What does subversive play look like?
Subversion has quite the range of people interested in its manifestation whenever it comes to creative expression. For many scholars and critics, it usually marks a piece of work as culturally relevant by crossing over into the metafictional, appropriated by the public. We see this fascination expressed often, when we see instances like Minecraft being used to build a processor to mod culture in general. The piece becomes more than just itself, it stands as a medium for the public unconscious to express itself. There is also a more grassroots activist, though not completely unrelated, take on subversion as well. It revolves around upsetting the norm and creating room for the other and the yet-known. Both of these concepts are hard to imagine designing for, and I think they follow the conversation around values like agency and choice.
Games can be both subversive and allow subversion without handing the player an entire world to make choices in. Often all we need to be subversive is our minds. I found Mike Joffe’s Benthic Love holding many different kinds of subversions, much of which flies in the face of what critics would typically look for in subversive play. It shows how games don’t have to be apparently radical or sandboxes to offer the player subversive opportunities. It doesn’t take a long time to play, so I suggest you go through it a couple times before continuing.
The main part that really makes Benthic Love a good example is how it obviously references a genre, dating sims, but doesn’t require the player to be aware of dating sim tropes to take meaning from the piece. It’s not just that this is about anglerfish, but how their mating process shapes their identities. Typically, protagonists in dating sims are near-ciphers, with enough of a personality to provide speaking lines to other characters, but leaving enough room for the player to insert themselves. This cipher is typically a heterosexual boy who is at a life juncture of some sort that implores him to find a girl to date or just straight-up have sex with. Sex is typically the end-goal, even if the story revolves around romance; the sex scene is a reward for the player for successfully gaming the system to achieving a girl character’s affections. Within the tradition of visual novels, the genre dating sims is a subset of, players are encouraged to go through the same motions over and over again until they view all the story paths.
In Benthic Love, the image and disposition of the male angler fish serves as a reflection on the usual motions of these protagonists. Particularly with the concept of nature, and how it propels life in the deepest part of the ocean. The male angler fish quite literally needs a female, starvation acts as a main motivation to on this journey rather than happening upon a romantic situation. Nature forces them to seek out the female fish, even when, at least in the fiction of the game, they will lose their identity and being after fusing together. The apparent inevitability of nature, and why it is this way, reverberates throughout the entire piece. The slow struggle between the sperm whale and colossal squid, the bones on the ocean floor, the commentary on the poop of over animals floating down to fertilize the benthic region. The ocean worked this way all along, and the main character’s existence is just a small notch of a cog in the clockwork. There is a still violence about it all, but that violence doesn’t necessarily come from an identifiable source. What is it about human nature that depicts men the way they are in dating sims? What is this quiet violence and where is it coming from? In a way, this was a very succinct through line to contemplating masculinity that I haven’t seen before, because usually art frames masculinity through forcing a man to prove his. While there are some choices that give your angler that tone, they aren’t challenged on the basis of who they say they are. Women being the more interesting and aware agents, at least through the metaphor, in the story is also an interesting twist. These males attach and wither while the female moves on with life, using them for their genetic material. The female wants it to mean something, even if it’s a little, and the male just wants his last meal.
Because nature and its slow but forceful cycle is so present in this piece, and given the replayable convention of visual novels, players are easily enticed to resist. Your character can simply choose not to mate and fuse with the female angler, and they will slowly die from starvation. This is treated as a positive however, and even if it seems undramatic, it’s powerful to me. It’s the option that completely rejects any more participation in the cycle, a sort of self-deterministic ending. The game doesn’t treat it as bad, and acknowledges this path as one fine to take, even if the narration doesn’t quite understand fully why you would. This stands in contrast to games of all sorts that essentially shame players who don’t win. Yet, is there any real winning when you are just a cog swept up in inevitability?
Of course, the most powerful, and weird, scene comes when you meet another male angler fish who seems to be struggling with the idea of mating with a female. This scene is interesting to me because of how uncommon vulnerability between men occurs in our reality and media. It is the site, if you will, of where masculinity is enforced, stabilized, transmuted, or discarded. This scene allows for a lot of interpretations, maybe the most salient being queerness. Though what is more interesting is how queerness still, in some way, follows the flow of nature, but co-opts it at the same time. As Mike mentions in his note about creating this, there is something to conceiving the opportunity to subvert the story and then the surprise when you can actually do it. Subversion isn’t the complete disowning of nature, or in sociological terms, nurture, rather reshaping culture to fit your own needs. Quite poetically, when the male anglers mate, they create a cycle of their own, both conjoined and independent of the cycles going on around them.
While this ending is given a little extra treatment than some of the others, there aren’t fireworks going off to celebrate how subversive you are as a player, nor would anyone look at these playthroughs and see some exercise of player agency. This is the power of playing with text. Instead of players being preoccupied with gaining choice or exercising it, they get prompts to consider why the choose the things they do. What do their choices mean? Why are they getting to choose this? Games typically want to communicate the importance of the power to choose, while pieces like Benthic Love have you contemplate the function of choosing anything in the first place.
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