Creatures Such As We: Putting Social Justice Into “Practice”
When I first got the request to review Creatures Such as We I was apprehensive. I am not a fan of text based games, and when I offered blogs as an incentive for SkepchickCon donations I wasn’t expecting to write a review. I love the idea of games that focus on philosophy and character and plot, but in practice I’m a Tetris kind of a gal: give me a button to press and I’ll do it over and over to get something shiny at the end.
So I was incredibly surprised by the fact that I played the game through twice before I even started this review and that I have plans to play it again and again and again. This game has something powerful in it that pulls you in whether you are a gamer or not. Sure there are moments of clunkiness, but when you’re trying to address everything from consent to representation to the nature of art to death, it’s hard to handle everything with pure grace.
Creatures Such as We is set in space. You play a tour guide on the moon, welcoming tourists who just so happen to be the creators of your favorite video games. Simultaneously, you are struggling to finish their latest game and cope with a highly unsatisfying ending. There’s a lot going on, with conflicts ranging from deciding whether to flirt with a client all the way up through potentially life threatening situations. There’s a little something for everyone, with some plots referencing the gaming community and others getting at basic human questions like death, love, and art.
Since this is a text based game, a lot of the enjoyability hinges on the writing, and overall it does its job well. It pulls you in, gets you thinking, and the action options it provides feel realistic. The only places it really breaks down are in the character selection elements. It feels heavy handed to ask players to select a race for their character when you can’t see the person and it never comes up again, especially when it seems only to exist to contrast with the game inside the game character selection (which has fewer options). The point is important, but it’s a bit obvious.
The other major problem is really with the medium that Glasser chose to have deep philosophical discussions. It’s interesting to bring up questions in games, but since it’s a text based game and you’re expected to respond, the discussion is scripted. But because you’re interacting with programming not people, there are only so many ways the discussion can go. I often found that none of the options presented really matched my response. This is only to be expected within a game, but does point to some of the limitations of using games to discuss big ideas.
Which brings us to what’s really fun about the game: you get to have hypothetical abstract discussions and then play them out in game. You’ll discuss a gaming mechanic and then play it, or talk about how you would feel being faced with death then find yourself facing death.
One great example of this is when you have a conversation about whether there’s any meaningful way for characters in a game to consent, all while romancing the characters around you. Intriguingly, my browser lost track of my progress part way through the game, so I tried to replay with exactly the same answers and ended up getting romantic reciprocation from a different character the second time around.
Many times when I criticize something on social justice grounds I get pushback along the lines of “well how would we do it better?” It’s really exciting to see a game that both offers criticism and shows how we could do it better. That’s what gets me into this game: it doesn’t just say we could do things better. It shows. It puts you in the shoes of someone who is struggling with gender, romance, class, and race, and asks you to empathize. It shows how games affect you, and better or worse ways of affecting people. It shows how games can really expand your perspective in a way that no other medium can because they not only introduce you to a world and a character, but they give you choices. It really uses the empathetic and immersive nature of games to not just raise questions, but live them.
There are also dozens of different directions the game can go based on your choices. It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure on crack, and it’s great. I am sure that there are elements of the plot that I didn’t explore (one person on the space station is sick, which didn’t end up spreading, but I am 99% sure there are scenarios in which it would), and I want to play again to explore them all. If you have an iota of curiosity in you, you’ll want to know what happens if you do things differently.
I can strongly recommend Creatures Such as We for anyone who is interested in thinking deeply, challenging prejudice, or gaming culture. It’s a great example of how to have social justice discussions without calling them social justice discussions. Hopefully it will be the first of many quietly provocative pieces that challenge everyone to think more empathetically. It’s a great example of how to extend conversations like the ones we have here into the games we play.