On 7th December 2017, Tequila Works released a quirky murder mystery game set in a stable time loop, a story of subtle horror and redemption concealed by jazz and a colourful layer of paint applied to the whole shebang by means of a shotgun.
Despite often inelegant dialogue and a truly odd choice of name which discouraged many people from giving it a go (myself included), The Sexy Brutale (TSB) is well worth playing, not least because of the unusual strengths of its world-building. If you have not yet played TSB, or Undertale please go and do so now, because this article cannot send you back to a time when you could experience the thrill of discovering their stories by yourself.
No Going Back
The clever thing about TSB‘s world-building is how it toys with the player’s expectations and presuppositions. Many years ago I played a pen-and-paper RPG with a group of friends, one of whom, Russell, was playing a truly reprehensible character, and doing so very well. Because Russell’s character was so awful, no-one trusted him. At least, not until he turned into a giant spider, at which point, unable to do anything but tap his leg once for yes and twice for no, everyone assumed he was incapable of lying.
This, naturally, led to disaster and bloodshed. The moral of this story is, never play a game with Russell. Or something.
People assume a lot when they play games, allowing themselves to be guided by the conventions of the medium. We all accept invisible walls, insurmountable waist-high fences, weightless inventories and so on as part of the willing suspension of disbelief. Yet, it is a disbelief that is based entirely upon conventions which we willingly allow to train us, and thus they are open to manipulation.
Undertale is probably the most prominent recent example of the phenomenon. That is, of using the game’s world to trick the player, or using the player’s presuppositions as a mechanic in its own right. In Undertale, the fact that there is a player controlling the character, using save files and making incredibly wrong assumptions about the meanings of LOVE and EXP are all part of the game’s mechanics and story-telling.
Playing Undertale, we assume that, as in a play or film, the game exists in its own universe, but the pseudo-permeability of the game subverts our expectations and builds on our inevitable mistake to make its narrative point.
This is likewise the case in TSB: the curtain rises on the tutorial, which presents the mechanics with an almost Brechtian lack of concern for immersion (which should, upon reflection, have been my first clue). By being hurled into the what of the game, the player is given a paper-thin excuse for the how and why: a powerful entity has the casino in his power. Only by playing with time can the hero possibly help everyone there escape his clutches. Fortunately, here is a time-machine.
Clues are sprinkled throughout the game, alongside occasionally literal red herrings, but the apparent sci-fi/fantasy story only comes together at the end when it is revealed that the game’s world is not necessarily supposed to be understood as “real” from the characters’ perspective. The illusion is made all the more convincing, despite its clear ridiculousness, because of the way in which the casino is made to seem a place full of life: what happens in one part of the building has repercussions elsewhere, as seen in visual and audio cues, which in turn help the player feel immersed, even though he clearly is not, as he pieces together “clues” which he could only know because of the game’s conceits, both stated and hidden.
This is very clever world-building. It is, essentially, the It was all a dream trope done properly. The story still has weight and meaning, in fact deeper weight and meaning, because the stakes are still real, they are just not the stakes which the player, up until that point, had understood to be the focus. The interior world of the character, much like the interior world of the reader or player, becomes the setting in which human themes of grief, guilt and redemption are explored.
Amongst all media, games are uniquely positioned and equipped to do this sort of thing. It is much harder to do it in a play or book because the audience in those is powerless to change anything and, having no agency, the message of such a switch could come across as contrived or nonsensical. If I sat through a play which depicted some form of racism, and then a character berated me for implicitly endorsing racism by continuing to watch, I would not re-examine myself because I already know that racism is bad, and I know that seeing bad things does not automatically make me complicit in them.
A game, on the other hand, can attenuate its message to the audience. At the end of Undertale, Sans says different things depending upon the conduct of the player, and so his monologue has a sense of purpose and meaning which relates specifically to the player’s actions and experience. Likewise, in TSB, the player has to choose how Lucas deals with his grief and guilt, so whichever resolution (or not) the player chooses has a definite, even haunting, impact. Some of the sections of the game, soundtrack and all, have stuck with me for years now.
For the aspiring writer, the lesson to take is this: building the world does not have to come first if the story does not require it. The world, when subservient to the needs of the story, should come second, and that can be truly liberating, allowing for magical voodoo fish, time-travelling hijinks, oracular robots and more. Moreover, it means that not every metaphor or allegory or emotion has to be teased out with the same, tired parallels. The zany, colourful world of TSB conceals a truly tragic story, after all. The juxtaposition makes the story all the more compelling.
It is not a perfect game: I remain convinced that that mirror-hopping power at the end was supposed to be the key to the final puzzle of the game, involving saving all guests at the casino in one, perfect run which would otherwise be impossible, and that it was cut due to lack of time (fnar!). Some puzzles and bits of dialogue are likewise less than stellar. Nevertheless, as a way of using some light world-building as a premise for narrative subversion, The Sexy Brutale deserves neither to languish unplayed, nor the burden of its silly, silly name.