"I'm bisexual," Nicky says to his mother. "Sexually attracted to both men and women." "You can't be both," his mother snaps back. "You have to pick one." "That's... not how it works," Nicky responds. "At all."
His mother does not understand. As you continue to have this conversation, gliding your cursor over increasingly painful dialogue prompts, you begin to wonder if she can understand, even if she wanted to.
But there's no time to ponder these questions when you're stuck in the fraught, emotional moment with Nicky's mother at the dinner table. Shortly after the two start to butt heads, Nicky's father gets home from work. Once he's in the picture, things go from bad to worse.
This scene is one you might find yourself playing through in the difficult, moving experience that is Coming Out Simulator 2014, an autobiographical game Nicky Case made for a recent game jam and has put online for free. It is not a lived moment. But it feels like one, which is more than I can say for many of the other tenuous passages when modern video games try to broach the topic of human sexuality.
Case, a 19-year-old indie game developer currently living in the Bay Area, described Coming Out Simulator in an email as being "like The Walking Dead meets Text Messages."
"Your every choice influences the story, and you've got to carefully navigate between lies, truths, and half-truths," Case wrote. Like many a classic adventure game, the "action" in Coming Out Simulator is thus driven by choosing between different dialogue options when Nicky is texting with his boyfriend, speaking to his parents, or occasionally addressing the player directly.
There's one key difference between Coming Out Simulator and other, more robust adventure games I've played, however. The problems Nicky faces in this game aren't presented as puzzles that can be solved in a single, clear way. And the choices Nicky can make seem far more pressing than the ones I selected in The Walking Dead, even though the ones in that game often determined who made it out of a zombie attack alive.
There's no easy answer in Coming Out Simulator, no optimal ending to be achieved if you collect the requisite amount of points. Case based the game off a pivotal moment in his own life as a teenager. And just like in real life, the moment of "coming out" in this game is traumatic no matter which way the player chooses to approach it.
Ultimately, it's liberating as well. But that's not what the brunt of the experience playing Coming Out Simulator is actually like. The bittersweet message of hope only comes at the very end after Case (SPOILER ALERT) explains to the player that he -- the real-life version of Nicky -- made it through this fateful night and went on to live happily as a man comfortable with his own sexuality.
Now, Coming Out Simulator is a free browser-based game. Case made it in HTML5 in two weeks as part of the Nar8 Game Jam that took place last month. The final game takes maybe 15 or 20 minutes to complete, and only then if you're being as thorough as I usually am when I play dialogue-heavy games. So don't go into Coming Out Simulator expecting a fully-realised world on the scale of most top-tier video games.
The smallness of Coming Out Simulator gives it an intimately personal, homespun quality that allows it to do something important and daring in comparison, however. Earlier this month, I wrote about how much I appreciated the fact that Mass Effect 3 was the first big-budget video game that let me play as a gay man. But there was something odd about the experience of playing as a gay male Commander Shephard as well: nobody seemed to have a problem with it. Hell, nobody even mentioned it.
I'm not saying that people should have a problem with any of their friends, family, and colleagues being gay. But I also think that artists should feel like they're able to make work that actually strikes at the heart of the uncomfortable, even painful experiences that real queer people have faced in their lives.
There's power in exploring a fantasy like the one in Mass Effect 3, in other words. But there's also power in being reminded that "coming out" the way one does in that game is a fantasy, and a pretty far-fetched one for many people who faced far more difficult challenges when they actually came out.
Coming Out Simulator is a game about that second experience. It's a painful one. But it's also a necessary one, that I think more people who've never had to struggle with their own sexual identity should see for themselves. I wish more game developers were willing and able to be this honest, this nakedly vulnerable, in their work.
You can play Coming Out Simulator 2014 right here.