Naomi Clark immediately put me at ease. She was eating a sub sandwich while I interviewed her in the noisy, mid-setup Indiecade ‘Firestation’ building, right next to the booth where she’d installed Consentacle, a co-operative card game that explores intimacy, consent, and satisfaction in a relationship between a human being and a betentacled alien. Naomi had the kind of excited, childlike demeanor of someone who really cares for what they’re talking about. This combination of qualities—intelligence and playfulness—is probably the main reason I love talking to indie game developers and smart gamers in general. To give you some context, Clark was part of Indiecade 2015’s Pillow Talk event which revolved around intimacy in games, and I spoke to her a few hours after that, asking her questions about hentai, rape fantasies, and game development as an art form. We covered so much that I’ve split the interview into two parts. Read the first half right now, and stay tuned for the second installment later this week.
The Existential Gamer: How formative has hentai and manga been in your personal sexual development?
Naomi Clark: Hentai was not something I ever encountered until I was an adult. In Japan, that word’s only used to describe certain sorts of niche sexual content, so anything that’s kind of mainstream porn isn’t hentai, that would be considered ‘ero’ instead. So it was actually not until I was in the United States, ‘cause I spent part of my childhood growing up in Japan, but in the United States, when I was in late high school and early college, hentai started showing up in video stores. At first I don’t think anyone realized what it was, because they would just stick it into the anime section, which was a growing sub-section of the cartoons for kids, and people would rent it. I think this is part of why the terrible reputation started, and why so many people refer to tentacle porn. Because films like that one that I had up on that slide [during her Indiecade presentation], Urotsukidoji- Legend of the Overfiend was one of the first hentai films to be translated into English, and then showed up in Blockbuster video in the early 2000s.
So I stumbled across it in the same way that a lot of Americans did. My sister and I would rent videos, and so I think I was home from college, and we were like, ‘What’s this? We haven’t watched this anime before.’ And I did watch a lot of anime and read a lot of manga when I was growing up, ‘cause in Japan it’s such a ubiquitous form, especially for kids. And so I read all the same manga that my friends did there, I read a lot of Dragon Ball, which also got popular here later on, I was reading that in the ‘80s when I was a kid.
I’d say that all the more mainstream kinds of anime and manga for kids were pretty influential on me, just as much as Western fantasy stuff, Lord of the Rings or whatever, which my dad started reading to us when I was five or six. That all got mixed in there, the product of a multicultural heritage, but then I realized when I was a teenager that all that stuff was coming here too. Which was cool for me, but made me feel a little less special in some way, but now I had more common cultural reference points with American kids. I think I had a little chip on my shoulder when I was a teenager. ‘I knew about this first,’ or ‘you don’t know about this other obscure manga that I read.’ So I’ve always been grateful for that access point, but it really never had anything to do with hentai until I was an adult, when I was like ‘Oh my god, this is kind of a nightmare.’ All of a sudden it was one of the most widely talked about forms of Japanese animation, because of the shock value people were like, ‘Oh my god, do you know what kind of animation they have over in Japan? In the United States we have Walt Disney and Saturday morning cartoons, and in Japan it’s all tentacles raping schoolgirls, all the time!’ I just had to facepalm about that for about a decade.
TEG: Actually, I want to ask a follow-up question on that. I grew up in France, and actually it’s funny because in the ‘80s the same stuff was hitting France. So I grew up on that stuff too, and I always found that it had a very particular treatment of sexuality that ended up marking me, probably much more than my native culture, because sexuality seemed so written into those things. Even a show ostensibly for girls, like Sailor Moon, is so centered around the panty shot. Did you find that even though you didn’t encounter straight-on hentai until you were an adult, did you find that that interacted with your sexuality?
