Dys4ia: An Interactive Autobiography about Gender and Sexuality

Let me start off here with a disclaimer.

Our topic of discussion this week is a game that deals with some potentially uncomfortable personal stuff. It deals with bodies, and body parts, and gender perceptions, and it does all of this in a pretty mature (as in not for kids) way. That’s in terms of some of the visuals but also the language used. So consider the “NSFW” tag applied.

That said, Dys4ia is a successful art game because  it discusses these issues openly and honestly, without being squeamish. More on that shortly.

Really, Dys4ia only qualifies as a game on a core level: you have interactivity, goals, and obstacles. But what it is, really, is a interactive narrative. Everything is controlled with the arrow keys, and the “play” aspects of the story generally involve a single, simple action, like walking in a straight line.

But the goal of Dys4ia isn’t to “win.” There is no score. The goal is to experience the author’s narrative from her perspective. In fact, you can even fail some of the minigames and still move on with the story.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some backgroundThe author, who goes by Anna Anthropy or Auntie Pixalante depending on where you find her, is a transgender lesbian woman telling the story about her decision to undergo hormone replacement therapy. And I’ll show you her disclaimer on the matter so I don’t have to:

The game is split into four different sections, with a consistent narrative throughout all of them.

The first section details the author’s initial discomfort about her body, both in terms of her personal self-esteem and in the way that she is viewed by others. She expresses this in a variety of ways (as she does all her themes), but I’ll focus on one notable scene, pictured on the left.

In this scene, you control the  formless green blob with one goal: Move where the arrow points you, past the  wall. The gap in the wall is huge, and it seems like an easy task. But you jut out in all the wrong places, and eventually you find yourself stuck, unable to fit the mold set before you.

At this point, the opening line of the story pops up: “I feel weird about my body.”

In the second section, the author starts to talk about her difficulties with actually finding a clinic and doctor that is willing to see her and prescribe estrogen.

She runs down all the criteria of the clinic she’s looking for, while implicitly expressing why she wants to avoid certain things (see the screen on the right) in her clinic of choice.

The author continues to face difficulties even after finding a clinic, most notably with nerves and (perhaps related) a doctor that refuses to prescribe estrogen until she gets her blood pressure controlled.

The third section is about the author actually dealing with the effects (and side effects) of being on her prescription. In other words, she’s experiencing a complete hormonal imbalance.

In the scene on the left, you’re set up in a Pong-style scenario, controlling the shield on the right. Your goal is clearly to bounce back the question marks coming at you from the mouth on the left.

But when the first one hits you, the shield flashes and inexplicably starts crying, a fitting metaphor for the author’s apparent emotional instability, even with those closest to her.

In the final, fittingly titled section, “It Gets Better,” many of the mini-narrative games from earlier return, but with much more positive results.

In writing, we talk a lot about “show, don’t tell.” In this case, the author does more than show. She is making you experience her personal growth and progression through this period of her life by initially presenting you with an impossible or difficult task and then making that task possible or extremely simple as an apparently direct result of her hormone replacement therapy.

This, of course, works in tandem with the narrative aspect as it continues.

Regardless of where you fall on transgender issues, this is a touching (and bravely told!) story that puts a number of things I said last time about digital storytelling on full display.

This game isn’t complicated or long (takes under 10 minutes to play). The graphics are of a quality that a machine the size of my laptop could have produced 40 years ago. The sound effects are all just the author herself making sounds into a microphone.

Yet the story itself is incredibly poignant, and hits far closer to the heart than if the same story had been written in text only. The interactivity of the story does not change want it wants to say, but it does make it more tangible to the “reader,” and creates an understanding by, if only by proxy, putting that “reader” directly in the author’s shoes.


To play Dys4ia for yourself and stop taking my word for it, you can click the title graphic at the top of this post, or click right here.

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