It is a snowy afternoon in January of 2011, and I am a little lost robot. I am stumbling through corridors, trying to defend myself, dusting myself off after each repeated death. But just trying to please Mother, really.
I came across Armor Games’ K.O.L.M. about an hour beforehand, and I am engrossed. I had probably been arguing earlier that day with a friend that story just is incidental to a game, that gameplay is king – but now I am hanging on every exchange of two fictional characters in a Flash game.
The story follows a small robot boy who must find his errant parts scattered across an abandoned lab, all under the watchful eye of his Mother, a voice that feeds into his consciousness, even though she doesn’t manifest anywhere in the lab. She guides entirely through speech, and the Robot is so eager not to fail her. And she tries so very hard to let him know that he’s failing. Each time the Robot finds one of his old parts, he excitedly blurts his accomplishment. She always replies with a slight about his shortcoming.
After dragging his broken body to pick up his legs and optic parts, he exclaims, “I can see again!”
“You’re still missing components needed to jump. What a let down,” she replies coolly.
He takes it in stride, and even right up to the end of the game, never questions her goals and never defends himself against her barbs. And he does it alone, to the point of destroying his robot brethren.
When the game hits an escape sequence at the end, I almost don’t make it the first time. Not because I’m struggling to read the map or avoid enemies, but because I might have a tear or so in my eye. When the Robot finally confronts Mother about her plans, her quick response of:
You’re right,” makes me lose my breath for a moment, even if I’m not entirely certain why.
But I finish the game and close the tab. I’m still left with questions.
I recommend the game to friends, though almost none of them are as impressed with the writing as I am. I’m still a lost robot.
I came to realize that I was gay in college, and gaming was a crucial part of that process. I blanched when friends would pick the over-sexualized women in our fighting game matches. I read so much more than just rivalry between Fox McCloud and Wolf O’Donnell, though at the time I couldn’t have put it in words (today, I think Wolf’s needling is tied to jealousy – Fox has a much better thing going with his military buddy Bill, and Wolf wants desperately to split them up). Yeah, Jill Valentine had more pockets, but Chris Redfield had a much better backstory, as a failed military recruit with something to prove, and maybe yeah he looked like a guy you could trust, or hug maybe.
At the time, I didn’t have so much a gaming group as a circle of friends, most of us brought together by a love of games and mostly bad movies. I had support, but not the kind I needed when I had the major realization that I liked guys.
my friends constantly tossed around gay slurs, with no idea that someone listening could be hurt by them. they didn’t so much hurt as tell me in bright neon letters that whatever I was didn’t belong in this crowd.
So I turned online. I didn’t really search out other gay people to game with, or even gay gaming sites – at the time, the idea of such a site would’ve blown my mind, even if I wasn’t afraid of what I’d actually find if I searched for one. I bumped into different gaming groups on Nintendo boards, looking for camaraderie paired with the chance to stay a little bit anonymous. I couldn’t be hurt if no one really knew me.
That wasn’t true either, as I kept finding out. When I would try to fit in with one group, I’d open up a little, and see some of the ugliness that makes up the side of our hobby’s enthusiasts we don’t like to talk about. I would bristle, but quietly. Besides, even a year or so before, I’d have joined right in. Even without putting myself out there, barely able to say the word “gay” out loud, I was trying to be the optimist. “No one really means it. They can’t help how they were raised,” I justified. If I was honest with myself, I would’ve included, “I deserve this.”
But as I became a little more comfortable in my skin, in understanding who I am, I was less and less able to stay quiet.
I came out to my parents in a singular bout of calm disappointment and impassioned argument. In particular, my own mother was concerned that gay people can’t form lasting relationships, that they all end up alone. She said this out of love, or least what she thought was love. Meanwhile, the more I acquiesced to talking to people about “what’s going on with me,” the more I did what I could to lay low and fit in, the more often I could see those goalposts move back, over and over again.
After several years of suggesting K.O.L.M. as one of my favorite games, hawking its storytelling (and heck, even for a Flash game, pretty fine gameplay), I almost never heard about the same kind of response from my friends. None of them nearly broke down crying, or woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “You’re right. You’re right. You’re right.” It wasn’t until this summer that I understood the disconnect – it wasn’t the game. It was me.
I have no idea if Tony Lavelle of Armor Games is gay, but at least for that time and place, I jumped into the story of that little lost robot because for so long, that’s how I felt as a gay person. I could fit in. I could make jokes and dress right and not get caught looking at a guy. I could make small talk with relatives about when I might eventually show up with a girl on my arm. But none of it mattered. I could have been the very picture of the kind of guy everyone expected me to be, but they would always want more of something that wasn’t me.
I kept up this work, only wanting to be accepted. But eventually I realized that my asking, “This is never going to be good enough, is it?” would always earn Mother’s quick, sharp response. So like the Robot, I escaped.
I escaped in small ways, by very slowly letting some people into my life, and in larger more literal ways, by actually moving physically away from my family. And that opened up whole new, larger worlds for me.
But even more than that, it opened up my friends to me. I started to realize that, even though I had felt so lost and alone for so long, many of those people I thought I knew were feeling the same sort of pressures. Two of them actually had the exact same pressures. As I was coming out to one friend over IM, he interrupted me with: “omg I am too, I was so afraid to talk about it.” We talked for a few hours afterward, mostly about how we’d been meaning to tell each other about it – and also about our Fox and Wolf theories.
In another group of gaming friends, I had kept silent for more than a year of weekly online gaming matches, including intense matches of Smash Bros. Brawl. After some name-calling following a particularly rough match, I’d had enough. Yes, you should be mindful of what you say, because you never know who you’re hurting or shoving out of the group, I said, and came out to the room.
I shut down Brawl, expecting to get kicked out of the chat. But rather than an onslaught of hate came a flood of private messages, each opening me to their own small world.
“I’m gay too,” said one, “and I can’t talk to anyone about it. I can’t make the kind of noise you’re making.”
“I don’t know if you know this about me,” said another, a friend I had known in real life for years, “but I’m an atheist. I keep it hidden because people always treat me differently once they find out.”
Then even more:
“I think my brother is gay, and I want to support him, but I don’t know how to talk to him about it.”
“I’ve been dating this girl for a few years, and it’s not working for me but I’m sticking with her because I’m just so afraid of dying alone.”
“I don’t like my stepfather, but I know if I say anything he can make my life hell.”
I didn’t game for the rest of the night, but I had connected in ways I never would’ve dreamed with people I had held at arm’s length.
I’ve been hurt by opening up as well, but time after time, I’m amazed by how my unburdening has given someone else the ability to say, “Oh god, can I tell you something I’ve been holding onto?” And frankly, there’s nothing better I could want out of that.
And it’s not about the secret, or the outward pressure to hold fast to it even fighting against moving goalposts and routine disappointment. For me, it’s about what one of my childhood friends told me when I came out to him. Even though what I had just revealed to him that I was everything he had always been taught was wrong, his first response was: “You’re still my friend. That’s not going to change.”
You’re right. You’re right. You’re right.