NC: I was definitely exposed to a lot of that stuff. I always had the feeling that this was not being produced for my benefit, that it was for some other reader out there. When I was a kid reading Shonen Jump or Shōjo Comics in Japan, I always got this feeling that this wasn’t for me, but my eyes would still pop out of my head, ‘Wow, this is pretty pornographic content.’ I think there’s a lot of comics in Japan that are produced for kids play the same role that in past decades kids getting their hands on a Playboy magazine would here. Playboy’s not really that titillating for adults I don’t think, it’s not hardcore porn, but the scandalous aspects of Playboy function more effectively for kids who are like, ‘Oh my god, I got to see something forbidden,’ than for anyone else.
And so there’s no product in the U.S., because it’s a much more puritanical culture, that exists to give kids that weird, illicit thrill. But in Japan my understanding is always that we put that stuff in there, there’s all this sort of weird sexuality, and it’s not just for young boys. In Sailor Moon all your clothes fly off and you turn into a magical girl, it reflects just as much on female sexuality too. But I think, because I was reading that stuff as an immigrant from the United States, and I learned to read Japanese a lot from reading those manga, I always had this feeling of like, ‘Woah, I’m looking at something that’s part of an alien landscape.’ ‘Cause I never really felt part of Japanese culture, even though I had family members, and I learned to speak Japanese, and I went to public school there, it was always a pretty alien experience for me. Not that the U.S. is that much less alienating, but because I lived in the U.S. until I was eleven, I was more familiar.
I would say that probably shaped my attitudes towards sex and sexuality in general, you know, that I’m kind of looking at this weird, slightly disturbing but also titillating thing from one remove. I’m like, ‘Yeah, there’s this whole industry producing images and fantasies about sex, and it’s at least 30 degrees off from anything that would be made for me.’ I think that’s an experience a lot of queer people have growing up and seeing imagery all around, so we’re like, ‘Oh, OK, this is really weird.’ There’s something erotic about it, maybe arousing, but there’s a line that’s being drawn from whoever’s producing this – sexualized advertising, sexy characters in game and comics, or straight up porn, whatever it is – there’s a line being drawn from the culture producer to someone who’s not you. You’re kind of watching it at a slight angle, and it’s refracting off of things and influencing you, but in a way that’s totally not straightforward.
So although we’re like fish in water, we can’t imagine some version of sexuality that’s completely, totally removed from the context that we grew up in, you do have this feeling that, ‘Well, if this was mutated or a little bit different, or bent at a certain angle, then maybe I would actually be able to feel more embodied in it or part of it.’ I think that’s why a lot of queer people start making their own sexual content, making queer porn, all those kind of things, so there’s actually a space for that stuff. I’d say that probably sums up my relationship to all that.
TEG: Cool. How did you first become aware of the concept of consent, and when did it grow into something you felt the urge to create about?
NC: I don’t think that I remember exactly when I heard about the concept of consent, probably when I was pretty young. I grew up, when I wasn’t in Japan, where I lived for a couple years on and off, in Seattle and went to public school in Seattle, and we had a pretty progressive curriculum around a lot of stuff outside of the traditional education channels. So we had classes and all-school assemblies that were about critical race theory and stuff like that, we had discussions about consent and things like that, while I was growing up. What’s the definition of rape, and what’s a healthy sexual encounter that’s safe and sane and consensual. I think I definitely remember encountering that kind of terminology when I was in my ‘20s.
I don’t remember exactly when that was, it’s just always been part of my sexual context. The moment that I decided, ‘Oh yeah, OK, this is a useful thing to put into games,’ was the exact moment that I saw the Tentacle Bento Kickstarter. It’s like, ‘Oh, now we have games where there’s a reward structure in place for you figuring out how to rape a character in the game.’ And I knew that that had existed before, there were games like RapeLay, a single-player digital game in Japan that is all about being a rapist, but it wasn’t until there was a card game that was trying to send up the concept of tentacle rape, it was trying to be a parody. It was just a stupid kind of parody where all you’re doing is pointing at something and saying, ‘Hey, you know about this funny thing, isn’t it shocking and bad? We’re doing that too, but at just one remove without changing anything, so that you can giggle and feel weird, but you don’t have to really act like you’re a primary consumer of the thing.’
