Kara Stone is an artist and scholar interested in the affective and gendered experiences of mental illness as it relates to videogames Her artwork has been featured in The Atlantic, Wired, and Vice. She is currently a PhD student in Film and Digital Media with a designated emphasis in Feminist Studies at University of California Santa Cruz.
Much has been made recently about ‘crunch’ and the dangers of cramming development into bursts of unhealthy and inaccessible work habits. It has been written about in Kotaku, The New York Times, and many other places. The solution sounds so easy: just don’t crunch. Take your time. Live your life outside of making practices. But what are sustainable practices of making? Those which follow the ebbs and flows of sometimes the erratic and out-of-grasp force of creativity? Ones that don’t drag out a project or get caught up in perfectionist detailing? I have been thinking about time and reconsidering my own approach to my process because I’ve been working on a game that is about time. And it has taken way too much of it.
Four years ago I received the bud of the idea for Ritual of the Moon. It blossomed into a story about a witch who has been exiled to the moon, left there to die by the people on earth who fear her power. When comets start hitting the earth, she realizes she has the ability to protect the earth – or let it burn.
Ritual of the Moon is played for 5 minutes per day over 28 days with choices that determine the player’s unique path. Each day that passes delivers a small slice of the love and betrayal that has landed the witch on the moon to watch over the earth that does not accept her. The story takes up imagining the future; especially what the future looks like for queer women. Time becomes cyclical; the fear of women with power bleeds from the past into the future and creates a future that exists between a utopia and dystopia. This essay is a combination of the personal and the theoretical, threading together the process of creating Ritual of the Moon as it relates to time, queerness, and psycho-social disability. In what follows, I detail the possible ways in which game design and art practice can queer and crip time, labour, and repair.
Time is a generative topic for Queer studies. According to Jack Halberstam’s book In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender bodies, Subcultural lives (2005) queer time can be thought of as a mode away from linear patterns of living pushed onto us by heteronormativity, such as biological reproduction and familial institutions. The history of conceiving queer time is built upon the AIDS epidemic in America: the shortened lives and the communities assembled to protest and take care of each other. Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004) links queerness to the death drive, urging queer people to refuse the dominant social order and reproductive futurism. I see this in line with the destruction path of Ritual of the Moon–and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. The daily decision of protecting or destroying the earth seems like an easy choice. Protection and healing is always better than destruction, right? But something that has been reaffirmed over 2016 and 2017 is that some things need to be destroyed. We need to wipe some things out and sweep away their ashes before we have the space for something else.
In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) Jose Esteban Muñoz, like Edelman, argues against consuming ourselves with homonormative issues like gay marriage and queer people in the military, but unlike Edelman, Muñoz believes that we need to stop focusing solely on the present. We need to look to the future with a queer political imagination: “queerness is not yet here; thus, we must always be future bound in our desires and designs” (Muñoz 2009, p.185). It is possible there are ways in which we can strategically move between these two positions, allowing a time for no future and a time for all future. In a less academic line, Ritual of the Moon is also a part of a current field of young queer artists making work that focuses on self-care, astrology, herbalism, and witchcraft. They’re looking to the past to form practices that sustain their lives, heal queer wounds, and ensure their existence in the future. Astrology in particular can be seen as a way of imagining the future outside of the influences of racism, sexism, and homophobia:imagining a world determined instead by the movement of planets and the alignment of stars.
I’m starting to see time in more than the theory and the content of the game. I’ve been working on this game for three years now and it’s the longest I’ve worked on any creative project. I’m a year and a half over the time I thought it would take, with still more time that has to be taken. There are a few reasons why it has taken so much time, the first being the labour of crafting.
Labour and Psycho-Social Disability
The visuals are created from handmade objects that the art team–Rekha Ramachandran, Julia Gingrich and I–created. We then scanned, digitized, and manipulated the objects, reflecting the story’s blend of past and future, mystical and technological. Part of this workflow can be seen in our process video below. All the text in the game was hand-embroidered or wood-burned by me, providing a sort of proof-reading, allowing for personal meditations on time and the affect embodied in the words themselves.
Craft is laborious, but labour here does not necessitate a negative connotation. Queer affect scholar Ann Cvetkovich writes that crafting “fosters ways of being in the world [in which] body and mind are deeply enmeshed or holistically connected.” (Cvetkovich 2012, p.168) The slow and sensual process of crafting can be a healing experience. Ritual of the Moon is about mental health and wellbeing, which is not only present in the content of the game but the process of making the game as well. A few of the team members experience various psycho-social disability, including myself, and there were flare-ups over the course of development. As the person in charge, I tried to navigate the ups and downs of everyone, including myself. It’s an ongoing process figuring out the best ways to run with my own cycles of work and recuperation, but to then factor in many people is much harder. When will we sync up? How do we give ourselves and others time to heal while having deadlines, pressure, and even sometimes the desire to work? Defining mental illness is wrapped up in labour and notions of productivity. It is often when our emotions, energy, or physical bodies get in the way of being able to work when it becomes viewed as a problem. Disability is intertwined in its reactions to chrononormativity, which Elizabeth Freeman (2010) conceptualizes through a queer lens as the pressure to move through life in a predetermined way that ensures maximum productivity. We are pressured to produce in a certain way, experience time in a linear fashion, and orient ourselves towards a certain mode of living, one that is not accessible (or desirable) to queer and disabled people. I deeply believe that creating art can be a healing activity, something that sustains us and gives us life, rather than draining it. But what are the structures that ensure this? And what kind of art do we make?
