What to make of Consentacle? Is it brilliant? Icky? Different? To me, what one of the most fascinating things about Consentacle is how it sets out to quantify the unquantifiable: sex. Actions like winking and penetrating are assigned a certain number of Satisfaction Tokens and totaled up at the end of a game, and players can interpret those numbers using a table provided with the card deck (see: rules.) I talk with Naomi Clark to find out the process behind one of the most original card games currently out there.
SO...IS THIS A SEX GAME OR
A GAME ABOUT SEX?
Naomi: Hah! Unfortunately it’s not anything particularly exciting. The game has an arc with more tentative actions that tend to happen near the beginning, but also recur throughout, building up towards the more intense and difficult maneuvers to pull off – the things that take more trust. Those actions were always the ones I intended to be more racy and worth blushing about. As for the exact numbers, however – it was a process that involved a lot of math and simulating theoretical games in a spreadsheet. Totally not sexy – which of course is part of the amusing paradox of the whole thing, what makes the game feel like "Love in a Time of Systems" to me.
Krystle: Consentacle is like an entire economic system in and of itself! How did you come up with the mechanics of it all? Why so system-oriented?
Naomi: System is a huge area of interest for me when I design games. Although I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing or even the most important thing, it’s an ingredient in my work that I always want to keep an eye on, or a lens that I always want to make sure that I peer through. So much of our interaction with the world, with other humans, with various constructed experiences is mediated by systems, even if looking at everything that way is far from the whole truth. There was something horribly appealing to me about dealing with the economy of trust, love, and sex; these are sacrosanct facets of life to most of us, things we like to think of as being beyond the influence of economies and numbers and rules – but of course, systems around us are influencing our relationships at a deep level all the time. I don’t just mean through overt economies like money, but also in scarcity and difficult limitations of care, and trust, and affection, of structure-born differences between people and the expectations of society about relationships.
All of that was in my unconscious mix as I began working on Consentacle, although it took some time for me to be able to articulate it. The system of Consentacle isn’t the aspect that brings mystery, intimacy, or ineffable qualities of connection to the experience of playing it – I have to rely on the players for that, and maybe I should. After all, I’m just the person trying to set the stage or arrange furniture for a party, I’m not even there most of the time when people play my game. The system is, though not the villain of the piece, definitely part of what constitutes a shared struggle, the backdrop that’s defining what you go through together.
The origin point for many of the mechanics in Consentacle was in Netrunner, another two-player card game with a lot of play that swirls around intimacy and communication and hidden information, but with a very different theme and a competitive structure. I actually ended up imbibing too much Netrunner while I was in the early stages of designing Consentacle and had to pull back to go in a different direction; games like Hanabi and puzzles like the Towers of Hanoi were also pretty key influences.
SEX SHOULDN'T BE
A "WIN OR LOSE" THING...
OR SHOULD IT?
Naomi: I’m interested as a game designer and as someone who thinks about games in terms of the number of unexplored possibilities for what some people have called "disequilibrial outcomes." Traditionally, this just means winning and losing: although both sides of a competitive game tend to start out roughly balanced, if the game is such that one side must win, that balance is disrupted. There are so many other possibilities to disrupt a placid or relatively equal starting point, though, and so many different processes or journeys along the way. In making a game about sex, I always knew that I didn’t want a mandate where one player would "win at sex" – a kind of problematic idea if it’s the way to talk about or have sex – so I looked for alternatives. Something should happen, you should go from the beginning to the end of the game and things should change, but that doesn’t have to mean winning and losing.
Krystle: Hmmm... What about players who are all out for competitive sex?
Naomi: Despite the guiding philosophy of "sex shouldn’t be about winning," some players who relish competition have asked whether it’d be possible to do a competitive version where one player DOES win! I’m actually kind of interested in that direction – but only on top of a game that successfully encompasses sex without winning. After all, we can imagine a consensual, delightful sexual encounter where partners agree that someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose, right? Well, hopefully, imaginative people can and everyone else can at least think about say... wrestling.
Krystle: How do playtesters respond? Do they deviate from the way they would approach real-life sexual interaction during the game? Do they think of sexual interaction differently after the game?
Naomi: I can’t say for sure whether anyone plays Consentacle in the way that they would approach sex, but I don’t think so? It’s extremely fun to watch when players get into innuendo and think- ing about things like »Restrain or Bite?« together, whether out loud or silently – but it’s absolutely not a measure of the game’s success for me whether this resembles or influences the way they actually have sex. Consentacle is a game about consent, trust and communication, and of course I believe deeply in practices of consent and my game reflects that; however, none of that means the game has a single lesson or message to impart about it. In other words, Consentacle is not meant to be a sex-education tool to try and convince people to have consensual sex; it’s an experience that two people can have together where they can enjoyably explore and mess around with these subjects, and I have to trust players to do so responsibly. (I mean, it’s right there in the title, as well as the rules.)
Krystle: I’d imagine that a highly regulated game system recreating the deeply amorphous experience of romance and attraction may be too much for players who just want to use the game as, you know, a sex game. For sex.
