Gosh, what is there to say about Keep It Together that I haven’t gushed about before? In June 2017 I first got to experience Fenreliania’s unique game of social interaction and the anxiety that it can bring at GX Australia. Since then the game has only gotten better and my pleasure playing it has gotten no less stressful.
The basic premise of Keep It Together is simple enough; you play the part of a colony of rats in a trench coat, a totally common occurrence in society, as you try to chat with random people you meet.
Everyone you meet will ask you questions; out of the provided options there are choices that the person will like, and those they don’t. Select the wrong one and you will get stressed out, but at least you learn something about the person.
They may not like you do be direct with them, they might want you to flirt, they might hate thoughtful discussion. You’ll never know until you talk to them, but when every answer is a possible cause for stress just how long will you last…
Give enough wrong answers and the stress builds. You now have to hold down a letter on the keyboard at all times or you’ll fail. Every time the stress overwhelms you another letter. Until the game is as much about dexterity as it is about learning how to interact.
As that score builds and you learn much about the strangers that you’ve met you struggle to hold down keys and discern which answer will be positive you know you can’t go on much longer; the social anxiety is getting too much to bear.
Then the fateful moment occurs. There is no right answer for this question. They just want to be argumentative. and you can’t hold together any more…
Keep It Together is a great look at how living with social anxieties influences our behaviour. It’s also a super fun game where you will constantly attempt to beat your own high scores while keeping everyone happy at once – I got to 10,000 points before I ran out of fingers – while still keeping yourself together.
Fen answered a few questions about their wonderfully stressful game:
Jamie: Keep It Together is obviously a unique experience. What is it? In your own words.
Fen: Keep It Together is a peek into the feeling of depression and social anxiety I often get – uncertainty over what someone intends and how I should respond, twisting knots forming in my stomach as I get things wrong, and slowly mapping out the way they work to avoid missteps. It’s not always there, but when I conceived of the idea it absolutely was, and I definitely felt like some writhing mass in a costume trying desperately to keep cohesion and maintain a semblance that I was a fully functional adult human.
Jamie: The randomised nature of KIT reflects the difficulties of social interaction. How did you find creating a game where every aspect of the game, from the art to the names to the responses, was different every time? Was it a difficult game to make?
Fen: It was challenging in a lot of ways, but I think building the random generation systems was what kept me interested a lot of the time. I really love making dynamic, flexible, reusable systems, so smaller ones like the name or preference generators were fun little achievements that gave me little achievements as I needed them. That said, it wasn’t really an easy time – the larger systems, and getting the overarching logic to run smoothly, both drained me a lot and there were periods where I went a couple of months barely touching the code. Then there were times like the lead-up to GX where I had to rewrite the entire core loop logic 2 days before because it easily broke if you clicked things too fast. When you’re working entirely in your spare time around work, you tend to get a little frantic and inconsistent.
Jamie: How do you feel about the current state of LGBTQIA+ representation in gaming? Do you think there is more that game developers could be doing to improve positive representation?
Fen: I like the current trends in AAA games – they’re going in the right direction – but it’s so slow and so little, and it’s not really brave at all. I mean, I’ll cut them some slack because even just showing gay representation in ancient Greece or making your main character anything but a straight white male garners hateful, sometimes dangerous responses from a lot of the audience, but it’s still not that big of a step. Smaller games and developers are doing much cooler things, but obviously there’s only so much we can do. We can’t really spend the money or effort figuring out how to make a high quality character creator that offers non-binary body options. We can write characters who reflect us, but we can’t write a dozen variations and scatter them around our giant open world or into our 40-hour epic story. I can design game mechanics that make the player feel the tension in my chest when I mess up a conversation with someone, but I’m still not sure how to show them what it’s like to be agender, or to dissolve the lines drawn on the gender binary and see everyone as humans of varying degrees of cuteness. Maybe I’ll figure that out later.
Jamie: What’s the next big project? What are you excited to be working on now?
Fen: My current project is on a bit of a hiatus – I was building a really flexible grid-based level editor for Unity, which along with other tools should make gamedev reeeeaaally approachable, but I got bogged down in the technical implementation and some other mental health issues have been hanging around. In the mean time, I’m playing around with bitsy, and I’ve got a couple of things coming with that, I think. As for the next big game? That changes a lot from month to month, but I think when my toolkit is done, I’m gonna try and use it to make a lovely little King’s Field-like game.