Untested: Kaboom, Anonymity, and the Repressive State Apparatus

In southern Louisiana, I take even my humiliations for granted.

An Interpellation (Hail, Stranger)

Before I had interactive fiction, I had the workshop of my MFA program. It was not always a pleasant experience. Not every participant is interested in one’s work, but the artist must express their interest in the participant’s opinions. The cohort is a social group, with social conventions. I need not tell a sympathetic audience that we don’t all fare equally well against such forces. By age ten, life had taught me to view peer groups as hazardous, if not actively hostile.

And yet… it really wasn’t so bad. There are no poetry police where I live! Whatever people think about poetry, there isn’t much that can stop them from thinking it. Most disagreeable experiences seem better after snacks and video games. Every once in a while, somebody will say something helpful, and that will make it all worth the trip.

Still, there were occasional problems. Someone might try to correct my treatment of mental illness, for instance. I would do the weirdest thing: say nothing at all. Because I did not want to discuss my identity as a mentally ill person, I didn’t want to discuss my writing as a mentally ill person. I didn’t want to make my work a product of mental illness. I didn’t want to be a “mental illness” writer writing “mental illness poetry,” or be that “mental illness guy.”

I was defensive, in other words. I felt a need to defend myself, even in the absence of confirmed threat. I wrote intentionally complex, highly technical poetry, churning out whole series of poems with counted syllables, casual allusion, and weird metaphor. I wanted people to see the craft first. I wanted to be a craftsperson. “I’m doing something difficult!” I wanted to say. “I’m not just crazy!”

Still, I can’t help but feel that sharing work–whether in a competition, to a test group, or in some other context–makes me the subject of various -isms. It is always the same with groups: I can’t help but assume that the audience is sane, and that I am not. I’ve internalized this. Writing about mental illness is always a risk, even if no reasonable person would find the content risky. The danger is not the act or the content. The danger is a triangulation: it is the place where I see myself being seen.

And Yet

Still, it is no trivial matter, the methods and forces with which various groups, media, religious organizations, and employers reinforce dominant ideology in a society. These interventions can be so disruptive, unjust, and troubling that it is possible to forget that, in some places, states impose themselves directly. What would it be like to make art when your most influential and powerful critic is the state? A great many unfortunates have already found the answer, but for the rest of us: if our work defied the dominant ideology of the state, would we sign it? As creators of interactive fiction, would we correspond with strangers on the internet for testing purposes?

I should be more concrete. Let us imagine that I am a subject of the Russian state, and that I have decided to make a game about a young Ukranian girl. She has only just survived a Russian attack that has killed her parents and destroyed her home. I treat this subject sympathetically. To whom should I show my work? If a game must be tested, but a particular work cannot be tested safely, is that a game at all? Perhaps we need a new word for works birthed in such challenging circumstances.

Kaboom: (un)Game

Kaboom is a surreal, ominous story narrated by a young girl’s stuffed animal. As play progresses, the reality of the situation is discovered, as are the stakes. The puzzles make sense, and the information drip is well-calibrated. The shocking currency of the story is revealed when two characters in the closing sequence speak Ukrainian.

Experienced interactive fiction testers, of the sort I openly engage with every day, would have readily pointed out the unpleasant friction in the interface (having to click “look around” repeatedly, etc.), just as easily as they would identify less-than-idiomatic phrases in the translated Russian. This is a work with problems, but they seem quite fixable. As an author, I would have had immediate access to everything I needed to perfect Kaboom. But I am not that anonymous author, and I do not think that they are where I am. It is entirely possible that it would be unsafe for them to seek those resources.

If an audience enjoys safeties that an artist does not, whose expectations should change?

I am uncomfortable judging Kaboom from what I perceive as place of greater safety and comfort. What kinds of risks would I have the author take? I make no requests presently. I do hope that, in the fullness of time, it shines as it could, but in this indeterminate “before” I am nevertheless quite impressed with Kaboom as written. There is panging sweetness to the narrative voice. The descriptions and the information they manage are well-constructed and smartly related. I feel a deep sympathy for the protagonist, her human companion, and for the children of war everywhere.

Playing Kaboom is worth the inconveniences of its interface, which are readily eclipsed by the emotional hazards of its story. I can comfortably–in that word’s multiple senses–recommend it.

A Small Update (November 1, 2023)

I was very happy to hear from the anonymous author of Kaboom yesterday. They let me know that they were not presently worried for their safety: “oppressive as it is, I think my state doesn’t have that much control–at least not yet.” My basic assessment, that Kaboom is a moving and thoughtful game in need of playtesting, remains unchanged. I’d like to point out that there are cases of art made under duress much closer to home for we Americans: imagine being a public schoolteacher in Florida, for instance. Ultimately, this has been a concern here at Gold Machine all along: what are a work’s conditions of production and consumption, and what meanings arise from them? These factors, as well as setting and authorial anonymity, make Kaboom a fascinating work.

In any case, thanks to the author of Kaboom for a moving and thought-provoking experience. Best of luck in the competition!


A new Trinity post. Monday, October 30.

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