A Moment Free from Darkness was inspired by Brian Schrank’s year living in Cambodia witnessing and talking to women and girls trying to live their lives after they had been forced into sex slavery and prostitution. Horrific moments pierce a flat ongoing dread of living each day, each week, each year in a hopeless situation where men rent and use your body. Inspired by the strength and resilience of girls and women suffering as sex slaves we were compelled to make a game driven by admiration and empathy.
The game is not based on real stories nor does it teach anything about the intricacies of systemic abuse or injustice. For example, it is unlike We Are Chicago which simulates the complex challenges of living as an African American in Chicago. A Moment Free from Darkness is an art piece about a repugnant, exploitational facet of the human condition through which brief glimpses of beauty and hope shine through. The game is provocative, subjectively portraying the ugliness of power in a horrific way, more like Lolita by Nabokov than We Are Chicago by Culture Shock Studios. By controlling levels of immersion through various platforms it dials the grip of that horror up and down according to the needs of each scene.
We need more serious games like this, games that are challenging because of their art rather than challenging as lesson plans or because its creators have lived the game. For example That Dragon Cancer is profound but the nonfictional brutality of that father’s actual experience dominates the game itself. It is art, definitely, but hews so close to reality that reality swallows up the play experience. Inspired serious games must also take liberties with subject matter to achieve something greater than reality, elevating games into increasingly evocative and diverse territory.
The game advances the field in three ways:
It’s played sequentially across four platforms to build the most riveting experience. Act 1: Color Secrets is played on a mobile device using tap input to evoke casual gameplay and lighthearted immersion. Act 2: Bitter Gaze is played on desktop using mouse input to evoke more immersion and precise controls. Act 3: … is played using head-mounted VR to evoke the most immersion while giving the least amount of situational control in the game. Act 4: Gentle Threads is played on the Apple Watch to evoke minimal immersion, a cooling snap back to reality, rendering its gentle, calming action more palpable.
Serious games that address difficult, complex content often feel flat and easy to emotionally dismiss because their experience is didactic, focusing on educating players about the underlying systems of a given topic rather than humanizing and subjectifying the experience of navigating such systems. So instead, this game generates immediacy through a direct subjective connection with a sex slave who perseveres by creating her own moments of centeredness and healing. We created an experience for players to explore a terrible fantasy to cultivate speculative empathy through a contextual powerlessness otherwise unavailable.
Film and novels tackle subject matter expressing the beauty and ugliness of the human condition, giving artists greater artistic license than videogame developers are given. Nabokov did not need to be a pedophile or victim of one to write Lolita. Our community should allow the medium to mature and stop demanding authors of taboo works serve as their own subjects, where we can only make games about ourselves. This game pushes the potential of games through its stake as Art that can reflect, critique, and shape the human condition regardless of who is making it.
About the Team
Inflatable Reality is an art group of shifting student membership that blends tragedy, comedy, public performance on experimental platforms to bring reality into play while bringing everyone along for the ride. It was formed by Brian Schrank assistant professor at DePaul University with two goals in mind.
The first goal is to develop intuitive, toylike games to increase accessibility to new immersive platforms for users not experienced in AR/VR. Dumpy: Going Elephants is a VR game we developed that casts players as Dumpy, an escaped carnival elephant in a cartoon world. Players rotate their heads to fling cars and smash ice cream trucks with Dumpy’s trunk. This game won 2nd place in the IndieCade Oculus Rift game jam and has been exhibited in a variety of international sites including venues in Canada, Germany, and New Zealand as well as throughout the US.
The second goal is to create avant-garde art that activates possibility spaces and opens social relationships allowing alternate ways to interact to emerge. Bust A Cup is a physical two-player puppet brawler designed to invite players to question common worldviews. In the game, coffee cups are placed upside down on top of “attack puppets,” crude wooden crosses armed with hammers, chains, and locks. The player who breaks her opponent’s cup wins. Play allows us to push past hard-won patterns that have become fixed because they have ensured pleasure or survival in the past. But play in contemporary culture has become so safe and managed that it has lost much of its true purpose, and no longer incorporates actual risk. Bust A Cup demonstrates that through play we can open up new ways to live, be and perform in the world. We spoke and demoed the game at DiGRA in Hamburg and at Games+Learning+Society in Madison.
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