(The below article was written for Trade-Media, now InGames, for QueerlyRepresentMe and is no longer hosted)
Over the course of a year I embarked on a journey to stream and review as many games made by the LGBTQIA+ community as I could. Some of these games were inherently queer in content, others not so much, but in the end they all did one thing really well; use simple game engines to make something wonderful. From simple text-based interfaces to full graphics, sound, and controls these often one-person made games have the benefit of simplicity. Telling stories that while often appearing raw compared to big name games managed to get me hardest in the feels.
Overwhelmingly the three engines I’ve seen used the most frequently are Twine, Ren’Py, and Bitsy. These incredibly simple – at least in their base forms – tools have told narratives beyond anything I’ve experienced in the high-budget world of AAA gaming, and have allowed storytellers to be able to speak out without large studios or lots of resources.
So what are they and how do they work?
At its heart a true choose-your-own-adventure engine Twine takes text-based storytelling and adds elements far in excess of the adventure books of our youth. By allowing some integration of multimedia and design mechanics we’ve ended up with stories like Sav Ferguson’s award winning That Boy Is A Monstr.
Also working well as a storyboarding system Twine functions as a great way to break up stories into smaller pieces, making bigger narratives more approachable for newer devs.
Often considered the best visual novel engine by many communities Ren’Py uses simple scripting processes to tell stories with as much or as little complexity as possible. Falling into two main formats, the Kinetic Novel, which uses a linear story with no interaction, to fully interactive Visual Novels which may become something like a dating simulator or a tale full of decision for the player to progress through. Ren’Py is accessible with good documentation and a low barrier to entry.
A relative newcomer to the game engine scene Bitsy quickly became a favourite for telling short tales with pixels and limited environments. The simplicity of the engine – which is so simple it runs through a web-browser – allows for games to be created without much by way of programming knowledge or past experience. With the prevalence of queer game jams Bitsy games have become a go-to for devs who want to make something in a hurry, but still with plenty of feels.
Why Are Simple Engines Important for Queer games?
As a whole the games industry can be difficult when it comes to telling tales that haven’t been done before. With a few notable exceptions the AAA industry focuses on proven narratives, familiar characters and recognisable story arcs, as such it can be difficult for marginalised developers to tell their own tales, And so smaller studios are created to fill that niche. However the bigger the game engine the more skill it takes to build something in it, the more time and money that needs be invested. And in the end the story that’s being told might not need all the flash and complexity of the Unreal Engine or even Unity. Maybe it just needs a single line of text, or a simple pixel image, to tell a story that’s never been told before.
If you go check out the LGBT section of Itch.Io a good third of the games listed utilise these engines and with good reason. These simple tools allow folks who might never get to tell their own personal narratives, or things they want to see happen, or wish could happen if the world were a different place. They give voices to those who those who can’t be heard in other ways, and that’s the first step to making a more inclusive and understanding world for us all.