‘Game of the Year’ could be answered in all sorts of ways. Here’s one way: what game will I remember when I think of my life in the year 2013?
I keep trying to talk myself out of this, but in my gut I know that it’s true. My game of the year is Pure Again, a short text game that as far as I can tell has received little attention beyond a short feature on freeindiegames. Perhaps it’s testament to the quiet intimacy of the game that it almost feels like a secret. It was made by a British trans guy called Kevin McGowan who wanted, in his own words, “ to make a dark SFy twine game that spoke to trans experiences in a way that made no assumptions about gender.”
The story is simple: you are in the surgery of a dodgy (witch?) doctor somewhere in the North of England, who carries out a body-swap with a stranger called Kipper. The dialogue’s guarded understatement feels authentic without being too earnest, while the interior experience of transformation is explored with startling sensitivity, all the while avoiding referring to anything that might actually trigger dysphoria.
Transition is described from the perspective of just being in a body, outside of any sexualised gaze. The apex of the whole thing comes as you reach out and are surprised to find, “Your arm is now exactly as long as you expect it to be — as you always expected it to be. Your confusion arises from no longer having to compensate for reality’s shortcomings.”
McGowan says that on some level, the game was made as a response to “being a British man in online trans* spaces (including ‘queer’ game spaces) and feeling like your voice doesn’t exist.”
Pure Again so closely fit my emotional needs this year that it almost feels like I’m playing a letter from a dear friend. That feeling of invisibility characterised a certain loneliness that I was dealing with for at least the first half of this year: I wrote about it on re/Action. It was a complicated article, and its reception was complicated.
I only discovered Pure Again in September, and I wished I’d found it when it was released in June, two weeks after I’d written very publicly about the connection between feeling unrepresented and feeling shut out. I stumbled upon it by accident when I was looking for Fogged Up Mirror by Cha Holland: another excellent game about trying to find the words for a complex sense of being in-between spaces.
By the time I came to play Pure Again, things had already changed so much. That loneliness was subsiding. I don’t know if I would say that I have that community I craved for so long, but I do have friendships that are about understanding each other’s experience of strangeness, and perhaps that’s the closest anybody really gets. Pure Again speaks to a set of needs I had in June, but as I’ve replayed it time and again over the past three months I’ve found that it speaks to needs I didn’t even know I had when I wrote that re/Action piece.
The (witch?) doctor talks like my Mum. Or more likely a friend of my Mum’s — strictly speaking, she wouldn’t use the endearment “duck”, but people around us used to call me that all the time as a child. That’s the first startling thing about Pure Again: it’s home. In a way that the middle-class Americana of Gone Home was never going to be home.
“It’s normally Gravy does the scran but she’s over at Mam’s all weekend.” The (witch?) doctor explains, in small talk that’s packed with double meaning. It’s the weekend: this is something that happens outside of working hours, in a place that is not quite part of the Real World. Some people have mothers to spend their weekends with. Not us, apparently.
Transitioning is awkward. Nobody really wants to talk about it. Well, they do, but they don’t. “You mumble something about innies and outies. Now you’re both embarrassed.” There are things more difficult than the abstract question of who you are and who you’re becoming. Pure Again’s player-character is faced with the horrifying guilt of having failed to take care of a body that now belongs to someone else. Again, they and the doctor both deal with it through understatement.
“I guess it’s just a case of accidents will happen, y’know. I can’t —”
The guilt is partly about failing to take enough sedative before the procedure was carried out. Now someone else has to live through the consequences of that. But the player-character has other regrets. Bad hygiene. Poor fitness. And a lifetime of hate, building up and staining you.
“The sight of that body is cause enough for fretting. The shapes you spent years hating, touching them against the world and wiping them clean of its endless filth, are covered by a sheet.”
Seeing something you can’t abide occupied by someone else who needs it. It’s deeply uncomfortable, and thinking about that discomfort makes me feel like the worst person. In that re/Action article I called it “guilt”, but that’s an incomplete word for it. It has more layers than that. Touching against a world that marks your bare skin with misreadings, longing for something that could paint an authentic face onto that canvas, and hating yourself for coveting the representational tools of femininity when the unmarked nature of masculinity is such a privilege. Guilt isn’t all there is, but it’s in there.
Guilt suggests agency, and it’s hard to locate that in the passive experience of just being in a body. Pure Again offers choices that signal intent without actually leading to different consequences: you can try to down the entire serving of sedative, or you can just take a little sip: either way, you won’t be able to bring yourself to drink the whole thing. Kipper will still have to live out that experience you created. One screen of Pure Again describes you and Kipper as “Star/crossed, both of you. Star/muddled. Well and truly star/fucked”. Like a science fiction Romeo and Juliet, you are taking control of your life, and also reaching the limits of that control.
The game part of Pure Again is all interior: what did you mean to do, what did you see, what did you learn? When people dismiss Twine as not productive of truly gamelike experiences, they miss out on the significance of this interiority. Something happens when you reflect on where you are, instead of focusing on changing where you are going. Things will proceed as they were meant to. The tricky thing is how you make sense of it.
I think that might be why playing through Pure Again is therapeutic every time I come back to it. My body is changing so fast these days. The shapes that I hated are fading away, textures are rendered differently, and new shapes are emerging. The meaning of my body is different now, and the feeling of being in this body has completely transformed. Pure Again celebrates the feeling of finally fitting in a body, but it also admits the limitations of your ability to choose your path. Change will never be clean.