Trigger warning: there are mentions of the physical and sexual abuse of women in these impressions.
“You are a woman.
It is all you are.
It is all you ever will be.”
So begins the elegant yet daunting demo for Patriah by Dawn Davis (a.k.a. @playerprophet on Twitter and Itch.io). This game contains a necessary commentary for our #MeToo era and is striking even in its early demo form. The project tackles issues of patriarchy, misogyny, physical and sexual abuse, and how agency is an important thread through all those issues. Patriah also exemplifies that curious and wonderful thing that driven indie-game design tends to do very well: use a familiar genre to highlight and explore topics rarely broached in games. Or at least, topics rarely broached in games with a purpose beyond rubberneck sensationalism, such as the problematic use of male rape to allegedly comment on female rape scenes in Far Cry 3. Patriah uses the visual novel/dating sim genre as a way to put the player in the position of a woman who must carefully navigate predatory relationships/situations with men. Davis explains in an early devlog that she was inspired to make the game based off the way she and other women have had to interact with men, especially when they feel trapped in a conversation at work that could lead to dire consequences.
If you’re even just passingly familiar with visual novels and dating sims, you know that one of the chief hallmarks of the genre is being the centre of the fawning attention of several potential romance options. Patriah takes that hallmark and shows the player a dark reflection of that hallmark by turning what usually feels like fantasy win-win situation into a lose-lose situation. Davis cites the award-winning erotic visual novel Lady Killer in a Bind and LISA the Joyful (the divisive DLC for LISA: The Painful) as particular sources of design-specific inspiration.
Two of the earliest quotes I jotted down from the demo (one of them being the opening lines) when I first played it (it’s a very quotable visual novel) encapsulates this dystopian reimagining of the dating sim situation:
“Men desire you, and will interpret invitations generously.”
This coming shortly after introducing the player character Patriah: a woman who has been sheltered since birth, groomed, and taught how to survive for the momentous day at the start of the demo when she comes of age. You are expected to choose a man who will “own you” for the remainder of your life. One early reviewer of Patriah, Jennifer Giesbrecht, describes it aptly as "The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Bachelorette”, for there are really two scenarios being explored in this game. The first scenario is the simulation of being a woman in the very vulnerable and volatile position of being matchmade to opportunistic predators. The second is exploring the dystopia of absolute patriarchy and its brutal essentialism of gender roles.
Every element of Patriah’s design is minimalist. From the delicate classic piano soundtrack, using several traditional concertos, to the simple silhouettes of the bachelors highlighting their most memorable feature (glasses, a smile, a scar...), to the concise yet poignant dialogue. Even the backgrounds are minimalist; sketchy yet stark outlines of settings in black and white. All of these elements underscore the delineation of your role as a coveted child-bearer in a world where women have no real agency. Everything is presented as it is, in its simplest essence.
“You are a woman”, these are the men who will decide your fate, you must choose one, and you will be subservient to him.
The suitor of your demo is Joshua King, who Davis describes in her second itch.io devlog as filling “both the Glasses Guy and Rich Kid” archetypes/roles of dating sims. Personality-wise, think Kyoya Ootori from Ouran High School Host Club, but much more threatening. Davis also modeled Joshua off of real men like Harvey Weinstein and Max Landis, who are at the heart of a powerful institution and thrive off of the privilege their gender and station afford them. Joshua’s family is part of the Birth Management System, the system that keeps women like Patriah locked up and treated as precious child-bearing resources. Joshua is hyper-aware of the rules that dictate your choices in courting suitors, and how he can exploit you if you fall out of line without suffering any repercussions.
Joshua is the perfect path for the demo of Patriah, because he’s the type of predator that outlines this world’s complex system of patriarchy that you must navigate in a “careful” and “kind” manner in order to survive in. He speaks your mind for you, he calls you “backtalking filth” if you so much as casually disagree with him or refuse early offers of marriage, he physically and sexually abuses you if you become too flirtatious or too stubborn, and puts you on a pedestal and claims you as a trophy if you make it through your fourth day of courtship. Whether you like any of his lecherous advances is, of course, deemed irrelevant, as well.
