Dys4ia tackles gender politics, sense of self, and personal growth… on Newgrounds
Dys4ia is a game that feels like an interactive page from someone’s diary. I’m not going to say what it’s about, and I urge you to go play it before you read the rest of the story. It won’t take more than a few minutes, and the less you know about what you’re going to see, play, and do in the game the better. Don’t worry, we’ll be here when you get back. The first question is the most obvious: Why tell this story with a video game? Why not write about it? “Games have this capacity for exploring dynamics and systems that no other form does,” Anna Anthropy, the game’s creator, told the Penny Arcade Report. “This was a story about frustration - in what other form do people complain as much about being frustrated? A video game lets you set up goals for the player and make her fail to achieve them. A reader can't fail a book. It's an entirely different level of empathy.” That’s why Dys4ia is such an interesting game; it deals with subject matter that most of us aren’t familiar with, and asks us to interact with it on a personal level. Do I know how going through the problems described in the game feels? Not in the slightest. I’m a straight, white, male. It’s hard for me to relate when I read books or articles about these issues, but there is something special that happens when the mechanics of games are used to get the point across. Suddenly things click into place, and it feels immediate. The struggles of the game’s protagonist became real.
But is it a game?
There is a common criticism these days that “experiences” like Dear Esther, Journey, and Dys4ia aren’t games. It’s a distinction that Anthropy finds tiresome. “It's really absurd to me because all of Dys4ia's screens are very traditional games in a lot of ways,” she said. “They're all about interacting with rules, the limitations of which are always pretty clear. I think a lot of the 'is it a game?' talk comes from, well, the fact that gamers are afraid of anything that looks different than what they're familiar with, first of all. And second, that the game isn't challenging. The player is allowed to, or set up to, fail in many scenes, but the game continues to the next scene regardless.” In a traditional game, the player may be asked to guide the nipples through the spikes over and over until they clear that particular section. “But how does that help tell the story? What does snagging a nipple on a spike a second or third time tell us that we didn't already know?” Anthropy asked. “A lot of games, I think, force the player to repeat scenes because they're afraid of being seen as skill-less, even when the repetition doesn't serve the story the game is telling. But it's engaging with a set of rules that defines a game, not having one's time wasted.” Dys4ia uses the vocabulary of video games in order to share emotions that may not have been as easily described in words. It’s one thing to say you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin. It’s quite another to show someone how that feels with a short game. The moment where you try to fit the character through the slot in the wall is particularly telling. There’s no reason that someone couldn’t fit through there, but it clearly wasn’t designed for you. That scene suggests that the structure isn’t wrong, you are wrong. It’s an elegant way to communicate the idea of being upset at your body, or feeling different and unwelcome. Abstraction went a long way when Anthropy decided to share these very intimate details about her life. “The scene about my girlfriend making me cry - my girl who transformed my ideas of privacy and made me realize how liberating and empowering it is to have so much of my private life public - actually encompasses a big cluster of insecurities relating to our relationship,” she said. Their sex life suffered during the events of the game. “I spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying our relationship had become sterile and she was going to leave or reject me as a result, the truth is she supported me tirelessly throughout the entire experience.” These are complex issues about sexual and gender identity, and it seems odd to find this sort of thing on Newgrounds, but that's by design. “I wanted to put the game on Newgrounds because I wanted to take people out of their comfort zones, to confront them with the other they're so often afraid of,” she explained. “But I was surprised that so many people, on Newgrounds and in other communities, connected with the game, even if they don't 100 percent get it.” People began leaving personal stories in the comment threads, or e-mailing Anthropy directly. “This is a game that people related to, many more people than I was expecting. and that means the game is an overwhelming success.” Dys4ia shows that games can be used just as effectively as the written word or film to convey subtle emotions and situations, as long the hand creating the game is skillful. The game also exposes a wider audience to a reality many people face when dealing with their bodies and sexuality. They may not want to read a magazine article about these issues, but play a game? It's possible.