Tusks And The Humanisation Of The (Gay) Orc

At some point in the future, I want to have a big ol’ con­ver­sa­tion with some smart peo­ple on the way fan­ta­sy races are used in fic­tion. What is their nar­ra­tive func­tion, how do they relate to real-world eth­nic iden­ti­ties? Questions like that. It’s a thing that I keep putting off because it’s such a com­pli­cat­ed issue, but once in a while some­thing comes along that makes me want to say a few things right now. Enter Mitch Alexander’s in-progress game Tusks, a demo ver­sion of which you can down­load right now.

Tusks is a dat­ing sim set in a myth­i­cal Scotland, with a Celtic cod­ing in many of the names and cloth­ing of the char­ac­ters in the game. Your main char­ac­ter, an orc, is at the end of the Uá, an annu­al gath­er­ing of orcs in the mid­dle of human lands, where tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ties are formed, bonds forged and bro­ken, and all else that accom­pa­nies fes­ti­vals as tran­sient spaces. The story begins with your char­ac­ter being adopt­ed by a group led by the hus­band trio of Ror, Cennedig, and Malgóm, along with sev­er­al oth­ers (includ­ing one human), and togeth­er you set out on the jour­ney north to what­ev­er homes you may or may not have.

The cast of characters.

The cast of char­ac­ters.

It’s no secret that Tusks is a gay dat­ing sim, and while the char­ac­ters are all drawn to have sex appeal — mus­cles and bulges aplen­ty, though the set of dudes real­ly is diverse — story and non-relationship atmos­phere are at least as impor­tant to the game. The fleet­ing sense of com­mu­ni­ty gen­er­at­ed by the Uá and the for­ma­tion of trav­el­ling bands after­wards is a major topic of con­ver­sa­tion, as are the rela­tions between orcs and the sur­round­ing human set­tle­ments. These are some­times strained, but there are indi­ca­tions that some humans are more respect­ful to the orcs than oth­ers, and there are traces of mixed ances­try among some of the humans as well.

Multiple playthroughs of the demo are a must if you want to get a full idea of the world Alexander is try­ing to set up here. Travelling in a group means that con­ver­sa­tion duos tend to form, and there’s only so much time to chat before the sun sets and its time to camp down. You can only get to know a cou­ple of char­ac­ters a bit or a sin­gle one real­ly well over the course of one sit­ting. Of course that’s a bit inher­ent in the genre, and espe­cial­ly at this stage, it’s not a big time invest­ment to play through the first day mul­ti­ple times. In the fin­ished ver­sion of the game how­ev­er, I hope Alexander will find a bal­ance between hav­ing the play­er make choic­es in grav­i­tat­ing towards par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ters and roman­tic part­ners, while still giv­ing the other char­ac­ters in the game enough stage time to present them­selves.

Because, that’s the most remark­able thing: even over the course of even a sin­gle brief playthrough — 15 min­utes accord­ing to the game’s web­site, though I may have taken a bit more time — Alexander man­ages to instil more char­ac­ter into his each of his orcs than most fan­ta­sy games or set­tings do in their entire­ty. Ror, Cennedig, and the oth­ers are like­able, intrigu­ing guys with dif­fer­ing per­son­al­i­ties and styles, and they made me curi­ous in a way that games rarely man­age with their por­tray­als of ‘mon­ster races’. In a way, that’s no small feat, or you’d think it would have been done more often. On the other hand, it real­ly does­n’t take much, just a writer who treats his orcs as actu­al peo­ple.

Talking with Ggorom the Selkie at night.

Talking with Ggorom the Selkie at night.

Tusks reminds us of how lit­tle that actu­al­ly hap­pens. Orcs real­ly are gen­er­al­ly just face­less evil, to be vio­lent­ly van­quished by ‘heroes’, and even in games that try to push the enve­lope a lit­tle — Warcraft orcs are kinda okay, but pulled down by other fan­ta­sy races coded with real-world stereo­types — the results are often lack­lus­ter. It’s a Tolkien- and D&D-esque con­ceit that we should have laid to rest decades ago.

Apart from the wel­come human­i­sa­tion Tusks brings to orcs, there’s a rea­son why he would want to make a dat­ing sim about gay orcs. As becomes clear from a series of Interviews Alexander con­duct­ed for GayGamer​.net, LGBTQ peo­ple may iden­ti­fy with the mon­strous, for exam­ple in the sense of being oth­ered by soci­ety, and feel­ing dif­fer­ent from the norm. Orcs in this case are a felic­i­tous choice, since they are one of the more well-known high fan­ta­sy ‘races’, and arguably the best known ‘evil’ race. This makes the poten­tial impact of sub­ver­sion through human­i­sa­tion great, and Alexander suc­ceeds admirably in tap­ping that poten­tial in Tusks. The game man­ages to invoke thoughts about the real-world mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion of peo­ple, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly cri­tiquing the role of fan­ta­sy races in that mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion.

It’s rare for a demo of a game to plant the seeds for such a wide scope of dis­cus­sion, so it’ll be inter­est­ing to see how the final result will live up to the promis­es made here. In the depart­ment of char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and over­all atmos­phere, I could­n’t per­son­al­ly think of any changes of direc­tion that would be nec­es­sary right now. That said, I’m curi­ous how Alexander will be able to bal­ance the needs of the rela­tion­ship aspects of the game and the over­ar­ch­ing story that is hint­ed at in the demo. In addi­tion, the game would be immense­ly enriched by some qual­i­ty music and envi­ron­men­tal art. Of course, the lat­ter are depen­dent on bud­get con­straints, so I hope Alexander is able to find the means to give those areas of the game the love they deserve.

You can download the demo version of Tusks from its itch​.io page. To support the development of the game, you can pledge a contribution to Mitch Alexander’s Patreon.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.