something for a later date when you aren’t making 13 games at a time, haha.
Most of your focus seems to be on game jams. Is there game development work you’re doing outside of those? Bigger projects your part of and projects you’re developing on your own terms?
Alison: I certainly do have bigger projects that I’m a part of. Unfortunately they are under NDA so I cannot say much about them. But they are definitely more slow paced and relaxed than game jams.
I’m not working on any personal projects right now, but at some point I do want to get back into working on What Happened To Alice?, a semi-autobiographical Twine game I prototyped a few years ago.
Kaiju: How about your dream project? What would you make if you had all the time and money to do anything you wanted and there were no obstacles in your way?
Alison: My absolute dream game would be an action roleplaying game where you can customise your player character however you like, be able to complete each quest how you like, and romance characters in a way that feels organic and believable. Basically a single player D&D campaign mixed in with Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, and Bioware games.
On a more manageable level, I have two dream visual novel concepts. The first is a visual novel with time travelling aspects, your character remembering what happened the previous playthroughs and unlocking choices accordingly, until you reach the true end where everything resolves perfectly. The second is a dating sim where all of the love interests also have crushes and squishes on other love interests, and the true ending is when you’ve figured out how to have everyone be in a polycule together.
Kaiju: I love the visual novel concepts, they feel like they would really push the limits on what the medium could do, especially the time travel one. Let’s get the kickstarter going for them now! 🙂
Let’s talk about asexual representation, because it’s really something we don’t see enough of in any media really, especially not games. In fact I believe the only other game I’ve covered so far with it was When Aster Falls, which handled it wonderfully as well.
How do you think the games industry could raise positive awareness of Ace/Aro characters in a way that would feel right for bigger budget games? Is there a way to make the discussion in something like a Bioware RPG without it feeling pushed?
Alison: For games with customisable player characters, I definitely think that the way forward is having dialogue and options that reflect that the player character is possibly ace. This would not only give ace players the message that they are seen and accepted by the game, but also naturally lead to more discussions of consent for all players, which is never not a bad thing.
I actually approach ace characters similar to this in my Twine game, As Cold As The Grave. The only way to get an ending with implied sex is to pursue optional choices to flirt or show signs of interest. There is enough leeway that you don’t neccesarily have to pursue these options from the get go if you’ve decided your character is demisexual for instance. To further make sure the player and I are on the same page, I also have a choice about sexuality.
If there are ace love interests, I don’t think there should just be one. The asexual spectrum is well, a spectrum, and I think it’s important to both acknowledge that it is with multiple characters, and to not tokenise one character. Having multiple ace characters would also help games not fall into unfortunate stereotypes with their one asexual character, like having the one ace character be a robot.
Kaiju: Queer characters as non-human is a painful stereotype we really need to get over, I agree. There’s a couple of big name studios that use it far too often and it’s something we need to get over already. I would also love to see different parts of the spectrum in a single game, that would be pretty amazing. As a demisexual person I’ve never actually seen it really represented in anything, I’d love to see that change already.
You’re involved in a lot of game jams and heavily in the visual novel scene, have you found any games that particularly spoke to you positively when it comes to representation? Characters you identified with or felt touched close to home on how you feel?
Alison: Unfortunately I don’t think I have ever felt that I have been fully represented in any game I’ve played. Few characters are confirmed to be pansexual or panromantic, and fewer characters are described as demisexual or demiromantic. So for instance, if a game explores asexuality, then I might identify with part of the experience, but certainly not all of it.
However, that isn’t to say that no game has hit close to home. Before They Leave is a visual novel where you play a girl with depression, pining over her crush. When I do experience romantic attraction, it’s always towards a friend, and it always hits like a truck. So while it doesn’t mention any parts of my orientation, or attempt to depict it, it certainly captures a specific part of it.
Kaiju: That’s something, although it does show how far gaming has to come as a whole before everyone in the community feels included and positively represented. Let’s hope as discussions for these matters goes on they will get more screen time.
Let’s round this off with a bit of an advice question. What is your advice for folks getting into game jams? Are there processes you go through whenever starting one you find helps, or ways to make sure you get your game finished?
Alison: If you’re planning on participating in a game jam that happens annually, and allows you to start planning before the game jam, take advantage of that time and plan ahead. Your might like your initial concept, but if you rush into it you might encounter problems with the concept further down the line that you could have avoided.
For any game jam, you absolutely have to keep scope in mind. If you’re new to jamming, you should probably aim to make a game with the essentials of that concept, and only add on all of the bells and whistles once you’re certain you have enough time left.
Pacing yourself is also important. You don’t want to lose motivation and energy for your game later on in the jam. This also helps you scope better. If you know you want to write about 500 words each day, you probably shouldn’t aim to write 30,000 words in total.
If you’re working with other people, communication is key to making everything happen efficiently. If someone is willing to be one, having a producer does wonders for keeping everything on track.
Kaiju: Sounds like good advice, I’m sure it’ll help folks – including me probably – participate in these fun game jams.
Thank you so much for being on Digital Diversity, Alison. I had a lot of fun streaming Acetylene and I can’t wait to see what your future projects hold for us. It’s always wonderful having passionate folks in to talk.
Do you have any final words of wisdom for us or shout-outs you’d like to make?
Alison: Thank you so much for interviewing me! It’s so easy for diverse voices to go unheard so it’s wonderful that you made this space for them. The more voices there are, the louder the conversation becomes, and the more likely it is that we will be able to see ourselves in more mainstream games.
If you don’t see yourself in any games, there are others out there that feel the same way. If you make games with your experiences, there will be other people that will feel validated and visible because of your work. So, make the representation you wish to see!