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.
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.
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.