The source code for this game is available here.
There is an unofficial soundtrack for the game.
Warning: this contains spoilers for all of the game.
Part 1: Origins
TL;DR: see this story.
I only started writing this game in July of 2022, but it is the culmination of ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for at least 10 years, waiting to be combined in the right way. Ten years ago was when I first had the idea of survivors of a war between “transhumans” and “baseline humans”, with the baseline survivors living in sealed arcologies (not an original idea, to be fair). I came up with the character of Yingmei Xu a bit earlier; she was one of my first OCs (along with her perpetual partner Jiaren, who was originally called Karen (and who later became a basis for Karen Zhao)). She was originally in a different setting, a more utopian transhuman sci-fi world, and she was one of the creators of that world, a scientist who used morally questionable means to build an utopia. She was always kind of a “Mary Sue”, and a bit of a self-insert.
“The Archivist” was a story in this broad setting from 10 years ago, and I thought of it more as a static story (this was before I was in the IF scene). This story went through a few different iterations, but the most important parts were the opening lines, which were reused in every version: “The Archivist watched. The Archivist listened.” The basic concept was that the Archivist was some kind of prisoner or exploited worker, who was forced to view either their own memories, or the memories of someone else. The story would take place entirely in the memories, with interjections from either a Therapist or a Historian who would constantly critique the Archivist, or maybe the Historian was the Archivist’s employer. The Archivist was usually a silent protagonist, and there was always something wrong with them.
If you want to read the original (incomplete) draft of “The Archivist” from 2012, see this link. It will feel very familiar if you’ve played Archivist and Revolution.
Around 2016, I had an idea for a different choicescript story taking place in one of these arcologies. This would have taken place in post-apocalyptic China, in “New Harbin Arcology”, and it would have been a political story, where the protagonist was a nanotech-enhanced superpowered individual who could shape the balance between communist revolutionaries, the one-Party central government, and fascist militarists. That story was called “Shadows of the Revolution” (a later draft of this story shifted the location to Niagara Arcology, our setting here, and featured the Mutual Aid Alliance as the main revolutionary group; this was briefly entertained as a choicescript WIP).
The initial conception for this iteration of the story came around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back then, the story was titled “The Revolutionists’ Arsenal”, and it would have been about a “political discussion group” of would-be revolutionaries as they argue with each other and fail to overthrow the ruling party. The story would have followed a cast of five characters (Em and K were two of them, but Em wasn’t the Archivist yet), with multiple perspectives, and would have more explicit references to quasi-supernatural elements (stealthily called “nanotech” and explained by transhuman technology).
This game merges the personal/historical story of “The Archivist” with the political story of “The Revolutionists’ Arsenal”/“Shadows of the Revolution”. As I was conceptualizing this story, I just piled on all of the scraps of ideas I had over the years. One example is how it reuses the basic character outlines of Emily Chen and Karen Zhao from Pageant/NYE2019. In some ways this is a future-AU of Pageant, showing one potential outcome of Karen and Emily’s lives (compare and contrast Karen and Emily’s conversation about their future in NYE2019 (and Karen’s daydreaming) with how Em and K-’s lives and relationship turned out in this game). Once I realized that Em and K- can be future versions of Emily and Karen, writing this story became much easier. To a lesser extent, A- has some similarities with Aubrey.
Spoiler: the fact that Archivist Em is a clone of Yingmei Xu is kind of a meta-joke about how I write the same characters all the time. At one point I was going to have K- be a clone of Jiaren too, but decided against it.
Early notes, changes
Here are my early notes on the story, written in July 2022:
Notes on a WIP: The Archivist and the Revolution (tentative title)
You are the Archivist (also known by the name of Em). You watch. You listen. You read. Your official job is to decode the information encoded in DNA fragments that are now found everywhere in escaped bacteria, artifacts of a long-lost era of technological optimism. The information encoded therein could be priceless scientific articles, personal diaries, or just snapshots of internet discourse. It is your task to convert the DNA sequences to human-readable information and catalogue it.
The Archivist lives in Niagara Arcology, a self-sustaining megacity located in the wastelands of the former US and Canada. After the Cataclysm around 10 years ago, the city has been cut off from all outside trade and information. Stewing in its own juices, the city seems to be breaking apart. Infections diseases infiltrating the sealed city have lowered the life expectancy by 10 years. The rest of the infrastructure, food and manufacturing and transportation and communication, all seem to be breaking down. The search for a scapegoat has landed upon internal minorities, especially the Laverneans, the gender minority to which Em belongs (trans women, in other words).
The Archivist’s story intertwines with a number of people: A, her ex-boyfriend, and K, her ex-girlfriend, who are taking different paths in life. Through her “political discussion group” she meets with T and M. All of them are in a fruitless quest to revolutionize the city. And there is someone whose diary she stumbles upon in the archives: Liana Yingmei Xu, who might be her ancestor, and might be one of the founders of the city. Each of Liana’s diaries has a unique key that requires the previous entry.
