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About the Story
The goal of this game is to illustrate as clearly as possible the accumulation of microaggressions and acculturative stress upon the physical and mental body, so that it may be better understood by people who may not understand how these incidents play out. Hopefully, this can be something to spread awareness and unveil the violence of standing out, and even more about the violence of blending in.
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Number of Reviews: 3
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I have mixed feelings about Killing Me Softly.
In this game (well, "interactive narrative experience" might be a better classification, but that's a mouthful), the player steps into the shoes of a member of one or more marginalized groups, and is made to endure a slew of casual yet hurtful comments from coworkers and strangers in a string of vignettes.
The goal here is very clearly educational: to make the player understand the hurtfulness of these comments and empathize with those who experience them.
This is a wonderful goal and I believe the game is very successful in it. The comments are believable - although many of them come off more as overt insults than microaggressions, but that's just as well. One can easily see how frustrating and disheartening it is/would be to be subjected to this kind of BS on a regular basis.
I think one of the greatest challenges for a game of this type, which seeks not merely to explore a social issue but to educate people about it, is to make its point such that it will sway a player who is not already in complete agreement with whatever it seeks to teach. And I feel like, at least with regard to its most central message, Killing Me Softly clears this hurdle better than most. It's difficult to imagine anyone playing this game and failing to appreciate the hurtfulness of the comments. So, point made - good job.
But then, on the other hand...
The player characters are not fleshed-out or multifaceted (unless you count "belonging to multiple demographic categories" as multifaceted), and we never get to know them very intimately as individuals. They're stand-ins for the marginalized groups they belong to, basically. This by itself is fair enough given the goal of the game, although I do feel that it could have had even more gravity, and delivered a more compelling narrative experience, otherwise.
The NPCs are nothing more than cardboard cutouts, most of whom exist for the sole purpose of showing up, dropping a hurtful comment, and leaving. Sometimes the game tells us the context - for example, mentioning briefly that the person making the comment is a buddy from work - but never does it show us the context by building up to it within any kind of normal ongoing interaction. Again - this by itself is not a huge flaw given the goal of the game, but it does signal the limited scope of the experience. We're focused on one thing, here, not a holistic narrative.
After an initial introduction, every single scene is a short, tightly-focused vignette in which one of two things happens. Either the protagonist is the victim of a microaggression/insult, or they're upset in the aftermath of a microaggression/insult. That's it. That, happening again and again, is the entirety of this experience. I do see why the game presents itself in this way: it's staying true to its main goal. And yet I feel that there is something missing. Hypothetically, these characters lead complex lives, but we see them only when they are hurting, only in their vulnerable moments.
And then there's the choice system. You, as a player, have just a little bit of choice in how to respond to the microaggressions/insults. Usually you can ignore them. Often you can confront them (and typically get ignored), sometimes with a choice between being more or less direct, although we get the sense that both player characters are very uncomfortable with direct confrontation (and very fairly so). But in many cases, options are listed but unavailable, indicating that the player character is incapable of reacting in a certain way due to emotional exhaustion - for example, as best as I can tell after a few tries, the player character will always be emotionally incapable of (Spoiler - click to show)telling HR that their coworkers wore blackface at a party. Again, this by itself makes sense and fits the goal of the game. You can't expect someone to endure mistreatment again and again and always remain up to the task of confronting it in whatever way the player might want to, and this feature of limited choice serves to call attention to the emotional toll that the player characters suffer over the course of the story.
But when I take all of these things together - the vaguely-developed characters, the constant victimhood, and the limited choice - I just can't say that it feels entirely right. To the game's credit, there was (in my playthroughs) one short scene where a player character achieves a major success - (Spoiler - click to show)winning a promotion, albeit with some snide remarks on the side. But with that sole exception, everything relentlessly drives home the implicit message that marginalized people are victims first and foremost. It does not show us their lives apart from that. The characters exist not for their own sake, but only for the sake of demonstrating something to the player. The game makes instruments of them, and that does not sit right with me.
There is important representation going on in Killing Me Softly. But overwhelmingly, it is not positive or affirmative representation, and for that reason, I feel that the game - while successful in a very major regard - could have done better.
Killing Me Softly is a choice-based game by Fobazi M. Ettarh, published in 2016. It's a type of an educational title; it has a simple story line, but more than anything else, its intention is to illustrate how microaggressions work in practice through simulated examples.
You play as one of two characters: Alex, a white gay male, or Leslie, a black disabled woman. As you attempt to live your everyday life, your co-workers and other random people often say inappropriate things in your vicinity, and you can (typically) choose to either call out this behavior or stay quiet. Some of the choices may become blanked out if you get too stressed from dealing with all the hassle, (Spoiler - click to show)although on my multiple playthroughs I got the impression that this mechanic is mostly an illusion, and that most of these blanked out choices will always be blanked out regardless of your playstyle.
The game has a pretty good presentation. The layout has two parts to it - the left side has options and right side has the story text. The colors and fonts are clean and readable, but there are some things about the technical quality that could be slightly better: some of the writing is a little unpolished, and I found one bug too: (Spoiler - click to show)at one point in Alex's campaign, someone makes a rude comment about you and your Indiana Jones-costume. I then tried to talk to my supervisor, which caused a "Error: bad evaluation" text to appear on the screen.
I can't say the game entirely works as a story-driven experience. The story is short and mostly centered around its educational topic, and so I felt like I didn't really get to understand the two main characters as people - only as identities. But playing the game and reading how the story unfolds does generate some feelings of frustration and bitterness - even if a bit shallow, it does have some type of an impact on the player.
Finally, as you might have guessed from the fact that the topic here is microaggressions, this game is indeed very much rooted in Critical Social Justice, an ideology with a lot of postmodern baggage. If you decide to play it, I recommend keeping an open mind, but do pay attention to the broader implications of what the game is saying. (Spoiler - click to show)In my opinion, the attitude here is rather pessimistic, even infantilising, as it portrays normal adult humans routinely spiralling into depression and sleepless nights by clumsily well-intentioned but rude mannerisms and words.
The game is very linear, with most of the story unfolding the same way regardless of your choices. It takes around 15 minutes to complete the first time around, but it has a bit of extra replay value too if you want to see both Alex's and Leslie's stories. I'm not sure I'd recommend it for either educational purposes or as a fun pastime, but I guess there are worse ways to spend 15 minutes.
As a white, cisgender, straight male I am in the dominant group in almost every conceivable way and have been the transgression of microaggressions too many times to count. I have had to continually educate myself and be intentional on how my words and actions perpetuate acculturative stress, systemic racism, and impact my relationships with my peers. Fobazi Ettarh does an excellent job of allowing the player to experience this stress in the day to day life as either a gay male or a disabled, black, female.
With either character you choose, you are continually bombarded with realistic microaggressions and are asked to make choices as to how you would respond in that situation. The common theme throughout is how exhausting it is to be around well-intentioned people who are constantly hurting you. Indeed, I have played through this a few times now and have been exhausted every time. And I don’t have to live it.
While there are a couple of minor visual bugs, play is smooth and each time through takes no longer than twenty minutes. If I could change anything about the game it would be to make some of the microaggressions even more subtle to really hit home how easy it is for well-meaning people to be hurtful. That said, Killing Me Softly effectively does what it wants to do.
I work for a mental health agency and made this a part of a team training exercise; it was well-received and the discussion was quite robust. For those inclined to do the same, please give BIPOC and LGBTQ staff the option of opting-out as it is not their job to relive the pain in their daily lives and educate the dominant group.
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