We got gay-married over a year ago. We’re in love, you see.
I thought I was going to be a Good Queer about it and not let it get to me too much, but according to the US government one of us is a “non-resident alien”, so staying together meant we had to prove to Obama that we were totally gay in love.
No one really knows how the government decides whether you *look* married, so people swap advice with the same superstition usually reserved for how to catch rare Pokemon. We needed different vacation photos together with different haircuts, we needed photos of the wedding cake (and bigger cakes mean better chances?), and lastly we needed to touch the 3rd tree in Viridian City exactly 6 times with 9 Poke Balls in our inventory. Basically, we had to consolidate all these legendary Pokemon and arcane symbols of marriage and hope that it was enough.
Sorry, I mean “gay marriage.” That’s important.
I don’t really know what gay marriage looks like. The only other gay husbands I know are from ads depicting Highly Successful Gay Husbands strolling on white sands after their krav maga class, wearing tasteful pastel prints and smiling stubbled open-mouth smiles. It’s difficult to take that gay male ideal — white, rich, muscular masculine — and reconcile it with my increasingly schlubby student-loaned Asian beer belly. In contrast, the Immensely Powerful Gay Husbands doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus. The last time I tried bestriding anything, the seat of my pants ripped open in front of hundreds of ice skaters in Bryant Park. (Fuck ice skating.)
I’m pretty resigned to the fact that my body is definitely more like heterosexual husband material — that is, a perpetual site of mild embarrassment. But this other stuff is new to me, the part about my body denoting a political status that will decide the rest of my life.
Do I walk and talk like someone who’s gay-married? If the duly authorized representative of the US government decided no, then we’d have to find new homes, jobs, and lives. Like, holy shit. Sometimes it scares me if I think about it, so I try not to think about it. I guess that’s a privilege I can enjoy as an able-bodied cis man, to be able to ignore all the weight that we make human bodies carry.
As an artist, my desperate coping mechanism is to try to make work that speaks to my neuroses and ambivalence about bodies. What do bodies mean, what do they represent, and to whom? Because my chosen artistic medium is video games, which I would liken closest to theater, I seek to “perform” bodies.
How does one perform a body? Biology insists that bodies are made of cells, but art insists that bodies are made of ideas. Maybe those are actually the same thing, but for now let’s pretend they aren’t.
One of the oldest, most foundational ideas about bodies comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a huge 15-book chronicle of myth and history (“one of the most influential works in Western culture”) stretching back from the creation of the universe all the way to the death of Julius Caesar. It’s pretty comprehensive.
The first line (from David R. Slavitt’s translation) goes a little like this:
Bodies, I have in mind, and how they can change to assume
new shapes —
While Ovid was slightly less concerned with gay marriage than me, I think we’re talking about similar things here. When he starts his whole epic story of existence with half a tweet about bodies, he’s saying bodies matter — and according to him, the most important aspect of bodies is “how they can change.”
So if I want to perform a body in a video game, that game needs to be about bodies changing shape. Given the huge annoying terrible barrier to making video games that we call “technology,” we have to somehow reduce that idea to something we can feasibly represent on a computer.
The most common way to morph 3D video game bodies is through keyframed animation.
Animations are essentially flipbooks; when we flip through the individual pages or frames quickly, we create the illusion of motion. Computer animation helps automate this process by taking human-authored “keyframe” poses and generating the “in-between” frames, or even entire animation sequences through motion capture. Then game engines loop through these sequences of poses to transform bodies along predictable trajectories. When you walk in a game, you’re basically looping over those same 2 choreographed steps over and over.
What’s totally missing is a logic of transformation. When do our bodies change, and why?
In Metamorphoses, the gods turn Baucis and Philemon into forever-intertwined trees *after* they demonstrate humility and generosity to strangers. The goddess Demeter curses Erysichthon with never-ending hunger *after* he cuts down her sacred grove and disrespects where food comes from. The fisherman Glaucus eats a magic herb and turns immortal *because* he pays attention to fish and honors the water. Notice the heavy environmentalist connotations, the idea that our bodies have strong relationships with the world around it. Bodily transformation comes from, and affects, things outside of ourselves.
So sure, keyframed animation offers a lot of control over the specifics of choreographed movements, but it is difficult to make these movements feel dynamic and contextual. You walk the same, whether it’s through a puddle or it’s across a narrow bridge while feeling anxious about your husband possibly getting deported. It’s hard to make these limited isolated gestures seem responsive.