Naomi: I always knew that the experience of play – beyond and above the systems shuffling around it – was going to come from players, but I did have some worries that some players might get too bogged down in the numbers. Thankfully, the atmosphere of sex, and dirty moves, and the communication that’s necessary to play Consentacle overwhelmed that aspect of it. That might not be giving enough credit to the system, though – the fact that you clamber around on it together while playing does a lot to create a hard structure that you’re pushing against while flirting, being suggestive, getting excited together, and I think hard structures can have a really beneficial role in intimacy.
Krystle: I love your suggestion (in a Kotaku interview) that unusual or alien body parts can act as a metaphor for queer sexuality or strange relationships that we have to our bodies. Can you tell me more about how Consentacle is resonating with queer and trans people?
Naomi: Most of what I hear from other queer and trans people about this is just that they love the idea, and they love the theme. I feel like I sense, in their enthusiasm, the same kinds of things that make those themes really important to me: all of the alienness, strange body parts, and dealing with embodied differences. I might be projecting a little bit, but that’s OK; part of the great thing about making a game and seeing other people play it is that in other people’s gut-level responses, you get to feel less alone with your own reactions to the world.
Krystle: I’ve seen some pictures out there of plastic tentacles that players can wear on their fingers. (I loves it. So. Much.) What are they for? Will that be in the final version?
Naomi: Those were actually little plastic finger-toys that I bought from a novelty store, and handed out to players at the No Quarter opening event where the game was first played. They’re not strictly speaking part of the game – they’re more like party favors – but I definitely saw a lot of players using them during the game to, let’s say, effectuate some non-verbal communication with their partner. I still have a bunch of them, so I’m likely to include them as some kind of backer reward if there’s a Kickstarter for the game. You don’t need them to play, but all sorts of homemade or personally-provided tentacles could come in handy as accessories to deepen your satisfaction.
Krystle: James Harvey’s illustrations for Consentacle are so perfect. They’re sensual in the way only the best manga can be and, amazingly, not at all icky! What was the art design process like? Did you have any specific directions for him or did he just go wild with the project?
Naomi: I was really lucky to be able to work with James, and he did such a fantastic job with the artwork (not to mention some helpful critique for my graphic design) that I feel like the illustrations are very much the star of the show in some ways – or at least the exciting opening act. When I work with illustrators I tend to overspecify a lot. I write fairly detailed descriptions of the characters and what they’d be doing on each card – and then I attach a lot of caveats like: "But no, seriously, these are just suggestions, if you have another idea I would totally love to see it and explore it!" I’m sure some of my collaborators have found that more annoying than others, but as someone with a lot of ideas in my head who can’t draw or program all that well, I tend to spurt them all into words. Thankfully, James was really good at doing both – he used my ideas and also expressed them in his own style, in a way that was even cooler that I could envision.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO LOVE
GOOFY TENTACLE SEX
WITHOUT GOING INTO
Naomi: The only people I’ve seen conflating this are the controversy-manufacturing agitators associated with a certain gaming-related hashtag that’s generated a lot of harassment. Because one game is not-so-subtly about playing a tentacle monster who’s out to grab sexy girls, and the other game is explicitly about consensual sex, there’s a serious lack of reading comprehension going on. Consentacle is a reaction to the problems in Tentacle Bento and also involves tentacles, but that’s about where the similarity ends, since the two games play completely differently. Still, I’ve seen accusations that Consentacle is somehow a clone of Tentacle Bento and other even wilder conspiracy theories. The intellectual dishonesty involved is really just a means to rile people up into a never-ending outrage against "social justice." I’m not really all that worried by it, since even a cursory inspection of the two games and their history makes it pretty clear what the real story is.
Krystle: Some commentators have suggested that Consentacle – despite it being a response to reclaim tentacle sex for the good – is not trigger-free. Does that make sense to you? Is it possible to love goofy tentacle sex without going into icky territory?
Naomi: I definitely can’t claim that Consentacle is trigger-free – after all, there are any number of things that can be triggering for people, and the intersection of tentacles and sex evoke a lot of incredibly unpleasant associations. With Consentacle I wasn’t trying to simply evade those associations; the word I chose for the title of the game is a reversal of the "tentacle rape" associations and hopefully it’s an obvious statement that it’s possible to turn tentacles around. I don’t expect everyone to care as much about "reclaiming tentacles" as queer people, or people with various kinds of feelings about normative bodies, or people who are just into good, consensual tentacles, and I understand the reactions of people who are too squicked out by the idea or the imagery. If it was an easy idea to explore, there wouldn’t be as much need to reclaim it from an awful context! I’m hopeful that Consentacle plays a small part in that, even though it’s not as explicit as some other "consensual tentacle sex" search results out there...
Krystle: Never-mind the haters; Consentacle is getting a lot of love out there. Let’s talk about upcoming plans! How will the final version of Consentacle look and feel like? How can we get our hands on it?
Naomi: Plans are still in progress for bringing Consentacle to a wider audience. I’m in the process of redesigning a few things about the game based on the ways I’ve seen people play with it and some ideas that I didn’t have time to fully explore in the first limited showing of the game. I also know that I’d like to commission James Harvey to create some more amazing illustrations to round out the set, since the current edition reuses some artwork on the alien and human versions of the same card. I’m busy with a lot of projects and with teaching game design, so I don’t have a real solid timeline yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to announce something in 2015! This might involve Kickstarter, or some other form of crowd-funding, and there might be a print-and-play option that would make it possible for the game to really get out there. Until then, all the consensual tentacle fans out there will have to be patient!