Death in the Everyday
The months I spent hand-embroidering the storyline text synced up with a major depressive episode, and I added an unplanned narrative option: depending on the choices you make, suicide becomes a third option, a way to escape the binary choice of destroy or protect. It is an example of the ways in which these social hardships drain us and wear us out over time: the ways some of us, especially women, internalize conflict into self- hatred, anger at ourselves, and self-destruction. In Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism, the chapter entitled ‘Slow Death’ details “the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is very nearly a defining condition of their experience and historical existence” (p.95). It conceptualizes the gradual wearing out of people, specifically the debilitated. Slow death does not progress linearly toward an end; it is not advancement in a slow pace towards death. Disability and race scholar Jasbir Puar suggests that slow death is non-linear: “it starts, stops, redoubles and leaps ahead” (2013, p. 179). Life maintenance becomes a primary focus, the daily “ordinary work of living on.” In this zone, life narratives are created not through events that have memorable impact but as episodes that make up day-to-day experiences while not individually changing much of anything. Cvetkovich proposes that debility prospers not in distinct, traumatic events such as time-framed phenomena but in day-to-day living. Her conceptualization can be framed as “event” versus “episodic”: events are distinct entities that happen only rarely in terms of time whereas the episodic is described as how “time ordinarily passes, how forgettable most events are, and, overall, how people’s ordinary perseverations fluctuate in patterns of undramatic attachment and identification” (Berlant, 2010, p. 760). The mundane is commonly ignored and taken for granted. Episodic videogames–games that are meant to be played in little bits over longer periods of time–can be incredibly mundane: picking fruit in Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012) or answering texts about what you ate for lunch in Mystic Messenger (2016). Although it is a mixture of sci-fi and fantasy and takes place in space, Ritual of the Moon takes place in the mundane; it’s the daily living and small choices made each day that create the world, not single huge events.
In her book Touching Feeling, queer theorist Eve Sedgewick details what she sees as two forms of analysis: paranoid reading and reparative reading. Paranoid reading is the most common form of critique. Heather Love describes it as “grim, single-minded, self-defeating, circular, reductive, hypervigilant, scouringly thorough, contemptuous, sneering, risk-averse, cruel, monopolistic, and terrible” (2011, p.237). Reparative reading, on the other hand, is a less suspicious mode of critique that focuses on healing queer wounds rather than simply pointing out more insidious forms of oppression. It is “multiplicity, surprise, rich divergence, consolation, creativity, and love” (Love, 2011, p.237). Reparative reading is a form of academic creation where the emphasis is on finding forms of healing and reparation rather than the seemingly endless mode of finding more things to be depressed about. This is not to say that paranoia is never necessary. Amelioration will always inflict some harm. The good and the bad are not ever divisible. A way to fully utilize reparative reading is to embrace the possibility of hard, difficult, and unwanted feelings. Criticism, paranoia, and refusal are part of self-defence, protection, and healing. Reparative reading might tend towards utopian dreaming, but utopian dreaming is a useful for political change.
Cvetkovich (2007, 2012) is inclusive of the transformative possibilities of bad feelings. Though carefully not ‘looking on the bright side’ of depression, she relates the experience of depression to being ‘stuck’ whereas creativity is associated with movement. If depression is a block or an impasse, Cvetkovich suggests the way to deal with it might lie in forms of flexibility and creativity. Creativity is a form of movement; sometimes it moves forward, sometimes sideways, and sometimes even backward. I want to move Sedgewick’s idea of reparative reading towards an alternative form of knowledge production: art practice. I propose that reparative art is a method to work through difficult feelings but is also a method to stay in them as long as they need to be felt. Sometimes the work is to bring out difficult feelings. Reparative art is not a way to move on from or be cured of mental illness, psycho-social disability, or the states in need of healing, but actually a mode of staying in them. Sometimes that means moving around in them, sometimes being stuck in them.
It is difficult to view ‘stuckness’ as an acceptable place to be. I’m writing this from that very insecure place: three years in, feeling like all the creative work is over, waiting for programmers and playtesters. It feels like there is a heavy cloud on my head pushing me into the ground, even though I know, theoretically, that the prolonged development time has changed the game for the better. There were once items and ways of winning and losing, numbers, and lots of UI. I didn’t even know that there was going to be a queer love story until I started writing. I’m not sure I even knew how queer I really was until I started writing. Things just pour out sometimes, if there is space for them to move.
I’ve spent a lot of this past year agonizing and complaining. Oh my god I want the game to come out so much. I’m scared it will never be done. I’m scared it will loom over my head for the rest of my life. How do you know when it’s time to let go? I’ve had to shift my thinking about Ritual of the Moon. Instead of hating that it isn’t out yet, I’ve started to tell myself that it needed time to be fully digested, for me and the team to fully get it and do the idea justice. It needed time to transform, and for it to transform me. I tell myself that labour takes time. That love takes time. It needed time to strip it to the barest bones of meditation on healing the future. I’m so used to making things in a hypomanic state: work work work, exhaust myself, then be done. But the pace has to be different for this game because it’s about a different pace. It’s about daily dedication in small bits over long periods of time. It’s about being confused, stuck, suicidal. It’s about the slow realization of a queer identity. It’s about meditating for 5 minutes a day because over time that creates a ritual that sustains us. And that also maybe the game is waiting for the right time to be released. Maybe it’s waiting for when it makes the most sense. I’m realizing that it feels more prescient than ever. I know it is on so many of our minds: that push and pull between the desire to set the world on fire, giving up on it; and on the other hand, putting every ounce of ourselves into making the world better even if it feels fruitless, even when the majority seems against us. It feels befitting and relevant to consider the future of queerness, of racism, and of mental illness in North America and much of the world at a time when living on the moon by yourself doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Ritual of the Moon will be available in the future. www.ritualofthemoongame.com
Excerpted from the forthcoming article “Time and Reparative Game Design: Queerness, Disability, and Affect.”
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