So I was like, ‘This sucks.’ Actually consent is much more interesting, as something to build a game around, than rape, which is like capturing or killing something. Raping something is a more stupidly basic label to put on an action in a game, there’s nothing to it. It’s like ‘queen takes pawn,’ right? If you wanted, you could call that rape, and it’s just a disgusting thing to do with a point. But to try to get at what it means to consent is a much more difficult problem, way more interesting to me theoretically I guess. There’s a game there for sure.
TEG: You brought up rape as so central to the origin of the idea for the game in a way, your reaction to rape culture–
NC: It’s there in the title, right? It’s Consentacle, because you know that it’s the inverse of tentacle rape, right?
TEG: Exactly. So, is there a place for rape fantasy in popular culture, and how should we approach something like that?
NC: I think it’s totally possible to have consensual rape fantasy, I think that’s to me what rape fantasy generally suggests. I don’t know, I guess I have to take that back slightly, because I’m sure there are plenty of porn rape fantasies, right, and that’s part of what I’m objecting to in the way that Tentacle Bento predictably reproduces them. I think that rape fantasies wouldn’t be as much of a problem if rape wasn’t as huge of a problem. I think because rape is such an enormous problem in our culture, because so much of it goes unreported, un-dealt with, un-prosecuted, the more that’s the case, the more any kind of fantasy about rape becomes really difficult and problematic.
When I say that I’m OK with consensual rape fantasy, I mean between two consenting adults who really understand what they’re doing and what the bounds of their fantasy are. And that’s really crucial. I think it’s trickier than a lot of other types of fantasy, although it’s up there getting close to fantasies about slavery. There are a lot of sexual fantasies people have about African-American slavery, you know? Or paedophilia, incredibly problematic. A fantasy that some people are always going to have and have to figure out how to deal with. But I don’t think you could just simply say that that’s OK or it’s not OK, it’s a fact of human existence that these kinds of fantasies will exist. We have to figure out how to deal with them culturally, while also dealing with, alongside, the very real problems of those fantasies being enacted in ways that are incredible harmful. They’re violence against people that destroy people’s lives. I think that actually the most responsible thing to do is continue the conversation about it, figure out ways that people can have healthy fantasy lives, which personally I don’t believe that you can just remove a sexual fantasy from someone’s head. It’s never been shown to work with paedophilia, which we consider the most problematic fantasy. I don’t consider it to be the case when people have fantasies about non-consensual situations either, but I would look forward to a world where, even though we can’t suck those fantasies out of people’s heads, we can still make sure that they are happy in a way that does not hurt anyone else or themselves.
That’s what I think we should be working for, and I think culture has a role to play in that, art has a role to play in that, but it’s very difficult to negotiate. I think for the most part we’ve gotten that quite wrong in one way or another, that’s why I wanted to make Consentacle. I actually had originally hoped to incorporate into the game a more difficult mode where you’re actually playing around with the idea of negotiated, simulated lack of consent. Where players can say, ‘No, I actually want to have a rape fantasy in Consentacle. I want you to do something to me that I’m not consenting to.’ I think that there’s actually space within this gameplay structure for that, and that actually relates to the fact that most games are competitive. Competitive play already is negotiated lack of consent, right? I’m agreeing that if we’re playing chess, you’re going to do something that I really don’t want you to do to me in the moment, I don’t want you to capture my queen, right? But I do want you to be able to capture my queen, because I’m submitting myself to a greater system, I’m becoming submissive in moments to you, and both of us to the constraints of what we’ve placed ourselves in. So there’s territory that that I absolutely feel can be explored by games, but just not in a stupid way. And for me, a stupid way is just duplicating without thought the violence that’s happening in the real world, and using it for entertainment purposes.
TEG: What was the most difficult moment in the development of the game? What was your dark night of the soul, and what did you learn from that?
NC: I think it was when I was sitting in a colleague’s office, playtesting the game, and watching two people play it who were colleagues of mine. They were asking questions, making suggestions, and I just gripped my head, and I was like ‘I’m not changing all this stuff right now! I’m already working with James on the art, I don’t have any money to start over!’ I just kind of had a freak out.
