Content warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and the criminal justice system.
At the beginning of September, I finally finished Endgame Sequences, a collection of essays and illustrations about death, dying, and grief in games. An amazing read. When I looked at the author bios, I noticed that editor Elizabeth Ballou had been working on A Thousand Cuts, a narrative texting game about sexual assault on college campuses. I’d been waiting so long to find a good game that looks at survivor justice, so naturally I jumped on this.
Having just come away from Ballou’s excellent writing as I booted up my computer, it’s safe to say that I definitely went into A Thousand Cuts with high expectations. I couldn’t think of any narrative games where sex and consent have been explored both well and in-depth. I certainly have never played a game about sexual assault, for this very reason. But once I heard the strangely comforting music (very Life Is Strange-esque) and the sound of text message bubbles popping into existence, I felt ready to play.
A Thousand Cuts does so much with such a simple interface of a phone screen, and that’s precisely what makes it so great. It’s completely realistic for college students to be texting about what they remember from a night at a party, or connecting a friend to another friend who had a ‘bad run-in’ with the same guy. Unlike movies would have adults believe, college students certainly don’t just pull friends to one side in a corridor to ask them “what happened that night?” Playing through the medium of text messages made me feel somewhat safer. I wonder if the protagonist, Rosa, felt the same way as she gave deeply personal information to someone who would soon become a good friend. I knew I wasn’t going to see any graphic imagery, and could focus on the narrative as it unfolded, and which texts I decided to send. The linguistic style of how college students text was immersive and spot on, even down to some carefully placed typos.
As I (Rosa) continued to text my best friend Mikaela and my new friend Olivia, I both marvelled and winced at the options Ballou had given the player. A Thousand Cuts is really good at not framing the choices you make as right or wrong. It simply frames them as choosing how to navigate a conversation about a really difficult topic. My stomach turned when I asked Olivia how much she’d been drinking, or what she was wearing when someone assaulted her, but I felt safe knowing that the option to say these things came from the context of the narrative, and a desire to show different outcomes of the justice system. The option for the player to ask questions like this was an essential feature of the game. It certainly wasn’t from a victim-blaming standpoint on the part of Ballou. Maybe fear of seeing a creator subscribe to victim-blaming is why I’m scared to play other games about survivor justice. This one has definitely allayed my fear by seeing how well the topic can be handled.
Ballou perfectly captures the nervous, hopeful energy of women who can name what’s happened to them, but have little faith in the justice system, namely going through the Title IX process to report. Rosa and Olivia, often at the player’s discretion, are awkward. They’re scared. They wish they didn’t have to talk about being assaulted by the same man. Their conversation is raw at times, especially when the player only has one text option on the keyboard and just has to keep going. When Rosa describes her assault to Olivia, the texts are rapid fire and jarring. The same music loops for the vast majority of the game. Sometimes it feels comforting, at other times it feels reflective of how tired, angry, and sad the characters must feel. Truly death by a thousand cuts.
The texting medium of A Thousand Cuts brought a great innate accessibility feature along with it. That feature is that the prompt you select is the text you send. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been playing a narrative game, selected a prompt, and had the character say near the opposite of what the prompt indicated. I would have hated to have that problem in a game about sexual assault. It comforted me to know that what I selected was exactly what I said, even if this was when Rosa has the option to say to Olivia “you asked to hear it”, when Olivia reacts with shock at Rosa’s recount of her assault.
A Thousand Cuts was a winning game from the 13th Annual Live.Love. Game Design Challenge, presented by Jennifer Ann’s Group. The brief was ‘to create a non-violent video game which examined the role of one’s culture on attitudes and beliefs regarding dating relationships’ and I can say without a doubt that Ballou has done this masterfully. I especially loved the text choices that made me cringe before I clicked them anyway to see what would happen. The game made me really uncomfortable at times, but only within the context of the narrative. It wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t feel affected, or if it had been too heavy for me to continue playing. The game lays out the realities of disclosing and reporting, but it is by no means trauma porn.
As it stands, A Thousand Cuts is currently a demo, and Ballou may put other routes in the game in the future if possible. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much this demo felt like a finished product to me. I feel much better for knowing that there is a game out there that deals so well with the complexity, shame, and unfairness of surviving and reporting sexual assault. As much as the exchanges between characters are heartbreaking at times, the game itself gives me hope. I can’t wait to see where A Thousand Cuts goes next.
Play the demo of A Thousand Cuts for free here.
Words: Beatrix Livesey-Stephens