Game structure: storylet-based with daily actions, kind of like Pageant. I was thinking of having some sort of puzzle mechanic for deciphering the DNA sequences, but I have no idea how to make puzzles.
I had the idea to make up some puzzles for DNA decoding, but never knew how; I had considered doing something based on prime factorization and figuring out which key to use with which ID, but I have no idea how that would’ve worked.
Probably the biggest inspiration in turning the scattered concepts of “The Archivist” into a coherent game was the IF Get your gun, dragonfly. This is a transfeminine pessimist story about a future US that is actively genocidal towards trans people and migrants, so it influenced the structure of the particular dystopia of A&R.
Obviously, Bee by Emily Short was a huge inspiration, particularly for the storylet-based structure and progression.
Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus by Christine Love were pretty relevant to the document-recovery part of the game, particularly in constructing a history by reading various first-hand documents and diaries (I believe they were an inspiration for my original Archivist stories). Like A&R, they describe a pessimistic future in an enclosed society where cultural reactionaries have basically won.
I only played Citizen Sleeper after I was most of the way through writing this game, but there are a lot of similarities in the daily structure, event loops, and struggle for survival (unlike A&R, it is possible to survive and even thrive in Citizen Sleeper).
Oversharing about my personal life, trans issues*The Archivist and the Revolution* is a product of the pandemic. It is not "based on a true story" obviously, but the emotions in the story were real. These emotions were incubated in the weeks and months over the past few years when I was ensconced in a micro-studio apartment, without having seen a human face in days, simmering in a miasma of loneliness and despair and dysphoria, watching from a distance as the world outside seemed to become ever more hostile.
This game is at its heart about trans peoples’ and especially trans women’s history, present, and future. I will not detail the current situation with regards to the so-called “Trans Question” in US politics, but here are some articles that describe the context in 2021-2022 during which A&R was conceptualized and written (most are already outdated - the policies and rhetoric have gotten worse, and many proposed policies have been enacted): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.
There is a bizarre conspiracy theory that connects trans people to transhumanism (I did not make that up for the game - see this).
Part 2: Design
I was writing this game at the same time as I was working on Bee by Emily Short, so a lot of the structural design of this game was inspired by Bee. Obviously this would be storylet-based (I use “event” to basically mean a self-contained storylet/scene). It would have multiple endings, and a repeating daily cycle of events, randomly selected from a pool of potential events. A&R has a somewhat more complicated storylet structure than Bee and Pageant: in addition to the chains of events (developing the relationships with A- and K- and mutual aid), there are also always-available “pinned” events like “DNA data recovery”, which themselves contain subplots and chains of storylets. Like in Bee, and unlike in Pageant/NYE2019, the endings might come suddenly, as soon as some condition is reached.
The core game loop is a resource management game, where you have to balance money against time and stress. Variables like food, medicine, and rent are shown via explicit counters, while there are also hidden menaces like stress and starvation. You have to make enough money to pay for rent and food and medicine, while not hurting your health or increasing your stress by working too much. “Work” mostly involves decoding DNA datasets, for which you earn money. You can also earn money via your relationships, but there is a limit to how much they’ll help you if you don’t accede to some sort of romantic relationship. Finally, there is a highly constrained limit to the number of actions that can be taken per day, illustrative of Em’s chronic illness.
Of course, the numerical design of the mechanics makes the game fundamentally unwinnable. There is no ending where everything is just peachy, where you can keep your apartment and your chronic illness goes away. Eventually, something has to break - either you run out of money for rent, or you overwork yourself and your health breaks down.
A&R is an “unwinnable simulation”, one where the mechanics are designed so that it is impossible to win, and the impossibleness of victory is supposed to make some sort of narrative or thematic point (is there a better name for this genre?). In this, the game shares a lineage with some “anti-games” of the past, procedural narratives like 3rd World Farmer or The McDonald’s Videogame. But those games are much more procedural and less narrative, and those games do have the ability to succeed in the simulation while A&R does not.
Like my other games, A&R tries to have a unity of mechanics and narrative, creating ludonarrative resonance where the storytelling and “gameplay”/quantitative mechanics are mutually supporting. It builds this constant atmosphere of hopelessness and despair.
One thing I’m kind of proud of are the dithered image backgrounds. It took me a while to figure out the filter settings that made it look good, but I think the effect really works.
Part 3: The Future
The first post-comp release has been uploaded to itch.io. Here are the updates:
- More datasets, especially for the revolution.
- A new daily “dream” scene.
- Expanded later scenes with A and K.
- Expanded mutual aid scenes.
- Some edits for language and structure.
More updates might be coming at unspecified times, perhaps including music.
I am interested in writing more games in this setting. My Ectocomp 2022 game, Starlight Shadows, takes place in the Arcology around 11 years before the events of A&R. I would like to expand that into a full-size game, tentatively titled Starlight Defenders (there is a connection to the TV show in this game). I also have some other ideas for stories set in this universe, taking place at different times with different characters, including one for the Anti-Romance Jam (A&R is also an “anti-romance” game of sorts). Archivist Em will probably not be returning, although Liana Xu might return.