That was maybe a year and a half ago now. I used to have a lot more freak outs like that in the game development process, where I was just like, ‘Ahhh, fuck!’ They’ve gotten less frequent, but I had this old, familiar failing of, ‘This is all fucked!’ I think earlier in my career at times I got to that point and felt, ‘This project is scrap. It’s not going anywhere. It’s a boondoggle. We keep going down this path, it’s just going to be good money after bad. I give up.’
I think I’m more experienced now, and I know that actually there’s so many different ways of looking at that kind of scenario. After getting really frustrated I was like, ‘Wait a second, I don’t have to freak out about that, I don’t have to re-think my idea based on the feedback, I can just decide that my colleagues, who I did and still do greatly respect and admire, that they’re totally wrong!’ That’s a thing that I can do, especially now that we’re able to talk about games more as art, as opposed to designed products, since if you’re designing a product for a particular purpose, it can certainly be completely wrong. It’s like, ‘I designed a fork, but it can’t pick up spaghetti!’ Well, there’s probably a problem there. But you don’t have to look at a game that way. I was like, ‘Wait a second. All of the comments that they’re giving lead off in a different direction. They’re not playing or approaching the game in the way that I intended, and I decided that I don’t care if people who don’t approach the game in the way that it’s intended to play, I don’t care if they have a terrible time, I don’t care if they think it should be a different game.’
If I’m actually going to try and do something that’s interesting and different, you have to write off a lot of assumptions like that. The way that they were playing the game was as if it was an abstract strategic exercise, and to be fair, the game didn’t have a lot of the visuals and the rules weren’t fleshed out. I did a lot after that point to make sure that I was easing people into the channel that I intend the experience to be in. But their first assumption was, ‘Oh, I don’t need to look at or interact with the person I’m playing with at all. I can just look at the mathematical state of the board and cards in front of me, figure out strategically what the correct move to do is, and play the game like that.’
That’s actually impossible in Consentacle, and part of the point of the game, I think, is that that’s actually impossible. Once I realized that I was like, ‘That was actually a really successful playtest. Maybe the most successful one.’ So it felt like a dark night of the soul, but it was actually a confirmation of everything I was trying to do and I just didn’t realize it.
TEG: What are your main influences as a creator? What artists and authors do you look up to?
NC: When you say artists and authors, do you mean across any kind of media?
TEG: Yeah, please feel free.
NC: Oh, interesting. That’s such a hard question to answer! I have so many different ones that are influential in different ways. I think for games for me right now, one of the most important creators is Avery Mcdaldno, who’s a designer of role-playing games, small role-playing games that are not like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that you’d play over years with your friends, but role-playing games that are intended to create these intimate experiences that use existing mechanics and ideas from role-playing games but do something different with them. Her work was incredibly important for me, thinking in this whole mode that I put into working on Consentacle. Sadly she actually stopped making games, but she made like a dozen games, all of which I think are incredibly interesting. She’s probably at the top of my list for game designers that are influencing my thinking.
When it comes to visuals, god, there’s just so many, for so many different reasons. I probably can’t even remember all of their names. I have folders full of images and stuff that I like, and I feel like a jerk because I can’t remember the names of the artists! I really like this manga called Tekkonkinkreet, which was translated into English as Black & White, about these two boys that live in a city. That one’s continued to be a big influence on me.
I have to say Hayao Miyazaki’s probably a pretty strong influence on me, even though it’s so well known and an influence on a lot of people. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the visual and storytelling style was a strong influence on my work. Recently the folks at Failbetter Games, who do games like Fallen London and Sunless Sea, they’ve been a pretty strong influence on my thinking about games going forward. I’ve been spending a lot of time playing and thinking about those games too.
When it comes to writers, I think I have a lot of influence on the way I create stuff from modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, maybe little William Faulkner. I absorbed a lot of that stuff when I was a teenager, and it kind of just stuck around. I’m sure I could go on and on and think of more people, but those are the big ones.