The greatest strength of the demo, in my opinion, is that the writing combined with the dynamic of playing a predatory dating sim-like captures a real sense of entrapment. The player is, of course, playing the game Patriah, but as the character Patriah you are role-playing in order to survive the game of the marriage and Birth Management System. Patriah has never left the manor of her birth, and now that she has any sort of choice to make in her life it is the choice to become the prisoner in another’s household and bear children until she’s considered past her prime. In terms of the procedural rhetoric, or how the patriarchal dynamic is underscored in the mechanics, there are no dialogue choices that lead to an “ideal” middle ground for Patriah. Her desires (and by extension the player of this dating sim-like) are not considered, unless they are framed in terms of desires that benefit Joshua and the patriarchal privileges he represents. As the narrator and Joshua emphasize, the only way to survive until your wedding day is to “play the game” and be careful and kind. You must be careful and kind. Yet when you are careful and kind, you still end up in a “lose state” for lack of a better term, as you give Joshua “exactly what he wants” from your interactions with him: complete obeisance and recognition that he is your one true lord and match.
As a personal reflection on this demo, I have not been in many situations alike to the extreme interactions between Joshua and Patriah. There are certain microaggressions Patriah endured, however, that I’m all too familiar with (as I’m sure many women are). Such as the condescension Joshua shows towards Patriah’s curiosity, the moment in the library where he has her demonstrate her intelligence, or when he creates a situation of indebtedness straightaway during the initial meeting by explaining what his privileged family can offer her in exchange for her continued attention. Throughout my professional and academic life, I’ve been made to feel guilty, frivolous, or selfish by men who either didn’t take my aspirations seriously or who felt that I needed to perform in a specific way for them as a woman. For an example I feel comfortable enough to share: I once had a customer tell me at my day job, during idly but enthusiastically chatting with them, about my acceptance into a university that I really only liked “the idea of attending”, not actually pursuing my undergraduate degree. Even if I had only been preparing to attend university at that point in time, there was a reaching assumption that I had never pursued post-secondary education before. So, when Joshua scorns Patriah’s genuine interest in astronomy, I empathized strongly with her.
There’s an early quote from The Handmaid’s Tale that intersects strongly with the reductive paradigm Joshua and the leaders of Patriah’s society share of women and the devaluation of their pursuits and desires. In describing a folk art oval rug braided from rags, Atwood uses the object as a metaphor for women’s irrelevancy in any field that doesn’t benefit “A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?” Patriah and all other women in her world are objectified yet necessary for continuing the cycle of patriarchy.
The end of the demo’s path is devastating, with Joshua defining Patriah as a tool for creating his legacy as an attractive and ideal womb. Even when he finally opens up about his mother Thea, Joshua comes across ultimately as dispassionate about her fate of forced separation from her sons. He notes that Patriah will most likely suffer a similar fate when her children turn twelve, at which point she will be removed from her home for fear of incestuous relations. He also notes that soon the patriarchal powers-that-be will probably push for younger and younger brides, being sure to impress upon Patriah that “a womb cannot be wasted.” Patriah’s shattering epiphany about her existence echoes the introduction to the demo:
“You are a womb.
It is all you are.
It is all you ever will be.”
Women are described throughout the demo as a precious resource, one that men must enter a lottery to gain access to. The economic language objectifying Patriah and all other women in her world is peppered throughout the demo, further accentuating the desolation of the demo’s concluding declaration. Critical asset, earn, prize, trophy, more valuable than rubies...women are little else beyond their rigid role of child-bearer, and even that is understood in a utilitarian sense in Patriah’s world, not an organic one.
Davis hopes to have the full version of Patriah finished by the end of 2018, with a total of four paths including Joshua’s. These paths will intersect with one another and create a tangled web of interactions that I’m sure will shore up even more intricacies of agency and its dystopian patriarchy that unfortunately shares many parallels with the patriarchies we still deal with every day around the world. We need more games like Patriah, especially at the point we are at in video game development history. We’ve played enough games and designed enough games of various genres that we can use recognizable systems, tropes, and intertextual references to achieve meaningful explorations of current and long-standing cultural issues and concerns. Patriah is a reminder that indie games are doing a lot more than just offering nostalgic alternatives to the AAA game market.