INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.
When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would not hold back. I would not fold myself into a nice little online niche, and I would not refrain from exploring the ideas that I thought deserved exploration.
With this principle in mind, I have decided to stick my head above the parapet and write about pornography.
This is a piece about an unfinished amateur-made Russian porn game that has been slowly translated and modified by a group of English-speaking amateurs working out of an online community focused upon games in which male characters are slowly transformed into female ones.
Initially released in Russian under the title ЭТО (meaning literally ‘This is…’) Girl Life presents itself as a kind of urban fantasy game in which a male character is turned into a girl and then left to explore the world whilst developing her own magical powers. However, while a lot of effort has gone into developing the mechanics of the game’s magic system, most people choose to play the game as a detailed but mundane life simulator revolving around a Russian teenager living on a council estate in a medium-sized Russian town.
I say detailed but mundane as the protagonist of Girl Life starts out with as many stats and skills as your average Call of Cthulhu character. For example, she has a dancing skill that is separate from her cheerleading skill and her physical appearance stat goes up and down depending upon her diet, her fitness levels, her fashion choices, and the skill with which she applies make-up.
It is here that you can see why the English-language version Girl Life was born on a forum devoted to transformation games: In order to maximise their character’s physical appearance stat, the player has to engage with the various expectations and skillsets required for the performance of femininity. You start out as a smelly teenager who has to learn to take regular showers and from there you move on to learning how to shave your legs, how to apply make-up, and how to dress to create particular effects or inhabit different personas.
The early stages of the game are spent exercising and reading in the library in an effort to bring up your stats but you soon realise that raising all of those stats requires money and so you are faced with a choice as to how to generate capital.
Girl Life is a porn game and as such your character will inevitably wind up getting fucked. However, how much your character gets fucked, how well she gets fucked, and how much she enjoys getting fucked are all a function of decisions you make in play. So while it’s possible to play a character who spends all of her days at a gloryhole before drifting into sex work, it is also possible to manage your sexual desires in such a way that encounters remain fun, positive, and beneficial to your character.
While Girl Life remains a work of pornography and its depictions of sex retain all of the vulgarity and kink-driven weirdness that the form demands, I think that the game’s depiction of sexual desire as something alluring, intoxicating, but also dangerous elevates Girl Life from the merely pornographic to the thematically substantial. This is not just a game about sex, it’s a game about how institutions such as work, family, school, and religion all promise love and advancement whilst also working to degrade and exploit. Girl Life is a game about how the system literally wants to fuck you and how making the most of life requires you to choose carefully when and how you get fucked. Allow yourself to be exploited by the right people and you can wind up a wealthy model with your own apartment. Allow yourself to be exploited by the wrong people and you can wind up living with your parents and spending all day turning tricks in an effort to scrape together enough cash to buy yourself a new sports bra.
While the game’s pornographic elements may combine to form a powerful satirical critique of Russian capitalism, this is not why I have decided to write about this game. No… what I find inspirational about Girl Life is its narrative structure.
My all-time favourite opening to a video game is that of GTA San Andreas. The game introduces you to its protagonist, a young black guy who was born into a bad neighbourhood and grew up surrounded by gangs. In an effort to protect both himself and his family, the protagonist helped transform his peer group into a pretty effective gang until something went wrong and he was forced to flee the city. The game starts when the protagonist returns home to find his old gang dysfunctional and haemorrhaging territory. The first few missions of the game are literally just your character cutting about his old neighbourhood on a BMX doing crimes and tagging walls. Brilliantly, the game keeps your focus in your local neighbourhood until you have regained control and so start naturally looking to expand your territory, at which point the city and then state start opening up to you.
Girl Life has a similar structure in so far as the first few hours are all about moving between home and a few locations in town. It’s not that you can’t travel to another city or a different neighbourhood; it’s just that you might not yet be ready to deal with what you find there and so you tend to stay close to home.
While a lot of Girl Life’s content is pre-scripted and bound to particular stat or skill levels, it also contains random encounters that serve to whet your appetite and encourage you to explore. You pass back and forth between three or four different places every single day until something catches your eye and suddenly some new facet of your world opens up. Maybe it’s an intriguing oddness in your aunt’s relationship with her husband or one of the kids in the local gang tries to strike up a friendship. The world of Girl Life does not just unlock horizontally, it also unlocks vertically meaning that spaces you have inhabited for hours can suddenly be changed by the discovery of a new place or NPC.
I love the way that the world of Girl Life seems to get thicker the more you play… games like D&D or Call of Cthulhu tend to emphasise horizontal expansion of their game worlds by having the characters travel between locations that are geographically remote and shallow enough to support no more than a few sessions of play. Girl Life shows that you can take a single town and grow that setting by allowing players to deepen their knowledge of the NPCs and the social world they inhabit.
There’s a lovely bit in Simon Ings’ novel Wolves where the protagonist talks about his relationships in terms of gaining access to new worlds. The idea being that we all lead complex lives, juggling multiple sets of commitments as well as different identities. When we enter into a relationship with someone (regardless of whether that relationship is friendly or romantic) we let them into our world and allow them to explore all of those identities, those personas, those complexities and all the delicious inconsistencies that come of that. As a work that is all about love, sex, and desire, Girl Life absolutely nails that sense of discovering more and more about people the closer we get to them. The more we learn about people, the more we learn about their lives and the more we learn about other people’s lives, the more rich and complex the world becomes.
RPG campaigns should not just be about visiting new places but also about how familiar places can be made anew by encounters with new people and how familiar people can be remade by the discovery of previously hidden facets of their personalities.
Girl Life’s process of vertical enrichment means that when the game’s narrative does drag the protagonist away from her well-beaten track, the game’s new areas feel both huge and intimidatingly complex. It’s not just that bigger towns have more shops, it’s that each of those shops contain NPCs with their own lives and stories. We step into the larger town and feel the weight of its social complexity by its sheer absence. Having spent hours seeing how the lives of villagers connect in all kinds of complex unpredictable ways, the sheer potential of a city feels almost overwhelming. Where do you even start? Who do you talk to first? Those are exactly the kinds of questions that RPG players should be asking whenever they start a new campaign.