Fighting games usually brute force the illusion of context with hundreds of different animations to cover every possible situation. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas let players gain or lose weight, morphing their appearance and movement feel. Call of Duty games let you stand, crouch, or hug the earth for your dear life; Mirror’s Edge is about diving and sliding through crevices, and fitting through the cracks of a city. But these are just exceptions, band-aids for morphing bodies in limited discrete ways, always looping in the same rehearsed ways.
… Which is why I rejected this method for my gay spanking simulator called “Hurt Me Plenty.” It is a game where you negotiate boundaries, spank your submissive’s greedy little ass, then follow-up with some emotional check-in and aftercare. I wanted to perform a primer for how kink formalizes scenes, to make it clear that pain and abuse are two very different things, and canned animation seemed too rigid for that. It’s almost as if it’s telling the computer to keep their guard up and mime human motions perfectly, rather than let its awkward body be an awkward body.
So instead, I turned to the most important advance in video game engine technology within the last decade: the ragdoll.
A ragdoll is a body with physically-simulated limbs, joints, and bones. When a ragdoll moves, it is not because an animator posed it, but rather because the physics simulation “solved” it into that pose. For Hurt Me Plenty, I used ragdoll simulation to simulate the spanking force and the dude’s reactions. It took a lot of trial and error, but the results feels more “real” to me than some supposedly realistic motion capture.
First, I glued the submissive’s knees and hands to the ground, where they act as hinges.
When the game detects a spanking input from the motion controller or a mouse gesture, it applies about 10000 Newtons of force on his ass, which is roughly the bite force of an average adult American alligator. This is much more powerful than even the most forceful of human spankings, but my goal was to perform an emotional simulation of spanking someone, not a physically accurate simulation. The resulting force causes his entire ragdoll system to shake and ripple with red. (Well, the cheeky rosy glow is actually an invisible light bulb hovering in front of his butt.) His body performs trembling pleasure.
To help keep him upright, I attached a small invisible jet engine below his chest. Each time you spank him, his “endurance” value decreases, which makes that jet engine waver. When that jet engine wavers, it looks as if he is breathing heavily or losing his balance. In this way, his body also performs exhaustion.
In most 3D games, ragdoll simulation is for “realistically” falling down a mountain, getting hit by a car, or dying in a dramatic fashion by flopping over a railing — it’s for when people die. What if we used ragdoll simulation to simulate life?
Games like QWOP, Amazing Frog, Octodad, and Goat Simulator, all thrive by letting the awkwardness of digital bodies leak out to the screen. The ragdoll genre treats falling and flopping as performance rather than a failure state that needs to be quarantined from the rest of the game. Here, bodies are not dead ghosts waiting to be erased by the game engine, but rather they morph in novel ways and “can assume new shapes…”
… I ask the help of the gods, who know the trick:
inspire me now, change me, let me glimpse the secret
and sing, better than I know how, of the world’s birthing,
this creation of all things from first to the very latest.
If he were alive today, Ovid would’ve been impressed by our easy access to cinnamon as well as our burgeoning ragdoll game genre.
When our ragdoll bodies contort, the game contorts us back, attuning us to new geographies that we may have never noticed before.
Ragdolling into oncoming traffic in Saints Row’s “Insurance Fraud” mode inspires you to pay much more attention to the traffic simulation and civil vehicle types. Player-made glitch videos of combusting skater boys in Skate 3 transform the game’s benches, lampposts, and awkward crawlspaces into opportunities for transcendence. The mannequin sliding downward in Stair Dismount makes each step felt, unlike many 3D games where the stairs are secretly plastered over into invisible ramps. What better way to talk to the world than by planting your face into it?
A ragdoll is an awkward body in flux that we share with the game engine, whose every movement is unknowable and unpredictable and must be negotiated. Even the most realistic motion capture cannot compete with this kind of truth. Our vulnerability and awkwardness is what makes our bodies alive.
When you spank the NPC in Hurt Me Plenty so hard that you dislocate his shoulders, the instability of his ragdoll is crucial. It helps communicate the breaking of boundaries as the game code literally buckles under your demands, desperately trying to resolve his bones into some sort of rational arrangement, but it is impossible.
This game is gasping for air. It’s trying understand what you’re doing and it just can’t.
At that point, the game finally unhinges his hands and knees, and he collapses, convulsing like an unbalanced washing machine. His ribcage twists in on itself, and his limbs melt into the floor.
Does the performance ever end? Is this body happy and elated, or is it tired and all used-up? I hope the gods (or the US government) tell me soon.