I never actually finished the A Paradox Between Worlds post-comp release; I wanted to transfer the game to Dendry before releasing it, but that was too complicated. So that’s probably coming soon as well.
Another game that I’m working on is the “Chinese war peasant village sim”, which I was originally going to release for Spring Thing 2023 but might be delayed until next year.
There are some other projects I’m working on that I don’t think I can discuss yet…
Part 4: Real Life
Content warning: discussion of current US politics, transphobia, death, violence, (possibly unjustified?) pessimism about the future. You really don't have to read this.
In 2014, teenage trans girl Leelah Alcorn committed suicide, leaving a note blaming her parents for denying her identity. This event led to an outpouring of sympathy in its day, but today it feels as if nothing has changed; any access to social or medical transitioning for adolescents is constantly litigated in media and law. There have been improvements, but sometimes it feels like in the long run, the current period of relative tolerance for trans life will be seen as a brief interregnum. It’s hard to tell whether we’re going two steps forward, one step back, or the opposite.
In 2023, teenage trans girl Brianna Ghey was murdered in London, leading to an outpouring of sympathy among the trans community and allies in the UK. Not long afterwards, the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission declared that trans people were not to be protected , and the main opposition party has no counterarguments.
Leelah and Brianna were white; most known trans murder victims in the US are Black, and many were sex workers. Their deaths receive much less attention or public outcry, and many sources still misgender them after their deaths.
In 2023, not long before I wrote this, Black trans man Banko Brown was killed by a security guard for allegedly shoplifting snacks. He was 24 years old, homeless, and an activist and organizer. There will likely be no consequences.
In 2023, not long before I wrote this, the state legislature of Florida passed a “bathroom bill” essentially criminalizing trans peoples’ use of bathrooms corresponding to their actual genders (and thus their public existence), as well as various (administrative and legislative) policies amounting to a de facto ban on transition-related care. There have been approximately no political consequences or much in the way of awareness from cis society.
There is a permission structure being created for removing trans people from public existence, starting with those who are already the most vulnerable. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, and I highly doubt that playing my games will change anyone’s mind on whether trans people deserve rights. I think about Kurt Vonnegut’s quote about how every respectable artist was against the war, and it had all the impact of a pie dropped from six feet.
There is something to be said about the prevalent social media negativity creating the impression of an “unlivable life” among trans people. Depictions of tragedy should be balanced out with depictions of hope. I don’t know if A&R provides hope, or if it is yet another part of the tragedy porn-industrial complex that comprise a great deal of “supportive” media about trans people. I don’t want trans peoples’ mental health to be made worse by my story, but maybe that’s the effect anyway. For that, I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better in the future.
Here is where I’m supposed to leave action steps. I don’t know what the best action steps are; organizing, protesting, donate to organizations or individuals in need, voting. Or even most basically, if you’re cis, just treat trans people like humans with real lives, rather than as a topic to be debated. And if you’re trans, keep on living :)
Here are some more academic sources that might be relevant:
Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.” Hypatia 22, no. 3 (ed 2007): 43–65. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2007.tb01090.x.
Cohen, Joni Alizah. “The Eradication of ‘Talmudic Abstractions’: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project.” Versobooks.com, December 19, 2018. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4188-the-eradication-of-talmudic-abstractions-anti-semitism-transmisogyny-and-the-national-socialist-project.
(^This article in particular affected me a lot; I thought about it while writing this game.)
Fuller, Matt, and Leah Owen. “Nazi Gender Ideology, Memoricide, and the Attack on the Berlin Institute for Sexual Research.” Peace Review 0, no. 0 (October 7, 2022): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2022.2131383.
McLean, Craig. “The Growth of the Anti-Transgender Movement in the United Kingdom. The Silent Radicalization of the British Electorate.” International Journal of Sociology 51, no. 6 (November 2, 2021): 473–82. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207659.2021.1939946.
Owen, Leah. “‘Parasitically Occupying Bodies’: Exploring Toxifying Securitization in Anti-Trans and Genocidal Ideologies.” Peace Review 0, no. 0 (October 14, 2022): 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2022.2129000.
Landon D. Hughes, Wesley M. King, Kristi E. Gamarel, Arline T. Geronimus, Orestis A. Panagiotou, and Jaclyn M. W. Hughto, 2022: US Black–White Differences in Mortality Risk Among Transgender and Cisgender People in Private Insurance, 2011–2019 American Journal of Public Health 112, 1507_1514, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2022.306963
Hughto JMW, Pletta D, Gordon L, Cahill S, Mimiaga MJ, Reisner SL. Negative Transgender-Related Media Messages Are Associated with Adverse Mental Health Outcomes in a Multistate Study of Transgender Adults. LGBT Health. 2021 Jan;8(1):32-41. doi: 10.1089/lgbt.2020.0279. Epub 2020 Nov 10. PMID: 33170060; PMCID: PMC7826438.
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