In typical otome games, the player character is presented with a variety of options in partners and chooses the one they like. Some games try for a more life-simulation approach, where you choose activities and that makes you more appealing to people who have common interests with those activities. There is some degree of control over the character one plays, but there’s also crucially not. These games don’t have room for the truly massive amount of writing necessary to give you an exhaustive list of options for conversation and conversational style. In the end, while some of these stats can work together (imagine an otome game where a higher ‘intelligent’ stat leads to a character that uses more precise vocabulary), there is still a basic ‘core’ of the protaganist, and they have a very basic ‘line’ of action. Most of the time in the games I’ve played, your choices amount to simple binaries – yes/no, do I/don’t I, – or selections from a group – which boy of these five?
I’m okay with a game putting you in the shoes of an existing character. I spoke about Dishonored using this device, and how while you may play Corvo being murderous or Corvo being merciful, Corvo is still a man who solves his problems with violence, one way or another. Such is true in the Otome games, and I feel that that is necessary as a writer. Some ambitious developers invest in the idea of making you, the player, free to do as you like, but typically just provide you with a fairly broad handful of options. I understand there’s a desire for that, and maybe one day games will manage it. For now, though, I feel it best to admit that the player and the game are both bringing things to the table. The character you play in senp.AI has some pre-determined things about them. I need these things to be able to write. The AI will say things, implying that that is how the player is thinking about them – and there will probably be some choices to determine your particular thought patterns.
Where this gets challenging for me is gender.
Recently, in a series of tweets I saw retweeted by a very intelligent someone I know only as mcc, I was caused to think about how videogames that offer character options touch on gender and sexuality. In senp.AI the AI has no base gender. The AI character you play is just an AI. You can call yourself him or her or they or whatever you like, but mostly people don’t refer to you as a person. The game is set in the fantastic space year of 2899, where humanity live in glass towers and use tidal power and solar satellites and have advanced chemistry. What I had planned regarding gender was pretty simple: The player character can eventually choose a gender, and the gender of senpai.
…and Senpai’s cis/trans status.
Senpai can be male, female, or asexual. Senpai can be cis or trans. The former choice changes some pronouns. The latter stat changes nothing. There is no reason for that choice to exist (and I’m happy with how the game handles it) because it does not impact senpai’s school life, nobody talks about it or comments on it, and trans status – in this miracle world where transitioning is a matter of a short drug treatment and that’s it – is only noted on medical records for when doctors are checking for specific things.
I like this idea. I am also worried by this idea.
I’m not trans. I don’t know, in my day-to-day life, any people who have informed me about their trans status. As far as I know I’m just a big dumb cis boy in a big dumb cis world. Much like racial issues, where the vast majority of my friendscape is white, I feel hampered in my ability to realistically represent a complex web of interconnected issues simply because they are removed from my experience. I do not want to disrespect the state of trans people with my videogame idea. I honestly want to paint a future where the problems of our modern world’s trans people are non-existent because as a culture, we’ve moved past silly things like caring about the state of a stranger’s junk.
Another person I like a lot but only really know as a handle on a tumblr, Mammon Machine, wrote “Would you rather your story be written by the clueless or erased by them?” and I don’t want to do either with this. I am the clueless and I know it. Becoming an expert in this topic would require a lifetime I don’t have, and I don’t want to treat the trans people I do know as some sort of censorship barrier, justifying my choices to myself.
This whole idea is very hard for me to grapple with. In this setting, being trans is so irrelevant it’s a footnote on your medical history, but it’s still there. Is that a bad thing?
Note that whatever gender combination you choose with senpai, you can romance. Senpai is not gay or straight or bi or pan. Senpai is just senpai, and, if you play your cards right, senpai falls in love with you.